Five Key Ways to Create a Character’s Distinct Voice

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane
 
Inspired by Joe Moore’s excellent post yesterday on Narrative Voice, I thought about my process for making characters distinct in the worlds I build in a novel. We are all influenced by where we grew up or where we live now, our race, social class,  jobs, friends, religious beliefs, and other factors. Any character an author creates is no different. It’s not enough to picture their outward appearance. Give them a background and sphere of influence. Sometimes it helps for me to hear their voices in my head. (Yes, that’s allowed without taking medication. Special dispensation for authors.)
 
I recently binged on Sherlock (a la Benedict Cumberbatch) and Sleepy Hollow (British star Tom Mison’s reinvented Icabod Crane). I loved the notion of Sherlock’s brilliant mind leaps and I also loved the idea of a more stilted proper speech of an educated scholarly man similar to the Oxford professor of Icabod Crane, but I wanted my character to be American with a brash punch to him when he wanted to make a point. Those rare moments of punch give him a sense of gravitas and unexpected depth of personality. Being familiar with these TV characters, it became a fun challenge to meld their distinct voices and mannerisms into my American FBI profiler haunted by visions of crime scenes when he sleeps.
 
It’s amazing fun when you can hear the character voice in your head and write with a good pace, without filtering the words you type on the page. I call this “free association” where you channel the voice of your character without having to think about it. Over the years I’ve gotten better at this, which also comes with a cautionary warning born of experience. Often if you THINK in free association without filter, you will SPEAK that way too. Not always good in a social setting. #FilteringSavesLives
 
Five Key Ways to Give Your Character a Distinct Voice
 
1.) Word Choices:

  • What is your character’s vocabulary?

 
  • How educated is he/she?

 
  • How much does race/culture play into his/her narrative?

 
  • Are there regional influences on his/her speech? (I feel most comfortable writing in Midwest, TX, OK, and Alaska, places I’ve lived and worked.)

 
  • Is slang or pop culture references a part of his/her speech patterns? (A secondary character can use slang as a way to distinguish that character’s voice from the protagonist. Fewer tag lines necessary.)

 
  • How old is your character? (Don’t force a more youthful influence if you aren’t comfortable, but be aware of generation gaps.)

 
  • Is your character from another country? (Word choices and even spellings can indicate where a character is from. I wouldn’t take any short cuts here. If your character is British, but YOU as the writer aren’t as familiar with nuances of a particular region in the UK, get help from a native speaker or build a backstory where your character has other influences that will temper their voice into more of a melting pot.)

 
  • What gender is your character? (Gender can play a big part in making narrative distinctive. Avoid the cliché, but men and women are fun to contrast, no matter what your vision is for unique individuals.)

 
2.) Confidence Level:

  • If your character is an assertive cop or from a military background, he or she would expressive themselves in a more direct and decisive fashion.

 
  • How forceful or passive is your character? (A deliberate use of the passive voice can be an indicator of a submissive character. Use of “Uh” or “Um” can indicate hesitation and lack of self-confidence.)

 
  • Does he or she take charge and have a no nonsense approach to dealing with conflict or do they only react and let others take over? (Even their clothes choices can indicate how confident they are.)

 
3.) Quirks/Mannerisms:

  • Does your character have distinctive habits or mannerisms? (Sometimes a facial tic can be fun to exploit at key times.)


  • Does your character have a unique hobby or interest that affects how they speak? (Someone into sailing could infuse nautical words, for example.)


  • What humor do they have, if any? (Characters can have humor play out cynically in their internal monologue, yet their dialogue lines don’t reflect humor at all. This can be great for comic relief. Also characters can have distinctive sense of humor from very dry to crass bathroom humor.)

 
4.) Internal/External Voice:

  • Your character might have a day job, but at night they come home to a family with small children or a demanding pet. How does their internal voice change when they let their guard down? Do their internal thoughts show a more tender vulnerability? This duality can bring depth and complexity to your character.

 
5.) Metaphors/Similes/Comparisons:

  • I love imagery, but let’s face it, some characters will never think in terms of elaborate metaphors. It would not make sense to force it. In the case of my educated professor type, for example, his narrative could be infused with imagery/metaphors or perhaps literary influences because that’s how his mind works. He sees reality of the world around him yet he longs for the fictional world of his favorite book. If my character is a street kid without much education, he might be more influenced by rap music lyrics or the daily hustle on the street where he fast talks to survive everyday. No matter who your character is, they would have their own frame of reference for making comparisons.

 
FOR GRINS & GIGGLES: I took a little New York Times Online Test of 25 questions that analyzed how I spoke to determine where I live. (Best suited for residents of the U.S.) The test came back with a result that I lived in Rockford Illinois, New Orleans, and Rochester NY. Totally wrong since I live and grew up in Texas, but my mother was a Yankee and I’ve lived all over the country, so apparently that has also influenced me.) Take the test and see what your results are. Did they get it right? Let us know.
 
For TKZ Discussion:
How do you infuse a unique voice to your character? What are your key influences? If you’ve written characters outside your comfort zone, what tricks can you share about how to make that work?

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Hippity Head Hopping

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

I teach workshops on a regular basis to mostly beginning writers. A common issue that often shows up in their first drafts deals with point-of-view shifting; specifically what’s called “head hopping”. Most of the time it’s done without the writers even realizing it. They want to make sure enough information is passed on to the reader for the story to make it clear and move forward. I’ve found that even after pointing out the problem, it’s a bit mystifying and confusing to new authors. It takes practice to understand where they’re going wrong. Unfortunately, head hopping comes with some undesirable side effects which I’ll cover below. First, here’s an example of POV head hopping.

Agent Miller watched his partner, Agent Cobb, as they suited up for the assault. Why was Cobb so secretive when he showed up at the staging area? Why had he seemed reluctant to talk about his upcoming promotion? Cobb always confided in him with personal issues. After ten years together, it wasn’t like him.

“You decide to take the gig,” Miller asked as the two suited up for the assault.

“Not sure,” Cobb said and turned away, not wanting his best friend to know that the promotion meant he would soon be Miller’s new boss.

Here we have the inner thoughts of both men. There are two points of view.

It would be easy to conclude that this is omniscient point of view. The omniscient narrator simply knows what both men are thinking. Technically, it is. But there’s a good chance the author didn’t use omniscient POV on purpose. If anything, it was out of inexperience. Omniscient POV is not used much in popular fiction these days. Its heyday came years ago when writers like to play god—all knowing, all seeing. In order to maintain an omniscient POV, the narrator had to know everything about everybody all the time. It’s an oppressive writing style that dilutes the mystery and personal conflict of the plot—one of the side effects I mentioned.

The biggest downside to head hopping is a lack of close, personal connection with the main characters. Readers love to get “inside” the heads of the protagonist and antagonist. They want to see and feel what the characters feel; what makes them tick. With head hopping, it’s more distant and somewhat sterile. Even cold like a documentary where the voice over narrator tells everything in a matter-of-fact fashion. In contemporary fiction, the reader desires to see the story through the character’s eyes, not the narrator’s.

So what’s the solution to head hopping? As an example, let’s rewrite the scene with the two agents. Pick a POV character, usually the protagonist and route everything through his eyes and thoughts. As the writer, put yourself in the character’s head. You’re not a psychic, clairvoyant or mind reader. You can only determine another character’s attitude through their actions, reactions and speech.

Agent Miller watched his partner, Agent Cobb, as they suited up for the assault. Why was Cobb so secretive when he showed up at the staging area? Why had he seemed reluctant to talk about his upcoming promotion? After ten years together, it wasn’t like him.

“You decide to take the gig,” Miller asked. He knew Cobb always confided in him about personal issues.

“Not sure,” Cobb said and turned away.

It was almost as if Cobb was hiding something about the promotion. Something that embarrassed him.

The basic information was revealed in the second version. The difference was that an element of mystery, even conflict emerged. It pushes the story forward and tells the reader something about both characters’ motivation.

So how do you manage multiple POVs?

It’s called the “handoff”. Sort of like when the quarterback hands off the football to the running back. The focus is now on the new character with the ball. In order to shift POV, you must hand off the POV from one character to the other. This can be done with a “drop” or scene change where the first POV character leaves the scene thereby “handing off” the point of view to the remaining character. An even better method is to always stay in a single POV per chapter, shifting only when the new chapter starts.

Shifting POV should be for a specific purpose, not random. Not doing so violates the most important rule of writing: never confuse the reader.

How do you deal with POV shifts? Any additional tips?

——————————-

shield-cover-smallComing soon:THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore

“THE SHIELD rocks on all cylinders.” – James Rollins, New York Times bestselling author of THE EYE OF GOD.

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First Page Anonymous Submission–Whisper Creek

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane



Here’s an anonymous submission for comments, entitled WHISPER CREEK. Enjoy and my feedback will be on the flip side.


Excerpt: Whisper Creek
The bullets whizzed by his head. How they missed him—he did not know. The night became a blanket of darkness—no light. Mark couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. The only light came from the intermittent flashes from the end of the muzzles pointed at them from somewhere up ahead. He squeezed off several shots from his M16 rifle, then nothing.

Empty.

Gunpowder filled his nostrils. An uncomfortable premonition of fear pervaded his senses.He blinked sweat from his eyes.

Keep it together.

Mark pushed the magazine release with his thumb, inserted another twenty round mag, and pressed the slide release. Locked and loaded. He saw a flash of light up ahead followed by another. Mark steadied the weapon on the meaty part of his shoulder, aimed, and waited. He focused his attention at what lay ahead—the enemy—Charlie—the Vietcong.

When he saw another flash, he fired several rounds at the target. No more flash. The platoon of Marines continued to fight…no matter the outcome they must push forward. Never retreat—never surrender.

Through the noises of gunfire, men screamed in agony from being shot, but the unit continued to move through the jungle. Then a fire settled into his right thigh like a hot poker. Mark realized he’d been shot, but pressed on despite the pain. They all knew what happened to Prisoners of War in Vietnam. A quick death in the jungle would surely be more humane than being tortured by sadistic men in a camp. The warm liquid snaked down his leg, but he refused to stop. If he did, he might lose the momentum to keep going.

Ring…ring…ring. Had those sounds penetrated the darkness? Light began to infiltrate the blackness in the distance. Ring…ring…ring. The noises of gunfire faded. The pain subsided.


FEEDBACK


OPENING LINES:
1.) Bullets whizzed by his head – Think about how this must feel. The noise. The chaos. His not so lucky buddies getting hit around him. In the dark, can he even see what’s going on around him? Does he feel alone in his push to follow his last known orders or is he blindly following others? Every time he moves, he risks getting killed. What’s driving him? My best advice is for the author to stay in the moment and not follow this first line with cliched phrases that take the reader from the immediacy of the battlefield. “How they missed him—he did not know” and “the night became a blanket of darkness—no light (redundant)” dilute what could be an embracing opener. Stay long enough in the moment to put the reader fully in it with their senses.


2.) To convey the chaos of battle, it might be good to shorten the sentences with the bare essence of how Mark is thinking – quick short staccato spurts, rapid fire like the bullets screaming by his ear. The line “the only light came from…” is an example of a description that strikes me as too long to convey the intensity.


3.) M16 is enough of an explanation. Adding M16 rifle reads as redundant, given that Mark is an experienced soldier.


AWKWARD PHRASING:
Gunpowder filled his nostrils – I’m sure the author intended for this to be the stench, but I am visually seeing his nose filled with black gunpowder.

An uncomfortable premonition of fear pervaded his senses – I’m not sure a premonition can be considered part of the 5 senses since it refers to a 6th sense. Rather than “tell” the reader that he’s feeling fear and it’s uncomfortable, it would be better to “show” the reader how Mark reacts to the dark notion that he’s marked or the next bullet is his. How does fear manifest in this guy? Does he develop worsening symptoms of an anxiety attack from the start to the finish of this opener…until he wakes up from his presumably troubling PTSD riddled sleep?

Never retreat—never surrender I have to admit my thoughts went immediately to Galaxy Quest. Anyone else? (I’m sure it’s just geek me.)

Through the noises of gunfire – This read as awkward to me and it’s repeated in the last lines as well. A distinctive phrase like this would be easily noticed as repetitive. Gunfire is a plural noise, not noises. 


FOLLOW LOGICAL ORDER OF ACTION:
A common thing I am seeing in this opener is leaping around with images, rather than sticking with a logical progression and flow to the action. For example, “Gunpowder filled his nostrils. An uncomfortable premonition of fear pervaded his senses.He blinked sweat from his eyes.” We move from the stench, to the bad feeling, to sweat. (This leaping can be seen in the 2nd to last paragraph as well where we too quickly move from gunfire, men dying/screaming, Mark shot, POWs & torture, then back to his leg wound.)


The author would do better to view the battle from behind the eyes of Mark and follow him through the scene, staying within his senses in a natural flow. I would recommend the author look up “PTSD” or “anxiety” disorder symptoms and build them into this scene in a subtle way so Mark builds the intensity of his reactions through the opener until he can’t take it anymore. Symptoms could include: Panic, losing control, chest pain, dizziness, hyperventilation, hot flashes, chills, trembling/intense shaking, nausea/stomach cramps, the feeling of being distanced from what’s going on. Pick the ones that would work best and build them into the scene until the reader realizes/feels his mounting affliction.

ENDING:
Ring…ring…ring. Had those sounds penetrated the darkness? Light began to infiltrate the blackness in the distance. Ring…ring…ring. The noises of gunfire faded. The pain subsided – I’m not a fan of noises being described like this – ring, ring, ring. Anyone else feel the same? In this instant, it does not appear to be Mark’s POV. It’s like an omniscient narrator is observing him from outside his body and making sure the reader knows something is ringing. Would Mark be so aware? I doubt it. I imagine where this is going is Mark wakes up from his flashback or nightmare to the shrill sound of a phone. To someone sleeping, how would that come across more realistically?


Discussion:
If war is hell, so is writing. Thanks to this brave submitter. An exciting scene of being in a battlefield would capture my attention if the author savored the rich sensory experiences and not rush it. The author’s instincts to begin here seem right if the execution could be improved a bit. What say you, TKZers?

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Careful what you wish for

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

When your first book was published, was the experience everything you dreamed it would be? For me, it was quite different than what I expected. In 2005, when I first walked into a national chain bookstore and saw my brand new novel on the new release table, it was a bananarush. I was proud. I felt like I was on top of the world. I couldn’t wait to see customers gather it up in their arms and rush home to read it. Then I stood back and watched as shoppers picked up my book, glanced at the back cover copy, and put it down with no more interest than in choosing one banana over another at the supermarket.

Didn’t they realize that book cost me 3 years of my life? How could they pass judgment on it within 5 seconds?

Reality set in. Not everyone will want to read my book. Not everyone will like it if they do read it. And I found out rather fast that once a book is published, the real work begins.

Today, I’m about to start (with co-author, Lynn Sholes) my eighth novel. My books have won awards, become bestsellers, and been published in many languages. And yet, every day I face the reality that the true test of my success or failure is what the customer does when they stand over that literary produce bin and pick what they think is the ripest banana. It’s about as scary as it can get.

As a full-time writer, I have the best job in the world. I would not trade it for anything. But a word to anyone dreaming of publishing their first book: be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.

So when your first book came out, was it everything you dreamed of? And if you’re still working at getting that first banana out there, what are you dreaming it will be like?

————–

Coming this spring: THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore
Einstein got it wrong!

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Who is your audience?

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

A few weeks back, I blogged about What, How and Why do You Write? Today I want to discuss who you write for—who is your audience. The more you know about your end-readers, the more you can focus on connecting with them, entertaining them and creating loyal fans.

The first thing I suggest is to focus on an individual reader as you write, not a group. By doing so, you can envision and predict the reader’s response. For instance, it can be a friend that enjoys your work. Picture that reader as you write. Someone that you have received feedback from so you know their likes and dislikes. If your focus-reader has told you what she really likes about your books, then there’s a good chance other readers will like the same things. Maybe she’s said that your stories are highly visual almost like seeing a movie in her head or your characters always seem so down to earth or she loves how your books are like a magic carpet ride taking her to so many exotic locations. And on the flip side, listen to her dislikes. They’re equally important. These comments are keys to keeping your readers happy and coming back for more.

Next, think about your agreement with your reader. Basically it goes like this: if you’re willing to pull money out of your pocket, buy my book, and commit to spending a portion of your valuable time reading it, then I agree to deliver a level of entertainment that is equal to or exceeds what you have experienced in the past. You agree to fulfill the reader’s expectations. Not doing so can be deadly because negative word-of-mouth can rarely be overcome. The person hearing negative comments will probably never give you the chance to redeem yourself.

Remember what genre you write in and deliver the elements that readers of that genre expect. The readers of a particular genre all like the same type of stuff. Give it to them, but in an original fashion with new twists and turns.

Next is the manner in which your focus-reader consumes your book. Hardcover, paperback, ebook? Does she travel a great deal and likes to pass the time reading on the plane? At the beach? At bedtime? Over the weekend but not during the workweek? In public places such as a coffee shop or only at home? Does she always have plenty of time to read or does she have to steal time during her lunch break? Knowing the reading habits of your focus-reader helps you deliver the product that fits her needs and those of your audience.

Once again, concentrate on that one specific focus-reader. Her group will fall in behind.

Finally, remember that you are establishing a one-on-one, intimate connection with your reader. No matter where your book is being read, it’s just you and her. No one else is around. You are communicating with someone, usually a reader you’ll never meet, and it’s always up close and personal. You’re in her head, and hopefully in her heart. Keep focused on that intimate connection. Never let go of her in your mind as you write. She is your target audience. She is your path to success.

So, Zoners, do you envision your target reader as you write? Do you know her likes and dislikes? Are you dedicated to delivering to your specific audience?

————–

Coming this spring: THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore
Einstein got it wrong!

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What, how and why do you write?

By Joe Moore

In order to sell the books you write, you need to understand some simple marketing basics first. The better you understand these three points, the better you can relate to your audience and them to you. And understanding these points will make you a better writer.

The easiest to answer is the first: What do you write?

At the highest level, you either fall into the non-fiction or fiction column. Non-fiction includes biographies, history, exposés, how-tos, text books, etc. Fairly clear and straightforward.

The other is fiction, or stuff we make up. Mysteries, thrillers, cozies, romance, westerns, horror, science fiction, historicals, and on and on. If you write fiction but you don’t know what kind, stop right now and go figure it out. Even if it’s a hybrid such as historical romance or cozy western, you need to have it clear in your head. The reason you need it clearly defined is that it will help you also clarify and understand your audience.

How can you define what you write? How do you know your audience? Read books that are similar to what you like to write. Compare their styles to yours. See how those books are defined and categorized. That very well could be the answer you’re looking for. Look at the Amazon pages for those books and their authors. Amazon will show you what other books are being bought by the same audience. Go read some of those books and authors. Now you’re zeroing in on the answer to what you write.

The second question is: How do you write? My blogmate, Kathryn Lilley, thoroughly covered the subject yesterday in her post Which Writer Species Are You? Go read it, then come back. I’ll wait here.

Okay, let’s move on to the most important and hardest to address: Why do you write? Why do you get up before dawn to get a few pages in before heading off to work? Why do you give up time with family and friends to type away at your WIP? Why do you feel that if you can’t write, you’ll go crazy? Why do you find yourself on vacation but thinking about plotting, dialog or character development?

Do you write for fame or money or recognition? I sure hope not.

So why do you write?

You must be able to answer that question. Because if you know beyond a shadow of a doubt why you write, it will come out in your work. It will make your words more believable, stronger, and heartfelt. Your reader will know. They may not define it exactly, but they will know. And they will tell others what a great writer you are. It becomes one of the most important descriptions of your writer “job” there is. Be ready at a moment’s notice with your answer. Because “I write thrillers” is easy. Because “I use an outline” is easy. I write because . . . is hard.

Now fellow Zoners, do you know the answer to why you write? Are you willing to share with us?

————–

Coming this spring: THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore
Einstein got it wrong!

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Key Elements to Writing an Effective Synopsis

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

 

He’s flummoxed because these aren’t his hands.

I don’t know of any author who hasn’t been flummoxed (word of the day courtesy of James Scott Bell) by the task of writing a first synopsis. Do they get any easier to write? Not for me. Each story idea presents a unique essence that must be distilled into a short brief. Some authors sell books on proposal (with or without a writing sample), or they use the synopsis to be an initial outline of the story idea (a guide post), or an effective synopsis brief can be a part of a solid query letter or made into a quick pitch to an editor or agent. However you use a synopsis, I thought I’d share what has worked for me.

 

Key Elements to Writing an Effective Synopsis

 

1.) The Basics – Generally a synopsis is 5-7 pages long, double spaced with one-inch margins. Be sure to include your contact information on the first page and I would recommend adding a header on every page (in case an editor or agent drops your proposal and the pages get out of order). My headers have my name, title of the book, genre, word count, and page number (on far right). I often have a tag line that I list at the top, before the synopsis brief. If you are represented by an agent, I would list that near your contact information. A professional presentation will make you stand out in a slush pile.

   

2.) Writing a synopsis shouldn’t be about defining the rules of the game. It should be about why you’d want to PLAY it. Give the editor or agent or reader a sense of your voice and the color of the world you will build. Think of a synopsis as a lure, an enticement for them to want more. Rules are boring. Tell me why the game will be really good, or fun or scary.

   

3.) Whether there is quirky humor or a dark suspenseful undertone to your book, the synopsis should reflect these elements and not merely be a detailed “who does what where.” If your synopsis is boring, chances are any editor or agent will think your book will be lackluster, too. Give them something shiny to grab at.

   

4.) Pitch your book with a high-level synopsis brief at the top of your proposal. This pitch should read like a TV log line – a condensed 1-3 sentences about the main elements of your story – character highpoints, conflict, emotion, what’s at stake. No need for specific character names that will only be a distraction to what your book is about. If you get this short pitch right (sometimes called the “elevator pitch”), you can embed it into a query letter or use it on your website for a short teaser. An editor can use this short descriptive pitch of your book to her house and the committee that decides which book to buy.

   

EXAMPLE:

[Part of this pitch is omitted for confidentiality. I REALLY wish I could share it, but I can’t.]

A depressed and aging widow gets a second wind when she pays a young handyman for services rendered on her unusual Bucket List, in an uncommon “coming of age” story.

   

5.) After the synopsis brief or the pitch, it’s time to introduce your characters. The first time a new name appears in your synopsis, capitalize their full name to highlight who the players will be. A writing sample will introduce your character to the editor or agent in a different way, but I recommend a brief summary of why  each of your main characters have earned their right to be a star in your story. Highlight who they are, what they want, and why they can’t have it. What will their struggle be? What’s at stake for them?

   

EXAMPLE:

LILLIAN OVERSTREET has flipped the channel on her rerun life and given up. She’s convinced nothing exciting will ever happen to her. Her husband’s dead, her only daughter treats her like a doormat, and old age is creeping up on her like bad granny panties and has made her invisible. Her only reason to leave the house is her bowling team of widows – The Ball Busters. She’s mired in a chronic case of depression that has seeped into every aspect of her existence, until her daughter GRACE OVERSTREET-THORNDYKE hires “eye candy” to do the renovation of the family home. [This is only the basic set up and does not include the conflict, black moment, and ending highlights.]

 

6.) Not every aspect of your plot needs to be spelled out, ad nauseam. If there are five main suspects or key secondary characters, give the highlights of who they are and why they earned the right to be in your book and why they could be a game changer. This works for other genres, not just crime fiction. If there are characters who stand in the way of your hero/heroine, showcase who they are and why they are an obstacle.

 

EXAMPLES (Secondary Characters with sense of color/humor):

 

VINNIE DELVECCHIO is the only widower on the Ball Busters team. In the small town of Why, Texas, he runs a Deli where Lillian gets her meat. He’s opinionated and brash with a foul mouth. He teases the ladies at the bowling alley by saying, “If you gals ever need someone to slip you the sausage, you come to DelVecchio for quality meat.” Even though his mind is constantly in the gutter, Vinnie knows how to roll a strike, has his own bowling shoes and a hefty pair of designer balls, but he’s only on a “team of broads” for the view.

   

CANDACE and VICTORIA WINDGATE are twin sisters Lillian has known since high school. The sisters kept their maiden name after both their husbands died in the same mysterious boating accident. No one in town knows how the Windgate twins earned their financial independence or how much money they have, but rumors never run out of steam in Why, Texas. Neither of the sisters can bowl worth a damn. They only come to ‘Why Bowl – Family Center & Tanning Spa’ for the cheese fries and beer.

 

7.) The major plot movements should be highlighted so an editor or agent will know your story has meat to the bone. I like to use a 3-Act screenplay method and have posted about it at TKZ before at this LINK – I use a big “W” to remind me of the turning points to include in my synopsis. (Michael Hauge’s “Writing Screenplays That Sell” was the reference book that sparked my interest in structure and it has helped me draft my proposals.) The highpoints should show the stakes ramping up and the key turning points in the plot as well as the black moment when all seems lost. If there are twists in the plot (especially surprises), showcase those too.

 

Key Questions for a 3-Act ‘”W” structure:

Act 1 – How does your book start?

Act 1 – What is the point of no return for your character(s)?

Act 1 – What key plot twist will propel your story into the escalation mode of Act 2?

Act 2 – How will you up the stakes?

Act 2 – What is the black moment when all seems lost for your character(s) and how will your character(s) turn it around?

Act 3 – Do I have a plot twist for my readers?

Act 3 – How will your story end and how will you tie up the pieces?

 

8.) The ending should be spelled out. Editors and agents don’t like surprises and want to know how you intend to tie things up. If you are writing a romance, the ending is very important so the editor or agent gets a feel for your take on a romantic full circle. I’ve sold books without full disclosure of who the bad guy is, but generally you should “tell all.”

 

Even if you are an indie author and may never have written a synopsis or included one in a proposal to an editor or agent, it can be a good exercise to understand the essence of your book. A good synopsis will get you thinking about how to create an effective jacket cover description to entice the reader. Writing a synopsis is always a challenge, even if you are good at it, because it boils down your book into a teaser that you hope will lure a reader to buy your book.

 

For the purpose of discussion, tell us what works for you in writing a synopsis. (If you have any tips to add, please share them.) Or share what challenges you’ve had. Let’s talk, people.

 

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What Can Go Wrong?

by Joe Moore

A huge Happy New Year to all my TKZ friends and blogmates. May 2014 be the best year ever for all of you.

Back in June of 2012, I posted a TKZ blog called Magic Words and how using them can be one of the best methods for kick starting your story ideas. The words are: “What If”. I’m sure that almost every story written probably started with those two words. What better way to get the juices flowing than to start with what if? I consider this a “story level” technique.

Today I want to suggest a “chapter level” exercise. Four words that can help create tension, suspense, conflict, and character-building. They are: “What Can Go Wrong?”

As you’re about to start a new chapter, even if you know what needs to happen, pause for a moment and ask yourself what can go wrong in this scene. Chances are, whatever answer you come up with will give you the opportunity to ratchet up the suspense and thereby keep the reader’s interest. Here’s a recent example of how I used this technique.

In my latest thriller THE SHIELD (co-written with Lynn Sholes) I was to draft a chapter in which my protagonist, her ex-husband, and a Russian colonel who had taken them prisoner, were flying in a 2-engine prop plane from Port Sudan inland across the Nubian Desert to a secret military facility. The outline which Lynn and I constructed about a year ago called for this journey from point A to point B. The only purpose of the chapter was to get to point B, the secret military facility. If I had drafted the chapter sticking strictly to the outline with the flight comprising of light banter between the three and the mention of a few landmarks passing below, it would have been short and dull, almost surely unneeded. The reader would have skipped through it to get to the “good stuff”.

So before I began, I asked myself what can go wrong in this scene that would lift the suspense and conflict, and even give me an opportunity to build character. My answer: what is the worst thing that can happen to an airplane? It crashes. Why would it crash? Well, that area of North Africa is known to be a dangerous place with anti-government rebel and al-Qaeda training camps. So what causes the crash? It’s shot down by shoulder-fired rockets from a rebel encampment.

Keep in mind that the outline calls for the three to get from point A to point B. This is the beauty of outlining: you can still reach your goal but taking an interesting detour can improve the story.

To increase the tension—although the three manage to survive the crash—the rebels are now coming after them. And how about the character-building aspect. My protagonist manages to save the life of her Russian captor when she could have easily left him behind to burn up in the wreckage.

In asking what can go wrong, I managed to turn one chapter into three, prolong the conflict, build character, and still fulfill the plot outline by getting all three to their destination.

As writers, whether we write by the seat of our pants or create a solid outline first, we must never pass up an opportunity to improve our stories. Asking what can go wrong often helps.

How about my friends at TKZ—ever use this or similar techniques in story building? After all, what can go wrong?

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First-page critique: HAIR TRIGGER

By Joe Moore

Today’s first-page critique is from a story called HAIR TRIGGER. My comments follow.

HAIR TRIGGER

They were going to cut my hand off.

When I came to, I was tied to a chair. It was dark in the print shop and, like a character in a 1940s film noir, I could see the distorted silhouettes of a tall man and short man standing in the shadows. I was dizzy and felt sick from the blow to my head. The two figures swam in and out of focus.

Leaning over as far as I could, I barfed on the floor at their feet.

“Feeling better?” the short one asked in a strained high-pitched voice that reminded me of Peter Lorre.

“Please don’t say ‘fuck you’,” the tall one added.

I didn’t. I just vomited again.

After I finished whooshing whatever cookies were left inside me, I noticed my right hand was trapped under the clamping rail of a paper trimmer. This type of machine is commonly called a guillotine and has a razor sharp blade with thousands of pounds of pressure behind it. It can make very neat cuts through thick reams of paper.

The short guy stood next to it but I still couldn’t see him clearly.

“It says here this thing can trim up to a thousand sheets of paper at a time,” he read off the metal tag on the side of the machine. “Apparently, the operator must have a hand on each of the side switches for safety.” He looked straight at me. “Gee, I’d like to see how it works. Wouldn’t you?”

The big guy walked to the wall and pulled down the breaker handle on the electrical panel.

Machines around the shop started to power up. I could feel the vibration of the cutter humming through the metal surface under my hand.

The trimming blade gleamed wickedly.

“Now this is the part of the James Bond movie where I ask you to tell me what I need to know. If I don’t get an answer I like, you’re going to have to learn to jack off southpaw.”

I have very few phobias. One, however, is my fear of dismemberment. I get queasy just thinking about it, let alone imagining what my life would be like without a vital appendage such as my gun hand. In feudal Japan it was considered a sign of dishonor if a samurai lost a limb in battle. It showed everyone that he had failed in his duty as a warrior.

I liked this submission, and would keep reading. It starts, just as we so often suggest here at TKZ, with a life-changing event. The protagonist is in trouble and the author presents the reader with a big question: how is he going to get out of losing his hand? The bigger question, at least so far: what did he do to get into this situation?

The voice is not quite solid but it does take on enough character to intrigue. The scene is cliché – two bad guys, one tall, one short, but it does have forward motion and kept my interest.

A bit of line editing and cleanup would help, but it reads like a decent first draft. Nothing wrong with that.

I’m not sure who said the line starting with, “Now is the part of the James Bond . . .” That need clarification.

I would suggest not using the word “very”. It is meaningless. What’s the difference between few phobias and very few phobias?

There were a couple of places where the story slowed down while the writer explained how an industrial paper cutter works and what it means to lose a hand in feudal Japan hand. I would suggest avoiding those type of speed bumps at this stage of the story.

Lastly, even if it’s appropriate to the story, I recommend not dropping the f-bomb on the first page, or anywhere in the story for that matter.

Overall, not bad. I want to know what happens next. Thanks to the brave writer for submitting.

Now, Zoners, what do you think. Would you keep reading or does this guy losing his hand not grab you by the throat? Hold up your hands.

———————-

THE BLADE is an absolute thrill ride." — Lisa Gardner

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Writing with Two Heads

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Recently, Mark Alpert posted a blog about The Writing Buddy and how writing can be a lonely occupation. There are few methods of getting around that situation. If you want to write fiction, it’s usually a one-man show. Fortunately for me, I have a solution—a cowriter.

One of the most frequently asked questions  Lynn Sholes and I get is “How is it possible for two people to write fiction together?” The answer is, it ain’t easy. At least it 2heads8wasn’t at first. Collaboration on non-fiction is somewhat easier to understand. In general, with non-fiction, the “facts” usually already exist and the collaborators’ job is to organize them into a readable document that has a beginning, middle and end. A good outline and knowledge of the subject matter along with professional writing skills may be all the authors need.

But with fiction, nothing exists. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Fiction is a product of an individual’s imagination. It might be inspired by actual facts or events, but only the individual has a specific vision of those events in their head. So how can two people have a similar enough vision to be able to write a novel together?

I can’t speak for the handful of other writing teams out there (including TKZ’s own PJ Parrish), but Lynn and I have managed to complete 6 thrillers together because of a number of reasons.

First, we love the same kind of books—the ones we read are like the ones we write.

Second, we have an unquestioning respect for each other’s writing skills and a deep belief that whatever one of us writes, the other can improve.

Third, we believe that there’s always a better way to write something.

Fourth, we never let our egos get in the way of a good story. This comes from spending over 10 years in a weekly writers critique group.

Fifth, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and are willing to admit them.

Sixth, we agree on the same message/theme in each book.

Seventh, we believe that we are on the same level of expertise.

And last, we believe that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Those points cover the mental portion. Now, how do we handle the mechanics of the job? We talk, and talk, and talk. Once a day we conference call, brainstorm, tell and retell each other the story. Our two favorite words are: What if? Whether it’s global plot points or an individual scene or character motivation, we keep telling each other the story until that little imaginary movie in our minds becomes as in-sync as possible. Then one of us will declare they have a “handle” on the scene or character or chapter, enough of which to create the first draft.

We write very slowly because each chapter must go back and forth many times for revision. Years ago, when we first started, everyone could tell who wrote what as we tried to write our first book. It took three years of hard work before we melted our voices together. Now, because the process goes through so many revisions, even I can’t always remember what I wrote and what she wrote. I rely on my co-writer so much that I’ve come to wonder how individuals can possibly write a book on their own.

There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to collaborating. A disadvantage is that you split any money you make. So you’ll always make half of what you could as a single author. And like any relationship, there is always a chance of a falling out. And something could happen where an ego can become inflated and affect the process.

One of the pluses is that we never experience writer’s block. One of us will always have an idea on how to get out of a jam or move the story forward. And unlike our spouses, family, friends, trusted beta readers, and everyone else, a co-writer has an intimate, vested interest in the success of the story that no one else could have.

Lynn and I are approaching the mid-point of our seventh thriller together (THE SHIELD, the follow-up to THE BLADE). I’ve found that creating the first draft of a chapter is just as exciting as getting a new chapter from her and seeing where the story has gone. I guess the whole thing boils down to trust. Trust in each other and in the goals we both want to achieve with the story and with our careers.

One last note: I haven’t seen Lynn in person in over 5 years since we live hundreds of miles apart. That seems to be something that mystifies everyone.

So, now that you know how we write together, do you think you could ever collaborate on a novel? Or is writing fiction too private an experience. Do you believe two heads are better than one or would you rather not have anyone sticking their nose in your work?

————–
THE BLADE is full-throttle thriller writing.” David Morrell

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