Sunday Reads: 20 May 2012

June is going to be a big month here at The Fictorian Era with a special focus on publishing. We have guest posts from a publisher, an agent, and writers who are at a variety of stages of their careers, as well as posts by some of our regular Fictorians. We’ll be spending the month exploring publishing options, looking at both traditional and independent publishing. More info in a few days.

In the meantime, here’s 10 reads worth your time:

Jane Friedman has 3 Possibilities For Defeating Writer’s Block.

Tonya Kappes talks about how to boost your creativity in Creative Flow: Scene by Scene.

DiYMFA identifies 5 Pockets Of Time You Never Knew You Had.

The Millions discusses The Appeals and Perils of the One-Word Book Title.

Over at The Bluestocking Blog, they’re talking about The Chasm Between Intentions and Execution.

John A A Logan talks epublishing in Fending Off The Next Dark Age.

Interested in writing contests? Writers’ Village has an ebook on How To Win Writing Contests for Profit.

For some motivation, check out Writers Digest’s 23 Timeless Quotes For Writers.

Listen to screenwriter Michael Arndt talk about writing Little Miss Sunshine.

And head over to Musa Publishing to check out Fictorian Nancy DiMauro’s new release, Paths Less Traveled.

 

Missed any Fictorians articles this week?

Ann Cooney – The Great Spring Migration

Matt Jones – Motivations

Leigh Galbreath – How To Be A Better Tease

 

 

 

How to be a Better Tease

We’ve all spent months doing that bio for our protagonists, outlining every event, every trauma, every banana, and dang it, we’re gonna use it. The problem comes when we shove it down our readers throats in the first few pages. I’m talking about the dreaded info-dump, my friends, and it’s death to any good novel.

Let’s face it, nobody cares about why the protagonist now hates banana’s when he used to love them so well. At least, not when we’re first getting to know him. Even if it’s the crux of the climax, until we care about the character, all it does is bore the reader into a stupor.

So, how do we get the reader to care about bananas? Well, that’s easy-we become really good teases.

My current favorite in this technique is Harry Connolly’s Child of Fire, the first novel in the Twenty Palaces series. Connolly successfully uses the protagonist’s backstory to help us empathize with the characters without slowing the story down one iota.

On the first page, he starts to show us how he’s going to handle backstory by first introducing the two characters we’ll be spending the most time with, the protagonist Ray Lilly and his boss, Annalise. Connolly tells us in the fourth paragraph that Annalise wants to kill Ray, but has been forbidden not to.

And then, what does Connolly do?

He changes the subject.

No waxing rhapsodic on how Ray, the viewpoint character, feels about Annalise’s desire to see him dead. No explanation on why she wants him dead, or who forbade her to kill him. Instead of explanations, Connolly shows us how bad Ray’s relationship with Annalise is. She’s openly hostile. Connolly purposefully hits us with something interesting, and then backs off.

Such a tease. But a good one. It’s subtle enough to keep us interested without taking our complete focus because we’re very quickly ushered into a scene of Ray and Annalise in action.

What Connolly does here is let us get to know Ray in the best way possible, by putting him in the hot seat. On the road, Ray tries to save a child from a nasty spell and fails. Ray’s reaction gets us on his side pretty fast. He’s sickened and angry. Honestly, if there’s anything that gets a to reader empathize with a character, it’s having the character feel bad about something horrible happening to children and pets.

Suddenly, we’re like, “What’s wrong with Annalise that she hates this guy? He likes kids, so he must be a good guy.”

But, in the second chapter that Connolly starts giving us the skinny. Ray’s a career criminal.

Again, Connolly doesn’t give us much beyond a short trip through Ray’s criminal history. We get only a hint that something happened last year that made Annalise his enemy. Then, we’re back to the present moment, breaking into the house of the family they just encountered. Before we can start wondering about Ray, we’re sucked into the mystery of what happened to the dead child. Again, Ray’s empathy keeps us firmly on Ray’s side so that when we learn the truth-that Annalise has a very good reason for hating Ray-we’re not totally lost to him.

Connolly fantastically teases out the backstory, never stoping the action. The technique he sets up at the beginning, of giving us a little information and then going on to a scene of the protagonist in action, continues to the very end of the novel. We’re never bored by long explanations or confused by flashbacks that put so much emphasis on the backstory that it crowds the present story out. Every time he brings it up, we learn something small but new. And better yet, Connolly manages to link each bit of backstory to what’s happening in the present, so that we’re never popped out of the moment, which is a huge problem when you’re trying to get in important backstory.

Sure, it would be easier to just plop down that backstory and get it out of the way, and when handled poorly, the tease can get terribly irritating. The key, I think, is to always give an answer. Never the whole answer, but an answer none-the-less, so that the reader feels as if he or she is getting somewhere rather than being led off to nowhere in confusion.

So, when you’ve got that juicy bit of backstory that is so terribly important that it absolutely has to be in your novel, don’t forget that you’ve got an entire book to fill. Think about how you can become a better tease.

Motivations

You’ve heard it before. I’ve said it. Every author you’ve ever heard repeats it as if it was a mantra to the writing gods. “Keep Writing.” It really is the best advice you could take. We all know this, but how many people sit down and write every day for as long as they planned the night before? Planning is easy, doing is hard. (Great example: This blog post is due in three days. I’ve been meaning to write it for weeks now.) The mantra is true, but you need to look beyond that. Don’t just say you’re going to write, determine why you’re going to write. What is your motivation to finish that manuscript?

At Superstars, author James A. Owen did a panel on “Drawing out the Dragons.” It was a story of his motivations and how they fueled his career through a world that was decisively against him. The talk was powerful and left the room roaring with energy. I could feel it pulse with the story he told, and in turn, it latched onto my own dreams and motivators and brought them to the front of my mind. I was ready to write and take over the world! I would be the next household name! James said he believed in us, and I believed.

Since the talk, the blaze has died down to the quiet flame that is always burning in my chest. When I sit down, I let that heat flow again and use it to power my writing. When I don’t feel like writing, I have to think back toward these moments that brought on the blaze, and remind myself why I’m doing it. I think of the friends I have that believe in me. I think of friends and family reading my stories. I think of fame and fortune! (I do write fantasy, so it’s pretty easy to imagine this.)

So, keep writing. When you don’t want to write, think back to why you started writing in the first place and what motivates you. Let this ignite your spirit and push you to write, because in the end, no matter how many times someone tells you to keep writing, it’s up to you to actually do so.

The Great Spring Migration

The spring migration is late this year but I only learned that because someone died.

A close friend’s death pulled me from my concrete world, forcing me to travel across endless prairie, to see spring repaint winter’s stark world with the tender greens waving away the north wind’s last cold breaths. And in my journey to mourn, I see the spring migration – gathering energy to fly to thawing northern nesting grounds by fervently feeding on the last crop’s stubble, not one stray seed left behind. A friend had died and with her, part of my heart died yet here was nature, hopeful, fervent, telling me the cycle must continue, that despite all that happens, life stops for no one.

This journey takes me back to the farmstead home where I grew up – right in the middle of the great spring migration. Flocks of Greater and Lesser Canada geese, cranes and Snow geese formed feathery swarms. Circling gracefully down to water, then like arrows shot into the sky they circle yet again searching for perfect feeding fields.

The choruses of honks and krooos carried by cool spring winds are a music once familiar, now alien, to my ears. These choruses are the excitement of spring, the energy of rebirth and creativity and somehow, through my tears of grieving, I am stilled to peace.

A walk across stubble fields, still too wet for seeding, floods me with memories, once known in my youth but now seem otherworldly. Who was that person who remembers where the trees once grew, where cattle grazed in pastures, where weeds were pulled from garden rows at a nickel a pail? Who is this person who now deigns to wear sandals through straw stubble, ankles scratched – a child of the city now – alien worlds converging, lifetimes past and present merging.

Walking along a windrow, a prairie chicken is spooked from the grass. My partner is now lost in his memories of times hunting before pesticides and farming diminished this delicacy. As we share the past I realize that few words can bring to life the images, the memories, the smells, the aching muscles, the laughter accompanying sliding down haystacks in winter … time has made the once familiar foreign. The migration darkens the sky above us as birds swarm debating if this field will yield enough scattered grain. I feel the noisy migration sweep my old ghosts away for their focus is on today – it is all that matters and all that ever will matter.

At 4 a.m., the winds change and I know, lying in the dark, protected from the diamond sky and sun’s first yawning, that it is time – that this is the last night of honking and krooing wakefulness and that silence will ensue. I leap from my bed to watch the geese and cranes, their last grazing of grain speckled stubble fields completed, rise to the skies, circling, a choir in flight, summoning all to follow, their v-shaped lines flapping arrows aimed at northern nesting grounds.

Then, the earth gasps at the timeless glory of the final migration before relaxing with a sigh. But, the silence I expect never comes.

Instead, I hear the almost quiet – the earth’s soft belches and burps of spring moving to summer. Frogs croaking bass melody day and night, the percussion of duck calls, crows cawing oblivious to the frog’s melody, the crescendo and decrescendo of wind whispering then whistling through budding trees – the new, softer melodies of insects crawling over warming ground, farmers preparing the land for seeding, hoes working gardens. The south wind, carrying the frenzied migration northward now blends these spring choruses to new compositions.

Ah yes, the rhythm, the balance of the earth, timeless beyond man – these things I now ponder. And I also wonder about the worlds I create as I now sit in my walled home, in my city of concrete and asphalt and unearthly noise. Do my characters wander through worlds which gasp, belch and burp? Are they aware of the subtle things which affect their lives? Am I aware of these things? Maybe. Maybe not. But I now know that sometimes we and our characters need to take the time to breathe – to feel the change, to feel the sorrow and the timelessness of life.