Category Archives: Narrative Voice

Real Characters

Like many of you, I read a lot. I love the new stuff and the classics. LOTR, Les Miserables, Moby Dick, all fantastic books. But there is no denying that they hold a different voice than novels of today. It’s not just words either. 

First Person POV like, “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought…” has changed. Before it was like the telling of something that happened. But now, even though most First Person POVs are written in past tense, there is a closeness to them that makes it feel as if it is happening now. Present tense often has the effect of feeling like it is taking place in the near future.

First Person today or Close Third allow the reader to get inside the POV character’s head. This sets the medium apart from movies or television and I would propose that this is why the book is most often better than the movie.

For an author to do this effectively, the character needs to be alive with real thoughts and preferences and opinions. How else will they react to what comes their way? And isn’t this fantastic story telling? When the characters take hold and even argue with us the author.

I saw a documentary about the filming of Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark. There is a scene where a samurai guy whips around his sword and taunts Jones. The documentary said that the original script called for an intricate fight scene where Jones eventually beats the Samurai. But Harrison Ford argued that his character had a gun and would simply shoot the Samurai dead. The story was rewritten.

Recently I have been writing a thriller involving a hitman, an FBI agent, a financial guru in witness protection, and I needed another character to round out the mix—a face of the evil corporate conglomerate. Fei. She is a middle-aged Chinese national and she runs a section of the corporation, laundering money made from sex trafficking and drugs.

I’m a discovery writer so often times I start with an idea and see where it goes with a distant idea in mind. I did not expect what Fei decided to do.

I needed her to ask the hitman to kill this guy, but Fei let me know that this was not an easy thing for her to do and that she’d developed feelings for this dude. I pushed it. She had her lover killed. Part of her was sad, and another felt power and control. She handled the death in a very interesting way. Two chapters later and Fei is now a serial killer. I did not expect that at all, but Fei, with her personality, her childhood issues, her lust and disgust for men, her struggling marriage with a husband who is reluctant to come out of the closet, all of these dynamics have formed and created Fei, a person, a character, someone that I would recognize if I bumped into her on the street (and then I’d run like hell in the opposite direction).

Real characters aren’t cliché. They aren’t faceless drones. They are a compilation of many people. They have wants and goals and dreams and they struggle and have weaknesses. And when they are real, we as readers recognize that and the story resonates with us.

I watch people. (Not in a creepy way). I observe their mannerisms. I listen to their word choices. I notice their posture and eye movements. These things make someone unique. And I ask them questions. I listen to how they respond. I strive to understand their ambitions and fears.

All of these mesh and mingle and come out in my writing.

I came up with Jared Sanderson about 7 years ago. He is very real to me. I could describe his physical features that are a mesh of three of my friends. But this little segment, which is his intro into the story, shows a bit of who he is as a character.

“Jared Sanderson gnawed on the side of his thumb as he waited for the attorney. He had forgotten to moisturize so his skin flaked and cracked at the sides of his fingers. By impulse, he chewed away the dead skin, especially when nervous.”

THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER
Jace Killan

I live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I hold an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can check out my books here or at my website www.jacekillan.com.

Your Writing Poker Face

If you’ve ever played poker, and probably even if you haven’t, you’ve heard about the concept of tells. Every player, it’s said, has little physical cues they give that indicate whether their hand is a good one or a bad one. These cues are unconscious, a quick scratch of the nose or tiny movement of the face. Clearing a throat or a slight widening of the eyes. Savvy players learn to recognize these tells in their opponent, and even savvier ones can fake them to induce others to believe their hand is better or worse than it really is. Hence the concept of a poker face, a face and body language that give away nothing to the opponent. Writers have tells as well it turns out. Every writer unconsciously favors certain words or metaphors, finds certain sentence or structures or syntax more appealing. This can extend even to broader topics, like plot or themes, than the writer likes to explore over and over again. Unlike in poker, these tells aren’t always a bad thing. In fact, they constitute part of the author’s voice, that often-mentioned attribute that makes every writer different from every other, even if they were all given the same topic to write about. But improperly managed, your writerly tells can drag readers out of the careful illusion you’ve created. And some habits writers have are just generally bad ones, and should be culled from a manuscript as much as possible. That’s why it’s critical that every writer understand their own tics and tendencies. In an old post, I talked about writing science fiction, and how I tried to be cognizant of when I was inserting bad science, that I was willing to do so for the sake of strengthening the story, but that I wanted to be aware of doing so. It’s the same thing for your writerly tells. You want them to be in there intentionally, but you don’t want your story to be so thick with them that it reads like a parody of your writing and draws the reader out of the story. This self-awareness process can be a painful one, particularly if you are self-conscious about your writing (so, if you’re a writer). And for that reason, you shouldn’t worry too much about it in your first draft, unless your tics are so broad they encompass your entire plot, but I’ll talk about that more below. But once it’s time for edits, cringe-inducing or not, figure out the words and turns of phrase you overuse. Perform a find function and grimace as it returns 73 instances. Then you can grimly soldier through them with your editing machete, hacking them down to only what is required. I usually leave this as one of the last steps, lest I cull most of my repetitions only to reintroduce them with later edits. Repeating yourself at a plot or thematic level can be harder to avoid, but can also be easier to manage. Plenty of authors explore the same broad themes over and over again, and plenty of stories follow the same plot beats as other stories in their genre. Generally, you want to keep these repetitions as broad as possible. If you love exploring the themes of parents estranged from children, for instance, characters like that will probably keep cropping up in your work. But this is a broadly applicable, very human theme that lots of people will be able to relate to, so I wouldn’t worry too much about things like that. Now, if the specifics of each of your estranged parents stories start looking too similar, you’ll need to start finding ways to make them different. That’s when it goes from a writing style and voice to something I call self-plagiarism. You’ll never get rid of all your tics, of course. And you wouldn’t want to. The very foundations of your stories are built from the tendencies of your thought and feelings, so tearing all of that away will simply leave you with no story to tell. But their can be and should be a balance. It’s really annoying to specifically look for and confront the crutches you use to tell stories, but it’s what you have to do in order to level up in your writing.

About the Author: Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. He is the author of the Unwilling Souls series, as well as stories in the A Game of Horns, Dragon Writers, and Undercurrents anthologies. He writes the kind of stories he likes to read, fantasy and science fiction tales featuring vivid worlds, strong characters, and smart action all surrounding a core of mystery. He lives with his wife and their yellow lab. You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his twitter (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

 

Finishing What You Start, Or Not

When I first started writing fiction in 2009, one of the first things I learned were Heinlein’s Rules. While they all have a place in the heart of every writer, the one that sticks out the most to me is “Finish What You Start.” It’s the single most often prescribed bit of writing advice I give to aspiring authors. The ability to sit down and finish a story, good or bad, is critical to learning the craft. However, I’ve also come to understand (and experience) that there are simply times when you shouldn’t finish what you start – you should put it down and walk away. I’ve had an idea for a novel in my head for the last several years and I’ve toyed with outlining it here and fleshing out dialogue and characters there and I decided that I’d sit down on really focus on it last year. My intent was to write about 10,000 words and really determine if the story was something I could commit to fully. While it sounded good to me, and I was pretty sure I could write it, could I make it an authentic story? Could I answer the most important question in every reader’s mind – “Who gives $&@#?” I believed I could and I promptly sat down wrote about 8,500 words and stopped dead – seriously, like in the middle of a sentence. At the time, I believe the words I spoke to myself were “What in the hell are you doing, Kevin?” My great idea wasn’t as great as I’d believed it to be. From my reading and occasional instruction of outlining and character dynamics, I realized that while I had a fun premise to explore, my character was simply horrible. I’d designed goals for them and tried valiantly to put them into some type of story line capable of captivating an audience. On paper, everything was a fit, but I realized that I didn’t “love” my protagonist. In fact, I kinda loathed them. Every time I wrote their dialog in that 8,500 starter, I cringed. It got to the point at the end that I threw up my hands and said “I’m not finishing this.” A few years ago, this would have bothered me tremendously. Having learned that finishing what you start is critical to success as a writer, my younger self would’ve pressed on and turned out something vaguely akin to a novel that was destined for the circular file. Instead, I realized that while I’d seemingly done my homework, outlined and plotted the story, and built my character in a way I thought would work – the whole mess didn’t come together. Was it a result of my talent? Or my motivation? Or did I just not believe in the story anymore? Your guess is as good as mine. What mattered was that my brain said it was time to stop – that I wasn’t getting anywhere fast and that I was laboring over a first draft instead of letting the ideas around my outline flow. That story went into the dark recesses of my hard drive likely never to be heard from again. It simply didn’t work. I didn’t need to send it to my first reader or any beta readers – I could sense that the story was dead on arrival and I stopped. I recently went back at looked at what I’d written in the 8,500 word, suddenly truncated start and completely agreed with my decision. In some similar cases, I’ve looked at something with fresh eyes and starting typing anew – pushing that gestated idea to finalization. As I read the first chapter, I thought I might be able to do just that. By the end of chapter three, I knew it was a lost cause. That character, and their storyline, went into the experience file. From there, I went back to another one of Heinlein’s rules – “Write something else.” I’ve been busy ever since.

Welcome to December – 2017 Year In Review

This month, the Fictorians and a few guest bloggers will share their successes, lessons learned, and their challenges as we collectively pursue our writing careers. I hope that some of their stories and posts resonate with you. We’re all at different places in our journey, but the idea that we’re all stepping forward is critical to remember. Every year, I set Writing Goals. Those goals have become more ambitious over the last few years and I’ve been challenged to get my butt in the writing chair to achieve the things I wanted to at the beginning of the year. I opened up my schedule to attend more conventions and events, I ambitiously took on a new project that was not on my writing goals at all, and I managed to get two books published in the last half of the year. I’ll share more about those projects later this month, but there were two things that happened this year that harken back to something that Kevin J. Anderson talks about: “Popcorn Theory.” The idea is that as writers, we can’t treat our stories like a single kernel of popcorn. If we were hungry, we’d starve cooking one kernel at a time. Having more projects going breeds creativity and creates unique opportunities. This year, I’d decided to take a break from writing all short fiction to focus on writing/editing two novels. Yet, opportunities knocked and I listened. The first was an opportunity I’ll discuss more in a couple of weeks, but I received an invitation to submit a story for an anthology in the bestselling military science fiction series of the Four Horsemen Universe. I had a blink in my schedule, so I wrote the story, turned it in, and saw my whole calendar for the year derailed when not only did editors Chris Kennedy and Mark Wandrey love my short story but they asked me to write a novel with my character Peacemaker Jessica Francis. But, more on that later. Very soon, AVATAR Dreams – An Anthology Inspired by the ANA X-Prize, will be published that features some of the biggest names in science fiction. Edited by Kevin J. Anderson and Mike Resnick, this collection features stories from Jody Lynn Nye, Todd McCaffrey, Martin L. Shoemaker, Tina Gower, Marina J. Lostetter, Brad R. Torgersen, Josh Vogt, Dr. Harry Kloor, Andrea Stewart, Ron Calling, Kay Kenyon, and Kevin Ikenberry. That’s right – me. Opportunity knocked and I was in the right place. Kevin J. Anderson looked across the table at me and said, “I need another story for the AVATAR Dreams Anthology. Can you get me something in two weeks?” Yes, I could. From story idea to turn-in was seven days. It was a crazy, hectic time but I had a story crystallize in my head that combined the movie “The Fast and the Furious” with Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage. With the help of my friend Lou J. Berger, some bacteriology tutoring from my father (putting that PhD to use), and a couple of late nights, I turned in a story faster than expected. Hearing that it was a great fit for the anthology was icing on the proverbial cake. But, my take away from the experience was that I could take a short-notice opportunity and do something good. It’s the fastest I’ve ever written a short story and I’m pretty proud of “That Others May Live.” So, as we go through the month of December and hear different stories, there’s a chance you’ll hear opportunity knocking. Don’t be afraid to answer the door. Everybody on the blog this month has been listening, I’m sure.