Tuesday, December 2, 2014


A recent poll conducted on behalf of Romance Writers of America found that the chief factor that motivates book browsers to choose a particular romance novel is attraction to the story (outranking other draws, such as author and reviews).

Equipped with this information, I observed shoppers browsing in a Tallahassee book store and watched how they pick a book. In every case they first read the story blurb on the book flap or back cover and then read the first couple pages before either returning the book to the shelf or heading off to the cashier with their prize.
For you as a writer this means you’ve got to deliver a dynamite opening sentence and first chapter. No long wind-ups, but bang!—straight into the heart of your story. So if you reread your first draft and realize that the story doesn’t kick in until page twelve, that’s twelve pages too late! Ditch those warm-up pages. If they contain important information or character development, salvage it for insertion elsewhere in your novel, perhaps as back-story.
Even as long ago as the First Century BCE, the Roman poet Horace (best known for his poem Carpe Diem—“Seize the Day”) recommended that literature begin in media res—“in the midst of things.” In other words, with characters already engaged in dramatic action.
Study how the masterful Nora Roberts opens the door to her novel Witness with a sentence that immediately conveys both character and the threat of violence:

Elizabeth Fitch’s short-lived teenage rebellion began with L’Oreal Pure Black, a pair of scissors and a fake ID. It ended in blood.

Maxine Hong Kingston begins The Woman Warrior with this hook:  

“You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.”

The first paragraph of Diana Gabaldon’s blockbuster, Outlander, economically conveys intrigue and setting and characterization:

It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, not at first glance. Mrs. Baird’s was like a thousand other Highland bed-and-breakfast establishments in 1945; clean and quiet, with fading floral wallpaper, gleaming floors, and a coin-operated hot-water geyser in the lavatory. Mrs. Baird herself was squat and easygoing, and made no objection to Frank lining her tiny rose-sprigged parlor with the dozens of books and papers with which he always traveled.

Patricia Briggs begins Moon Called, the first book in her paranormal romance series starring the shape-shifter, Mercy Thompson, with a scene that introduces the heroine as an auto mechanic—with an extraordinary sense of smell.

I didn’t realize he was a werewolf at first. My nose isn’t at its best when surrounded by axle grease and burnt oil—and it’s not like there are a lot of stray werewolves running around. So when someone made a polite noise near my feet to get my attention I thought he was a customer.

Here are opening sentences from a few of my own short stories and novels.

Mason Drake awoke and saw the pilot burning. Flames climbed up the dead man’s flight jacket and the red nylon melted.

If Tom Harding had been paying attention to his fingertips when they began to tingle, the strangest encounter of his life would not have happened.

When my transition drew near, an Unsurpassable Lover came to my door, her puffy-eyed silence foretelling terrible news.

“Where were you last night?”
I rolled onto my side and a headache thunder-clapped through my skull. A nude woman occupied with me a bed so broad it seemed a landscape of satin sheets.
“Where did you go last night?” she said again. Whoever she was, she was royalty. A holo-tattoo of the Imperial Dragon coiled around the pupil of her left eye, shimmering iridescently.

Once you’ve crafted enticing opening sentences, your readers need to be told within the next two or three pages:

·        WHO is the story’s hero?
·        WHERE does the story take place?
·        WHAT conflict does the hero face?
·        WHY should we care? (Hint: because the hero is likable.)

All of the above does not imply slaving over your first paragraphs, insisting that they be perfect before you can move on with writing your story. If you feel stuck on the opening scene, plunging deeper into the tale might be your best strategy. After fifty or a hundred pages, when your characters and their struggles to find love have become real and alive for you, you’ll probably have a strong idea how to go back and rewrite the beginning. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014


Let’s talk about talking. The three different types of dialogue are 1) direct, 2) indirect, and 3) mixed.

Direct dialogue is the most dramatic form. By convention, direct dialogue requires quotation marks and each speaker gets his or her own paragraph. At the end of each speaker’s part, simple attributions (he said, she said) are best, and even they can be omitted when it’s clear who is speaking.

“You?” she said. “No way.”
“Trust me,” he said, “in a big way.”
“That’s just it; I don’t trust you.”

While “he said, she said” are virtually silent and invisible to the reader, the menagerie of other attributions (asked, answered, replied, retorted, added, commented, snarled, whined, etc.) draw attention to themselves and, like blush, should be used sparingly. Also, resist the urge to glom adverbs onto the attributions (she said grudgingly, he said wolfishly, etc.). Adverbs are not needed and are often used to explain what is already obvious to the reader (“I despise you!” she said angrily).
Using indirect dialogue can summarize a conversation in a brief report that, without quoting, still conveys richness:

Sheryl said that going to bed with David was selfish, crazy and impossible to resist.

Mixed dialogue, the third type, is a hybrid of direct and indirect:

Rob told Trisha she was narcissistic. That she paid no attention to what was right for him. Their pink bedroom with the four-poster bed and lace curtains was a good example. He told her, “I don’t want frills and flowers!” He said it two or three times.

  People speak variously and dialogue is an effective way to establish unique characters. A common critique in writing circles is that a story’s characters all talk alike. Hear the difference in the diction of these two speakers:

“I’m not a forensic scientist, but it appears to me the bullet entered her body from behind.”
“Hell, you don’t need to be no expert on this stuff. Sure as hell she got offed from the back.”

When we converse, we communicate not just with words but with our bodies. Realistic dialogue is more than a sequence of quotations; it includes nervous grins, fiddling with fingernails, lowered eyes, raised eyebrows: our whole human language. Such details and actions that punctuate dialogue are called “beats.” Writing good beats makes for vivid conversations that your readers can readily follow, and allows you to show which character is speaking without using attributes.

“Sorry, but that’s not what we agreed to.” Johnny tapped the contract on his desk, then flipped to the last page and held it up. “This is your signature, right?
I was doomed. I nodded and stood to leave.
“Just a sec.” He opened a drawer and took out a Glock handgun. “Take this. It goes along with the envelope.”

Beats are also used for conveying a realistic rhythm of speech. Instead of writing “he paused,” toss in a beat:

“Divorce?” He dragged on his Camel. “Really?” He screwed his mouth to the side and blew out smoke. “How long you been married, four, five months?”
“One hundred forty one days.” She glanced at her watch. “And eight hours, fifteen minutes.” She gave an unhappy laugh. “But who’s counting?”

Also consider using sound effects as a rhythmic element in your beats:

“A hundred dollars.” He stacked a log vertically on the stump. “What you mean is…” He swung the axe and the wood split halfway with a loud crack! “…a hundred more.” He swung again. Crack! The split halves fell onto piles on either side of the stump. “That makes a couple hundred.” He stacked another log without looking at his son. “I got to ask myself if you’re worth it.”

Lastly, keep in mind that the words in a dialogue reveal only the surface. Like icebergs, most of a conversation’s weight is hidden below. You can create tension between what is visible and what is submerged by keeping the dialogue evasive, filled with unspoken feelings.

If he used one more French phrase tonight, she was going to spit out the Bordeaux he ordered for her and get a pitcher of Bud. Why was he showing off? He grew up right here in Burnt Mill, same as her. He worked at the lumberyard, like her dad and brothers, and he drove a Ford pick-up, not a Lamborghini.
J'aime vos beaux yeux verts.”
She smiled. “Oui, monsieur!” She had no idea what he said. By now any other guy would have said something sweet, maybe complimented her on her green eyes. How do you say in French, “Billy Ray, just be yourself!”

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Reinventing Reality

 Unless the plot of your romance absolutely demands a real-life locale, you’ll do yourself a favor by inventing your setting—but not out of whole cloth. For authenticity, it’s best to thoroughly research factual models for the fictional elements that you create.

For example, most of the action in my first novel, Ember from the Sun, takes place in the Pacific Northwest among a contemporary Native American tribe. I used as my model the Haida tribe who live on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands, Canada). I studied the Haida Indians in depth, learning about their history, language, customs, religion, art, clothing, housing, and methods of fishing and whaling. I also researched the Queen Charlotte Islands’ flowers and trees, birds and mammals, topography and climate. Then, after two months of research, I named my fictitious tribe the Quanoot, and its imaginary homeland, Whaler Bay Island.
Studying the real tribe and its actual territory enabled me to enhance the novel with authentic particulars. For instance, the story included a scene in which modern Quanoot men build a war canoe by the ancient, traditional method of the Haida. 

On the other hand, creating an imaginary tribe gave me the wiggle room to focus on the needs of my narrative without stressing about getting facts wrong, and I was free to invent a Quanoot legend that was central to my plot without feeling that I was appropriating a real people’s culture.
At first glance, it may seem that this advice mostly pertains for authors of historical romances, but it is at least as relevant for authors of contemporaries. Consider that while there are many readers who are experts on various historical periods, there are probably far more who know about whatever contemporary reality you plan to describe. They’ll be swift to notice errors of fact. Therefore, unless your story utterly requires an actual place, set it an apocryphal locale.

Let us say that your love story involves a hero who was once a logging crew foreman, but now he’s seeking employment because the logging industry has collapsed. For authenticity, find a real town that fits your story’s needs and use it as the pattern for your research. Read everything you can find about the town and the logging industry; study maps and nature guides; visit the area and interview loggers and the mayor, and so forth. But when your research is done, don’t write about the actual town; make up your own.

I’m currently researching a YA novel whose heroine is the Eastern Surfing Association Junior Women’s Champion. This is a case of writing what I know: I grew up in the surfer subculture in Melbourne Beach, Florida, and I once dated the current ESA Junior Women’s champion (back in the Pleistocene Era). I’m going to return to my favorite surf spots and interview surfers there and at the local surf shops. Nonetheless, I’m not going to set the novel in my real hometown. There are thousands of people living there now and some readers will balk at any detail I change or simply get wrong. But no one ever gets upset and slings a book across the room just because she suspects that such-and-such a town can’t be found on any map; so I’ll set my story in “Satellite Shores”—population zero, because the place does not exist.

The beauty of this research-and-switch method of creating fiction is that you can convey the genuine ambience of a real setting—Florida’s east coast, or an economically depressed logging town in Oregon—without trapping your plot in specifics. Remember the motto of tabloid journalists: “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story!”

Friday, June 13, 2014

Making Full Use of Setting

If a detective snooped through your residence while you were away, chances are he or she could construct a fairly detailed and reliable profile of your personality, based on your environment (your setting). That’s because your character is revealed not only by what you say and do, but also by the food in your pantry, the clothes in your closet, the artwork on your walls, the knick-knacks lining your mantle, your movie and music collection, the titles filling your bookshelves, and so forth.

As writers we can use the specific setting in which we place a scene to show the inner workings of our fictional characters. An effective way to do this is to describe setting subjectively through the character’s senses, emotions and memories, rather than neutrally, through a “camera lens” of objective narration. This technique accomplishes a few things:

1.       It keeps the writer invisible. The information arrives through the character’s perceptions, not from a disembodied narrator.
2.       It saves time and thus moves the story faster. Readers get necessary descriptions of your character’s surroundings while simultaneously learning about their personalities.
3.       It’s a handy way to weave in backstory, without resorting to flashbacks elsewhere that can break up the immediacy of the action and dialog.

You can show contrasting personalities and reveal backstories by having more than one character react to the same environment, or to the same object within it. For example, a time-worn baseball glove might evoke nostalgia in an old man, who as a gifted pitcher once made it as far as the minor leagues; while the same glove elicits anger in his adult son, who resents that his father forced him to endlessly practice pitching in the hope the boy would fulfill the father’s dreams and one day pitch for a major league team.

A further use of setting is to establish the mood or tone of your overall story or of a particular scene. Notice how movie directors often open a scene with an “establishing shot” to set up the context and mood for the action that is about to occur. Films must accomplish this while relying on only two senses, vision and sound. The beauty of a written story is that you can convey the setting and mood of a scene through all five senses. Make it a habit to exploit this advantage by including more than just seeing and hearing in your scenes. Give your reader plenty of smells, textures, and flavors. (Also, notice that verbs can perform double-duty as sounds: the bullet chunked into the wall… the arrow thwacked the target.)

Pay special attention to the sense of smell. Neuroscience confirms what you may have discovered in your own experience: aromas trigger memories and emotions more strongly than any of the other senses. It’s easy to imagine a character going through the personal belongings of her late grandfather, feeling a mix of happiness and sorrow when looking at photos of the grizzled man in his wide-brimmed fishing hat. But when she actually smells his faithful hat—its familiar mix of cigarette smoke, hair oil, and a hint of fishing bait—that’s when the tears finally flow.

The more vividly you convey the setting of each scene, the better chance you have of accomplishing the writer’s goal of implanting your readers inside your story. On the other hand, some settings are so familiar (for example, the interior of a MacDonald’s restaurant) that description should be kept to a minimum. Set the stage with just a couple details that readers will instantly recognize.

Even if you’re writing historical fiction or placing a scene in an exotic locale, it’s best not to slow down the story with pages of description. Instead, interweave bits of description into the forward-moving action. Think of particulars (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, flavors, and textures) that exactly define the setting. These are called “telling details”.

Forty years ago I stood in freezing air-conditioning under banks of surgical lamps in the cadaver dissection room of a medical school. A dozen aluminum exam tables held male and female corpses draped to their chests in blue plastic sheets, the right sides of their necks and faces cut down to the white bones. The sharp reek of formaldehyde filled my nostrils and mouth.

If I used the above setting in a fictional scene, I would insert these telling details into the dialog and action a piece at a time to paint a clear picture without slowing the story’s momentum.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Well, What Do You Know?

Beginning writers repeatedly encounter the advice, “Write what you know.” Of course, if writers heeded this counsel narrowly and reported only what they have directly experienced, historical fiction and fantasy tales would vanish along with the best of the world’s literature.

After all, Jamie McGuire is not an alpha male and should not be privy to the secret emotions of her tattooed bad boy (Beautiful Disaster); Arthur Golden is not a Japanese woman and should not have given us his intimate portrait of “the floating world” (Memoirs of a Geisha); and Stephen Crane, who never fought on a Civil War battlefield, should not have penned his tale of cowardice and heroism—acclaimed for its realism (The Red Badge of Courage).

Furthermore, “Write what you know” might even be bad advice. Fiction by students in MFA writing programs is notoriously autobiographical or even narcissistic, starring penniless grad students awkwardly exploring their sexuality and the meaning of adult life.
So let’s take a closer look at the truism, “Write what you know.”

To begin, what do you know? Well, you know yourself. And you are already a complex of selves. You play plenty of roles in the daily theater of your life, such as daughter, sister, friend, lover, worker, soccer mom. But are you not also the 8-year-old who wanted to be a cowgirl, the high school bookworm who hung out with the misfits, the college sophomore who read Sylva Plath, the woman who fantasizes what it would be like to spend a weekend in Paris with that hunky guy in line for a latte? Without being overtly nuts, you manage to include all these characters, like the population of a small town. A Jungian psychologist would say you contain everyone you have ever been, as well as everyone you have tried to be. You are, in this sense, even the person you avoided becoming or the one you are scared of being. All of these characters are “you”—and you know them intimately.

Secondly, the idea “to know” takes on broader meaning when you consider that you “know” in wide-ranging ways. You know in your head, through education; you know in your body, through living; you know in your heart, through empathy. You know how people walk and talk and laugh and interact because you are a seasoned people watcher and eavesdropper (and, if not, please take up those vices).

To know is a matter of paying attention. Being the kind of observer who misses nothing is an essential habit for writers. A person might sleepwalk through life, and having lived for ten years in Istanbul, be unable to offer a vivid description of the unique sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of the ancient Turkish city, while a more perceptive person could visit the city for a week and then write a scene that makes you feel as if you are standing under the car-sized stones of the Roman aqueduct.

Research is another valid way of knowing. You can convincingly place a scene within a detailed setting that you have never even visited—let’s again say Istanbul—but you must first familiarize yourself with Istanbul through its history and culture, economics, statistics, street maps, photos, travel and restaurant and night life guides, and nature guides.

Of course, research has its limits. I once began writing a novel about a woman who flew a Mustang in the Reno Air Races. I did my research, including studying a mechanical manual and building a large-scale model of the Mustang. But it finally came down to this: I am not a pilot. A few chapters into the story, I realized it was not going to feel authentic. The project is on hold (at least until I can get out to Reno and actually ride with a pilot in an air race).

What my story would have lacked is the sense of immediacy revealed by little details that only experts know. Every sport and occupation, from ice skating to brain surgery, has these bits of arcana, beginning with a peculiar jargon. If you conduct interviews as part of your research (always recommended), ask your sources to provide you with these revealing particulars: “Please take a moment to think of something special you know about [skydiving, bronco riding, performing a C-section] that the rest of us couldn’t even begin to guess.”

So “Write what you know” remains good advice when it is not interpreted narrowly. Mine the deep strata of what you already know and what you can learn. And if you are an expert in a particular field, consider how you might exploit your hard-won knowledge in your fiction.

Friday, February 7, 2014

What Is Science Fiction and What Is Fantasy?

First, what is STORY? 

A story tells of characters with a problem in search of a solution. Speculative fiction, in that sense, is like any other fiction. It must have a plot, which is motivated action: the hero is driven by a purpose.

Marion Zimmer Bradley explains motivated action as, “Joe gets his ass caught in a bear trap and tries like hell to get it out.” Dean Koontz provides a more detailed view of story structure: “The hero has a serious problem (or something he wants very badly). He tries to solve his problem (or attain his goal) but plunges deeper into difficulties and danger. His stumbling blocks arise logically from his efforts to find a solution. His troubles increase monumentally. Finally, forced by harsh circumstances to discover a truth about himself or the world, he is enabled to solve his problem or attain his goal (or fail dramatically).”

Without these elements, it’s not a story, but just a vignette—a “slice of life,” where nothing much happens. Or, it’s a case history, a story in which the issue—date rape, drug abuse, spousal battering, terrorism—is more important than the people it happens to. One avoids case histories by writing about particular people; real people, not stereotypes. The character must act for her own reasons, not the needs of the story or the author’s message.

The key to the definition of science fiction is that the problem would not happen at all except for the science context and content. That is, some aspect of technology, or a future or alien environment or society, challenges the characters. If you take these central aspects out of the story, you don’t have a science fiction story.
This is very close to the definition of a fantasy story, where characters face some aspect of the supernatural, or a magical society, or environment. Magic must be coped with.
 When a new technology or magic is developed, people have to deal with the unintended consequences. These unforeseen ramifications make science fiction and fantasy humorous or sobering.

The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy

Fantasy stories contain elements that are known to be impossible (for example, a magic watch that stops time, enabling the hero to walk through a “time-frozen” world). Science fiction contains elements that might be possible—the technologies don’t violate the known laws of physics.

If your hero gains the power to read minds through a magical incantation, or by allowing a female wizard to inhabit the left half of his body, that story is fantasy. But if the power to read minds comes from evolutionary mutation, or from genetic engineering, or computer-brain interfaces, then it’s not magic—it is perhaps possible—and the story is science fiction.

So science fiction is based on scientific rationalization and extrapolations of known science—and the story is believable within a rational worldview. (Admittedly, common SF story elements such as teleportation, faster-than-light travel, teleportation, or sub-space communication violate our current understanding of physics—so these are gray areas of science fiction.) Fantasy is built on the supernatural, on magic and gods and goddesses and ghosts and leprechauns and mermaids. It’s rich with the same powers that enliven mythology and religion—and the reader must take the story on faith.

Ursula LeGuinn on fantasy: “Its affinity is not with daydream, but with dream. It is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence. It is not anti-rational, but para-rational; not realistic, but surrealistic, super-realistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud’s terminology, it employs primary, not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction.”

Metaphors may be a theme in both fictions, but they will be differently explored. Take the metaphor, “edge of the world.”

Science fiction might tell of an immense world that rings a star, constructed of material from its demolished solar system. In Larry Niven’s Ringworld, the “edge of the world” is a thousand-mile high wall to hold in the atmosphere.

Fantasy might tell of a village perched on the edge of The Known, and at the end of the village lies a cottage named “Border House” that opens into The Unknown. You enter the front door of the cottage and take a few steps and you are in a realm of magic in which all the laws you have learned to trust—like gravity—no longer apply.

The best science fiction or fantasy is not fiction about science or magic, but stories about CHARACTERS who are affected by science or magic. The characters could be humans, elves, aliens, machines, pet rocks—whatever. But since we are human writers and readers, the problems that challenge the characters will necessarily be more-or-less human problems.

A typical flaw in science fiction or fantasy tales written by novices is the lack of a central, motivating human problem. In science fiction, we often encounter a bunch of techno-babble: The jumpship carrying medicine to combat the Vlorg Plague at New Tokyo Colony develops a phase uncoupling in the wave intolerator. Time ticks away as the hero rigs a Rothman wave-bridge out of garbage bags, a laser spectroscope, a rectal thermometer and an ancient Bic lighter. The colony is saved!

Big deal. The problem was imaginary and so was the solution.

On the other hand, one could imagine a story about a ship rushing medicine to a colony infected with a deadly virus, in which the crew must deal with the real problem of the damage to the human body caused by high acceleration and deceleration. (If you can only tolerate accelerating at a constant 2 Gs, you can’t “put on the brakes” at 40 Gs. But a more gradual deceleration will make the ship reach the colony too late.) The rescue ship lands on auto-pilot carrying crates of needed medicine and two dead crew members, crushed by the deceleration. The colonists are saved, not by techno-nonsense, but because of the tragic personal sacrifice of heroes.