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#AuthorToolboxBlogHop: Shaping the Diamond (Showing, not Telling)

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Author Toolbox: Shaping the Diamond

Using Show, Don’t Tell to Engage Readers

Last week, we talked about interior monologue—a technique some writers overuse. This affects the pace of the story because it takes the reader away from showing the action into telling the character’s internal reaction. Remember: show don’t tell.

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Telling a story is the classic way of structuring a novel, but it is now considered outdated by publishers, and by readers:

There has been a drastic change in storytelling in the twentieth century… Writers need reminding that we’ve all had exposure to movies [and] television … a visual medium. Today’s readers have learned to see stories happening before their eyes. They tend to skim or skip long passages of description or narrative summary,
– Sol Stein, Solutions for Novelists: Secrets of a Master Editor

Therefore you need to show your reader the scene, rather than telling them about the scene.

Our readers want scenes and action, not to be told what happened through description and narrative summary (and narrative summary includes long passages of interior monologue, especially if it’s in the middle of a scene). Readers need to be able to see each scene, see what is happening:

A good scene will enrich character, provide necessary information to the audience and move the plot forward.
– Les Standiford, in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing

Jack Bickham says:

Show, don’t tell. Don’t lecture your reader; she won’t believe you. Give her the story action, character thoughts, feelings, and sense impressions as the character would experience them in real life. There are four essential steps:
  • Selection of, and adherence to, a single character’s viewpoint
  • Imagining the crucial sense or though impressions that character is experiencing at any given moment
  • Presenting those impressions as vividly and briefly as possible
  • Giving those impressions to readers in a logical order

In other words, use deep point of view. Sol Stein gives a useful list of questions to review for each scene:

  • Is the scene described in terms of the action that takes place? If there is no action, there is no scene. The frequent fault of new fiction writers is that they unravel the thread of the story instead of keeping it taut like the gut strings of a tennis racket… Leave the reader in suspense.
  • Is each scene visible throughout so that the reader can see what is happening before his eyes? If the action is not visible, you are probably sliding into narrative summary of past events or offstage events.
  • The reader is not moved by the writer or a narrator telling him what one or another character feels. The reader is moved by seeing what is happening to the characters.
  • Which character in the scene do you have the most affection for? How can you make the reader feel affection or compassion for that character in this scene?
  • Is there a character in this scene who threatens the protagonist subtly or openly, psychologically or physically?

Browne and King apply the ‘show, don’t tell’ principle to the interior monologue and feelings of characters, where authors often use unnecessary adverbs or description to explain what a character is feeling:

This tendency to describe a character’s emotion may reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the writer. So when you come across an explanation of a character’s emotion, simply cut the explanation. If the emotion is still shown, then the explanation isn’t needed. If the emotion isn’t shown, rewrite the passage so it is.
– Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Yes, it’s harder to show than to tell. But make the effort. Your readers will thank you.

Balancing Show vs. Tell

Scenes that show the reader what is happening are harder to write, so writers have a tendency to revert to narrative summary, which is telling. That is not to say that authors should eliminate all narrative summary:

Narrative summary has its uses, the main one being to vary the rhythm and texture of your writing … Just make sure you don’t use it when you should be showing rather than telling.
– Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

That’s not to say we should show everything. Yes, we should show everything that’s important. But not everything is important, and there are some things we don’t want to see up close. This is when we can increase narrative distance.

Using Narrative Distance

Narrative distance is the distance between the reader and the point of view character. There is little distance in deep perspective point of view (which tends to be showing). There is a lot of distance with cinematic or omniscient point of view (which tend to be telling).

Good writers know how and when to manipulate narrative distance to maximise reader engagement and prevent the story getting boring.

Imagine film in which the camera stays the same distance from the characters, never moving back or in. Boring, right? The same is true for fiction.
– David Jauss, On Writing Fiction

For example, a murder mystery necessarily includes a murder. But readers don’t necessarily need to see the murder take place. It might be enough to see the body, to give the reader some emotional distance from the violence, and allow us to focus on what’s most important in a murder mystery: solving the crime.

Handling point of view is much more than picking a person and sticking with it. It involves carefully manipulating the distance between narrator and character … to achieve the desired response from the reader.
– David Jauss, on Writing Fiction

Chekhov’s Gun

We also don’t need to see every insignificant action your character takes, every irrelevant thought he has. This means focusing on what’s important.

The more words you devote to an action (or a speech, or a thought), the more importance that action will have in the reader’s mind. This is the principle of Chekhov’s gun: if there is a gun on the mantelpiece in the first act, it should be fired by the third.

If your character is undertaking some mundane, routine action such as squeezing toothpaste onto his toothbrush, then the reader is expecting this to be relevant in some way. Maybe the maid cleaned the toilet with the toothbrush. Maybe there is poison in the toothpaste. Maybe his wife is being murdered in the next room, and he can’t hear over the sound of the running water.

If you’re mentioning mundane details, make sure they’re relevant to the plot. Give the reader the payoff they subconsciously expect. Otherwise, it’s best to tell:

The key is to show the intense scenes and tell the less important transitions (the narrative summary) between important scenes. As a guide, if what you are writing has the possibility of present-moment dialogue, it is a scene and should be written as such. If not, you’re in summary .
– Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Revision and self-editing is about examining our rough diamond and working out how best to shape and cut the rough stone to produce a final product that will shine. How will we manipulate the reader experience through careful use of point of view? How will we get the proportions right in terms of showing vs. telling?

The way we shape our rough diamond at this stage determines the look and value of the final cut and polished product. If we want to maximise the impact of our rough stone, we need to shape to produce a brilliant cut. I’ll be back next week to talk about cutting. I’ll also have a special offer, so don’t miss it!

What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to showing, not telling?

Don’t forget to visit the main Author ToolBox Blog Hop page for more great writing advice.

Using Point of View to Engage Readers

Shaping the Diamond Part One (Using Point of View to Engage Readers)

Last week I looked at the types of point of view we use in fiction. This week I’m looking at point of view from another perspective—why it’s important. The main reason we need to use deep perspective point of view is because it’s a great way to engage readers by making them feel part of the story:

As the distinction between narrator and character blurs, the distance between them shrinks, and so does the distance between reader and character.
– David Jauss, On Writing Fiction

This is especially useful in genres such as romance, women’s fiction and young adult fiction, where readers want to feel part of the story.

As an added bonus, proper use of deep perspective point of view helps prevent some of the most common issues I see in fiction manuscripts:

  • Headhopping and Author Intrusion
  • Writing Character’s Thoughts
  • Telling, not showing

Today I’m going to cover headhopping, author intrusion, and writing character’s thoughts. I’ll look at showing and telling next week.

Headhopping

Changing the point of view character in a scene is referred to as headhopping, which can be confusing for the reader. For example, the following paragraph shows three viewpoints in three sentences, first Alice, then Ben, then Dr Cook:

It was all too much for Alice. She turned, clung to Ben’s lapels and sobbed. Her heart was breaking. Ben held her against his chest and allowed the grief of years to be brutalised by hope. Dr Cook looked on benignly, waiting for her grief to subside before he continued with his examination.

This should be revised so the entire paragraph is from the viewpoint of a single character, the character who is most affected by the actions in that scene. This character should be named first, so the reader knows who is the point of view character in the scene.

Remember, a scene has a specific structure (which I discussed when I visited Seekerville). Adding a line break and *** does not create a new scene.

Yes, I’ve seen it done.

I think the author was breaking up the narrative into “scenes” to show she understood the rule of only having one point of view character per scene. But my reaction was that either she didn’t know how to write a proper scene, or that she was too lazy to revise her manuscript properly. Either way, the substandard writing showed a lack of respect for her potential readers.

Author Intrusion

If you’re using deep perspective point of view properly, the story is being told through the eyes of your characters. Author intrusion is when you slip out of the character’s viewpoint and tell the story as the author. An author intrusion can be as simple as one wrong word—an English character who says y’all or pavement. An American who says boot instead of trunk. A high school dropout who talks about serendipity.

For example, I have blonde hair courtesy of an excellent hairdresser. I might look in the mirror and think it’s time to get my roots touched up, but I’m not going to think of my hair colour if that’s not the focus of the scene:

The wind blew Alice’s carefully coiffured blonde hair everywhere.

It’s boring, right? Instead, deepen the point of view:

The gentle breeze whipped into a frenzy, blowing Alice’s hair everywhere–in front of her eyes, into her mouth. So much for the half-hour she’d spend drying and styling a professional coiffure for her job interview.

Author intrusion can also be more noticeable moralising and editorialising—the kind of preachiness which once gave Christian fiction a bad name (I think most authors now know better).

To avoid author intrusion, remember that every word needs to be consistent with what your viewpoint character can see or hear, or what they would think. Nothing more.

Writing Character’s Thoughts

There are three ways to show character thoughts in fiction, but only one I recommend—interior monologue. I’ll discuss the other two so you know why I don’t recommend them.

Quotation Marks

I have seen people ask how you tell the difference between character thought and character dialogue. The rule I learned in school was to use one quotation mark for character thought (‘like this’) and two for dialogue (“like this”).

That’s a useful rule to remember if you’re reading fiction from the 1950’s or earlier, but this approach is now considered wrong:

Never, ever use quotes with your interior monologue. It is not merely poor style; it is, by today’s standards, ungrammatical. Thoughts are thought, not spoken.
– Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

In the same way, don’t use thinker attributions (e.g. she thought). These indicate you’re using a distant point of view rather than deep perspective:

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London. ‘I should be grateful I’m not in a regular prison cell,’ she thought. ‘The room is warm, and the food is as fine as I eat at home.’

Thinker attributions signal to agents, publishers, editors, and readers that you don’t know (or don’t understand) deep perspective point of view.

Direct Thought

Many authors choose to use italics to indicate direct thought:

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London. I should be grateful I’m not in a regular prison cell.

However, there are disadvantages to this approach as well:

  • Italics are only effective for a few words or a short sentence. Any longer, and they become difficult to read.
  • Italics can slow the pacing of the scene.
  • Overuse of italics will annoy the reader (and my reader view is that most authors who use italics do overuse them).
  • Direct thought in italics changes the point of view of the scene from third person to first person present tense and back again . This change can be jarring for the reader.
  • Direct thought is telling where the author should be showing.

Interior Monologue

Interior monologue is what your point of view character is thinking, expressed in his or her own voice. There is no need for thoughts to be identified as such, because the rules of third person narration from a specific viewpoint character (or first person narration) imply this is the character whose interior monologue we are reading.

Interior monologue is favoured because:

  • It is showing, not telling.
  • Interior monologue doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story the way italics do, because it is the same tense and font as the rest of the story.
  • It forces the reader (and author) into the mind of the point of view character, which helps them know the character better. The better the reader knows the character, the more likely she is to empathise and feel the character’s emotions.

Interior monologue is stronger writing. It’s the writing which most engages me as a reader. If you want your reader to engage with your characters and experience their tragedies and joys, use interior monologue and deep perspective point of view.

Thinking Aloud

Some authors write scenes where a character appears to be talking to himself or herself, in that their words are set in quotation marks. But they’re alone in a room, so who are they talking to? As shown above, this can give a scene a slightly ‘off’ feel.

It’s rarely a good idea to have your characters mumble to themselves or speak under their breath… it’s almost always going to come off as a contrivance.
– Angela Hunt, Point of View

Prayer

Note that prayer is different from thinking aloud, because we’re talking to Someone (God). Prayer can be:

  • Spoken out loud (indicated by quotation marks).
  • Direct thought (indicated by italics).
  • Interior monologue.

The right choice will depend on your character and the situation—she might normally be a pray-out-loud type, but she’s likely to pray silently when she’s hiding from the maniac with the gun.

Italics

As shown above, italics can be used for direct thought. They can also be used for emphasis. However, it’s easy to overuse both, so my view is it’s best to avoid the problem by not using italics for direct thought or emphasis at all. Instead, only use italics where they are the only correct choice:

  • Book and magazine titles
  • The name of a movie, TV series or play
  • Words from other languages
  • Specific names of ships, trains or planes (e.g. the USS Enterprise)

When italics for emphasis are overused, they are telling where the author should be showing. It’s the typographical equivalent of laughing at your own joke, or asking ‘did you get it?’.

I’ll be back next week to share the other way we can use point of view to engage readers: through showing, not telling.

Meanwhile, do you have any questions on deep perspective point of view?

Understanding Point of View

Point of view is one of the most important aspects of writing craft for fiction, yet it one of the major issues new writers struggle to understand.

This post will:

  • Describe the basic approaches to point of view.
  • Discuss how to choose the right point of view for your novel.

Approaches to Point of View

The basic approaches to point of view are:

  • First person
  • Second person
  • Third person

First Person

First person uses ‘I’ as the personal pronoun. This takes the reader inside the mind of one character. The reader can only think, see and experience from the viewpoint of this one character:

I sit waiting, waiting, waiting. These might be the Royal quarters, as befits my station as Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII, God rest his soul, but it is still the Tower of London. It is still a prison. Amidst the luxurious wall hangings, a warm fire, and the fine food, I sit here, waiting. Waiting upon the pleasure of the popish Queen. Mary. My half-sister.
My enemy.

First-person point of view gives narrative intimacy, the feeling that they are getting to know this character’s deepest thoughts and emotions. In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Browne and King say:

In order to succeed in the first-person point of view, you have to create a character strong enough and interesting enough to keep your readers going for an entire novel, yet not so eccentric or bizarre that your readers feel trapped inside his or her head. Also, what you gain in intimacy in first person, you lose in perspective [because] your readers get to know only one character directly.

Note that some readers don’t like novels written in first person. Some publishers don’t accept first person manuscripts, so choosing this option might limit your market.

Second Person

Second person uses ‘you’ and ‘your’, putting the reader inside the story:

You sit waiting, waiting, waiting. These might be the Royal quarters, as befits your station as Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII, God rest his soul, but this is still the Tower of London. It is still a prison. Despite the wall hangings, a warm fire and the fine food, you are still sitting here, waiting upon the pleasure of the Queen. Mary, your half-sister, your enemy.

This feels contrived to me. You are not Princess Elizabeth, so are you really going to sit through a 90,000 word novel and pretend that you are? Second person works for instructional non-fiction, and is the mainstay of ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ books. But it’s not considered appropriate for novel-length fiction.

In the words of Newman and Mittlemark (authors of the tongue-in-cheek How Not to Write a Novel):

Certain late twentieth-century novelists used the second person singular successfully—notably Italo Calvino in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and Jay McInerney in Bright Lights, Big City. But there it ended. In fact, it was named the “second person” when McInerney became the second person to get away with it and it became clear he would also be the last. Very occasionally, an editor sees past the contrivance and buys such a book—on the condition that the author revise it completely into a traditional third-person narrative.

Unlimited or Omniscient POV

Some people see omniscient point of view as one end of a continuum of a range of third person viewpoints. Others see it as unique and separate from third person. It is written using the grammatical rules of third person, and uses he/she and his/her pronouns:

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London as the guard entered with her breakfast. She should be grateful she hadn’t been placed in a normal prison cell. At least the walls of the Royal apartment were covered in fine tapestries to keep the heat in, there was a large fire to fight London’s cold winter, and the food was freshly cooked and still warm when it was served to her.
He knew many people who didn’t have these luxuries at home, never mind in prison. Elizabeth was waiting upon the pleasure of her half-sister Mary, the Catholic Queen.
Mary was afraid of Elizabeth, afraid of her popularity with the common people, and afraid she might fight for the throne as that wretched Jane Grey had. She was dead now. And Elizabeth may yet join her.

The advantage of omniscient point of view is that the reader gains a level of perspective over the whole story, because the narrator knows what is going on in the minds of all the characters.

This was the favoured point of view in the past. However, it can be confusing for the reader (see how the example moves from Elizabeth’s mind to that of the guard, then to off-stage Mary?). Modern fiction prefers a more intimate point of view where the reader can see inside the mind of the main characters—but only one character at a time.

Many readers dislike the omniscient point of view, because it can lead to moralising author intrusions (‘she should be grateful’), and is thought of as old-fashioned and patronising.

The other disadvantage of omniscient is that it is hard to write well. The above example isn’t true omniscient: it’s third person with head hopping. True omniscient point of view has a separate narrator with a distinct voice, as in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or The Princess Bride.

Outer Limited or Cinematic POV

Outer Limited describes the action through the eyes of an external narrator who sees the external, observable actions and dialogue but none of the thoughts or feelings of the characters. James Scott Bell describes as this as Cinematic POV. For example:

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London. The room wasn’t a typical prison cell: the walls were covered in fine tapestries to keep the heat in, there was a large fire to fight London’s cold winter, and the food was of high quality. Elizabeth sat, waiting upon the pleasure of her half-sister Mary, the Queen, a Catholic, and her enemy.

Like omniscient, cinematic point of view tends to tell rather than show, and doesn’t give the much-needed emotional engagement with the characters. It can be useful in certain circumstances:

  • It is often used in thriller and suspense novels to show what is happening away from the sight of the main characters (e.g. the villains making their plans).
  • It provides narrative distance, which can be useful when describing certain scenes (e.g. physical violence).

Third Person Limited

Third person inner limited puts the reader in the position of observing the action through the eyes, ears, and thoughts of a single character. It’s much like first person, but written in the grammatical third person language of he/she and his/her.

Note that the reader can only know the thoughts of the point of view character: unless the character is telepathic, the character can only observe the actions of the other characters in the scene:

Princess Elizabeth sat waiting in the Royal quarters of the Tower of London. She knew she should be grateful she hadn’t been placed in a typical prison cell. At least the walls of the Royal apartment were covered in fine tapestries to keep the heat in, there was a large fire to fight London’s cold winter, and the food was as fine as any she had eaten in her Hatfield home: freshly cooked and still warm when it was served to her. She sat, bored, thinking of her half-sister Mary, the Catholic Queen who was now her enemy.

This example feels distant as a reader, as if you’re watching a scene rather than being drawn into that scene. You can see some of what is going on inside Elizabeth’s head, but words like ‘knew’ and ‘thinking’ place an invisible narrator between the character and the reader.

Like Cinematic point of view, Inner Limited has some uses in modern fiction, but can feel distant when it fails to engage the emotions of the reader.

Third Person Deep Perspective

Modern readers favour a more intimate third person (especially in genres such as romance and women’s fiction), as this pulls the reader into the scene and provides a degree of narrative intimacy and emotional engagement more like first person:

She sat, drumming her fingers on the desk. These might be the Royal quarters, befitting her station as Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII, but it was still the Tower of London, still a prison. She gazed around the room. Perhaps the view had changed. No. Still the same wall hangings, showing that awful hunting scene. The poor stag. It hadn’t deserved to meet that grisly end at the hands of her father. That was back when he was married to Catherine of Aragon, before he split from the Roman Catholic church to divorce Catherine and marry Elizabeth’s mother.
At least the fire was warm and the food was as good as that served in her Hatfield home. But there was nothing to do. No new books, nothing to sew, and no one to talk with. It was luxury compared with the hovels most people lived in, but it was a prison. So she sat, praying, watching, waiting. Waiting upon the pleasure of her half-sister Mary. The Queen. Her enemy.

The reader should be able to feel Elizabeth’s boredom and impatience. If this was done really well, the reader would also be able to sense Elizabeth’s underlying fear: that she may have to die in order for Mary to secure her throne. That is the beauty of deep perspective: done well, it shows us things the character themselves may not even be aware of. But the example above also shows one of the problems of deep perspective. It takes more words to show than to simply tell.

Choosing The Right Point of View

How do you choose which point of view to use? In modern fiction, the only real choice is between first person and third person.

Genre may play a part in your decision:

  • Women’s literature and cozy mysteries often use first person point of view.
  • Romance novels may be first person or third person.
  • Thrillers or suspense are usually third person.
  • Middle Grade novels are likely to be third person, and may use omniscient or cinematic viewpoint.
  • Young Adult and New Adult novels tend to be first person or third person deep perspective.
  • Fantasy novels are likely to be third person, and may use omniscient.

Overall, most adult fiction uses third person point of view. The more character-driven the plot, the more likely the novel will use third person deep perspective. Browne and King say:

What degree of narrative distance is right for you? Broadly speaking, the more intimate the point of view, the better. One of the most difficult tasks racing a writer is creating believable and engaging characters, and an intimate point of view is a terrific way of doing this.

Using Multiple Points of View

Most novels are written using multiple points of view, as this provides variety and interest. However, multiple points of view can get authors in trouble.

There are three main ways of using multiple points of view in fiction:

  • First person point of view with multiple characters.
  • Combining first person and third person point of view.
  • Third person point of view with multiple characters.

Multiple characters in first person is not a technique for beginners. Done well (e.g. Gone to Ground by Brandilyn Collins), it is excellent. Done badly, it is virtually unreadable. As Browne and King say:

[some authors] write in the first person but from several different viewpoints—with different scenes done from inside the heads of different characters. This technique can be highly effective in the hands of an experienced writer.

Orson Scott Card explains the problem in Characters and Viewpoint:

Switching first-person narrators mid-story is usually ineffective and always difficult, because it violates the illusion that the character is “really” telling the tale.

Gayle Roper uses the technique of combining first person and third person successfully in Shadows in the Sand. She uses first person for her heroine, and third person for two secondary characters and for the villain. This is not a technique for beginners, because the constant change between first person and third person can draw the reader out of the story.

This is why most authors stick with the tried-and-true options:

  • Writing first person from a single point of view.
  • Writing multiple characters in third person point of view.

Choosing Your Point of View Characters

The final question in is how many point of view characters your novel should have.

Fewer is better:

  • If you are writing in first person, the ideal number of viewpoint characters is one (unless you’re an expert writer).
  • If you are writing in third person, the number of viewpoint characters will vary depending on word count and genre.

The purpose of point of view is to create intimacy with the characters, to make the reader care about what happens to the character. These guidelines are based on what I see as a reader:

  • Category romance (e.g. Love Inspired, approximately 60,000 words) has two points of view: hero and heroine, with approximately a 40/60 split between the two.
  • Contemporary or historical romance, women’s fiction (90,000 words) has two or three points of view: hero, heroine and significant other character. This may be a best friend, or it may be the heroine of the planned sequel.
  • Romantic suspense (90,000 words) has between two and four points of view: hero, heroine, significant other character and villain.
  • Thriller (90,000 words) may have up to five characters hero, heroine (if there are romantic elements) and two or three seemingly-unrelated viewpoints, one or two of which will be the villains.
  • Science Fiction or Fantasy (up to 120,000 words) will have up to five characters: hero, heroine, sidekick, mentor, villain

Each character is someone you want your reader to get to know, to understand. If you have too many viewpoint characters, you reduce the ability of your readers to know and understand your characters and their motivations. As Ronald Tobias says in Twenty Master Plots:

The more characters you add to the mixture, the more difficult it will become to keep up with all of them and to keep them in the action.

Three Golden Rules of Point of View

The general rules of Point of View are:

  1. There must only be one point of view character in each scene (more than one is referred to as ‘head-hopping’).
  2. The point of view character should be the individual most affected by the actions in that scene.
  3. The first name mentioned in a scene should be that of the viewpoint character.

In almost every case, the viewpoint character should be one of the main characters. It won’t be a minor character who only appears on one or two scenes in the entire book. The exception might be if you’re setting this character up to be the protagonist in the next book in a series.

I’ll be back next week to discuss the most common problems new writers have, and how the correct use of point of view can help. Meanwhile, what’s your biggest struggle with point of view? Let me know in the comments.

Should I use a Pen Name? Why or why not?

 

One dilemma many authors face is the decision over what name to use as their author name. Do they use their own name, a variation of their name, or should they use a pen name?

Pen Names - www.christianediting.co.nzMost authors use some version of their own name. This could be:

  • First name-last name
  • First name-maiden name
  • First name-middle name-last name (or similar)
  • First name-initial-last name
  • First name-maiden name-last name
  • Initials-last name

First name-last name is probably the best option. Married women have the option of using their maiden name or their married name. Although if your married name is Jones or Smith … you’re probably better going with your maiden name. Or vice versa. (If you’re Grandma Megan, who was born a Smith and married a Jones … you may have a problem.)

Many authors with common-ish names use a middle initial or middle name to distinguish themselves e.g. Jerry B Jenkins, Kristi Ann Hunter. Other use a middle name which might be their maiden name or other family name, e.g. Lisa Karon Richardson.

But some authors don’t want to use their own name for one of many possible reasons:

You Write in Multiple Genres

Many authors choose pen names for writing in multiple genres. Well-known general market examples of this are:

  • Victoria Holt (gothic romance) also wrote historical romance as Jean Plaidy and the epic Daughters of England series as Philippa Carr.
  • Nora Roberts (romance and women’s fiction) who also writes thrillers as JD Robb.
  • Jayne Ann Krentz (contemporary paranormal romance) who writes historical paranormal romance as Amanda Quick, and science fiction/romance as Jayne Castle.
  • Joanna Penn writes books on writing and publishing, and publishes her thrillers as JF Penn.
  • JK Rowling writes thrillers as Robert Galbraith.
  • Stephen King published a few early novels as Richard Bachman.

Someone Else Has Your Name

You might want use a pen name if your name is John Grisham or Karen Kingsbury or Nora Roberts or Stephen King—because those names already have strong brands associated with them. You might make a bunch of sales by writing as Karen Kingsbury, but you’ll also pick up a bunch of stinking reviews from readers who feel duped.

You Want to Disguise Your Gender

Authors sometimes use their initials to disguise the fact they’re writing in a genre dominated by readers who expect their authors to be female (e.g. romance) or male (e.g. thriller). Examples include JK Rowling, JD Robb, JF Penn, and EB James. Or there’s LM Montgomery, who may have used initials to avoid the prejudice against female authors (as did the Bronte sisters, who were originally published as Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell).

You Want to Keep Your Privacy

Some authors pick pen names because they want a degree of privacy or anonymity. This could be to preserve the privacy of others (e.g. if they’re writing about real people), or to preserve their own privacy (EL James is a pen name). I’ve heard of authors using pen names because they write children’s fiction and erotica—two genres you wouldn’t want to mix. Or they could use a pen name because their writing reflects opinions their employer (or government) might not approve of.

But be wary of picking a pen name as a way of ensuring online anonymity: if JK Rowling couldn’t keep her pen name a secret, it’s unlikely you can. You’ll need professional legal advice and NSA-level IT skills to keep your pen name separate from your true identity long term.

You Want Your Writing Name to Reflect Your Genre

Other authors pick a pen name to reflect their genre and author brand. I suspect these are pen names:

  • Regina Darcy (Regency romance)
  • Lorna Faith (Christian Western romance)

Or you may need a pen name because your real name doesn’t reflect your genre (e.g. a thriller author with the surname of Love or Hart).

Picking a pen name which reflects your brand could be good marketing—as long as you ensure all your social media reflects that brand.

Picking Your Author Name

Here are some other tips for picking an author name, whether a pen name or a version of your real name:

  • Try and make it unique, but easy to remember.
  • Try and make it easy to spell. Yes, I failed on that. Blame my father.
  • Is the website available?
  • Are the social media account names available e.g. Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest?
  • Be consistent.

If the .com site is taken:

  • Can you get .net, or the site in your country (e.g. .co.uk or .co.nz or .com.au)?
  • Could you add -writer or -author to your name (e.g. www.goins-writer.com)?
  • Could you add a middle initial (e.g. johnpsmith.com)?
  • Could you add a hyphen between your first and last names (e.g. www.john-smith.com)?

I’ve seen some people add a number to the end of their user name to make it unique. I’ve also heard it said not to do so—it apparently looks unprofessional. Or perhaps because too many people use their birth year, leaving them open to identity theft.

You can use www.namecheckr.com to check whether social media account names are available. (A unique name isn’t as important on Facebook, as it allows multiple users with the same name.)

Again, if your chosen name isn’t available, you can try adding -writer, -author, adding a middle initial, or putting a hyphen (-) or dash (_) between your first and last names. This wouldn’t be my preferred option, because it might be hard for fans to remember, but it’s better than nothing.

I’d also suggest being consistent—if www.johnsmith.com is available but you can’t get @JohnSmith on Twitter or Instagram, you might need to reconsider. (Okay, that’s easy for me to say. For some unknown reason, Iola Goulton was available on every platform I checked.)

Final Points

Belinda Pollard has an excellent blog post on choosing a pen name, if that’s your decision. And Helen Sedwick has blogged on the legal implications of using a pen name. Her examples are based on US law, but similar principles will apply everywhere.

Overall, I think it’s easiest if you keep to some variation of your own name, but I understand why some authors decide they need a pen name.

If you do decide to use a pen name, I recommend seeking professional legal advice from an intellectual property attorney on how to set up your new name and keep it secret. It defeats the purpose of having a pen name if anyone with an ounce of Google-fu can uncover your real identity in a few clicks of a mouse.

Best of the Blogs: 23 September 2016

www.christianediting.co.nzThe best posts I’ve read this week on reading, writing, editing and marketing:

Reading

I don’t understand the popularity of Amish fiction, perhaps because I’m not American. But as this article from Debbi Gusti at Seekerville shows, not even the authors can explain why Amish fiction is so successful: Amish Fiction? What’s the draw?

Can you enlighten me?

Writing

Dave King is one of the best when it comes to offering writing advice (If you haven’t read and memorised Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, you should). This week at Writer Unboxed, he talks about where our characters come from and how that affects their world view: Give Your Characters Roots

Editing

Margie Lawson always offers great advice. This week she’s visiting Writers in the Storm to talk about a better way to add character backstory: by using rhetorical devices (anyone who knows Margie knows how much she loves her rhetorical devices): Margie’s Rule #17: Finessing Backstory

Marketing

MailChimp (the email provider I use) have recently introduced segments, which allow users to email only a select portion of their mailing list. All is explained in this blog post: Pre-Built Segmentation: Target Your Customers with One Click

Fun

And finally, for a bit of fun, I have one of my own posts. If you’re a Kiwi, you’ll have heard of L&P. If not, let me introduce you to L&P: World Famous in New Zealand.

 

What’s the best blog post you’ve read this week? Share in the comments.

Plot: Scene, Sequel and Summary

Have you ever heard the phrase ‘scene and sequel’, and wondered what it meant?

Scene

A scene is a unit of action. Something happens. A scene isn’t a person thinking about other characters, it isn’t a group of people sitting around talking about what did happen (or what might happen), and it isn’t a long passage of description following a character through a range of actions.

KM Weiland says each scene will have three parts:

  • Goal: what your viewpoint character wants
  • Conflict: why he or she can’t achieve their goal
  • Outcome: the build-up to the next scene

Sol Stein gives a useful list of questions to review for each scene:

  • Is the scene described in terms of the action that takes place? If there is no action, there is no scene.
  • Is each scene visible throughout so that the reader can see what is happening before his eyes? If the action is not visible, you are probably sliding into narrative summary of past events or offstage events.
  • Which character in the scene do you have the most affection for? How can you make the reader feel affection or compassion for that character in this scene?
  • Is there a character in this scene who threatens the protagonist subtly or openly, psychologically or physically?

Each scene should be from the point of view of a single character, the character who has the most at risk in the scene.

Sequel

Sequel follows scene, and also has three components:

  • Reaction: to the disaster in the preceding scene
  • Dilemma: what to do?
  • Decision: Determine a solution to the dilemma. This will formulate a goal for the next scene (or the next scene where this is the POV character)

There is some controversy over sequel. Some say:

The sequel—the second half of the Scene—sometimes gets shortchanged. But it is every bit as important as the scene, since it allows characters to process the events of the scene and figure out their next move. (KM Weiland)

Others say:

If you’ve used the ‘Scene & Sequel’ method of structuring, shrink the sequels. Most sequels need to be no longer than a paragraph. Often, a single sentence is enough. (Rayne Hall)

I’ve read novels with too much introspection, to the point that it brings the plot to a grinding halt. I’ve also read novels where it’s all go-go-go! action scenes, and no one ever stops to think about anything (acting without thinking is as stupid in fiction as in real life). So here is my entirely unsubstantiated view as a prolific fiction reader:

  • If it feels like there is too much sequel, cut some.
  • If it doesn’t feel like there is enough, add some.

The first quarter of the novel is introducing the reader to the characters. Deep point of view is a good way of helping the reader get to know and empathise with the character, and a way of providing us with necessary backstory. However, introspection should not be at the expense of getting the plot moving. The second quarter of the novel is the main character reacting to the first major plot point. Reacting. It therefore makes sense that they have a level of introspection, probably more than in the first quarter.

The third quarter of the novel, is when the main character starts to act rather than react, so there is probably less introspection. The final quarter of the novel is building up to the climax. The pace of the novel should be increasing: shorter sentences, more action—and less introspection. We want the heroine to defuse the bomb, catch the villain and get her man. We don’t want to bring the tension to a grinding halt a with a detailed and descriptive interior monologue about whether she should have chosen Plum Seduction nail polish rather than Cherry Crush and what might that symbolise. We. Just. Don’t. Care.

Summary

Narrative summary is telling, not showing, and telling should be kept to a minimum. We don’t need to know every detail, for example, of leaving the house, locking the front door, walking to the car, unlocking the driver’s side door, climbing in, then starting the car—unless the villain has hooked a bomb to the ignition, in which case giving this level of detail would ramp up the tension. But if it’s just a part of the everyday routine, we don’t need to know the details. Summarise, then move on to the next action sequence.

The key is to show the intense scenes and tell the less important transitions (the narrative summary) between important scenes. As a guide, if what you are writing has the possibility of present-moment dialogue, it is a scene and should be written as such. If not, you’re in summary. (James Scott Bell)

However, there are times when summary is useful. A short passage of narrative summary will slow the plot down, which can provide a welcome break for the reader if there have been a number of high-action sequences. Summary can also be useful when you have a lot of repetitive action (e.g. household chores, or routine actions at work). Show the action the first time, then use summary. 

 

This brings me to the end of this series on plot and structure. Next week we will start a series on publishing options. Sign up to follow by email to ensure you don’t miss any posts.

Plot: Ten Steps to Story Structure

KM Weiland is the author of two books on writing (Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel), and several works of fiction, including Behold the Dawn and Dreamlander. This post is based on the information in  Structuring Your Novel, available on Kindle, and which I highly recommend for Weiland’s understandable and no-nonsense way of explaining structure in ten steps:

The First Act

1. The Hook

The Hook will always be a question (perhaps explicit, but probably implicit), piquing your readers’ curiosity, urging them to read on and find out, “What happens next?”. This needs to be as close as possible to the beginning of the book—ideally on the first page, if not in the first line.

Your opening also needs to set the tone of your book (is it light, dark, funny, sad, deep …), and perform several other vital functions:

  • Introduce your hero and heroine
  • Establish the time and setting
  • Open with movement
  • Establish conflict

Weiland cautions against using prologues (because they force the reader to begin the story twice), dream sequences (considered Freudian), flashbacks, flashforwards or too much backstory in the opening chapters. Done well, these techniques can form compelling fiction, but they are usually not done well.

2. The Inciting Event

The Inciting Event (which may also be called the Inciting Incident) is the conflict which sets the story’s action in motion. It is most often found in the opening chapter, but sometimes the Inciting Event occurs before the story itself actually starts, and sometimes it won’t happen until late in the first quarter of the book. Be aware that if the Inciting Event doesn’t occur quickly, the story may begin to drag (and remember, if a story feels as if it is dragging, it is probably because the structure is off).

3. The Key Event

The Key Event is related to the Inciting Event. It is that moment or action when the lead character becomes engaged by the Inciting Event. If the Inciting Event is the start of a war, the Key Event is when the protagonist becomes personally involved in the war.

4. The First Plot Point

The First Plot Point is an event that changes everything for the protagonist.

The first quarter of your book lays the foundation of your entire story. Everything that is important at the end of the story must have been introduced in the First Act (equally, everything that is introduced in the First Act should have relevance and importance later in the story). Laying this foundation for future conflict is the most important function of the First Act.

The second function is to give your readers the opportunity to learn about your characters, about their goals and motivations. This is best done through the use of deep point of view.

The Second Act

5. The First Half of the Second Act

The protagonist is now reacting to the events around them. There must be no choice: they have to react to what has now become the status quo. There is no way back to ‘normal’.

6. The Midpoint

The Midpoint is your story’s second major plot point (or, as Randy Ingermanson says, your second disaster). The difference is that now your character is more equipped to handle what happens.

7. The Second Half of the Second Act

Now your protagonist is ready to go on the offensive, to take action against the antagonistic force. This Midpoint has changed the way your protagonist sees the world, so this is also where we will start to see change in their character arc (because character change, like conflict, is one of the hallmarks of good fiction).

The Third Act

8. The Third Plot Point

This is, once again, going to change everything. Whatever happens here is going to force your character to a low place. He’s going to finally have to analyze his actions and his motivations and get down to the core of his own personal character arc.

9. The Climax

Your Climax is the point of the whole story. This is where the conflict must finally be resolved, one way or the other. It will

probably start at around the 90% mark of the story, and finish only a few pages before The End.

10. The Resolution

The Resolution is the one final scene that shows how your character will react to the events of the Climax. These closing paragraphs have dual purpose: to leave your reader with warm feelings about this book, and to sell your next book.
The three-act structure, the Snowflake method, the ten-point method … What method of plotting do you use? One of these, or something different?

Plot: The Snowflake Method

The Snowflake Method is the creation of Randy Ingermanson, author of Writing Fiction for Dummies (that’s part of the well-known Dummies series, not a statement about the intelligence of fiction writers—or readers) and six Christian thrillers. He also publishes a free monthly ezine (Advanced Fiction Writing) and has a website full of useful articles.

The Snowflake Method is a process for getting organised (planning) before you write a novel. Ingermanson claims that while this planning takes a lot of time, perhaps several weeks, it will dramatically reduce the time you take to write a novel.

The Snowflake Method is a ten-step process:

  1. Write a one-sentence summary of your novel. This should be less than 15 words, and should immediately hook your reader.
  2. Expand your sentence into a paragraph. This paragraph should be five sentences long: one sentence for your story setup, three sentences for the three major plot points (Randy calls them disasters), and a final sentence to wrap up the ending.
  3. Write a one-page summary for each major character, including their name, goal, motivation, conflict, epiphany (what they learn by the end of the story), and a one-paragraph summary of their storyline.
  4. Take your paragraph from Step 2, and expand each sentence into a paragraph to give you a one-page skeleton of your novel (basically, this is now a short synopsis).
  5. Write a one-page ‘character synopsis’ for each major character, telling the story from their point of view. Write a half-page synopsis for each minor character.
  6. Take your one-page synopsis from Step 4 and use the same technique to expand it to four pages. If necessary, cycle back and change things in the previous Steps so everything hangs together.
  7. Expand your character descriptions into full-fledged character charts (we’ll look at characterisation in another series later this year). The most important thing is to understand how your character will change by the end of the novel.
  8. Take your four-page synopsis from Step 6 and turn it into a list of scenes. Randy recommends doing this on a spreadsheet (because the rows are easy to reorder) but it could just as easily be done in a table in Word. Your spreadsheet (or table) has two columns: a narrow one that identifies your viewpoint character for that scene, and a wide one that details what happens in the scene. When you’ve finished, add in Chapter numbers.
  9. (Optional) Write a few paragraphs describing each scene. Add in any cool dialogue, and ensure each scene drives the essential conflict forward in some way (if it doesn’t, add conflict or scrap the scene). In essence, this is a telling-not-showing version of your story.
  10. The First Draft (finally). This is where you get to add the details like foreshadowing, turn all your telling into showing, and add deep perspective point of view.

Yes, this seems like a lot of work. It will certainly take several days and could take a couple of months. However, if you find there is a problem with your plot, it’s a lot easier to fix it when it’s only a one-page synopsis than when it’s a 90,000-word manuscript. And it’s going to be less heartbreaking to delete a line out of a spreadsheet than it will be to delete a 1,500-word scene that hasn’t got enough conflict.

The other clever thing about the Snowflake Method is that it will make other writing tasks easier:

  • Proposing to an agent or editor? Step 1 is the hook you include in the first paragraph of your letter. Step 2 is your plot summary. Steps 4 and 6 are your synopsis.
  • Entering a writing competition? Many competitions want your first few chapters or first 10,000 words—and a synopsis. It will be much easier to rework your four-page synopsis into something that fits the need of the competition than to start from scratch while working to a deadline.

For more information, see Randy’s website.

Have you used the Snowflake Method? What do you like (or not like) about it? Does it make writing easier?

Plot: The Three-Act Structure

Just like a play or a movie, a book has an underlying structure. Aristotle formulated the concept of the three-act structure, and most books on plot and structure use some form of the basic three-act structure (even Freytag’s five-act structure can be seen as a variation on the three-act structure). James Scott Bell defines the three acts as:

Act One

Act One comprises the first 20%-25% of the story and introduces the Lead, Opposition and other major characters, presents the time and setting, and compels the reader to keep reading. It finishes with an incident that thrusts the lead into the major trouble in Act Two.

The first act has a lot of work to do. It has to provide a hook, something that will entice the person browsing in the shop to turn

the page—if they aren’t hooked quickly, they won’t buy your book.

Your opening chapter needs to introduce a likeable protagonist the reader can care about, and a credible and interesting conflict that needs resolution. The first chapter also needs to introduce the reader to your setting, where and when your story is taking place. It needs to make the genre clear—is this a romance or a mystery? Is it Christian fiction? Is it light reading, or something deeper and more thought-provoking?

What your first act should not have is extensive back story or flashbacks, as these pull the reader out of the story. Instead, marble the back story and setup information into the scene, to ensure the central plot remains the central focus.

Act Two

Act Two comprises the middle 50%-55% of the story. It deepens character relationships, keeps us caring about what happens next, and sets up the plot for the final battle. It finishes with a major setback, crisis or discovery that enables the final battle.
This emotional journey is an essential element of good fiction:
Well-plotted, serious dramatic fiction is transformational by its very nature. A plot isn’t just a matter of one thing happening after another; it’s the progress toward the resolution of a predicament that transforms the character.

The first half of Act Two will usually see the protagonist reacting to events around him or her. At some point, probably around the midpoint of the story, there will be an event that causes the protagonist to change the way they act, to begin to take charge of their situation in order to reach their goal.

Act Three

Act Three comprises the last 25%, and presents the final conflict, ties up loose ends (except for those that will be covered in a sequel), and leaves readers with that sense of completeness that satisfies them… and makes sure they buy your next book.

These percentages are guidelines, but straying too far from them will mean that the plot drags in some places and feels rushed in others. If anything, Bell advises the first act should be shorter, as this is your opportunity to ‘hook’ the reader (e.g. through the Kindle sample).

Not all authors follow the three-act structure: some don’t even agree there are three acts. A current example of an alternative structure would be The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man-Booker Prize. The Luminaries is based on an astrological structure, with twelve ‘stellar’ characters and seven ‘planetary’ characters—but many Amazon reviewers, including those who rated it highly, felt the structure detracted from the story.

I suspect the moral is that if you are planning to write award-winning literary fiction, then feel free to experiment with alternative structures (and be prepared for a lot of critical reviews). For genre fiction, stick with the traditional three-act structure.

For more information on the three-act structure, see Plot and Structure or Revision and Self-Editing for Publication, both by James Scott Bell. For a more personal touch, attend the next Romance Writers of Australia or Romance Writers of New Zealand conference (both to be held in August 2014), as James Scott Bell will be speaking at both.

Do you use the three-act structure? Do you follow Bell’s definitions, those of another writing instructor, or your own?

Next week we will be looking at the Snowflake Method, another well-known method of plotting, developed by Randy Ingermanson.

Are You a Plotter or a Pantser?

There is ongoing debate among novelists as to the ‘right’ way to write. There are two main groups, both roughly equal in size, with different names depending on who you ask:

Plotter

The plotter will undertake a great deal of preparation before beginning to write their novel. They will have researched their locations, will have formed their characters and know the internal and external GMC of their characters. They will have prepared a detailed outline of the events in their novel, often on a scene-by-scene basis. The plotter will know where the plot is going to go and how the characters are going to develop and change before they write the first line of the novel.

The advantage of this is it enables writers to follow their plan, ignoring all distractions and rabbit holes, and know they will finish with a well-crafted novel as major (and minor) plot or character issues will have been resolved during the outlining stage.

The disadvantage is that outlining is often seen to deter creativity and the element of surprise. After all, if the author knows where the book is going from the first page, it’s possible the reader will too.

Pantser

Other authors prefer to write by the seat of their pants. They don’t have a full written outline, and they may only have the vaguest idea of their story’s direction or the characters it will feature. As they write, they discover more information about their plot and characters.

The advantage of this is it gives an immense about of space for creativity, as the pantser won’t feel locked in to taking the plot in any specific direction.

The disadvantage is the pantser might write themselves into a hole they can’t get out of (as was done in movies such as The Matrix, or the TV series Lost). It can mean a lot of deleting and rewriting, in an effort to ensure the plot is credible and the characters believable.

Plotter or Pantster?

I suspect that many first novels are written by the seat of the pants, as first novels are often written as the author learns the craft of writing—the ins and outs of building a plot that will engage readers, an imaginary world inhabited by characters the readers can care about and root for. As they learn more about writing (and the inevitable revising and rewriting), they realise the benefits of planning, despite the initial work involved.

Equally, I suspect multi-published writers are more likely to be plotters. This might not be their preference, but once an author has a track record, they are not submitting a full manuscript to potential publishers. They are writing the first three chapters and a detailed synopsis, and the publisher will offer a contract on that basis. That’s a plan.

The Impact of Genre

Does genre have an impact on whether a writer is a plotter or a pantser?

For example, the two key features of a romance novel (as defined by Romance Writers of America) are that the novel must have an emotionally satisfying ending (the Happy Ever After, or HEA), and the relationship between the hero and heroine must be the central plot point. That, to me, says ‘outline’, as the author must show from the first page:

  • The identity of the hero and heroine
  • The hero and heroine will get their HEA
  • The development of an ongoing relationship, with a series of ups and downs

Yes, some of the details might only come out as the novel is being written, but the structure is inherent in the genre.

The same could be said for a murder mystery. The author must know:

  • Who the victim will be
  • How they will die
  • The identity of the detective(s)
  • The identity of the murderer
  • Which clues are real clues and which are red herrings
  • How the detective will identify and unveil the murderer

Other genres might be different. For example, in a thriller the reader may discover the identity of the antagonist early in the novel, and the suspense comes from not knowing if the protagonist will discover the necessary information in time to prevent another crime.

I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible … If I’m not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out, even with my inside knowledge of coming events, I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety. (Stephen King)

What do you think?

Are you an outline writer or a discovery writer? A plotter or a pantser? Have you changed since you started writing? Does genre play a part?