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Show, Don't Tell

Show, Don’t Tell (#AuthorToolBoxBlogHop)

Show, Don’t Tell is part of the September #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop, hosted by Raimey Gallant. Click here to find other blogs participating in the Hop and read some great writing advice! Or follow the #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop on Twitter, or visit our Pinterest board.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve discussed two oft-quoted pieces of writing advice (or bad writing advice, depending on who you ask):

I’ve covered what each phrase means, and how you can apply it to editing your manuscript. Today I’m going to cover another common writing tip: Show, Don’t Tell, which is one of the major rules of modern fiction (whether contemporary or historical, genre or literary).

But what does ‘Show Don’t Tell’ Mean?

Telling a story is the classic way of structuring a novel—think Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, or Charles Dickens. They told their stories as the narrator, able to see into the minds of all the characters at once.

But telling is now considered outdated by publishers, and readers. Modern readers don’t need pages describing a jungle, a panther, and how a panther moves through the jungle. We’ve seen that on the Discovery Channel.

Modern fiction writing relies on showing the story through a series of scenes. We need to show our reader the scene, rather than telling them about the scene. We need to allow readers to watch and experience the story for themselves.

This isn’t new. Sol Stein said this in 1999:

A writer who wants to be read by contemporary audiences … will find it useful to study through example the differences between narrative summary and immediate scene. Keep in mind that narrative summary is telling and immediate scene is showing.

So instead of telling the reader she was frightened at the noise in the dark basement, let us hear the noise and show us her reactions—her conscious actions, her unconscious visceral reactions, and her internal monologue:

There was a thump in the basement, a pause, then scrapes and scratches as though something—or someone—was moving furniture across the wooden floor. Then steps. Footsteps. Climbing the stairs. She froze in place as her heart beat in time to the heavy footsteps, da-dum, da-dum, he-is com-ing. Where could she hide?

As Renni Browne and Dave King say:

You want to draw your readers into the world you’ve created, make them feel a part of it, make them forget where they are. And you can’t do this effectively if you tell your readers about your world secondhand. You have to take them there.

We need to show the action (and reaction) that relates to the main plot and subplots. We need to show the action and reaction that impacts on the character’s goals, motivations, and conflicts—their character arc.

But we don’t need to show everything.

I’ve yet to read a novel where a character visits the bathroom (to use the American euphemism). This is a good thing. We know the characters must need to visit the bathroom on occasion. But it’s detail we rarely need.

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.

We can tell the transitions between scenes. If scene A takes place at home, and scene B takes place in the office, we don’t need to show every detail of how our character gets from A to B—unless it’s directly relevant to the plot, or to the character’s personal arc.

This comes back to the principle of Chekov’s gun, which I touched on last week:

If there is a rifle on the mantelpiece in the first act, it needs to be fired in the third act.

Readers know and understand this principle, even if they can’t articulate it:

  • We know that if a novel shows character scrabbling for her car keys in the dark of the parking garage, there will be someone waiting behind her car (or in the car).
  • We know that if the novel shows character using her car key to open the car remotely, there will be a bomb in the car.
  • We know that if the character is shown squeezing toothpaste onto a toothbrush and cleaning her teeth, that there’s either something nasty in the tube of toothpaste, or someone has cleaned the toilet with the toothbrush.

There has to be a reason for any detail. If there is no reason to show the detail, that’s when you tell. We don’t want to disappoint our readers by leading them to believe something is important when it isn’t.

Next week I’m going to share three ways authors tell when they should be showing, and how to fix those “tells”.

What questions do you have about Show, Don’t Tell?

Kill Your Darlings

Kill Your Darlings

Kill your darlings is another of those oft-quoted pieces of writing advice. It’s sometimes quoted as murder your darlings, but never fear. No actual killing or murdering is required.

No, the saying relates to the revision and editing process. It refers to the need for us to revise or delete (kill) any word, any sentence, any paragraph, any scene that doesn’t add to the point of our writing.

What Are Your Darlings?

These are called darlings because they are often the part we like best as the writer—the interesting word, the original turn of phrase, the scene that makes us laugh (or cry) and confirms we can actually do this thing. We can write. We are writers.

This could be because our darling doesn’t move the plot forward, or because it reveals too much information too soon. It could be because it doesn’t aid in characterisation, or because it is inconsistent with the character as he or she has been established. Or it could be because it takes readers off on an unnecessary tangent, like the time …

Sometimes these are our favourite parts, hence killing our darlings.

But killing your darlings isn’t a bad thing. Done properly, it makes your story better.

Why Do Your Darlings Have to Die?

In non-fiction, you have to kill your darlings because you need to keep your readers on track. You are making a point, and every word, every sentence, every paragraph needs to reinforce your argument. Yes, you can tell stories in non-fiction. But they must relate to your central point. For example, I could add in a couple of paragraphs over the origin of the phrase, Kill Your Darlings, with an in-depth examination of who reportedly said it first. That might be interesting, but it doesn’t add to the central point of this post.

Fiction is similar—we need to keep ourselves and our readers on track. There is an assumption in fiction that everything is important. This is the principle of Chekov’s gun:

If there is a rifle on the mantelpiece in the first act, it needs to be fired in the third act.

(I could now go down any number of rabbit holes expanding on whether it’s a gun, a riffle, a pistol or a sidearm, but again … kill those darlings.)

In fiction, each scene needs to move your plot forward and deepen characterisation. Any scene that doesn’t needs to be strengthened, or cut. Even though you spent hours writing it. Kill those darlings. Take the information the reader needs and sliver it into the plot. Ignore the rest, or turn it into a short story or something else that can be downloaded from your website as a gift to email subscribers.

How to Find and Kill Your Darlings

I’ve found killing my darlings isn’t the hard part. The hard part is identifying them in the first place. Some are easy to find and easy to kill. Others are much harder. Three darlings that need a swift death are:

  • Weasel words
  • Wasted words
  • Writerly words

Weasel Words

Most authors have weasel words—words like just, quite, really, that, or very—which don’t add to the writing. Other overused words include smile and shrug and nod. It’s not that they are bad words. It’s that they are overused to the point they become boring and predictable. And who wants their writing to be boring and predictable?

Kill those darlings.

Wasted Words

Some words are wasted words—words that don’t add anything to the story or deepen characterisation. At best, these are just words. At worst, they are sentences or paragraphs or scenes. Sometimes these wasted words are examples of repetition, where we’ve said the same thing more than once. Where two or three different images are used to give the same effect. Where we’ve repeated ourselves.

Like in that paragraph.

It’s not fun to read. So use the strongest image, and delete the others. Sol Stein has a formula: 1+1= ½ . It means the more different images you use to show something, the weaker the overall writing.

Here’s an example, taken from Stein on Writing:

He had time to think, time to become an old man in aspic, in sculptured soap, quaint and white.

I like the image of an old man in aspic. It’s original, and it gives the impression of someone who is so old they are almost preserved. But the image of soap detracts from the first image. The author also explains the soap image: quaint and white. Stein points out that we usually think of soap as white unless a colour is stated, so that’s redundant. And since when was soap ‘quaint’?

Kill those darlings.

Writerly Words

Fictional darlings can include words or phrases that you like, but that don’t add to the story. Sometimes they are what Margie Lawson calls writerly words. Words that don’t sound natural for your character or story. Words that sound like a writer wrote them. These are often the hardest darlings to kill, because they are the words we struggled to find. But just because we searched three thesauruses (thesauri?) to find the right word doesn’t mean it’s the right word for our character.

Kill those darlings.

But How Do I Find Them?

The best way to find your darlings is to put your manuscript aside for as long as possible so that when you read it again, you read it with fresh eyes. This means you’re better able to look at it as a reader, and more likely to pick up mistakes … and darlings. The longer the manuscript, the longer the time needed between writing and editing.

You may have darlings that serve a purpose—moving the plot forward, deepening characterisation, or both. Great. They can live. But cut what you can. Everything you cut is something your editor doesn’t have to cut for you, which means your editing fees will be lower.

Kill those darlings. Your editor with thank you.

Write What You Know

Write What You Know

Three of the most commonly quoted pieced of writing advice are show, don’t tell, kill your darlings, and write what you know.

Of these, I suspect write what you know is the least useful.

I have no scientific proof for this, but for the sake of argument, let’s agree and move on (if you don’t agree, leave a comment with what you consider to be the most oft-quoted piece of useless writing advice).

Write what you know. I’ve spent too many hours on Amazon over the years, and I’ve yet to find a novel about a middle-aged stay-at-home working-from-home still-married mother living in a mid-sized city in a small country nowhere near anywhere.

A little boring, perhaps?

Apart from anything else, the fiction I read tends to favour big city or small town settings (and mostly US settings). It favours characters with no children (or small children). It favours single characters (who end up married).

Fiction favours characters who are dealing with some huge drama in their life. And I’m not. This is good. I have no need to fill my life with drama—I can watch the TV new or read a novel if I’m looking for drama.

Write What You Know

A lot of people write about things they know little or nothing about from personal experience. At least, I hope all those authors writing thrillers about serial killers don’t have personal experience. But they can still write about serial killers—and write well.

I’m not convinced write what you know is great writing advice.

I’m not alone. I’ve read a lot of blog posts and online articles twisting the “write what you know” mantra. Here are some of my favourites:

Write What You Feel

This one makes a lot of sense. The best fiction is fiction which makes the readers feel. This is what attracts some people to writing—the ability to manipulate their reader’s emotions. The ability to make their readers laugh. Or cry. We can all feel, so we can all learn to channel those feelings into our writing.

Write What You Want to Know

This comes from a post by author Vicki Delany, published at Romance University. Delany echoes my own issue with write what you know: that most of us know some pretty boring stuff that no one wants to read about. In her case, that’s designing computer systems for the banking industry.

We can learn what we don’t know. We can visit locations. We can study the theory. We can ask people who are experts in the area. As Delany says:

“Write what you want to know” and you’ll meet some wonderful people, and learn some marvelous things along the way.

Write What Scares You

Caroliena Cabada heard this advice in a creative writing class at university in Sydney, Australia, from writer Nakkaih Lui. She doesn’t mean write something that literally scares you, like a horror novel. Instead, she means we need to step out of our writing comfort zones and write something different, perhaps something we said we’d never write. This might mean writing in a different genre (horror vs romance), or in a different (a play instead of a novel).

Write what scares you.

A lot of authors say they don’t like writing blog posts or book reviews. Perhaps those are the things which scare them … the thing they should try writing. For me, writing a novel is scary. It’s long. Much longer than the reviews and blog posts I’m more comfortable writing.

Write Who You Are

This take comes from a novel—The Writing Desk by Rachel Hauck. I think this has a ring of truth—many novelists say they find inspiration for their characters within themselves, or they write to answer their own questions.

And our attitudes and beliefs will come through in whatever we write, fiction or non-fiction. Many people are writing to find truth, or to share the truth as they see it, the good and the bad. Steven James puts it like this:

I believe that when it comes to fiction, we should tell stories that express the full measure of humanity—stories that reveal both the glory and grandeur of life, while also honestly acknowledging the darkness and deviance that is there as well.

In Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card says:

Every story choice you make arises out of who you are, at the deepest levels of your soul; and every story you tell reveals who you are and the way you conceive the world around you

As Christian writers, this means we’re writing from a Christian world view, from the believe that God is Truth. Ann Tatlock says:

Anything a Christian writes must reflect the truth of God’s account. If as a Christian we don’t write from a biblical worldview, we’re not portraying reality as it is.

I believe that holds true whether we’re writing for the Christian market or the general market. What do you think?

What’s your favourite spin on “write what you know”?

Cutting the Diamond (Self-Editing Your Novel)

Cutting the Diamond

In our series on Creating Diamonds from Coal (aka self-editing):

Today we’re going to work on what might be the most difficult part of the self-editing process: cutting.

Yes, there are words in our manuscript that have to be cut in order to allow us to see the final shape of our diamond, to allow it to shine.

And that last sentence is the perfect example. There’s nothing wrong with it—the spelling, grammar, and punctuation are all correct. But it could be improved with a little judicious shaping and cutting to turn our blah to brilliant:

We must cut the unnecessary words and allow our manuscripts to shine.

Thirty words to twelve.

What Needs to Go?

Back Story

Back story is what happened before the novel began, the events that formed our characters, that led them to believe a lie.

Writers need to understand this back story so they can write a convincing character arc. After all, if we don’t know where the character has come from, how can we show readers why they need to change?

We don’t need to tell the reader every detail of back story—especially not in the beginning. Going into the past can halt the forward motion of the plot, and I’ve read novels where the back story goes back generations. There is a writer maxim that we should leave back story for the back of the story and there is an element of truth in that statement.

We don’t the beginning of our novel to be bogged down with back story, but we also don’t want to leave our readers wondering why the main characters are the way they are.

There has to be a balance. The trick is to reveal back story a piece at a time. Margie Lawson says to think of back story like a pane of glass.

Write everything we know about the character, all their back story, on that pane of glass.

Then smash it.

Now we can pick up the pieces one at a time and insert them into the story, sliver by sliver, at the place where reader needs to know that sliver of back story. Nothing more, and nothing less.

If cutting your backstory makes you bleed, consider two things:

  • Cutting is going to make your story better.
  • You can repurpose your deleted backstory for marketing.

For example, you could use your deleted back story as the basis for a series of blog posts introducing your characters, or as a lead magnet to incentivise people into signing up for your email newsletter.

Clichés

You’ve probably heard the advice that writers should avoid clichés like the plague. But has anyone told you why?

Because clichés are predictable.

And we want to avoid predictable writing. We want to write (and read) fresh, original writing. Writing that encourages us to keep reading, because we don’t know what’s coming next. If we read the start of a cliché, we know what’s coming next … so what’s the incentive to keep reading?

If you’re going to use a cliché, twist it. Change it. Make it your own—better still, make it your character’s own. A twisted cliché isn’t predictable, so it keeps the reader engaged (and perhaps gives them a laugh).

Dialogue Tags

Dialogue is an area new writers struggle with, both with the actual words the characters speak (the actual dialogue) and with the way the is identified (the dialogue tags).

There are several common problems with dialogue:

  • The ‘dialogue’ isn’t dialogue at all: it is back story, with two or more characters telling each other what they already know. This slows the story down.
  • The dialogue is too formal for the character.
  • The dialogue is monologue. Dialogue exchanges should be brief—no more than two or three sentences at a time.

Know your characters, and ensure their dialogue is consistent with what they would say in terms of vocabulary, sentence construction, and tone.

Many authors overcomplicate the speaker attributions—how the author indicates which character is speaking. Browne and King say:

  • Start the paragraph with dialogue, not an action.
  • Ensure the words in your speaker attributions are the right way around—he said, not said he.
  • Avoid creative speaker attributions (e.g. Beth clucked, Beth chided).
  • Avoid using adverbs in your speaker attributions (e.g she said smilingly).
  • Don’t explain your dialogue (e.g. Beth said, astonished). If Beth’s dialogue hasn’t shown the reader Beth is astonished, telling us won’t solve the problem.
  • You can use a speaker attribution (Beth said) or an action beat (Beth nodded), but there is no need to use both (Beth said, and nodded).
  • You don’t need to add any dialogue tag if it’s obvious who is speaking.

You can also use a dialogue cue. Writing instructor Margie Lawson coined this phrase to refer body language and vocal cues (such as volume and tone of voice) which show subtext in the character interactions.

Getting the dialogue tags right is an easy way to improve your manuscript.

Repetition

The deliberate repetition of words, phrases or ideas can be used to great literary effect. However, most of us have words, phrases or stylistic habits we tend to repeat unconsciously (for example, I have a bad habit of using ‘however’, and tend to use parentheses too often).

There are several kinds of repetition:

Repetition of a single word

This could be using the same word twice in quick succession, or repeatedly using an unusual word or one that doesn’t fit in the style of the novel.

Repetition of an expression or movement

Many characters do nothing but nod or shrug or smile or sigh. In The Word Loss Diet, Rayne Hall says:

If your novel contains four smiles, each of them creates strong emotions in the reader. If it has a thousand smiles, the effect wears off.

It makes us wonder if the character has had Botox, that they can’t manage any other expression. It makes the character seem as genuine as The Joker.

It’s good to use actions to show us how a character is feeling. It’s not good to use the same action over and over and over. Brainstorm original ways of showing emotion. Invest in a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglasi. Write fresh.

Repetition at the beginning of sentences or paragraphs

Common issues include starting sentences with -ing words, with he or she, or with the character’s name

Repetition of an image or idea

Many authors give two different images to describe a scene or an object. This is the most difficult to spot, but the most important to notice and delete because it can weaken your writing.

Revise any repetition that is not specifically intended for emphasis or effect.

Weasel Words

Weasel words are words we don’t need, words which drag down our manuscript and make it more wordy than it needs to be. To illustrate, the second clause in the previous sentence (everything after the comma). The first seven words were sufficient to make the point.

Common weasel words include:

It

Either unnecessary or confusing. If you can cut it without changing the meaning of the sentence, do so. Otherwise replace ‘it’ with the noun it is referring to. (Can you see the potential for confusion?)

That

If you can cut that without changing the meaning of the sentence, do so. I find I can cut at least half.

Adverbs

An adverb is describing a verb, attempting (and failing) to make the verb stronger. Instead of using an adverb, replace the weak verb with a stronger version. Or cut the adverb.

Adjectives

Instead of using a string of similar adjectives, use a single strong adjective that best describes the noun.

Weasel Phrases

There are also weasel phrases:

  • She nodded her head (what else would she nod?).
  • She nodded her head in agreement (nodding rarely signals anything other than agreement).
  • She stood up (no one is going assume anything else).
  • She crouched down.
  • He clapped his hands (a small boy might clap his feet. Otherwise, we’re going to know what you mean).
  • She thought in her head (yes, some people say this. But it still sounds silly).

 Overused Words

New writers often overuse words like look and turn (and their synonyms: gaze, watch, glance, study, observe, peek, peer, stare, and glare). I’ve never counted, but Rayne Hall says:

A bestselling novel by a top author contains around five ‘look’ and five ‘turn’, while a new writer’s book uses them five hundred times each.

Writers also use unnecessary words like begin and start. As a rule, we are either doing or not doing. I am either writing or not writing. I am not starting to write.

Remove Qualifiers

Instead of saying really well, find a single strong adjective that gets the point across. Weak or meaningless qualifiers include absolutely, actually, basically, certainly, completely, just, literally, much, only, quite, rather, really, somehow, somewhat, that, therefore, totally, very, and well.

Most of us have a unique set of weasel words. I recently read a manuscript where the author used some variation of magic five times in the first chapter—magic, magical, magically. Used once, magic is an interesting word. Used five times in one chapter, it feels out of place in a novel that’s not about magic.

Find your weasel words, and cut them.

Telling Words

Many authors use words like saw or felt or thought. These words are telling where you should be showing. They’re a sign you’ve slipped out of deep perspective point of view and telling the story yourself, rather than showing the story through the point of view character.

If you’re using point of view correctly, the reader knows anything seen is being seen from the perspective of the viewpoint character. To say the viewpoint character noticed something is unnecessary. So instead of:

Beth saw Jan wore a long black trenchcoat and knee-high boots.

If we already know Beth is the point of view character, the ‘Beth saw’ is redundant, and adds unnecessary narrative distance. We only need:

Jan wore a long black trenchcoat and knee-high boots.

Telling words to watch for include past, present and future tense versions of:

  • See (notice, watch)
  • Feel
  • Think (ponder, wonder, realise, understand, consider)

Sentence Structure

Many new authors want to vary their sentence structure from the traditional subject-verb-object. Many hit on the idea of starting sentences with ‘as’ or with present participles (-ing words). This introduces two other issues:

It can weaken your writing by making it less active. Browne and King explain:

Two common stylistic constructions are:

Pulling off her gloves, she turned to face him.

and

As she pulled off her gloves, she turned to face him.

Both of these constructions [as and –ing] take a bit of action (“She pulled off her gloves”) and tuck it away into a dependent clause (“Pulling off her gloves”). This tends to place some of your action at one remove from your reader, to make the actions seem incidental, unimportant.

Starting a sentence with ‘As’ or an -ing word

This implies the two actions are occurring at the same time, as in the examples above. But many authors use this sentence structure to describe what becomes an impossible series of consecutive actions:

Climbing out of the car, she ran up the steps.

Not even Superman can run up steps while he’s still climbing out of a car. Our sentences need to reflect the correct order of our character’s actions:

She climbed out of the car and ran up the steps.

Sentence Structure

This is the standard sentence structure of noun-verb-subject (she-climbed-car), with the added modification of conjunction-verb-subject (and-ran-stairs).

Using the same sentence construction all the time can feel repetitive. But it’s better to use the correct repetitive sentence structure than an incorrect alternative (verbing, noun subject) that leaves the reader wondering what you meant.

Instead, use a combination of simple, complex, and compound sentences to vary your writing. Add sentence fragments

Consider sentence length. Short sentences feel fast. They increase pace. Long complex and compound sentences slow the pace as they meander across the page, which means you can use varying sentence lengths to increase or decrease the pace of your scene, or to manipulate the reader’s perception of time.

Writerly Words

‘Writerly words’ is a Margie Lawson phrase, meaning something that doesn’t sound natural, something that sounds as though a writer wrote it. This makes it a subtle form of author intrusion—where the author uses a word they like, but that’s too formal to be consistent with what the point of view character would say or think.

Conclusion

Cutting unnecessary words and phrases will tighten your writing and reduce your word count—in a good way.

These are suggestions, not rules. You don’t have to follow them all. In fact, you don’t have to follow any of them. But every time you’re tempted to leave an adverb in, or explain an emotion, think:

Does this make my story stronger?

Be honest. If you’re not sure, save your darlings somewhere then delete them from your manuscript. You can always add them back later if you get feedback from readers or editors that something is missing.

You’ve put the pressure on your diamond, examined the rough diamond, shaped the stone, and cut the stone. Give your manuscript one final polish, to make sure you’ve got the spelling, grammar, and punctuation right.

Now let it shine!

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

Today I’m participating in a new venture: the first Author Toolbox Blog Hop. You can find more post by clicking the link, or find us on Twitter at #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop

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.

#AuthorToolboxBlogHop

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.