Middle Grade vs. Young Adult

A combination of bad advice and bad writing as a result of that advice has kind of got me stuck on PRINCE OF CATS. I have two other projects I'm working on right now, but in a few months, I'll be back to it, and I'll have to fix it, which is a daunting prospect.

An agent who is always full of good advice is Kristen Nelson, and she touched on the subject in her new Friday video blog series. Check it out:

Naming Characters

Suzanne Johnson posted today on Roni Loren's writing blog, Fiction Groupie1.

Suzanne is discussing picking names for your characters. This is a topic relevant to EVERYONE and a particular challenge to fantasy authors who so often create cultures from the ground up and can't name their protagonist Joe despite how awesome people named Joe are.


Despite tradition, I am not writing this to disagree with Suzanne. I agree with most everything she says2. No, I am writing this because I DO agree with (most of) her and there is a process I use for naming conventions that I thought I would share. I also have a warning, and we're going to start with that first.

We're in a current Live imitating Art imitating Life loop. We're moving away from the more classic Judeo-Christian names. Unfortunately the rediscovery of some Old World classics that were smothered by Biblical names has reintroduced some names that were lame even back then. So if you're naming your daughter Madison, KNOCK IT OFF! It means "Son of Maud" so think on that a little before you try to preemptively make your kid cool with an uncommon name.

Okay, now to the positivity. Names are a big deal. They can really draw a reader into your character, establish him/her in the same was as pages of prose, and add a degree of atmosphere to your setting. This last bit is what I find most important about names. They establish setting. I don't just pick names that sound cool. I pick names that communicate culture. You won't find a hodgepodge of names in my books, cherry picked from any resource that I find supder-kewl-dude-omg unless the country is a melting pot, a la the US. Instead, I will choose a regional theme and apply it to the entire setting. I find Behind the Name3 incredibly helpful in this regard.

So for example, I chose Scandinavia to be the cultural influence for the kingdom of Reliarach (in my novel, THE TRIAD SOCIETY and its sequels). Most names come from Sweden, but I'll look in Norway, Finland, and Denmark too. So lower class people and a number of places I took from Germany, and for the rural folks that migrated to the city looking for work, I used Polish and Russian names. Not casting aspersions on the Polish or Russian readers out there, just wanted something similar but clearly distinct to my originating Swedish names.

I also like using those names because they're foreign to US readers to make them sound fantastical, but still rooted in something recognizable so they don't struggled to identify them. Fantasy authors frequently violate this rule. They make names so complex and unpronounceable that the first thing the reader does is come up with a nickname. They read the first one or two syllables and skip the rest. You're wasting your time and theirs making the super big Bobomastidonaramanustra. They call him Bob from there on out.

So go! Be more consistent in your naming conventions. Remember, that you lay the first blocks of your setting with the name you pick.

And stop trying to make your kids cool with their names. You don't have to name them all Joe, but it works for boys and girls and peopled named Joe are awesome. Remember that.

1 If you are blogging and include a ton of links like I just did, be sure to add a "target" to your html code. A target dictates where a link opens. In this case we want links to open in a new tab/page so that the user can continue to read our blog without having to navigate back and forth. To accomplish this, we do the following: [a href="URL address" target="_blank">URL name[/a]. Replace [ ] with < > and you're good to go.

2 Despite its numerous Hs, Cthulhu is not hard to pronounce. It's also a dangerous point to make as taking such an iconic figure from fantasy/horror will bait the nerds to argue your nominal point rather than focusing on the larger point being made. And come on, Cthulhu? Really? Out of all the fantasy names out there, that's the one you pick as being hard to pronounce?

3 While I rarely use it, there's also a Behind the Name for surnames!

When it's not epic

I've participated in a couple of Writer's Digest online seminars, one featuring Kristin Nelson and one feature Sara Megibow both from the Nelson Agency. During Kristin's presentation, she mentioned that the main plot of your book, that first serious hook, should occur within the first 30-50 manuscript pages.

Now this took me back. Having come up in epic fantasy (even though I'm currently not writing epic), the plot often started well past 50 pages. Often it doesn't start until the second book! :) Was it possible to drop the hook that early?

So I looked at the various single-volume fantasies I was writing at the time and with the exception of one, they all dropped their hooks in the first fifty pages. That one that didn't? It ended up getting rewritten and conforms to that as well (in Times New Roman, Courier pushed me over by a couple pages). It has proven to be not so much an invaluable rule as it is an obvious rule. With an average-lengthed novel (so we're not including epic), a story without a hook at the beginning just feels like a meandering exploration of the writer's imagination. That's all well and good, but we're reading the book for a story and eventually we need to start down that path.

Keep in mind I'm just talking a hook here. We don't necessarily need to blaze a trail down the story (though I fall mostly in Twain's camp1 on what should happen in any given chapter). Just something to promise the reader, "Yes, this is going somewhere."

And that was so exciting about PRINCE OF CATS. I didn't just have the hook, I came up with a good chunk of the story all at once. (Surprisingly, it's the end that eludes me as I keep debating whether I should kill a bunch of characters or not.) The thing was, once I started writing, the hook kept getting farther and farther away. Hello page 80. I'll get to the hook soon. I promise. Just 20 more pages or so.

And it wasn't working. I had all these dramatic moments that weren't that dramatic because there were no stakes involved. Unless we're reading this thing just so we can watch Mirza and find out his uncle-turned-father2 has been lying all these years about how his mother died, in which case we're all set by chapter 12.

So I took chapters 8-12 and shoved them back. They'll still appear. They're good stuff, but first I need a hook. Because once there's something at risk, then we're not just learning about Mirza, we're seeing how Mirza responds to what he learns and wonder as to the fate of Shahzadi Parisa. Then all these secrets about his mother have the heft they deserve.

Unfortunately, turning the uncle into the father and then shoving 4 1/2 chapters back has really thrown a wrench into the gears of my rhythm. I have been cranking this story out, and now I've come full stop while I insert the separator and crank everything apart. Then I have to go through and make sure everything fits together. Usually this is saved for the second draft. But hey, it'll save me reweriting in the future. Hopefully when I'm back at work and not staying home to deal with construction people3, I can get make to a more acceptable level of progress.

1 Mark Twain famously said that each chapter should advance the plot or advance the story else it should be cut from the story entirely. While I don't hold to this 100% of the time, I hold to it 99.5% of the time.

2 I realized the other day that I had fallen into the MG/YA cliche of making my main character an orphan. In adult work, I try to stay away from all the character tropes that have been bludgeoned to death over the years. I don't have characters that are orphans. I have characters that had loving, well-adjusted parents, so their own eccentricities are just that. No need for the orphan who's sworn an oath to hunt down his paretns' killer. Batman has had that covered for near on a century.

3 We had a furnace leak that grew a healthy amount of mold in our basement. This has been an incredible headache. I do not advise it.

Can I Do This?

If you were lucky enough to be Liz Poole, a hotel night auditor named LurkerWithout, or an agent with incredible literary sense, you would have had the opportunity to read my manuscript JEHOVAH'S HITLIST. This is a manuscript where I explain why just because the protagonist is 15 years old doesn't make it a young adult novel. The thing is anything but a young adult novel. ...depending on how you wish to raise your children. If you're okay with intense amounts of violence, profanity, nudity, sex, and drugs, then perhaps this is a YA book. Otherwise, we'll just assume it's not.

I've mentioned that before, so why am I saying it again? Because now I am writing a young adult novel. More specifically, I'm writing a middle grade novel (for a younger audience than YA, if you don't know the difference). Things are going swimmingly. I've only been at it for a week and I'm about to hit the 20,000-word mark. That's progress! Things are going great!

Well...yes, but I'm starting to run into something the euphoria of being so prolific has to date kept at bay. I've never written for this audience before! I write hard, cruel adult content. How am I supposed to write for 10 year olds?!?! Here I am cruising along and they have THE HOBBIT and A WRINKLE IN TIME and HARRY POTTER to read. What is this? PRINCE OF CATS? It's nothing. It's tiny. It's not my market!

*pulls out hair*

Who would have thought that the hardest thing for me to write would be content for kids. You wouldn't think so until you try it. But once you try it, you're all ooohhh, now I see.

Like if I were to write Sesame Street, this is what you'd get:

Weak Words: Just the Adverb, Ma'am

I had this post planned awhile ago but all I saved was the title. I vaguely remember what it was about, but it ties well into a discussion I am having with Liz Poole about feedback I received recently.

First, here's a general rule that I learned the hard way. If you are going to critique, never rewrite the person's work. You can suggest subtractions and you can point out instances where things need to improve, but NEVER actually try to improve them yourself. It is not your work. If you try to rewrite, not only will the author ignore that feedback, he/she will ignore ALL your feedback. You are no longer critting. You're saying that it's not the way you would have done it, which is different.

Second, NOT ALL ADVERBS ARE BAD! I know people treat Stephen King's ON WRITING like a writing bible, but it was not chiseled in stone. His comment not to use adverbs is a hyperbole, trying to show you how much weaker adverbs make your sentences than other means of writing. When you tell someone "never do that" what you're hoping is that the don't do it very often instead of doing it all the time, which is what King is doing here. You're using an adverb instead of a stronger verb. Go use the stronger verb instead.

Strangely, what I see happening as a reaction to this order from on high is that authors are overwriting. They are using entire sentences (sometimes paragraphs) to describe what they could have with a single adverb. While imagery and strong verbs are great, I don't need you stopping the story ever other paragraph so you can wax poetic with your non-adverb.

There are adverbs I enjoy, just for the sound of them (punctiliously in particular). Best selling authors use them, if you're tethered to having a justification for using a type of word that is a valid part of English grammar. Set your adverb meter to two, but if you're going to offer critiques, pinging something just because it's an adverb is lame. Your goal is to help the author attain the strongest writing possible. Rote regurgitation is not how that's accomplished.


Why Oh Why? Oh Me. Oh My! (...times seven)

It's hard to keep track of topics when you're on a variety of soap boxes. I've written in two different live journals, hosted a podcast, and now how this blog/journal. Sometimes you think you've written about a topic when you haven't. Or, you think you've written about it in one place when really it was in another and no one is going to see it. Today's post may or may not be a redux. I'm not copying/pasting, but I know it's at least a topic I've covered on the PodgeCast, so we'll call it a redux nonetheless.

I have been pondering the rewrite of HELP WANTED: CHOSEN ONE for awhile now. An agent who read the manuscript suggested I change the main character from Nashau to Bastin, the latter being more energetic and overall more likable. I was unsure of this, because the story I was telling was most certainly Nashau's, but since I already had multiple POVs, it seemed a better way to hook the reader into the overall story. Once I made some cuts, I saw that he was right.

But something happened when I changed the main character. All of a sudden motivations I never had to explain to the reader became necessary. And those motivations seemed pretty thin. You might get away with a second character coming along because of a curiosity or amusement or the adventure of it all. Main characters need more depth than that and Bastin was my main character. So I needed to articulate the reasons he was doing what he was doing.

Now, keep in mind, I'm not making up excuses for why he's doing what he's doing. If you get to that point, your plot is too thin and you need to back up and really take a hard look at things. You should never make excuses for your characters. They do things and they do those things for the reasons they do them. You may feel it, like they do, but given enough time, you should be able to adequately articulate the psychology behind it without making an excuse. If you ever say "just because," you are required to slap yourself in front of a mirror. If your reasons make someone's eyes roll (especially our own), you have to let that person slap you.

But you don't want to be slapped! Neither do I. So it's best we find a way to articulate our characters' motivations. How do we do that? you ask. We ask the Why Tree.

The why tree is not some ancient being of untold knowledge, it is the question "Why?" asked over and over and over again. (I generally recommend seven times for those people that need a rigid number to properly implement such a stratagem.) Write the question why then draw a line to possible answers. Draw a line from those answers to another question why and so forth seven times. The ever expanding list will take on a Christmas tree-like shape. It's a Why Tree.

Bastin is my main character
Bastin will participate in the quest the prophets claim he is chosen to complete
To make amends to his adoptive father
Because he betrayed his adoptive father
He was young and dumb and didn't trust anyone
His mother was a prostitute and he ran with a street gang
His mother died, leaving him on the street
She had no family to care for him and didn't know who his father was

This has given me all the information I need. When the prophets coming looking for the descendent of a famous count, I have a con man who also doesn't know who his father is. He may or may not be the actual chosen one, something to reveal at the end.

It also gives him the motivation to pursue this quest if you throw in a well-placed "How?"

For all the whys, the HOW? is the really important question. How does all this stuff influence Bastin so he decides to go on this quest? And that's what was stumping me on this rewrite. What was Bastin's motivation that he would risk his life? Amusement? Boredom? May play for a secondary character, but you need something better for a main character. And that's when I keyed on to his adoptive father. I already show Bastin trying to make amends, repaying the money he stole that landed Jin in debtors prison where he eventually died. The thing Bastin can't do, however, is restore Jin's reputation. But here he is being offered a chance to participate in a prophecy. All he need do is tell people it was Jin that did the deed instead of him and all of a sudden, boom! reputation restored. The one thing he cannot do he now can. This doesn't just offer him motivation, but the level of emotional attachment to brave dangers without quitting and an end goal that is worth the risk.

Get excited!


Because this story is gonna rock your face!

The Bill of Rights c.1791

The general rule is that no sign exists until after someone does what the sign instructs not to do (thus my favorite sign is "Do not lick the C-4"). You should consider the Bill of Rights to the American Constitution much like a sign. The reason why those 10 items were enumerated? Because they happened.

I bring this up because one of the most frequent mistakes I see by fantasy authors is applying modern freedoms (and specifically American freedoms) on their fantasy medieval settings. The guard comes and arrests the main character and the main character insists he cannot be arrested unless the guard tells them what he's being arrested for. Oh no, my friends, they absolutely could come and arrest you and not tell you what you were being arrested for. That's why we have an amendment that says you can't do that. Because you could do that. But now you can't.

I think the one that gets me the most is when a main character or a friend screams, "We have a right to [x]!" Son, you don't have a right to shit. You only get the rights the king provides to you and those can and will be changed when the king feels like it because he is appointed by god and/or is god and thus his will is not only a matter of rule but a matter of mandate from heaven, so you should really stop complaining that you can only hunt squirrels now.

Such mistakes are most frequently made by American writers. We're so accustomed to our freedoms being the "right" freedoms that it can be a shock when you find out that modern countries don't necessarily share such rights. (And I'm not talking about communist China, I'm talking about the United Kingdom not having the same provisions of free speech as the US. The right to free speech that we enjoy isn't enjoyed by every G-8 country in the West.)

So read over the bill of rights. Hell, read over all 27 amendments. You may not have to worry about limiting your president to two terms or prohibition, but read them for the signs they are. Until those signs were written, people did them. Soldiers lived in your home whether you wanted them to or not. Your punishment was cruel and unusual (or at least cruel, given its frequency I would assume it became usual). You don't have a right not to incriminate yourself or worship what religion you wish or assembly or a free press.

You only have the right to the law that is dictated by a single man and can be changed just as quickly (unless you've created some kind of parliamentary legal body in which case it comes from a collection of men and can be even harder to change).

Oh, and do not lick the C-4.

Words and Games

The topic of custom words in fantasy has come up in a variety of places I visit lately (Book Country, et al.), and while I don't hold it against people who choose to have names for months other than January-December, I find it a distraction and a lot of work for very little return. So I keep it simple. Seconds are seconds. Months are months. And so on.

What I found today is that I'm not as complacent about games. I made a chess reference in my fantasy manuscript and it brought me to a screeching halt. The metaphor is perfect for the situation, but I have trouble accepting that chess as we know it would have occurred in that setting in the same capacity. But choosing a name unique to the setting erodes the metaphor. I may dump the metaphor all together and ignore the problem. It's curious, though, that I'd be okay with measurements but not games.

What I absolutely won't do is use idioms or reference fairy tales or other key phrases that were told to us in our childhood that we continue to use today (no old lady in the shoe or anything like that). As a reader, that kind of thing pulls me right out of a story, so I will not do it as a writer. It may be inconsistent, but I don't care. :)


The scenes I have the most trouble writing are men posturing. I blame fantasy for this. It is one of the most used scenes in classic fantasy when two alpha males begin barking at each other and bumping chests. It also reads like the stereotypical nerd living in his parents' basement writing the hero he wishes he was taking revenge on the people that picked on him in school.

I don't live in anyone's basement, and none of my characters are representative of a person I wish I was (or think I am). They are their own selves. Chest thumping is what stalled THE 7TH SACRIFICE for the second time and I wrote another such scene this morning in my current wip. It's a necessary tension in the plot and will factor in later, but...

...but I don't like posturing. At all. It feels juvenile. Worse, it feels amateurish. I am the hero and I'm a badass therefore I am better than everyone. Did you smudge my pumas? I will have satisfaction, sir! Throw wine in face, punch to the stomach, draw swords, epic duel. Honor maintained.

What? Dude. Chill out. No grown adult is as quick to temper as a fantasy hero is. You don't need to browbeat everyone into supplication. If you're confident and skilled, your own regard is all that matters. Let the guy scuff your pumas. Throw an urchin a copper piece for a quick polish and be on your merry.

It's incredibly difficult to write because no matter how I approach it, I don't like that kind of thing, so I'll never think I've done good enough. I'll leave it there for now, but who knows whether it'll even survive my second draft.

The Five-Step Procedural

I do not write mystery/thriller, so I have no idea if what I'm about to say applies to the written word. That kind of question is better served by Jennifer Hillier. But it was the procedural drama that ended my 5-year hiatus from television1. Now the best procedurals on television today (or at least over the last decade) keep their freshness by exploring new facets of their characters. The crimes (and overall plot) follow a predictable format each episode, which can help you figure out the whodunnit before the end of the show2.

Step 1: The Crime - Show us the body. This may even include the actual murder, but usually is a "slice of life" moment where a woman or a couple stumble on a body and the woman screams. This is the piece you get before the opening credits. Also the first bit after the credits where the medical examiner arrives, takes liver temperature, tells you time of death, and the investigators point out any clues that you need to keep in mind for later. This is a lot of telling not showing...or would be if it wasn't television where they're showing you everything.

Step 2: The Science - Cue musical montage, quirky lab techs, and lots of pseudo-medical jargon that makes real medical professionals roll their eyes (or occasionally applaud in appreciation of the accuracy). This is also where criminal professionals cringe as what is happening might be scientifically possible but not in that time frame or on their budget. Lots of computers and flasks and analyzers. If you're watching NCIS, they'll have the body cut open and you can see a few internal organs. This is where the people that don't carry guns (unless you're on CSI) start telling you a bunch of stuff that basically narrows the focus down to only a few possible suspects. This is also when the people who carry guns (same people if you're on CSI) interrogate people and get their first suspect.

Step 3: The Twist - Oh no! Newfound evidence provides an alibi for primary suspect. New information comes to light that changes the motive of the crime, calls into question the victimization of the corpse, or in some way broadens the scope of the investigation so that everything has to be questioned again. Boss person or hot head detective/investigator will lose his temper here. He'll posture, maybe hit his fist on the table and threaten. But witnesses will all point fingers at each other so now anyone can be guilty. Whatever shall we do!

Step 4: The Chase - We have the break in the case we need! Grab your guns and your cars and let's go drive recklessly! We will not call for backup or in any way coordinate with the local squad cars or if we do, none of them will be able to accomplish anything other than chasing us or possibly hitting a parked car and flipping upside down. There may be a foot chase or a gun fight. Someone might get nicked. If you're one of the good guys, you might look like you got shot, but don't worry, it only hit your vest so get back out there! Oh, you were too slow. The villain got away. But the chase revealed the information you need. Now one of you knows the whodunnit. You're not going to tell anyone else, though, because if you didn't orchestrate the person's capture and then reveal their identity Scooby-Doo style, how would any of your peers know that you're better than them?

Step 5: The Capture - Through guile and wit, you trick the villain into a carefully laid trap, not only apprehending the criminal, but eliciting a confession as well. Criminals are the talkingest people out there. Shut up and get a lawyer. A lot of the time, their evidence is purely circumstantial and then you go blabbing and do yourself in (a la every episode of Monk or Psych3 ever made). Finally we get the reveal and it is...one of the non-main characters you've met this episode. The criminal is NEVER someone you haven't met before because it makes the entire thing seem like a total waste of time. If you haven't had a chance to try and guess, that's cheating. It breaks the unspoken rule between viewer and procedural drama that you should have the chance to guess before the villain is revealed. (Every so often, it's a double-twist where the original twist-causing witness is in fact the villain having sent the investigators on a wild goose chase.)

And thus, justice is meted out over our fair city!

1 So I quit watching TV in 99 and totally missed Firefly and the West Wing. I saw both on DVD and worried I had missed other awesome programming (I had not). Then I saw a commercial while I was at Burger King for a new show called Numb3rs. This looked awesome. I bought some rabbit ears for my TV and checked it out. I then saw "Call of Silence" from season 2 of NCIS and was totally hooked. I devoured TV for awhile until I got bored with almost all of it4. NCIS seemed the only procedural that cared more about its characters than the crime (or at least it did until Shane Brennan took over then that show went to crap and I stopped watching).

2 Unless one of the good guys becomes the bad guy. This will happen at the end of season 2 or 3 or if they last, around season 7 or 8 to reinvigorate the franchise. Oh no, didn't see that coming! If a case goes unsolved, it will either be a recurring villain used for multiple season finales (or mid-season breaks) or it will be one of the investigators.

3 Don't get me wrong. I love Psych and own every season on DVD but most of those criminals would go free if they didn't confess.

4 I still watch Castle every week. That's the only show I make sure to watch weekly.

Pacing, Fantasy, Authors, and Agents

I received feedback on one of my manuscripts from an author. She said the pacing at the beginning was too slow. It had been an issue during earlier drafts and I had thought I had resolved it to my satisfaction. I do not immediately agree with feedback from an agent and I don't believe you should either. You should take it for the seasoned, experienced advice that it is and then decide what's best for your story. In the end, you're the author after all.

But remember, they are seasoned and experienced (assuming they are seasoned and experienced, otherwise I can't help you there). Do not dismiss their comments because it doesn't jive with your original vision. An agent's feedback is A-list beta reading. Think of it that way. A strong recommendation to help you make the best choice possible.

It took me awhile to see it, but I finally saw where I went wrong. The pacing was off and I knew just which chapter needed to be rewritten to fix it. In fact, I there must have been a concern there from the beginning because some indescribable concern I had about that part of the book resolved itself as soon as the chapter was rewritten.

The trick is, while the agent was correct that the pacing was an issue, I don't agree with the degree to which the agent said content needed to be cut to resolve the pacing. That's making me nervous. I'm about to go back to the agent and say, "I've rewritten this part of the story and tightened things up, really improved the pacing." But if she does not agree, then that is the end of the line with that opportunity (and it's a good opportunity which is why I'm nervous).

The trick is, I know this is right. I've ditched some setting background, a little more than I would have liked, but it does improve the pacing. A lot of it was able to be shucked off and some can be introduced in later books if I have a chance to write them. Even if this opportunity ends, it made for a better book. The best book, really. Without concrete feedback that says x, y, z, I have reached my capacity for abstract revision. This is the story I want to tell.

It reminds me of a blog post Kristin Nelson made last week about her feedback to an author and how she could not quantify her concerns for the pacing. Ted Cross mentioned in the feedback that fantasy was getting shoehorned into pacing models for other genres. While I'm hesitant to allow an entire genre be an exception to a rule, in this case, I agree with Ted. At least somewhat. There are plenty of anecdotal examples of slower pacing still available in fantasy, but rarely are those examples first-time authors. New fantasists have a run-and-gun structure to their stories. Is it because of the stories we grew up on? The MTV effect? Or is it the industry imposing those standards on a genre? Or is the fan base of said genre wanting something new?

It could be all or none of those things. Sometimes I wonder if agents who represent multiple platforms might have some leakage, some preconceptions based on their work with MG/YA that imposes itself on fantasy where the world is sometimes as important as the story. (Incidentally, I don't like those books. I want the story to be more important than the world.)

I don't think it's one thing. I think it's a lot of things. A big Venn diagram of things. But I lament the difficulty of creating a slower work. Sometimes it's good to feel a story inhale and breathe life into a whole new world and culture.

For those of you who read fantasy, have you noticed anything similar? And for those of you who read other genres, have you noticed anything like that in your chosen genres?

Knowledge = (the battle)/2

I was watching a movie the other day and character A says of character B that he is a marksman. He can strike a man square in the chest at 50 meters. This was a modern piece with modern weaponry. There are different levels of writing what you know. The soul of some things can only be realized through experience. Others simply need research. In either case, you need to address a first-hand account of the subject and not just lend your interpretation to someone else's interpretation. That just becomes the operator/telephone game.

In this case, I immediately knew the writer had no idea what (s)he was talking about. 50 meters? Good god, not fifty meters! That's so hard!

...no, wait, no it's not. On a standard marksmanship target range, the SHORTEST target is placed at 50 meters. The longest is set at 300 meters.

Rather than paying attention to the movie, I began to wonder if the writer had even fired a gun before or just thought a dramatically delivered line would go unquestioned.

Now I'm not a hunter. I've never killed anything larger than an insect. ...except for a bird that done under my tire when I was a teenager. I was, at one time, a certified marksman (my preferred range being between 175 and 250--though I ALWAYS missed 300. I never got the arc right). If you're going to write a book that includes modern weaponry, I recommend finding a local sportsman's club and renting a pistol, a shotgun, a rifle, and if they have one, an M-16. Each of them has different uses, different feels, and different results. A little research will dramatically improve your weapon choice and description. You'll also avoid throwing your reader out of your story when they realize you have no idea what you're talking about.

Timing is Everything

Like the classic joke goes, "In comedy, timing is...



I'm reading the last in the Shadowmarch tetralogy by Tad Williams, SHADOWHEART. It's a less than stellar name and most people don't know that a four-book series is a tetralogy1, but Tad Williams is the reason I write fantasy--the reason2. So we're going to give him a pass on that.

I have to admit, though, between Williams and Martin, I'm starting to get worn out on epic fantasy. Their stories are the epitome of epic, but frankly, there are characters whose chapters are fundamental to the resolution of the entire thing and I could care less. There are just too many people. As I wade through this lofty tome, after having consumed the three before it, I find myself impatient for the end. I want that long-awaited climax and resolution of the various characters I've come to care about. And having to read through yet another chapter of a character I don't care about where content that I know well is repeated (and repeated) in internal dialogue is getting frustrating.

That is not so much the focus on today's writing, just an observance. Perhaps that's why my word counts have been shrinking. Not so much an intent to cowtow to the industry and its word limits, but the desire to tell a more compact and immediate tale. I will ponder this in the future and see if that's the case.

No, the focus of today's telling is timing. This is crucial in any work, and the more characters you introduce, the more difficult it can be to align character actions to further the plot but to remain consistent with the story's own chronology.

Specifically, there are two characters who will influence other characters who will influence other characters. They finally make their trip to Southmarch and I am enthused becomes here comes the domino that will set the whole chain a falling! Woo hoo! Here it comes.

...but it doesn't come. Now granted, this is an epic fantasy, so while characters A and B swim across the bay to the nearby island, the author can focus on characters C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J without losing any time in the total advancement of the story. It can maintain the preferred pacing of this rumbling epic without losing track of the domino that is about to set the chain falling.

But then Character E gets another chapter. And then Character H gets two more chapters. Too many things are happening. Why haven't we gone back to characters A and B?

Well, the obvious thing is that when next we see them they won't still be swimming across the bay. They will have done other, irrelevant things necessary for their trip but unnecessary for the enjoyment of the reader.

That doesn't happen. In fact, when we finally return to characters A and B, they are finishing their swim across the bay. This is offensive to anyone paying attention. Some stories may play loosely with the passage of time, but most don't. So unless you're slip-streaming back and forth, be mindful of your timeline. When characters begin moving at different speeds, the reader can see the hand of the author in the story. You're this giant distracting thing like a boom mic that falls into frame. You're holding onto the characters while their legs turn so you can have the plot play out how you want.

And that's a funny thing. While you're the author, when a reader invests, the story becomes theirs. They don't want to see your hands in their stories mucking everything up. You need to be invisible. You are the mirror in which your readers see your story. There may be glass and silver there, but all they see is themselves.


...is everything.

1 Instead of a tetralogy, people try to call it a quadrology.

2 I can tell you plenty of influences, but I know when the light bulb turned on. I was thirteen or so reading the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy and knew this is what I wanted to do. No hemming or hawing. Tad Williams showed me the path.