Inconjunction Recap

10519651_826374600706138_2230090658348255553_nNOTE: due to preparations for last week’s all encompassing Blog Tour, this post-con report is two weeks late.

Rarely have I been so excited about a convention, and I know I’ve never put in as much pre-planning into an event as I did for Inconjunction weekend this past July 4-6.

I teamed up with my author buddies John F. Allen, Matthew Barron and Eric Garrison. (Also thanks to David Jobe for helping man the booth for parts of Saturday).  We put the extra effort and expense into splitting costs for a vendor booth, displayed an array of book titles, doo-dads, and nail polish (yes, nail polish!) and went for it in a big way.

And then there were panels. My first was with Eric Garrison and con co-guest of honor Kat Falls in a lively discussion on Book Trailers. Throughout the weekend, I participated on no less than three panels on genre TV and movies (and met a very enthusiastic Mike Suess!), and was part of the candlelight horror reading, where I premiere a new work in progress weird western to great response. I also heard a very impressive reading by a Mr. Jeff Seymour. I plan to keep an eye on this guy, and you should, too!

On top of that, the four of us along with our booth neighbor Crystal Leflar teamed together under the banner Speculative Fiction Guild to run two open mini-workshops designed to offer some structural writing advice for the beginner. Both of these were well attended and received enthusiastically.

We were not without a few bumps in the road (literally and figuratively). John arrived two days post-food poisoning and needed part of Friday to recover, but he quickly got back on track, and brought his knowledge of all things comic books in time for the panel. Saturday night proved a comedy errors. In trying to re-create a local dining experience from a year ago with Kathy Watness and Loconeal‘s James Barnes, we found that, not only didthe Chinese restaurant we target closed for the holiday, but so did our second choice, and ended up at choice number three, an El Jaripeo near Washington Square (very good however!). On returning to the hotel, police cars zipped along 21st and Shadeland, past our vehicle, going full speed, while John valiantly navigated construction and each need to pull over, during which at least a dozen cars passed us! (We found out later they were going toward the tragic east side shooting.)

Check out my Facebook photos of Inconjunction!

As convention crowds went, I’d call it a mid-sized group, but an enthusiastic group, eager to talk, and when all was said and done, also eager to support our efforts by visiting our booth and taking home some books!

I can honestly say I’ve never had such an exhausting weekend, but the results were well worth it. Inconjunction was a blast. I’m starting the countdown to next year!

 

Writing Tips Continued: Changing your Point of View

Point of View, part 3

In Point of View Part 2, I touched upon the magic of writing your stories from a point of view character and how this can make your stories come to life. (If you don’t remember, that was back in September, so check it out here) We’ve only scratched the surface of the intricacies and potential mistakes inherent of this sort of writing. It’s time to dig a little deeper. The summary first:

Once you begin a scene in a specific character’s point of view, stay in that character’s head at least until the scene concludes and you’re ready to start the next scene.

No exceptions. Read the above paragraph as many times as you need to until it sinks in. If you think about breaking the rule, smack yourself. Then read it again.

No. Really. Don’t ever do it. I know when I have posted other rules, I have, without exception so far, followed up with examples of when it is okay to break that rule. But there is no exception to this rule.

Well….that is…..

Okay, okay, okay!! There is one exception that I know of, and that applies to romance and erotica intimacy scenes, where “head hopping” (further defined below) to a certain extent is permitted, but  since I’m not the person to talk about this, watch for a future guest blog from the current president of the Indiana Romance Writer’s chapter. (THAT should keep people checking my page daily for awhile.)

So let’s dig a little deeper.

First, it’s a generally accepted rule of thumb that a short story should start in, and stay in, a single character’s point of view from beginning to end. And yes, you’ll find many exceptions to this (including stories that open with an omniscient voice as discussed here), but generally, editors take a dim view of short stories that shift the point of view during the narrative. Too much shifting in a short story will cause an editor to add your story to the reject pile. And unless there is a clear and obvious reason for doing so that benefits the story greatly, a short story should stick to one point of view.

A novel, because it is a longer narrative, offers more opportunity to shift points of view. In thrillers and similar genres, a storyteller can ratchet up the tension by jumping from the hero to an occasional scene with the villain, with a blatant or understood “meanwhile”.   In fiction with romantic elements, a scene with Him, followed by a scene with Her, certainly makes for a pleasant reading experience. Several ambitious novelists can weave an epic story shifting between six, eight or even more characters (but the rule of changing the character point of view only between scenes or chapters still applies). Stephen King’s epic THE STAND is one of the better-known of this sort of storytelling.

AN ASIDE: I’ve seen an interesting new form of “first person from multiple points of view” used in commercial epic fantasy. The change of point of view takes place every chapter, heading the chapter with the name of the character, followed by a first person narrative from that character’s point of view. Then the next chapter is named after another character, and the narrative proceeds in the first person, but in that new character’s point of view. If you want to read something pretty cool in such a style, check out the epic fantasy series by Daniel Abraham.

Now, returning to point one: Never ever, ever, switch points of view in the middle of a scene–at least, don’t do it on purpose. This is called “head-hopping.” It’s a common mistake for beginning writers, and so far, it seems no matter how “good” or experienced one gets, it’s still easy to do on accident, even after years of practice.

What do I mean by head hopping?

A quick and obvious example:

      Tom walked into the bar. He looked around and saw the gorgeous blonde sitting at the bar across the room.

     Tammy noticed the burly man approach. She shook her head and released a sigh. The last thing she needed was another slimeball trying to pick her up.

The first paragraph presents Tom’s point of view, then the second paragraph “hopped” to Tammy’s point of view. The presents a number of problems in storytelling, not the least of which is, there is no dramatic or story-related reason to change heads.

Here’s something for new writers to look for. If the responses to your story from trusted pre-readers is that “it was just okay” but no one can tell you why they weren’t into it, or why it didn’t move them, check to see if you were head hopping. Chances are, you were.

Even if a reader can’t articulate what was “wrong” with a scene or story, head-hopping, because of its flip-flop structure, causes a mental fatigue and affects a reader’s ability to “escape” into a story. (That, plus too much emphasis on the visual approach as discussed here are two big signs of a beginner)

Plus, head-hopping blows great opportunities for drama. Take Tom in our example. Suppose he considers himself a charmer with the ladies and decides to approach Tammy. Written from his perspective, he would be oblivious to her attitude, and his surprise when she tells him to buzz off becomes the reader’s surprise at the same moment.

So how to choose a point of view? The first thing a writer should do before composing any scene is determine: who is the central character of the scene? Sometimes this is obvious. If Tom talks to Tammy, then Tammy leaves, and Tom continues to talk with the bartender, then compose the entire scene from Tom’s point of view. Otherwise you need to break the scene and resume the action from the head of another character. Just think the scene through. The answer is not always that simple, but more often than not, it is.

Why does this work so well? Because as human beings, we live life confined to our own head, and sticking with one character best re-creates our life experience. It’s a view readers are most familiar with because they live it every day.

So whether we’re talking about deep third or first person, all a writer needs to do is compose each scene from inside the head of a single character’s POV and stick with it. Easy, right?

Wrong.

Because there are several ways this can get fouled up, and we’ll look at some examples in the next blog.

Writing Tips Continued: Person or persons defined

After a too-long break, I’m finally continuing on with my writing tips series of articles. Specifically, it’s time to continue with the point of view discussion.

First of all, if you don’t know this series (and you might not, as I started it months ago and took a long break) you can start here, here, here, and finally, my first two parts on point of view here and here.

We’re almost ready to look much deeper at the process and pitfalls of keeping a consistent point of view, whether you’re composing a “deep third” or “first person” narrative, there’s a lot to track.

But first, let’s take a step back and define out terms–I probably shouldn’t presume that everyone knows what I mean by “deep third person” as opposed to any other person or point of view. So before we dig deep, we’re going to get rudimentary and review some terms many of you may not have considered since elementary grammar (but it won’t be painful, I promise). If you are a reader, you probably have experienced as many as three of these four “person” narratives even if you never knew them by name.

First Person: A story told from the first person point of view has much in common with the deep third person point of view discussed further down in this article. I sometimes think of it as the “diary voice” or the blog voice (this blog is written in first person). It’s distinguished by the word “I” throughout the narrative, such as: “As I walked along the sidewalk, something grabbed at my ankles.” The story unfolds as if the character is either sitting with you and telling you the tale or as if you are reading a written account or journal of the event.

First person narratives have a long, respected history in classic and contemporary literature, going back hundreds of years , but if polls are to be believed, the style has fallen out of favor with some contemporary readers. Some (perhaps questionable) statistics say 80% or more of modern readers prefer deep third over first person and some readers feel so strongly that they will put down a novel as soon as they discover it’s written in first person, and some magazines and book publishers won’t consider first person narratives (though not significant enough to make that a deciding factor in how a writer approaches a story). (I find it interesting that the latest Nancy Drew books, historically third person narratives, have changed to a first person approach with the latest incarnation.)

But the first person voice is still relevant in contemporary literature. That the first person narrative happens to come in second in popularity in a two-style race (or some weird mixed metaphor there) the style is alive, well, and thriving. A big reason for this is that it offers an intimacy (particularly in thrillers and horror stories) that other points of view do not. My first novel Haunting Blue is told from the first person perspective of my punk girl high school protagonist Blue Shaefer.

Although I’m a fan of the form, the first person tale offers some significant restrictions, the biggest being that the style pretty much locks an author into a single character’s perspective throughout an entire story. (There are some creative cheats, and I use one in Haunting Blue, but never mind…) No novel, properly told in the first person, could ever read, “And then I dropped down into a hole and the world went black. While I lay  unconscious, the ambulance arrived and the paramedics dropped down a rope…” Nor can it include a scene such as “Meanwhile, unknown to me, the villain and his henchmen were making plans….”

OPINION: A first person narrative makes a great first project for a new writer, because problems and errors in the manuscript are relatively easy to spot in the editing process.

Note–since posting this, it seems the above paragraphs are being seen as discouraging or dismissing first person narrative. I am not. Please see my comment after this article for further clarification of my view.

Second person: You may read your entire life and never experience a book or short story told in the second person point of view. (see what I did there?) Second person is usually confined to the realm of experimental literature, though I can think of one wildly popular and commercial series that uses the second person, the “Choose Your Own Adventure” juvenile novels and various copycats.

While second person is intended to immerse a reader into a story, it more often has the opposite effect, as the narrator inserts “you” into the action. A typical second person narrative reads: “You walk into the restaurant and sit down. You look at a menu. From the corner of your eye, you notice the school bully watching you from across the room. ” You get the idea. (See what I did again?) Given the goals of this series, we won’t be looking at second person narrative; it’s included here for the sake of completeness.

Omniscient third person narrative: The omniscient voice, or the “all-knowing” perspective, originated in the telling of myths, fairy tales, and other stories passed down from oral tradition, and can be found in ancient literature and even fairly modern genre pieces of the 1800s and early 20th century. In contemporary fiction, the omniscient narrative is used quite effectively in the introductory chapters of epic fantasy and as a valid “opening” to some thriller genres. A certain anthology style genre show of classic television utilized opening a story with an omniscient narrative in every episode.

An omniscient narrative voice can still be an effective story opener (my short story The Assurance Salesman has a brief omniscient opening, as does Robot Vampire) but  the wise storyteller settles into deep third person as soon as possible. A couple good examples should help clarify the omniscient voice. Let me channel my inner JRR Tolkien and Rod Serling, two legendary storytellers that utilized the omniscient narrative to great effect:

Bagnars are extraordinarily tall creatures, and quite bulky, but that’s not what makes them so odd. In spite of their appearance, Bagnars are terrified of the dark. And while they may look ferocious, they are rather gentle in disposition.

Or this.

Portrait of a writer. Paul Hallowby, age 30; a weaver of words; a knitter of narrative. Tonight he taps out his latest composition in a futile race to fill the virtual screen with the dark ramblings of his demented dreams. In a moment, someone will knock on Hallowby’s door. Who is that someone?  In this case, call that someone “Fate.” What happens next will change one writer’s wretched world forever.

Wow, wonder who that is! I’m guessing it’s a Bagnar. Okay, moving on.

That brings us to the deep third person point-of-view (often just called third person or deep third). Third person is the most popular, most accessible, in-demand narrative approach among contemporary readers. Deep third also offers a plethora of structural pitfalls for a writer to fall into. It has a lot in common with the first person narrative.

Technically, on a scene-by-scene basis, a first person short story or novel can be rewritten into a deep third narrative by simply changing the “I’s” and adjusting as you go. “I opened my wallet, only to find that someone had taken my cash.” becomes “Joe opened his wallet, only to find that someone had taken his cash.” And so on. If you need another example, go back to my point of view article here to read an entire scene in deep third from Chip’s point of view.

But while such a conversion creates a valid deep third story, the form offers more flexibility than that. One huge advantage that deep third offers over the first person is that your point of view character can change from scene to scene without confusing the reader. It’s a fairly standard practice to present a scene from the protagonist’s point of view, then start the next scene in another location and from the point of view of the villain (with an understood or implicit “meanwhile”).

In the next article, among other things, we’ll look at popular guidelines on how often a storyteller should change points of view in novels and short stories, and the reasons why.

Deep third person offers the emmersive experience of first person without the limitation of being trapped in a single character’s head. But as I said before, that versatility comes with a number of hidden traps and easy-to-make errors–errors that even experienced writers wind up making on occasion.

In the next couple of articles in this series, I’ll take a look at a few.

Note–an earlier version of this article stated that 80% or more readers would put down a book if it is written in first person. I wrote that in error. The statement has been corrected.

To Be or Not To Be–with apologies to Hamlet

The first of a new series on prose fiction do’s and don’ts for new writers.

The passive verb, the state of being, that is, those words your grammar teacher taught you: am, is, are, was, were, have, has, had–and for this conversation, mostly “was“–should be shunned from your prose, often and with prejudice.

I could have picked many topics to start this series, but if I had to point to the first I.D. card of the amateur writer, it is the proliferation of the word “was” sprinkled all over a manuscript draft.

And I’m not judging. This was my major crime against literature when I started out, until my mentor pointed it out and eventually broke me of the habit (Hi, Debra Holland).

A few simple reasons, with examples:

1. The active tense just plain sounds better.  

I was running to the store. vs
I ran to the store.

2. Passive tense lacks needed specifics.

He was tall. He was average looking. vs
He stood head and shoulders above his peers, though not many of them bothered to notice.

3. Passive tense shields accountability–the reason your local providers love it so much in those special snailmail deliveries.

Your cable was disconnected last Tuesday. (by… someone–your neighbors, aliens, terrorists, even! We surely don’t know) vs the far more accurate and damning
We disconnected your cable last Tuesday.

If you find one of your manuscripts is littered with passive verbs, take the time to rewrite it. You’ll be shocked at how much the same story “pops” when you’re done.

A word of caution: you can go overboard with this line of thinking. In fact, for awhile, I tried to remove 100% of any state of being from my prose. The dubious good news. It can be done, but such a path will make you a bit twitchy at parties, so years ago I made my peace with the passive tense and let a few slip back in. Sometimes “I am done with this topic” says it all, and that’s okay.

If you are one of these passive verb offenders, don’t beat yourself up. The good news is that it’s not too late to begin the training.

R.J’s rule of thumb, if you see four or five passive verbs in a paragraph (and we all slip, even those who are years beyond knowing better) you need to rework those sentences. If you’re seeing two or three per page, that’s probably fine.