Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Blah, Blah, Blah, Yap, Yap, Yap: Put A Cork In It, or Not?

When you think about writing stories or novels in any genre, the subject of dialogue always arises. For purposes of this discussion, dialogue will include not only conversations between characters, but also characters' thoughts, characters' speeches, statements, etc. Now, I'm not going to get into the importance of dialogue itself, because that should be a given. Characters need to communicate with each other, with the writer, and with the reader, and they need to do it appropriately--i.e., 'within character'. No. The question I'm going to raise here is, when is it time for one's character(s) to just shut the *&#$ up and let the story move forward. Is there ever a point when your characters simply talk too much? Unfortunately, there are times when this is the case.

We all know the importance of our readers getting to know each and every one of our characters. Only then can they share in all their experiences. A character must have a past, a present, hopes, fears, and all that good stuff, and the way a reader learns about them is through dialogue. Yes, descriptions are important--kind of third party type statements like 'Jack grew up in a rough area of the city...', or 'Emilie had always feared wide open spaces...'. All that's fine and dandy, but I believe it's through their own words that a reader can truly know what makes them tick. But, like was said when I was a kid: 'Sometimes it's better to be seen than heard', and this does apply here.

Our characters speak through us, true. However, in a way, we speak through our characters as well. It's a flow thing. No, we're not really serial killers or corrupt cops or monsters in the mist or even heroes who save mankind, but the voices do come from within the writer. Sound nutty? Of course it is. We wouldn't be readable writers if we didn't hear the voices of our characters. What I'm getting at is consider how you write a letter or a postcard. Do you do a 40 pager that requires 18 stamps or obscure the caption on the postcard by writing down, across, and along all the sides (you know, the kind of behavior that causes the postal employees to go postal)? Or do you say only what needs to be said. That is not to say you're notes are rude and uninteresting. Brief and to the point does not have mean boring and hateful. It simply means brief and to the point. That's what our characters need to be.

In order to allow our readers to get inside our characters, they need to talk. They need to talk about how they feel about themselves, their childhood maybe, their deeds (whatever those may be), and they most certainly need to do it in more than two word sentences. The point I'm trying to make here is, make sure you know the difference between sharing perspectives and blabbering like an idiot. You know the type. You begin reading a story, the setting is intriguing and there's an event that occurs in the first chapter that hooks you hard. Then, you move forward and one or more of your characters begins talking. And talking. And talking. And... You get my drift.

They witnessed an event and are making a statement to the police, or something really monumental happened in their life and they're sharing it with a friend. They explain what they've seen or heard and include a few tidbits about their own life in relation to it and pretty much should stop there. But, they do not. They begin describing their teen years and the vacation they took when they were four, and my, my, isn't the sky a lovely shade of blue today, and twelve pages later, they're still droning on. Come on, you know what I'm talking about. Those stories where you stop really reading and start skimming, kind of glancing over the page and noticing the quote marks never seem to end, and you start flipping pages so you can get back to the storyline before you forget what you read on page one. Now, you've done it. You've lost the reader, and I'll guarantee, the next time they see your name on something, they'll think lots of talking, but very little story. I'll think I'll pass. Is that what you want?

We've discussed before the fact that some pieces are strongly event-driven while others are strongly character-driven. Both are fine--they're simply different styles of telling a story. In a character-driven tale though, notice there is much more dialogue and less straight descriptive passages. The characters voices give you the feel for the places and events. Let me give you some examples of really well written character-driven stories where the characters 'know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em'--so to speak.

Jon Loomis' books, High Season and Mating Season are two great examples. Strongly character-driven stories with tons of dialogue, but never is it too much to digest. Places are described, people, feelings, memories, characters interact, and at times, there is what may be considered 'small talk' made, but never does it cross the line into 'oh no, that character's making a speech again'. Dave Zeltserman's Bad Thoughts and Bad Karma are another example. Dialogue is exceptionally critical in the telling of these two stories, and again, the line is never crossed. What needs to be said is said and yes, there's 'regular' dialogue in there that's not specifically related to events but let's us get inside the characters' heads and relationships with each other, but that's okay. It's done well and never overdone.

I don't need to give you examples of the ones where the characters are simply too 'talky', you know what they are because you've read some. We all have. We all also have put them aside after a few chapters of that and never gone back to them. You don't want readers doing that with your stuff, do you? Whether we are chatty cathy's in our own lives is our own cross to bear (and the cross of those around us as well), but don't turn your characters into those annoying people we sometimes get cornered by. You know the ones. You are out and about and you see someone you know and you make the fatal mistake of asking how they are. Four and a half hours later...

I'm going to give you a tip that's a sure-fire way to avoid including meaningless rambling by a character in a story. When you feel you're done with it, put it aside. It doesn't have to be for a specific length of time, but do put it aside. Then, pick it up and read it. But, and here's the kicker, don't read it as a 'writer'. Read it as a 'reader'. You will be amazed at how many times you'll think to yourself, 'no one would really say that' and quite a few 'who cares about that', and you'll edit them out or rework them. You'll identify whose mouth needs a cork stuck in it and whose doesn't.

Oh, and by the way. Next time you're out of town, no postcards please. I have a life...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My Guest Blog

It was my pleasure to guest write on Paul Brazill's blog on November 24, 2009. My topic was where ideas can come from. I appreciate being invited to be a guest on Paul's site, and have included the link below.

As long as we're on the subject of Paul's blog, make sure you head over there and join in to follow. There's always something cool brewing over there!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sequel or Prequel, Single or Double, Trilogy or Octology? When should enough be enough?

Okay, you've finished your novel and its a gem and a half. You had started with a specific plotline in mind, but instead, you let the story go its own way. It began as a cozy type mystery, and somehow managed to transform itself into classic noir, with characters who could literally step right off the silver screen in all their black and white glory. Best of all, none of your main people died--they just set the traps, evil took the bait and justice triumphed yet again. Finally, as a crime author, you feel incredibly rewarded. Damn, you're good. And now..., well..., should I..., but maybe if I...uh oh. I've created a world with people and events that are cool and slick and just left them hanging out there--somewhere. Just tossed them aside like an old boot. But what else can I do?

I'll tell you what you can do. Pull them back from whatever black hole you condemned them to and simply continue. That's right. Continue. Easy? No big deal? Whoa. No, it isn't easy and yes, it is a big deal. Let's look at why.

The first point I think we should explore is what exactly are you trying to accomplish. What is your desired endpoint? Are you trying to write a series based on a character or characters or a chapter book? Chapter books are a lot of fun to write and even more fun to read. King's Green Mile and Dark Tower Series, in my opinion, are perfect examples of chapter books, and really well-crafted ones at that. I have a chapter book series coming out soon through DiskUsPublishing called Choices. It has six parts, and while each chapter is separate and distinct from the others, Chapter One leads into Chapter Two, Chapter Two leads into Chapter Three, and so on. Together, they form one complete story. They could be read out of sequence, but relationships between the characters would be marred, if not lost, and like any chapter book, the parts should be read in the order the author intended.

What about writing a series? Well, personally, I define a series as two or more books that focus on the same character(s) having different experiences in each book. For example, with a crime series, perhaps you might have a certain PI that solves different cases in each book or you might have a certain police detective that solves different cases in each book. Whichever character your focus is on, that character would be present in all the books, but his/her experiences, events and interrelationships would change in each one. Now, having the same character appear over and over can sometimes create a problem all by itself.

Let's say, you have decided at the onset to write a trilogy--three books using the same main character. That's all well and good, but there is one thing you need to be careful of. In your first book, do introduce your primary character and let us in on this person's life and background, thoughts and hopes, fears and needs. Let us get to know this character really well, then let us in on what happens to and around him/her. Okay, the first book is complete. We've gotten to know your character really well and can't wait to share more of their life experiences. On to Book Two. Oh no. Do we really have to hear about his failed marriage again? Boring. Do we really need to hear how she failed to become a cheerleader in high school again and that's why she has nightmares?

If there is one thing I cannot abide it is having read the first in a series, then picking up the second book, as noted on the jacket or in the promos, and encountering a recap of everything I read previously in Book One. Give me a bit more credit than that--my long-term memory isn't that faulty. I'm not going to let three years go by between the books--I'll remember who did what and who lived where and so on. Give me just a couple of bits and pieces, maybe a couple of short memories the character may have and move on to the new stuff. Don't let three-quarters of the second book be verbatim from the first one.

Too many writers think they have to restate everything just in case a reader picks up the second book first. Oh my. They won't know about this, or they won't know about that, so I need to repeat it all in every book in the series. I beg of you. Please do not do that. Most readers, and I do believe that this applies to most, are intuitive enough to know when what they pick up is part of a series and they will make every effort to seek out the first part and move forward. If, for whatever reason, they decide to begin with part six and then skip around, well, so be it. That's their choice. We, as writers, do not need to worry whether they will not enjoy the story as much because they didn't find out in the very beginning why Johnny sleeps with the lights on or Mary despises brown cats. Who cares? We should have enough of a story in there to hold their interest whether it's Book One or Book Twelve, and that's the kicker.

Now we come to probably the most important thing about writing a series. It's not a question of whether to repeat information about places or persons. It's a question of how interesting your stories are. We need to introduce characters that grab the reader and make them want to know more and more and share more and more with that character. When it comes to the second book, sure, the experiences and events are going to change, but while your character is going to be the same one, they shouldn't so much change as grow. When it comes to the third and subsequent books (should there be more), your character must continue to grow in order to remain interesting.

If they have a certain endearing quality or quirk, keep it the same. That's what makes them unique. But to hold your readers' interest, they must grow and develop just we do in the real world. Then, there's no limit as to how far your imagination can take them.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Can Crime Be Fun?

Writing it certainly can be, if you let it. Creating a crime fiction tale can be quite an enjoyable and challenging experience. With NaNoWriMo coming soon, for my own use as well as others out there, I thought I'd include a sample checklist for planning purposes. Even though NaNo is a wide-open type writing endeavor, working from a basic plan is extremely helpful to keep you going in the right direction. Having one, like the following, can be a very useful tool.

_____Title: This is what entices and grabs your reader. While you may have woven a wondrous tale of suspense and terror, it's not going to mean a thing if no one is pulled into read it. That's why your title is so important. You want to keep it simple, but not too vague. Names of characters, places, or events within your story can be used, along with a hint of the storyline. Tease the reader with promises of fear and isolation. Inject a sense of worry and apprehension before they arrive at the first paragraph, and use your title to accomplish that.

_____Location: Where's your story going to take place? This is a big decision. You have to decide before you begin if you will be utilizing a real-world location or if you're going to just make it up as you go along. Whichever way you go in this, travel with care.

Using real cities and towns carries with it the responsibility of accuracy. Unless you are really familiar with a specific area, I would recommend avoiding using it. For all you know, one of your readers was born in the town in your story and they know for sure there's no library on the corner of Fifth and Main. Once they've identified that flaw, believe me, you've lost them. Either avoid real places altogether or research them thoroughly.

If you decide to create a location, don't think the rules of accuracy don't apply. Consistency is the keyword when making up locales. Readers will pick up on errors in make believe towns too and you can lose them just as quickly as with real ones. Map out your fake town or city, note your street and business names so they don't change from chapter to chapter.

_____Time: Here's another component that can require a great deal of research. This refers to the time period your story is set in. Whatever era you choose, everything has to be considered. Your characters have to dress, behave, and speak appropriately. The vehicles, buildings and businesses all have to look and function as they did during your chosen time period. If your story is set sometime in the future, the world you create must reflect that. The technology in your story may not actually exist in the real world, but to be believable in your story, again, consistency is the key. I would suggest mapping it all out to make sure your gadgets aren't different in function and appearance on pages 4 and 14. Again, readers are sharp; they'll catch it--imaginary or not.

_____Outline: Whether or not to outline before you actually write is a personal preference. Some use the outline process for novels only and others use them for all their projects. Outlining should be done if you feel it will help you to develop your characters and storyline. The only thing I would caution you on is if you do outline, make sure you don't set it in stone. As you create, if your story takes a turn in another direction, feel free to let it go. Be flexible enough to adjust your outline if the situation warrants it. An outline is a tool--a guide. It is there to assist, not constrict.

_____Characters: Now, we're at the core. Your characters are the backbone of your story. They have to be three dimensional and as real as you can make them. Readers need to be able to identify with your characters in some way. There needs to be something about them or their lives your readers can relate to. They shouldn't just be names and physical descriptions. Take the time to give them lives. They need a past as well as a present. They need families, friends, likes, dislikes, fears and favorites. Here's where an outline, at least for the characters, might be of benefit to keep their relationships with other characters, places, events, etc., consistent. Imaginary or not, consistency is important here too. To hold the reader's interest, your characters must be feeling, thinking beings. Whether they are good, bad, or a little of both, they must appear genuine. Then, and only then, will your reader care about them and what happens to them.

_____Weapon/Crime: Last, but certainly of great importance, is your crime and your weapon of choice. This is something you generally decide early on. For instance, you may choose murder as your crime and if so, your possibilities for a weapon are endless. Depending on who your killer is, you could go with a gun, a knife, poison, or get up close and personal with strangulation. Remember though, research is of great importance here too. Weapons need to be time-appropriate. Make sure the gun your killer uses was manufactured when your story takes place. Make sure the poison used was available to that particular population and make sure your depiction of its effects is also accurate. You don't want to get too over the top. Nothing turns a reader off more quickly than an overly dramatic scene with a victim gasping and coughing all over the room, writing the name of their killer on the walls with a tube of lipstick and then falling down in a heap clutching a cufflink torn from the killer's shirt. If the reader thinks it's hokey enough, they may look up your poison and when they find out it causes an immediate unconscious state, suppresses respiration and death occurs shortly after, they've closed the book on your story and picked up the TV remote. In the future, when they see your name on a story, they'll pass it up because you've lied to them once, and they will remember and make sure you don't get the chance to do it again.

These are some points to consider when sitting down to write crime fiction. The most important one though is to enjoy the process from start to finish. Try different settings, different lengths, characters and time periods. Let your stories twist and turn and go their own way. Let them surprise even you. This will all translate into enjoyment for your readers, and don't we, as writers, owe them that?

If you are going to do NaNo again this year, or if you're going to give it a try for the first time, look for me. I'm in there as suspense2009. NaNo is a lot of work and takes up a great deal of time, but I can speak from personal experience when I say that you can end up having the time of your life. You could also end up with a marketable project at the end of it--or as in my case, a few months down the road with a lot of editing and polishing. Use it for what it is--it is a chance to just sit down and write and enjoy every minute of it, and that's what we've been talking about here today. Never forget that, regardless of what it is you are writing, enjoy the time you devote to it, the project itself, the characters you create, the events you cause to occur, the whole process. Believe me, your finished product will end up being so much the better for it.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Did I Ever Tell You You're My Hero? Of course, there is still your paralyzing fear of pillow shams...

Heroes. We need them. We love them. They are all-knowing, kind to small animals, and an enviable lesson in perfection. Oh, really? How incredibly BORING! Yesterday, perhaps, this was what we looked for, and desparately needed. But today, I believe we might be looking at it from a different perspective.

The dictionary defines a hero as "1. A man distinguished for exceptional courage, fortitude, or bold enterprise. 2. One idealized for superior qualities or deeds of any kind. 3. The principal male character in a drama, fictional work, etc." Interesting, because the third definition is not necessarily in line with definitions one and two. The principal male character can, at times, be a really nasty fellow, who has no morals or conscience whatsoever. Now, that's fine, from a writing standpoint, because that's not the kind of hero we're discussing in this post.

Note that neither definition one nor two mention any type of 'goodness', yet all those characters in literature, as well as television and films, that we've categorized as heroes have all been fighters for peace and justice for all. They have generally been crimefighters, and have either preempted crimes from occurring or, through the use usually of some super power, detained the perpetrators following commission of a crime. They wore symbols of some type and most possessed the ability to fly (thus, the cape), had a type of extra sensory ability to see through walls and hear conversations from miles away, etc. Then, of course, there were the tights. They pretty much all wore tights, didn't they? So calm, so devoid of anger, so dedicated, so..., so YUCK! Perhaps in days past, these were the symbols of right and might that we looked up to, but of late, it would appear a different kind of hero has emerged. One who is not quite so perfect, not quite so dedicated, and never--I mean NEVER--would get within ten feet of a pair of tights. Who is this new champion of the underdog? I give you--a human being.

Yes. That's right. A human being. A down-to-earth, regular old, sometimes morally challenged, possibly incredibly flawed, human being. The kind of hero we aren't just able to look up to and admire (in a strange sort of way), but one we can actually relate to in a real sense. He can't see though walls, or hear conversations from miles away, and has to rely on his own judgment, which may or may not be anything to write home about. He wears no cape to assist with flight either, so he takes cabs, buses, drives his heap with the broken exhaust pipe, or just plain walks. He's a real person who, for whatever reason the writer chooses, decides to go beyond his regular nine to five day and do something grand. Maybe he succeeds, maybe he fails, but it is in the 'trying' that he fills our hearts with a little bit of hope that maybe this old world isn't quite as dark as we originally thought it was. And, after all, isn't that what heroes are supposed to do?

Without giving anything away to those who are unfamiliar with the following (and you should be ashamed if you aren't), a couple of examples of human type heroes (flaws and all) can be found in the film, Gone Baby Gone, and in Dave Zeltserman's novel, Small Crimes. Believe it or not, there's one in the film, Sling Blade, too, in a dark and damaged way. Characters in these, each in their own way, try to right a wrong, prevent further wrong from occurring, or do the wrong thing for all the right reasons. Unfortunately, when all is said and done, they don't necessarily end up on a float in a tickertape parade in their honor, but still, they follow their hearts, their minds, their conscience, etc., to the end of their chosen quest.

They are remarkable characters and quite unforgettable as well. They may not be 'good' in the most fundamental sense, but they are heroes still. They are the characters you concentrate on in the story, the ones you want to know the most about, and when you walk out of the movie, turn off the set or put the book down, they are the ones you will think about and wonder--if maybe he had only...; what if he had waited until... It doesn't matter if it's over and you will never see, or read about, this character again. You'll always wonder if somehow something had been different--even just a bit--if he could have maybe been saved too...

Whether or not you decide to include a 'hero' in your story (be it crime or horror), all depends on the story. It may seem odd to say, but not every story has a 'hero' in it. As we mentioned at the onset, the hero is not necessarily the 'good' guy, and just because you have one, that doesn't automatically make him the savior of lost souls. As the writer, you are the only one who knows for sure if any one of your characters is a true hero, but if you do have one, just remember this. Make him someone your readers can envision, get to know, relate to in the most real way possible.

Whatever you do, don't have him shower and shave every morning, only drink fruit punch, and consistently help old ladies at crosswalks. Give him a drinking problem, make him obsess over the color of his shoelaces, paralyze him if he encounters a certain shade of blue--I don't know. Make his complexes rational--make them completely irrational--but, make him flawed. Perfection gets old and extremely annoying after awhile. As a reader, as well as a writer, I like to read about those who walk the straight and narrow, just as much as anyone else. But, I also like to read about those who stumble on that road, and perhaps even fall a few times and skin their knees before they get up. But, you see? That's the point. They may stumble and fall, but they do get up and keep going, and keep trying to accomplish whatever it is they set out to do. When all is said and done, they may be bruised and bloody, but they've done something that seems grand, in the great scheme of things, without seeking the spotlight or a headline or two, and, in my heart, they will always be my heroes.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Coffee...? Tea...? Pea Soup...?

In this post, we are going to deal with a subject that some may consider taboo when creating a horror and/or crime tale, but this subject has been integrated very successfully in certain tales and/or movies involving horror or crime. Now, what could that almost controversial subject matter be? Well, believe it or not, it's children. You might be thinking at this point, that there are children in just about every movie, whether it be horror or crime, and why the mention of controversy. It's because we're not going to be discussing the peripheral use of children in stories. We're going to explore the use of children as focal points in tales of terror and/or mayhem, sometimes even portrayed as the initiator of same. Children, terrifying? Children, dangerous? Children, capable of violence? Oh, you bet. That, and then some. Let's explore some outstanding examples.

You might think that when a story or movie has dealt with a child in the genres of crime or horror that the subject matter was treated in a highly sensitive manner. Well, you would be very wrong. Consider The Exorcist, the story of a young girl possessed by a demon, implied to be The devil himself. If you've seen the film, you will agree that there was nothing sensitive about it. The girl was violent, profane, and terrifying. The film was too, but I'm specifically talking about the child herself. They pulled no punches with this one and scared the socks off those of us who saw it in the theatre and then had to drive home alone down a succession of dark streets. Oh mama...

Others I personally have really enjoyed that used children as their focus were Children of the Corn (where the sweet, innocent [hah] children sacrifice adults), Blue Heaven (a novel that involves children witnessing a brutal murder and then are pursued by the killers), Child's Play (where a killer possesses a child's doll), Poltergeist (where a small child is literally physically taken by evil spirits from a house built on an ancient burial ground), Pet Sematary (a child brought back from the dead who stalks and murders), The Good Son (one nice brother in the family and the other a violent killer), The Omen (the child of Satan himself is born into the world), and Rosemary's Baby (another birth of Satan's son--I'll never forget that line 'What have you done to its eyes?').

So many stories, so many films, all use children in some fashion. At times, they are the ones who terrify and murder; at other times, they are the victims of a seen or unseen force, and find a strength within that surpasses that of most adults. Either way, they are all remarkable characters and make for a very interesting read or viewing.

How the times have changed though. There is one film that I regard as the ultimate classic example of a disturbed and extremely dangerous child. That film is The Bad Seed. Yes, it is in black and white--it is that old, but worth seeking out and watching. It introduces the theory that violent behavior in children could possibly be genetic and shows a mother's pain trying to resolve demons from her own past and, at the same time, trying to save her young daughter from a life in an institution or prison. It is an emotional roller coaster ride and extremely well written. The acting is top-notch and looking into that child's eyes will absolutely horrify you. Then, the movie ends, and no--I won't give it away. My point in bringing this up is after the movie ends, the entire cast goes before the camera and smiles and acts SO normal. I read somewhere that, considering when this movie had been made, they didn't want anyone leaving the theatre with dark thoughts or actually believing anything evil had occurred. Yes, times certainly have changed, haven't they.

While things are most assuredly more out in the open these days and filmmakers and authors do want you to end up with dark thoughts and actually believe that the evil events did occur, as writers, we still have to use caution and common sense when incorporating children into our plotlines. Children can be brutal, but if they are to be brutalized, we must be careful to make sure we are not exploiting that somehow. Children are, after all, children--they are innocents--and whatever role they play in our storyline, we must tread cautiously. They can be killers or they can be victims. However a child or children figures into your particular story of crime or horror, just remember to use a little bit of common sense, and always let your heart guide you along the way.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Times They Are A'Changin--small is now the new BIG!

Writing crime fiction is an interesting and challenging endeavor. We have explored various aspects of crime, and even various types of crime. But just as important to discuss are the various levels of crime. In this post, we will discuss what are commonly referred to as "small crimes", and their place in works of fiction.

Now, you might think to yourself, small crimes? Is there such a thing? Isn't a crime a crime? Not according to various police districts around the world. I have read many articles, along with their unfavorable comments from the general public, about police departments being 'unable' to investigate what they term as 'small crimes'. This is due, as was explained, to a shortage of staff. What constitutes a small crime in the eyes of the law you might ask? According to the articles I've read, they all pretty much agree that small crimes would be certain thefts, criminal damage (defined in one as vandalism), common assault, harassment and non-domestic burglary (what?). Exceptions would be if any of these involved the elderly, the disabled, were racist or homophobic in nature, or a victim who had been repeatedly targeted. In those cases, the small crime would be classified as 'aggravated' and would possibly--I stress possibly--be pursued further. If, however, the crime was screened and determined to be small, it would be recorded, but not pursued. Interesting.

While it is very tempting to use this platform to make a social comment regarding how completely deplorable this practice is, I'll leave that up to you, the reader. I will say only that a crime against a person or a person's property is still a crime/violation, however 'small' a third party may determine it to be. And, it is the fact that in 'real life', if you will, the police do not strenuously pursue what they consider to be 'less serious' offenses, if at all, that lend these crimes perfectly to a work of fiction.

How could that be, you might be asking yourself? Who cares about tiny little crimes in a story anyway? Well, frankly, it's the new rage among a lot of crime writers because writing this type of fiction is a tremendous challenge. Oh, come on, right? How hard can it be to write about somebody commiting an act of vandalism? Okay, on its face, it may seem like a lot of drivel, but think again. How difficult can it be to incorporate a small crime, or crimes, in a story and still keep it interesting? I personally feel it would be quite the challenge, and in remembering some of the stories I've read recently that had utilized the 'small crime' plot base, the writer obviously dedicated a tremendous amount of time and effort to grab my attention from the first sentence and hang on to it until the very last word.

The way I see it, they accomplished that in one of two ways--the first, by having created incredibly strong characters. This can tie back to how you gear your writing--it is character-driven or event-driven? If you're the type of writer who allows their characters to drive the piece, then this is ideal for you. Your characters need to be complete in the sense that they have a past, a present and a potential future of some sort. They don't just need to have a few memories or whatever, they need to be so real that the reader sees them around every corner. Of course, whatever style you use, your characters should be written that way, but it is especially important when utilizing the small crime scenario. One or more of your characters could commit some type of small crime or crimes due to a compulsion or quirk of theirs. Maybe they are a prelude to a 'larger' crime, maybe not though. Don't assume the small crimes have to necessarily lead to grand theft auto or mass murder, because they could, but they do not have to. The small crimes, in and of themselves, or the drive to commit them, could simply be what make up and drive your character to whatever interaction with others and/or end awaits him.

Secondly, if you are the type of writer who allows events to drive their story, utilizing these little bitty crimes is perfect for you as well. Your character could be obsessed with performing some type of ritual that is, in reality, a small crime, or a series of them, in hopes of attaining some type of status or twisted reward they feel they're entitled to. They could perhaps use a series of small infractions occurring throughout to either taunt the authorities, or if they are planning to do something on a larger scale, they could be using the small crimes to try to redirect suspicion away from themselves to another individual. That way, when the larger event occurs, the police would already have someone else in their sights--someone they suspected, but never approached because the previous events had not been deemed serious enough.

The possibilities are endless using this type of scenario, but they take a lot of planning and plotting. All stories do--yes, but depending on what your premise will be, that will determine what type of plan and plot. And always remember how critically important the strength and depth of your characters are. Give them control, and the belief that they can successfully pull these off right under the noses of the police. That's not to say they'll never get caught in your story; although, it's okay sometimes to let the bad guy get away. Honestly, that can be fun too. But getting back to the small crime thing, I would strongly advise picking up some stories that use this base. You will find them fresh and innovative and impossible to put down. Don't let the phrase 'small crimes' mislead you into thinking you're going to read about someone overstaying their welcome at a parking meter--although, come to think of it, that might have potential...

The fact that in 'real life' police probably wouldn't be taking too hard a look at these petty offenses gives your criminal infinitely more freedom in your story to do pretty much as he/she pleases, and this is what makes for an interesting read. The more believable a crime fiction story is, the more potential it has to actually occur, and, for me (an avid reader of the genre as well as a writer), that's what keeps me hanging on and coming back for more of the same.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen: Step Right Up and Pick a Crime, Any Crime!

Yes, that's right. I did say pick ANY crime. A lot of writers believe that when writing crime fiction, one or more of their characters has to be the victim of a homicide, and their villain has to be a mass murderer or a serial killer, at least. This couldn't be further from the truth. There are many different crimes and many variations of each and any and/or all of them can be included in a work of crime fiction. Let's explore this in greater detail.

Homicide: Here's your classic crime. There are so many different ways that this type of crime can be approached for your story or your novel. You could have a crime of passion, you could have a locked-door type of murder mystery, you could have a serial killer traveling across the country or between different countries, etc. There's no limit to the different ways and means that could be used to direct the focus of your tale on a homicide. This type of crime can be incorporated into the story or become the driving force behind it. Either way, the possibilities are endless.

Robbery: Here's one I don't see utilized too often, but that has great potential. When I say robbery, it could be someone robbing the corner store that gets caught up in something bigger or perhaps witnesses something else going on at the time. It could also be the something bigger in the story, like the theft of priceless paintings across enemy lines in a war-torn country, or multi-million dollar jewelry on display that had been discovered with a mummy at a show in a museum. The theft could be the focal point of the story, it could be what draws the main characters together, or a sub-plot in a thriller. So many different things to steal--so many different ways to steal them. Give it a try.

Kidnapping: Now, here's one you could really have fun with. Whatever you do though, please don't kidnap the 'rich kid' for ransom and blah, blah, blah. Get creative with your plan. Kidnap the poorest guy on the block. What do you want for him? Hmmm. How about the key to a safety deposit box in Switzerland? Crazy? Maybe. But it's a different and unique perspective. You don't even have to kidnap a person. Kidnap an animal, a work of art--I don't know. You could actually kidnap anything at all and demand anything at all in exchange. Lots of possibilities here too. Let your imagination run wild.

Espionage: You might think 'no, no, no. I'm writing crime fiction, not spy stories.' Well, perhaps, but you know, espionage is a crime after all. You don't have to have shoe phones and high tech gadgets in your story and spies in black trench coats meeting under streetlights in Austria in February. You can have a fella selling company secrets to a competitor, photographing prototypes and offering them to the highest bidder... Spying doesn't have to just mean stereotypical 'spies'. It is a crime, so come up with something previously unheard of and put it in your crime fiction story. It has the potential to be very interesting and really cool.

Terrorism: Again, this is a crime. It can involve a country, a company, a group of people, or whatever. Terrorism is defined as the act of terrifying, so what you could do with this type of crime scenario is pretty much open to interpretation. It could be sub-plot of your novel or story or the focal point. Either way, there are many doors that could be opened using this crime as a premise. It could involve a group of "terrorists" or a lone psychotic driven to "terrify". It could involve hostage situations or elaborate weaponry--this could make for a really interesting read.

Arson: Let's not forget about this one. Your villain could start fires to cover up another crime (any of the above, actually) or perhaps just be fascinated with fire itself. The crimes could be copycatting to direct suspicion away from the actual perp. The fires could be small and damage property only, or they could potentially bring down a skyscraper (although, bear in mind that has been done over and over in movies). You do need to really think this one through to keep your focus or incorporation of arson original. There's a lot that can be done with this crime as well--both as a focal point or as a sub-plot.

So many crimes; it's difficult to go through all of them. Just remember one thing though. If it's a crime, it's usable in crime fiction. Don't get caught up in the idea that somebody always has to die because that's most definitely not true. While stories of murder and mystery are fascinating to write and read, we shouldn't be afraid to push our imagination outside that comfortable circle and take on something different. Different types of crimes will involve different types of characters and plotlines, and, as crime writers, we would be giving ourselves the opportunity to continue walking on the same path maybe, but wearing a different pair of shoes while we're doing it--so to speak. Stretch your imagination, get involved in a completely different type of research, create characters previously unknown even to us... I'm willing to bet a good time would be had by not only the reader, but the writer as well--and, as a writer of crime fiction, I want to enjoy writing the piece just as much as the reader hopefully enjoys reading it. Isn't that what it's all about?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Blocking the Block: What To Do When Your Mind Shuts Down

"They inched their way toward the edge of the cliff--Ellen moving forward, while Richard was stumbling backward, keeping his eyes fixed on the knife in Ellen's hand..."

"Susan could hear the footsteps on the stairs. No one should be in the building at this hour, she thought. What will I do if it's the serial killer? There's no unlocked offices on this floor..."

"Terry could feel the car skipping and jerking. He knew he shouldn't have taken the mountain road, but that route was so much shorter than going through town. There had been rumors of strange sightings up here, but that was all just hype to sell newspapers, wasn't it?"

Wow. Nice and tense yet? When you reach points like this in a story, it's a pivotal moment for sure. No telling which dark path the tale will take you down from that point forward. Fun? You bet. Let's finish it. Wait. What? Who is Ellen again? Why was Susan there to begin with? Terry didn't live in the town on the other side of the mountain, did he? Oh no! Let me go back to the beginning and re-read and maybe I can...


Okay, it's happened. You didn't think it ever would since it never had before, but odds are, sooner or later, you'd get 'the block'; two really nasty words to a writer. No matter how hard you try, you cannot create even one more paragraph in your story, not one more sentence, not even one more word. The plotline seems chaotic, the characters appear flat, and suddenly, the whole story begins to sag. This can't be possible. But trust me, it happens to us all. Now, you can do one of two things when it does occur. You can sit and feel sorry for yourself, become delusional, and lament the pitfalls of being a creative genius or you can remain in the real world, face it head-on and accept it as part of the creative process. Only then will you be able to leave the state of 'stun' and find yourself capable of moving foward with your project. How is that accomplished? Let's look at some potentially healing solutions.

1. One possible fix is what some writers I know use, and that is doing word puzzles. It doesn't much matter what form, just anything that involves making you think about words. For instance, crosswords are a popular choice, but again, any type of word puzzle will do. It keeps your mind focused on the words themselves vs. trying to string them together, and sometimes helps to clear the way back to creating a scene.

2. Another remedy, which I personally use, is reading. You don't necessarily have to read something of the same genre as that which you are writing either. If you are writing a horror short, read a light comedic novel. If you are writing a suspense flash, try reading a non-fiction article on global warming. Well, maybe not global warming... My point is, even if you are writing a murder mystery and you take time out to read a murder mystery, so be it; just take the time to sit and read. Don't think about your project while you're doing it--just read and enjoy.

3. One other activity that can end up being quite a lot of fun is what I like to call creating a 'story feed'. You can engage in this with writers you know or with total strangers. There are many online writers' groups, forums, etc., where you could start one. All you do is decide on the rule. For instance, each adds one sentence, then waits for two others to add theirs before you can add another. You could begin with that, then later change it to each adds a paragraph, but still waits for two others to add theirs before you can go back in. I have participated in these, and you would be amazed at what interesting stuff comes out of that. You can select a target genre at the onset, or you can leave that wide open and let it go where it will. Frankly, it's more enjoyable to let the story develop a mind of its own.

4. Another helpful tool is writing challenges, like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriNo). Most of us are familiar with that nightmare; I mean, delightful activity. It occurs during the month of November each year and each participant commits to writing a 50,000+ word novel during that month. No one reads your finished product; their computer only counts your words, so you could just put any old thing in there, let it validate your count, and get your winner's certificate But, cheating accomplishes nothing and you are only cheating youself out of benefiting from the experience. The benefit you get from a writing challenge like this is the fact that there is a deadline. Unless you are a professional, and make your living writing for a specific publication, you really don't have any deadlines. For some, without a specific date goal for completion, the mind tends to wander off course and we let it go. No big deal, but then we get frustrated and wonder why we have all those unfinished stories laying around. If you're one of those who functions better under time constraints, try one of the writing challenges to increase your self discipline, or simply 'pretend' one of the well-known zines can't go to press until your story arrives in their hands. Whatever floats your creative boat...

5. Lastly, and this I strongly recommend against, although some of my friends swear by it, just stay away from the writing/reading thing. Don't even write any letters to friends or relatives. Don't even attempt a shopping list. Reading and writing, in particular, are off limits. You set a deadline on this abstinence, mind you; it doesn't go on indefinitely, but you abide by it. When the deadline expires, you sit down and write. Write a word, write a line, write a 50,000 word piece, but write. Erase it all the next day if it's garbage, but write. If writing 'under the gun' (so to speak) works for you, then, by all means, give it a try. I've never tried this because I'm not sure I could scare myself enough not to cheat, but that's just me.

Whatever method works for you when the block comes, go at it 200%. Don't let this naturally occurring writers' curse bring your work to a permanent halt. The most important thing is to keep writing, keep creating, keep crafting. Don't leave Ellen, Richard, Susan and Terry hanging. They need you. And someday, your mind might even thank you for it too.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Who are you? What are you? Who moved the rock?

Now, creatures of the world of literature, please take no offense. They're only words. Just my way of presenting the topic of creating creature characters in horror tales. Before we explore those possibilities, let's first discuss the concept of horror itself.

Horror is defined as "a painful, strong emotion caused by extreme fear, dread, repugnance, etc.". Sounds pretty ominous, doesn't it? While I agree, for the most part, with that definition, I don't believe the concept should be restricted to refer only to ugliness. We have all read horror stories that terrified us and kept us awake night after night. Then again, we have all also read stories and/or seen films that were categorized as horror, but instead of giving us nightmares, we were blessed with fits of laughter. At times, it was simply a failure of the particular media to scare us. Not to blame the writer or producer, but what scares one person silly may not even phase another. Some subjects may cause a universal type of fear, while others may affect only a few.

Then, there are those horror classics, too numerous to mention, that were written to bring a smile to your face. They are deliberately humorous and, more often than not, cross the border into ridiculous. So, when you begin writing a horror story, and you start lining up your cast of characters, consider your desired outcome. Do you want to scare the socks off your readers or infect them with a case of the giggles? That's what is going to set the stage for your creature lineup. Now, let's talk creatures.

Animals: There are all sorts of animals that can be used in horror stories. It is not really necessary to create imaginary ones, unless your mind goes blank or you can come up with one that's truly unique. Pick an animal, like a dog for instance, and have an evil spirit possess it. Choose any animal and have an evil spirit possess it. Your story doesn't have to be a variation of the same old, same old if you use this premise. Just don't stereotype your possessed animal and create interesting and unique human characters to compliment it. Your story can end up containing elements no one's ever seen before and it could become a classic in its own right. It all depends on you and where you permit your imagination to go.

Humans with animal characteristics: Now, here is where you need to be extra careful to avoid stereotyping. Bear in mind too that all creatures of this type don't have to be grotesque to be frightening. In fact, sometimes, the more hideous their appearance, the more ridiculous they seem. Now, if it is ridiculous you're after, well, there you go. But, if it's generating paralyzing fear you're after, let's go a different way.

Let's take the vampire. We are all familiar with this killer of the night, with his razor-sharp fangs, dead eyes, ravaged skin, long black cloak, coffin residence... STOP! Scary? Maybe a century ago, but not these days. Maybe it's just me, but don't you think his victims just might be able to see him coming? Of course, he could always change himself into a bat and fly through an open window... Do me a personal favor and PLEASE DON'T USE THAT unless you're looking for laughs, because you'll get plenty with that premise.

If you want to terrify your readers with a vampire however, take a different approach. Sure, he will still need the fangs, but make him deliciously handsome and charming. His dead eyes could become hypnotic, and his skin pale and smooth as the silk shirts he wears. Make him strong and immune to destruction from sunlight. Maybe he could feel a bit run down, but not burst into flames. No black cloaks and coffins either. Make him wealthy and fashionable and prefer a penthouse view. Make him a sexy and seductive murderer--an uncaring, remorseless, indiscriminate killer. Make your vampire someone you could be alone in an elevator with and never suspect what he really is.

The familiar; that's what makes us feel comfortable and safe. It is also what can cause us to let our guard down, and that's how the victims in your story should react. Your readers won't feel all warm and fuzzy when they finish your story, and they'll be putting lights on all over the house, checking the peephole in the front door, and wondering what the creepy new neighbor is planting in his backyard garden at 1:00 am every other Tuesday.

BTW: If you should find out any details about your neighbor, I don't need to know.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What Really Scares You?

According to the dictionary, horror is defined as "a painful, strong emotion caused by extreme fear, dread, repugnance, etc." Now, fear is defined as "an agitated feeling aroused by awareness of actual or threatening danger, trouble, etc." These two states of mind are intertwined and travel hand in hand, both in life and literature. The important questions that those of us who write horror need to ask ourselves are: How can I instill those feelings in my readers? What setting should I use? What type of character(s) should I focus on? What events should I include? All necessary points to consider. Let's explore each one.

How can we instill a sense of horror and fear in our readers?

It has been said by those wiser than I to 'write what you know'. We all know that statement can be taken literally, or not, depending on what you're writing. When discussing horror, however, what we need to do is 'write what the reader knows'. While it is true that not much surpasses fear of the unknown, it is often the things or people in our lives that we are most comfortable or feel safest with, that we can come to fear the most, depending on the circumstances. If you want to build a strong sense of impending danger in your reader's mind, begin with something familiar, something cozy, and lull them into feeling all warm and snuggly. Then? Take it away - take it all away. Leave them suspended in mid-air - alone and confused - and trust me, they'll be afraid. They will suddenly see an individual or a situation they have encountered countless times and breezed through as terrible and terrifying. Your plotline will accomplish this, so plan it out well beforehand. Make sure your sequencing is right and the flow is smooth. Make sure you don't come at them like a speeding train. After all, you don't want them jumping out of the way, do you...

What setting should I use?

Here again, I would stick with what your reader knows. Dark, dusty, seemingly haunted mansions at the top of a hill are creepy, for sure. But, how many of us have ever visited or lived in one? A city you've created has potential as a setting for a dark tale, but if you're going to use a real one, make sure you're accurate with street names, etc. For all you know, one or more of your readers was born there, and they'll know right away that the intersection of Third and Foster is in the middle of Lake 'whatever', so watch out for that. The city or town, or even the country can be of secondary importance though, if you use a setting like a deserted building, a home, an apartment complex, an alleyway..., you get the idea. It is possible to keep it simple and still give your reader second thoughts about taking that overlooked trash bag to the end of the driveway after dark, or going downstairs to try to find that flashlight after the power cuts off. The familiar and the comfortable - turn them into the remote and the deadly.

What character(s) should I focus on?

You can go different ways with this. Some writers include 'people' as horror characters, while others prefer the inclusion of 'creatures'. What you use character-wise is a matter of personal preference. Writing about vampires and/or zombies can immerse your reader in that 'other' world while they're reading your story, and that's great, because that's your goal. But, if you want the fear to stay with them long after they've put your book down, one suggestion would be to stay in the 'reader's' world.

Let me say though, that there's not a thing wrong with killer worms and giant squids, and I personally love reading stories like that. I especially enjoy movies that contain 40 foot man-eating ants and headless corpses chasing campers through dark woods. But, in all honesty, I have a greater fear of knowing I'm being stalked by someone I've never met, or coming home and finding the back door open when I know I closed it before I left. This having occurred the day after I read in the newspaper that several convicts escaped from the local jail and were armed and dangerous. Reality. Things that could 'really' happen. Scary? Oh yeah!

What events should I include?

This will depend on your plotline. Are you dealing with a stalker? Does he leave notes or little tokens for the victim? Are there anonymous phone calls? Knocks on the door in the middle of the night? These can be focal points or peripheral occurrences, depending on where your story is going. Being held captive in an unfamiliar location by person or persons unknown worked superbly well in a story I'm sure we're all familiar with because while there is a lot of the unknown, there is also the 'could happen' factor. Any occurrence that is unexpected and has an unknown or known yet terrifying potential outcome would be very workable. It all depends on what you want to do to whoever you want to do it to. However again, 'do it' to your reader. Make sure whatever events you include remain in their subconscious as a 'real' possibility.

People love to read scary stories. It's exciting, it's exhilarating really, especially if what they're reading about could actually happen at any time. So, have fun, and get your scare on...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Take Ten Paces Forward, Turn, and...huh?

Alright, crime writers, what might your choice of weapons be?

Do you prefer a subtle and painless type of kill, like sedatives or some other type of drug, administered unbeknownst to the victim? Or,

Do you prefer the up close and personal type of kill, like using a garrote, a knife, or even your own two hands? Or,

Do you prefer a detached, silent type of kill, like a handgun with a silencer? Or,

Do you prefer a devasting, attention-grabbing kill, like using a bomb or arson, sometimes taking others out along with your intended?

This is a question that we, as those who write crime fiction, must answer time and again. As diabolical as it sounds, this is an issue we must face and resolve at the beginning of every piece of crime fiction we create, whether it be a short story or a novel. When preparing to begin to tell our tale, we must first examine our characters and our general plotline. Those who use the outline process would do the same. We carefully plan out who will be the 'bad' guy, or guys if applicable, and who will be the victim, or victims depending on the story. Then the work really starts.

First, you would need to explore the relationship between your killer and your victim, or even if there is one.

If you are creating a serial killer type of character, then the victims would be 'selected' ones. History tells us generally speaking, serial killers kill all their victims the same way. Now, if we've learned anything from history, nothing is ever absolute. Once you decide how your serial killer disposes of his victims, you might want to re-think being too predictable. Your weapon could still be consistent, but perhaps vary the circumstances a bit. Just something to consider. When you choose your weapon though, with a serial killer scenario, you probably want to stay away from grandiose gestures, like bombs or arson. Up close and personal types of kills would probably be the way to go.

If you are creating a spree killer type of character, again, history tells us those types of killers stay on the move, so you might want to consider a less intimate method. Guns, silenced or not, might be a good bet, possibly even a knife. They come in, they strike, they're gone, and on the lookout for another random kill.

When your killer, however, has some type of relationship with their victim - a real one, as in friends, acquaintences, or spouses - you may prefer a more hands-on method, like strangulation. One thing your killer might consider however, is strangulation is always homicide, while a drug overdose could be misinterpreted by the police as an accident or suicide. This would be a great weapon to use in the case of a mystery, where you don't want your readers to even suspect a crime has been committed until further on.

Then, you have those who commit their kill and then set fires to mislead the police and try to destroy evidence. This can also be a good plotline and add to the air of mystery. Was the fire the result of faulty wiring or was it arson? Great sub-plot potential there. If your crimes travel the road of high-end terrorism or espionage, then bombs might be your pick.

There's a lot to consider when you sit down to write a crime story. Great - you know who will do the killing and you know who will be killed. But how? While your weapon may or may not be a focal point of your story, it is still an important one. Look at all your options and be creative. Choosing the right weapon could add a whole new layer of suspense to your storyline.

One last thing: Remember always, when it comes to making your choice, as is the case for any other aspect of your story, research, research, and research. Don't just say 'so and so dropped eight sleeping pills in her bourbon'. Maybe eight sleeping pills wouldn't kill anyone; maybe they'd just cause an upset stomach after a twelve-hour nap. Don't ever assume this, that and the other will be fatal and undetectable. Your readers may not be forensic pathologists or chemists, but they will be able to see through a flawed murder plot, and then you've lost them. And we never want that to happen, now, do we...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

And you are...? And you are with...?

Characters, characters, and more characters. Who are these people? Do we even care who all these people are? Oh, you betcha! Character development is a critical component of any story, regardless of form, length, or genre. While our discussion may touch on horror or crime fiction characters, this is an element of writing we must all be very aware of.

'Susie walks slowly and silently down the dark hallway, fearing the moment she will reach the doorway at the end.' Really? Why? And, who is this 'Susie'? Why is she fearful of walking down a dark hallway? Is it because she thinks there might be a hole in the floor that might cause her to sprain an ankle? Or, is she afraid because as a child, her nanny used to drag her down this very hallway and chain her in one of the rooms? Does it matter which?

'Mary held the gun steadily in both hands, and looked into John's eyes for the last time. She smiled a soft smile, then pulled the trigger and he fell.'

What was Mary and John's relationship? Did he threaten to kill her and she was acting in self defense? Did Mary have a break with reality and think John was someone out of her past who used to abuse her? Or, is she a female serial killer who decided John would be her next victim? Do you need to know which?

These two examples are illustrations of a story's possible events. Now, just reading them as is, with no other information, they don't really hit you very hard as a reader, do they? Gee, somebody's scared. Oh my, somebody shot somebody. You move on and possibly skip the next few pages so you can find another event that might be a bit more interesting. Why? Characters. Or actually, the lack thereof.

When we write a character, be they major or minor, we can't just 'write' them. We need to 'create' them. We need to make them living, breathing, feeling beings that come right up off the paper and assault the reader's senses. The way we do this is to give them a life. We, as human beings, have pasts, we have memories, we have events that may have altered or helped to shape our lives, we have friends, we have likes, dislikes, etc. All these things are part of that which makes us what and who we are. Well, we need to also provide our characters with pasts, memories, events that may have altered or helped to shape their 'lives', friends, likes, dislikes, etc. All the things we have and are we must create for them.

Writers draw from different sources when they create characters. Some draw from their own lives, others draw from observations they make, still others use a combination of both. Whatever your 'inspiration', if you will, for the development of your characters, they must become three-dimensional; they must become 'real'. Otherwise, the things that happen to them, around them, or because of them, are meaningless. Nothing loses a reader's interest quicker than a story with characters you have no interest in; the reason being, you don't know them and frankly, can't know them either because the writer wouldn't let you.

We need to be able to open our hearts, our minds, and yes, our very lives, to these beings we create. It is necessary for us to infuse them with anger and hope, fear and happiness, sorrow and loyalty. 'Humanize' them. Make it so that the reader wants to laugh with them, cry with them, spy on them or tell on them. Make it so that the reader wants to bond in some way with your characters.

You can put explosions in there, gunfights, winged dragons spitting fire, and believe that's enough to carry the story, but unfortunately, without the core of 'real' people in there, the temptation is going to be strong for the reader to 'skim'. As writers, all our words are important. If they weren't relevant,we wouldn't have put them in there to begin with, right?

We want our readers to climb inside our stories from word one and stay there until we're ready to release them. One way to accomplish that is through the strength of each and every one of our characters. Don't be afraid to let your readers get to know them - and you.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Outline or No Outline: That is the Question!

Okay, you're all ready to tell your story. You know your characters' lives inside out; past, present, and future. All your locations have been thoroughly researched and you know them like the back of your hand. All of your events have been planned with split second precision. You sit down and place your hands on the keyboard. Your gaze moves slowly up to the blank screen. You take a breath, and place your fingers on the keys. The...? No, erase. He...? No, erase. She...? Or...? You've got a big problem.

This kind of problem doesn't just occur when you are beginning a writing project. It can also occur at any point, or even at the end. That's when you have to make a decision. You need to decide if you want to draw up an outline first and then begin to write your story, or just wing it. Believe it or not, there are advantages to both.

Personally, when I'm writing a short story, it is easier for me to just write 'off the cuff', so to speak. I get an idea in my head for the story and I just sit down and write it. When I'm finished, there may or may not be a lot of editing involved, but the story is pretty much done. There are points where I may run into a snag, but all in all, with a little time, I can work my way through. Now, when it comes to a novel length project, that's a whole other ballgame.

Novel length works can become quite complex, depending on genre. Character interaction is extensive, and adding numerous sub-plots is quite common. Even in this case, however, there are conflicting opinions.

I have spoken with writers who wouldn't go anywhere near their keyboard without a completed outline in hand. Then again, there are others who told me that they prefer to write their novel in novel form vs. writing their novel in outline form first, then putting in a few filler words to complete it. There was a real bitterness there, and I sensed a great animosity toward the whole outlining process, so I decided to try to find out why.

I had never used the process myself, so I was unfamiliar with an outline style. I put the word out in a couple of writers' communities that I belong to that I was looking for outline styles, and you wouldn't believe the varying responses that I received. Some abhor the idea of putting their plot down in III.C.1.a. form; but others? Wow. I was astounded by how much time and effort went into their 'pre-writing' process.

Their formats included various sections like 'brief intro', which should run approximately 500 words, then 'major crisis point', also to be approximately 500 words, add various 'minor crisis points', these to be approximately 250 words. Then, you have your character descriptions, and these should include every character in the story, however minor their role. These descriptions should include the character's background, role in the story, who they interact with and why, and..., etc., etc. These descriptions should also run about 500 words each. There were other categories, which included chapter by chapter breakdowns, and so on, and before you know it, you've got approximately 50 to 60 pages worth of outline. Now, they sit down to write.

Others responded with a much looser format. A paragraph describing how the story begins, the major event or crisis point, and a basic description of how the story ends. There were character descriptions, but they didn't have to be encyclopedia length. Once they drafted a rough overall sketch of their story, they were on their way.

Then, you have those who feel they may as well have their hands tied behind their backs as draft an outline. They feel as if they will be locked in to what the outline says, as if once it's written, it takes on a life of its own. There can't be any flexibility, or change in plot line or characters, and if they end up not liking the story anymore, there's no option but to finish it per the outline and then move on to another. Strange, but true.

So. What do you do? Well, let me tell you how I approached this dilemma. I still don't attempt an outline with my short stories because so far, I haven't found breaking them down into that much detail necessary as of yet. But with a novel I'm writing, the time had come for a big decision.

Now, I have already completed one that I could probably categorize as a 'novella' length project. Writing it was a lengthy process, but I wrote it from start to finish with just a few notes. But my second? That's a whole different thing. Before I began, I knew how I wanted the story to begin, had the middle pretty well worked out in my head, and I certainly know how I want it to end. But to get there? Whoa. So many characters, all necessary. So many interactions, all necessary. So many sub-plots, all necessary. All necessary components to pull this thing together. I wrote the intro and five hefty chapters and... Yeah. And, what? I got so overwhelmed with the complexity of it all, I thought to myself, try an outline.

I compromised though, and combined the complicated type with the simple type and my format runs somewhere in between. Not so involved that I am actually writing the story in outline form, but then again, no so loose that I am totally lost every time I finish writing a paragraph. And what was the result? I'm back on track with it and on my way to completion. At times, there are changes here and there, but that's okay. My outline forgives me.

So you see, the outlining process is like anything else. Too much of anything can be a bad thing; everything in moderation. If you decide not to outline, relax, create, and go with the flow. If you decide to outline, relax, create, and go with the flow. The process of telling your tale should not be a stressful one, so whatever road you take to get from start to finish, try to ride right down the middle. Makes for a really pleasureable trip.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Pardon Me, Do You Have The Time?

What time is it in your story? No, not the clock kind. I'm talking about the century and year kind. This is a very important component when you decide to tell a tale. Whether you are working on horror or crime fiction, the time period is of critical importance. Actually, the important thing about your time period is your degree of accuracy with it.

One place to start is with your proposed location. If you are setting your story in the early 1800's, make sure your street names aren't 'Hollywood and Vine'. Plenty of research will be necessary in this regard once you decide on the basic setting. Will it be a ficticious village or town, or will it be an actual city? What is the place called now, and was it called the same thing back then? What mode of transportation was used during that time period and in that particular area? Were there gas lamps or street lights at night? These may seem like minor points, but trust me, there is nothing minor about any of these. It's not going to take a historian to recognize discrepancies, and once a couple are noticed, you've lost your reader.

What about the people in your story? How are they dressed? Where do they shop? What kind of place employs them? If you are going to create three-dimensional characters, you will be giving them a life outside of, and in addition to, your events. Details about their personal lives must reflect the times in which they live. With reference to your characters, there are also two other considerations. One is their manner of conversation, yes, how it is that they speak to each other. Do they use any slang expresssions and if so, did that expression even exist at that time? Another thing to focus on when it comes to conversations, how do they relate, verbally, to each other and to members of their family? You have to admit that families in the year 2009 relate to each other a lot differently than they did in 1809. Roles within the family were also quite different. There was no 'mom' and 'pop' or 'I'll be home around 11-ish' back then. While it is important to get inside your characters and pretty much become them, don't 'become them' too much and leave part of yourself there if you're writing about times past. Again, research it out, thoroughly.

Now, we come to the events of your story, be they horror events or crimes. Even though you may have a bit more freedom when it comes to horror, you still need to be careful to be true to the time period. When it comes to crime fiction, the dangers are everywhere. You need to consider what type of crime will be incorporated into your story. Tragically, crimes of all kinds have occurred over the ages, but one thing about them has changed over time, and that is the weapon. Now, if your crime is one that is up close and personal, you don't have a problem. Hands that are used for purposes of strangulation haven't changed much over the years. But, if you're going to use a specific weapon, like a gun or a knife, that's where the tricky part starts. Here we go again with research, and lots of it. Very necessary.

What about detection by law enforcement? What about law enforcement itself? Police hundreds of years ago and police today? Well, I don't think anything more needs to be said about that with the exception of how your criminal is going to get caught, or at least sought. Let's remember the time period. There weren't always 'forensics', 'DNA', and Luminol. Let's remember there probably was a time when there was no such thing as fingerprinting either. You can make catching your criminal tremendously complex or it can be just a matter of collecting clues and arresting the obvious individual. It all depends on the 'when', and what kind of investigative tools were available to whatever type of law enforcement was utilized at the time.

There are a lot of points to consider when sitting down to create a tale, and the time in which your story happens is an important one. I cannot stress enough the importance of research in this regard. You may think no one will notice tiny mistakes like remarks in a casual conversation or some display one of your characters sees in a store window that are way out of place, but let me tell you something. Readers are who we write for, and if they do notice such careless errors, we may lose them for that particular story, and future ones as well. But, you know, even if they don't catch us in a mistake, don't we still owe them the very best we can deliver?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Location, Location, Location

Yes, we all know that to be an important factor in the real estate game, but is it an important part of writing a story? You bet it is. In my opinion however, I think there are different things to think about when choosing a primary location when you are writing horror vs. crime fiction.

When it comes to horror, there is always the option of creating a ficticious town or city with points of reference that have no bearing on reality. In some ways, that does help to make the 'horror situation' a bit more believable, I think. Of course, that all depends on what type of horror story you're writing. If you're writing about creatures and the like, sometimes it comes across a little bit better when you've made up the locale. If a real place is referenced though, it is very important to be as accurate as you can be. Make sure you are very familiar with the city and its streets and landmarks because when you run into a reader that's from that place, trust me - they will catch any and all mistakes should you make any. So and so street doesn't run east and west - it runs north and south, or such and such hotel is off main street, not on it. Once something like that happens, you've lost the reader and then it won't matter how good the rest of the story is. They won't read any more of it. I sure wouldn't.

You also have to make sure that whatever real places you reference can accommodate the horror you are bringing to it. Be careful when you decide to have to evil spirits duke it out downtown and turn landmarks into dust. It's a bit easier for the mind to conjure up a picture like that when it's occurring on main street in 'insert your town name here' as opposed to on main street in Seattle.

When planning a primary location for a horror story, consider first what type and what magnitude of horror you plan to inflict on it. That should assist you in making the decision as to whether you should scope out a map, or pull a name out of the air.

When it comes to crime fiction however, I think it's a whole different ballgame. You have pretty much a free reign when it comes to this genre. I personally have always been intrigued with the nameless, rainy, always-on-the-edge-of-nightfall type of place. This type of location seems to invite any and all types of crime. You don't have to be concerned with what hotel the killer is hiding in or what streets the police are staking out. Make them up as you go along. Concentrate on the characters, the events, the suspense, the chase... If you are going to use a real place to base your story in, that works really well for crime fiction since crime can happen anywhere. Too, you don't have to limit yourself to certain types of crimes or certain types of criminals either. Anything goes. But again, I cannot stress enough the importance of accuracy.

With crime fiction, you are not dealing with giant lizards or ghosts from the great beyond. You are writing about people. Now your criminals are going to be crazy, cruel, clever, psychotic, dangerous, whatever qualities you decide to give them, but remember, they will still be people. I think the reader will be much more sensitive to the accuracy of a location when the human element is involved. They will not be caught up in so and so's sharp talons or capabilities with casting spells. They will be paying very close attention to what apartment building the victim lives in that the killer is stalking. Maybe they were born there. Or, they will be trying to picture themselves standing in line at the bank on the corner of wherever when the armed robbers storm in, since they just opened an account there last week.

Again, if you plan to use real places, never guess and hope no one will notice. People love to read stories that are based in their home state, city, town, whatever, and they will be watching you like a hawk to make sure you did the place justice. Make up your locations from start to finish or do plenty of research or even visit the place you decide to use to familiarize yourself with it and those who live there. That's important too, you see, if you want to keep it believable. If people who live in a small town are a very close-knit group and hesitant to accept outsiders, you wouldn't want to have your character arrive one morning and be greeted with open arms and a ticker-tape parade. It just won't do.

Whatever genre you're working with, your base location is very important. It will not only help you to grab your readers, it will most certainly help you to hold on to them too.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Title Anyone?

Let's begin at the beginning, shall we? Whether the tale be crime or horror, novel or short story, the title is critical. This is the first thing the reader will ingest; well, not exactly the first. The first will be your cover art. Unfortunately, a lot of us really don't have a whole lot to say about that, especially when it comes to your first few publishing accomplishments. So, let's just bypass the cover art issue and deal with the title. How do you choose it?

Well, one thing to consider when selecting an appropriate title for your work is to consider what drives the story, events or characters. This is tough to put into words, but readers, and writers alike, will understand. You can tell if a tale is event driven or character driven just by reading it. Which is not to say that an event driven piece does not have interesting or well developed characters or character driven pieces have no relevant occurrences. This is simply to say which has more power in your story. Are the events in and of themselves where your focus lies and the characters an integral component of them? Or, are the characters, their lives, the workings of their minds, their pasts, and their relationships the foundation of your story and are the things that happen to them simply a result of who they are, and therefore, inevitable?

I know this sounds like a lot of double-talk, but you really can tell the difference. It's, as I said before, just kind of hard to explain. Anyway, depending on what drives your piece, that will most certainly play a big role in what title you choose. A lot of books concerning the old west are titled with the names of the towns they are based in. A lot of mysteries, and horror stories as well, are titled with the name of the main character. You know which ones I mean. These are perfect examples of what drives those particular stories.

Horror story titles can do well with the name of a creature or a spooky place or some such thing, but crime fiction is a bit different. There's no reference that can be utilized to the crime itself since it didn't really happen, or the perpetrator since they don't really exist. So, what do you do?

For me, I try to look at the relationship between my 'good' character and my 'bad' character and try to come up with some phrase or image that sets the tone for their interaction, and I begin with that. Oftimes, my 'working' title remains as my 'final' title; although, there have been occasions when, following completion of a project, I replace the title in its entirety after I have a better feel for where the story has gone.

It's not an easy process; for me, anyway. The title is very important and it has to be 'just right'. How many times have we glanced on the rows of books on a store shelf and slid right by most of them just based on the title? There may have been quite a number of very interesting stories in between those covers, but we pass them up based on our first impression, which was based on the title alone. Crazy? Maybe. But, books ARE judged by their covers...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hello, everyone!

I am new to this site and I look forward to meeting you all. First, let me provide a bit of background.

Currently, I am working on my second crime fiction novel, and a horror short story. I am also participating in ViNoWriMo, and plan to participate in NaNoEdMo. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these writing events, NaNoWriMo is the National Novel Writing Month, where participants write a 50,000+ word novel during the month of November. The subject is at the discretion of the writer, as is the genre. It is submitted for a final word count, and winners receive a certificate. ViNoWriMo is Vicious Writers Novel Writing Month, where participants write a 50,000+ word novel during the month of January, and the winner receives a $500 prize and publication on their site. The genre is open to the writer, but Vicious Writers provide the subject the novel should focus on, which makes for an interesting variation. NaNoEdMo is the National Novel Editing Month which takes place in March, where participants log in editing hours. Generally, this time is used to edit their NaNo project to hopefully edit it down to a marketable level and possible sell it.

Working on all these projects keeps me very busy, but I'm sure everyone out there will agree that it is important to write, write, and then write some more. I very much enjoy weaving a tale of mystery, suspense, or horror, sometimes all simultaneously! Sure makes for interesting dinnertime conversation!