Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Some Components of Writing

Dear Readers,

An author wrote asking for my brief explanation of some writing components. I decided to answer him on this blog, as others may find some of these useful as well. 

Theme can be summarized by “what are you really saying?” A book may be about a kid and adventures with his dog, but (in a horror story) what you’re really saying is if you commit sins your dog is going to die. It’s the old “the moral of the story is...” routine. Theme, and theme treatment may be far more subtle than that (which is why so many English lit classes spend so much time on theme), but it boils down to what you are preaching. Everything points to theme, but often a reader won’t understand the theme until the end of the book.

Voice extracts several components from an author and his/her abilities. Behind the tone and mood of the book, there is a whisper that is the voice of the author. Since in a well-written book the author does not intrude, the voice is a guiding hand, or guiding light that is omnipresent, yet subtle. Voice is almost easier to explain by what it is not: it is not gee-haw! nor lugubrious. It is the power source behind the tone; the reason the author chose certain words to convey a mood. In this way, tone, mood, and voice have a comradeship.

Balance: The more complex a book, the more important the balance. In a thriller, it is common to set the stage in a light or common, everyday scene; drop some foreshadows (or not); then wham! the inciting incident. This ties in with incident timing, as well. But say you go for a hundred pages where Mary Sue is deciding which shoes to wear while the man in the next aisle over is stalking her. You’re going to wear out your reader. Balance the dark with the light; hope with despair; shock with relief. Today it’s common to start in the middle of an action scene and keep upping the ante. This can make for a wild ride and many successful books have been written this way. But if you want a book that is gripping, you have to get in the reader’s guts. Make him care about the character. Let him think the character might make it. Then can’t make it. You do that by using polarities and maintaining the balance.

On a broader scale, balance means don’t have a two hundred page fight scene in a romance novel. The type of action should suit the genre and not conflict. And from another perspective, balance could include balancing description and dialogue with action.

As an additive, balance can also mean maintaining a sense of style. If you’ve just had eight cups of coffee and written a chapter from the chandelier, it may not mesh well with the darker and slower chapters you wrote after a glass of wine.

Dialogue that is well-written carries the reader along through the story line without noticing that it’s dialogue. It reads like people talking and is mixed with hand gestures, scratching heads, or whatever else people do when they’re communicating. I read an entire book (experimental) that was written using nothing but dialogue. Intriguing though it was,  I was left wondering how anyone could talk that much. Good authors know how to balance dialogue with description. They almost hear a beat in their head when there’s a pause in the voice, and have the character do something that would happen in real life. For example, if you’ve got several lines of dialogue running, say in an argument, the character might take a break by slamming his fist on a table. This underscores without statement the tone of his communication, and also helps to ground the reader with the room. Dialogue without action and description can leave a reader wondering which planet he’s on.

Description: This is one of my favorites. Most authors have heard of “purple prose,” and think it means poetic prose. It doesn’t. It means (basically) pontificating and going “out-of-voice.” The author has someone else in his head he’s trying to emulate and tends to use words he doesn’t understand. Poetic prose is useful in description in small doses. It adds an element of beauty behind the action and works if the action warrants that type of description. Two lovers walking on the beach, sure. But an antagonist sneaking up on the protagonist with a machete...the description of the environment should have spiked leaves, sharp rocks, acrid smells, and other descriptive elements that lend to the action scene. Of course, if you’re trying to surprise the reader, give him a nice, pleasant environment, birds twittering, lovers kissing, then wham!

The main purpose of description is to ground your reader and set the stage.

Plot turns: In the olden days, some books might have been written without plot turns and just focused on one point of action, but since the advent of movies, readers have learned to expect them. Thrillers, particularly, demand plot turns and tight pacing. A good plot turn will surprise even the author. The first turn, or inciting incident, should occur within the first five to ten pages of a book. I’d say five for a thriller. They occur at regular intervals throughout the book, but a major one is at the end of each act (novels have at least three acts, just like plays). But that doesn’t mean to only put three plot turns in the book. Three is a rule of thumb to demarcate where the major turns occur.

A plot turn is a shock to the protagonist and the reader. If it isn’t, it isn’t a strong plot turn. It propels the novel forward, in a new direction. In a thriller, it would intensify the danger and increase the speed of events.

Point-of-view: The most common point-of-view issue is mixing points of view, or head-hopping. Some new authors mistake head-hopping for the omniscient point of view. Unless an author is writing in first person, or (more rare) second person, today’s books are mostly close-third (or third-person limited) person. This means the author is focused on events mostly  from one person’s point of view. He may duck into the person’s head and actually be thinking aloud, using terms the character would use—not the author’s voice. Sometimes authors will switch point of view with a major scene change or new chapter. This is okay to do. Head-hopping occurs when the author switches points of view in the same scene or (worse) same paragraph. Omniscient point of view gives the same weight to each character, and normally contains an undisclosed narrator (the author).

With multiple character points of view in a novel, it is easy to slip and head-hop, but a professional will edit these out.

Timing encompasses some different things in a novel. The timing, or pacing of sentence structure contributes to the tone of the piece. An author will tend to develop his own rhythm in structuring the cadence of his sentences—his own poetry. This is fine, but can make an otherwise stellar work become monotonous, if he isn’t aware of it. For example, if he uses two long sentences, then a short frequently, his work may seem formulaic and become uninteresting. Sort of like listening to a vacuum cleaner. So timing in cadence, and mixing it up a bit, might be a good thing.

Timing of events is critical to the power in the novel. If events happen before the author has developed sympathy for the characters, then who cares? If the author builds acres of good feeling with nothing happening, the reader becomes bored. But if the author has successfully lulled us into sweetness and light then wham! he’s done a good job.

A reader’s boredom is a novel’s kiss of death; to avoid it, the author must time events to peak and maintain interest.

Tension is the key component to a good mystery, horror novel, or thriller. The description of the blood and guts will not a fine book make. It is the getting there, the path, the journey, that must increase the morbid fascination with each word building each sentence to each paragraph. Each word is chosen for its weight, and subtext. The description of the environment helps to build tension. Use polarities. Put an innocent person in a dark alley=tension. It’s even better if the person is so innocent he or she doesn’t know enough to be afraid. Add a scraping sound. Oh, the sound was only a cat. Smile. Kneel. Pet the cat. Calm. Now a stringer of something moist coming down your neck. From above your head.

Tension is about vulnerabilities. Know your characters’ strengths, and turn them into weaknesses. And know your characters’ weaknesses. Build an antagonist who is the mirror image, albeit a dark image, of your main character.

Each chapter should end on a wrap—where the topic of the chapter has been intensified and a question or resolution proposed, but it should end with a stronger question or danger to make the reader want to read the next chapter.

The closer the action, the tighter the scene. The more the tension, the shorter the sentences.

Skipping the Rules: Authors should know how to write, to break the rules intelligently.
New rules:
· Don’t emulate another author. Find your own voice by spending time writing from your heart to your soul.
· Novel authors are not required to always use complete sentences or never split an infinitive. Conveying mood, intention, characterization, and scene is more important.
· Go into readers’ minds, into a secret place that is almost telepathic. There is nothing more intimate, so be responsible.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Move Forward with your Forewords!

Oh, sheesh. I've just seen it again. A self-published book well-edited, formatted correctly, with a "Foreward" by someone with a real or imagined notoriety.

Come on folks. If you want to be a real writer, learn to spell, and learn the difference between forward, foreward, and foreword.

So what are the differences?

Foreward: Misspelled "forward."

Foreword: Like, front word. An introduction to a book, generally written by someone of notoriety.

Forward: Moving in an onward direction.

We have INDIE reputations to uphold, folks. PLEASE get this one right.

What are your pet peeves in Indie Books?

Friday, August 30, 2013

How to Write a Book Review--The Basics

What Makes a Good Book Review?

Some people figure if they've read a book that their opinions matter and they write reviews for other readers to persuade or dissuade them from reading the book. However, if you read through a number of these reviews, you’ll discover that not all things looking like chocolate are, indeed, tasteful. A good review means a review with helpful intent, not necessarily “good” in the sense of five stars.

With Goodreads and Amazon both displaying reviews around the internet, more and more authors depend on these to get ahead, yet it seems the reviews are losing their validity due to lack of knowledge of the reviewers. Fewer readers use reviews in making decisions due to bogus reviews and reviews written by amateurs.

Writing a professional review begins with self-examination.

Huh? How did this get in there? You just read the thing and now you want to spew about it. But honestly, you need to ask yourself why. Writers are not programmed machinery and their livelihoods depend upon the sales from their books. Many spend thousands of dollars and live hand-to-mouth bringing their very best work to you. So you need to ask yourself: Am I so small and mean that I want to destroy this author just because her opinion is different than mine? Did I truly love this book and where it took me, and want to share the joy with the world? Was it just a so-so book that would be good on a plane, but I probably would choose something else if I had to do it over again? If you received the book for free, you may be more cavalier in your criticism than if you had paid for it, subconsciously thinking it doesn’t have as much value as one you purchased.

As is written in the temple at Delphi: Know Thyself. To write a good review, you must examine your own motives, first.

A professional review is not a book report.

We all had to do these in elementary school. It’s like a mini synopsis that tells all the high points and low points in the book, and it also includes whether or not you liked the book and why. It may contain some or all the characters and plot turns. It gives away the book. Giving away the meaningful points of the book is called revealing “spoilers” as it spoils the book for those who read the review. A professional review does not contain “spoilers,” but if it must (to make a salient point), a warning of “spoiler alert” precedes the spoiler to allow the reader to decide if he wants to continue reading the review. Skilled reviewers will be able to review the book without using spoilers because skilled reviewers are most often skilled writers.

A professional review is not a critique of every error.

Some “reviewers” lack self esteem and think the way to build themselves up is to tear down the author or style of writing. The book may only have four typos, but these reviewers will be sure to mention them. The book may start slow, but without understanding why, the reviewer will underscore this with the intent of slashing down the author’s work. Know this, there is not a book on the market without typos or writing styles that do not appeal to all. To mention these, to focus on these, just means you read the book looking for reasons to tear it down, rather than approaching the book (and the author) as a friend with whom you intend to go on an adventure.

This is not to say that if the author failed to have the book edited or doesn’t have a basic understanding of grammar that s/he shouldn’t be called out on this. I’m talking nit-picking here. And it goes to the first item above: what is your intent?

A professional review is not a beta reading exercise.

One way to earn brownie points (which are chocolate) with an author is to let him or her know when you have spotted something in the text that might be embarrassing. I recall one time a manuscript got away from me where the word processor’s spell check had replaced a critical word with something unseemly. Yikes! A good reviewer (and friend to the author) would let the author know right away, and not embarrass the author by broadcasting it on the internet. Besides, as soon as it becomes known, the author will change it, then the reviewer will look like an idiot for mentioning something that is no longer there.

Some reviewers, however, write like they are providing feedback for a beta read. This means they are providing criticizing details to the author to allow him/her to “fix” the book. By the time the book is on the market, the reader should be reading with the intent of enjoying the story. Most readers will allow minor typos, little issues of style or grammar to pass unnoticed, as long as they enjoy the story. This is the grown up approach.

A professional review is not nasty.

Professional reviewers like to read and they recognize that authors are their friends. The authors, after all, are those who struggle with producing the best works they can for the readers’ enjoyment. A professional reviewer approaches every review with the knowledge that the number of stars given to a book helps or hinders the author’s chance of being seen by the big distribution houses. A true pro will not, out of spite, give a one-star review to bolster his or her own ego, attack a competitor, or try to destroy a reputation. We all knew kids like this in school. Many of these reviewers don’t even read the book. They’ll download it when it’s free so it shows “verified purchase” and then make stuff up.

If you are an author and write in a similar genre, be very careful that your own envy or fears are not what is driving your review pen.

So those are some things a professional reviewer is not. What should a reviewer be, then?

How to write a good review

Again, examine yourself. Did you enjoy the story and for the most part the way it was written? If so, say so. Are you a nit-picky person who couldn’t get past a single misplaced comma? If so, say that you are nit-picky, but that thing stuck with you—or leave it out of your review, recognizing the flaw is in you, not so much the book. Were there some issues with the book that made it unreadable, such as numerous misspelled words, grammatical errors, or lack of editing? Say so. In other words, know the difference between your own hang ups and issues with the book. And by all means, if you are going to stoop to criticizing a typo in a book, don’t use double parentheses incorrectly in your statement.

In structuring your review, look to yourself first. "I enjoyed this book because..." If you must say something negative, couch it in a positive and helpful manner, and back it up with substance. "Between chapters seven and eight a section seemed to be omitted. I might have missed something, but suddenly there was a new character and I never found out where he came from."

Reviews are subjective. Don't try to be an English professor or authoritarian. This is about what you did or did not like about the book as a reader. If you intend to become a professional reviewer, people will not ask you to review their books if you are a meat grinder. Others will mark whether or not they found your reviews helpful, and too many negative votes for you will reduce your status as a reviewer.

A good book review enlightens readers that follow and helps them make a decision to purchase the book (or not). That’s a lot of power you’re wielding, there. Your review should be honest and thoughtful. Be a friend to the author and to yourself. You should be able to look the author in the eye afterward knowing you did your best to write a Zen-like, egoless review.

Copyright 2013 Yoly Fivas All Rights Reserved

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Price of FREE books! Why Leave a Review?

These are the facts the author you know won't tell you because it's indiscreet.

Friends, family, and thousands of unknown friends and tweeters often take advantage when an Indie author sets his/her book to free. Many people ONLY download free books, taking advantage of the authors' generosity. But some of these same people never buy a book and don't even have the courtesy to leave a review.

Does that mean you have to leave a review? No. In fact, if you don't like the book or decide not to read it later the author would rather you didn't leave a review because it can hurt the person's chances of success. (However the author might like to know in a private email why you didn't like it). But if you did like the book, the reviews help. Why? Visibility. That is why the author is giving you the book for free to begin with. S/he is hoping that he can amass enough positive reviews so that the big book promoters will pick up the book and help the author to promote it. What happens then? Hopefully, sales.

You see, a self-published author (a good one, anyway) puts in anywhere from 2000 to 6000 hours of writing time, and up to several thousands of dollars for cover, editing, proofreading to bring you the book. That you are reading for free. Can you imagine how you would feel if your employer expected you to work for free for years and then your boss said, "Well, there are so many other people out there, why should I pay you?" All the author really wants is a chance to see if you like his or her work. And if you do, the least--the minimum--you can do is leave a nice review.

And if you're downloading so many books that you feel overwhelmed and don't have time to read them all, stop it. You'll find the books you do download are more precious, more meaningful, and become a better read if you don't minimize their worth.

Treasure your authors as your authors treasure you.