Friday, April 27, 2012

Mark Your Path To Balance In Writing

Last time I said I'd talk about a technique for making sure your stories have the proper balance. First, though, let's establish that balance is often a means to an end. Balancing plot, setting, and character is a good place to start, but adjusting the balance between the three elements is the real goal. As a writer of thrillers, I want my books to be slightly plot heavy, and I leave much of the narrative about setting out. I try to relegate my character development to the dialogue between my characters. 

But first there needs to be a reliable method for judging the writing, chapter by chapter, page by page, and sentence by sentence. I use the marker method, and it works very well. I first heard about this while talking to another writer, but I didn't really understand the system until I read a how-to article in one of the writing magazines. I tried it, and it worked like a charm!

Because we are looking for three different parameters within our writing, we need three different colours of magic markers: one for plot (I use red), one for character (blue), and one for setting (green). I tackle this job one page at a time, working from a printed copy. Here is a short excerpt  from "Judgment Tramp", and I've coloured the sentences according to how I think they relate to the story.

Agent Ricci was sitting in the driver's seat of a battered, government-issued Ford Crown Victoria with the driver's side front window down, making notes on a legal pad.
“Get in, Mr. Maclean,” she said. She started the car. “We need to talk.”
“Good morning to you too,” I said crossly as I closed the passenger door and buckled my seat belt.
“It hasn't been anything like a good morning,” she said as she backed out of the space. She gunned the engine and made a U-turn to go up the hill away from the beach. “Where can we get a decent breakfast?”
“I've already had breakfast.”
“I could care less. You can sit in a booth and watch me eat.” She looked away from the road for a moment and gave me a cold stare.And then you can tell me why you lied to me yesterday.”

The first sentence is solid blue, and it tells us a lot about Ricci, even without knowing anything about the book. The next sentence is more about plot--she needs to "talk", and given what the first sentence tells us, that means she has some questions for Eb Maclean, so this sentence is marked red. 

Eb isn't happy, and his reply shows it, so his response is marked blue for character, but then he is in the car, buckling his seat belt--the car has become the setting, and this part of the sentence is marked green.

The rest of the excerpt is marked accordingly, and the excerpted example shows a reasonable balance between plot, setting, and character.

Some sentences will be marked with more than one colour--perhaps red and blue if the sentence serves to reinforce plot and character at the same time. Once a chapter is marked it is easy to see if there is one predominant element in the writing, and if the balance isn't to your liking you can change it easily.

The marker method can be expanded if you wish. I know of one writer who uses the marker method  to check to see if the sensory aspects of writing are addressed. One colour would be used for auditory elements, another for olfaction (smells)..and so on.

I like to keep it simple and stay with the three marker system. Now that I've been writing a while, I tend to use this technique only when I have a chapter that gives me trouble. For example, when things are not flowing, I tend to go crazy with dialogue, and I don't do enough picture-painting with my language, or I get bogged down in character description.  There is a restaurant scene where Imme is talking about 9-11, and initially I got carried away and went off track with too much description that didn't add anything to the plot. The marker trick helped me see that, and I ended up cutting most of it out. Then the chapter started working.

Give it a try. It's an easy system to use, and it will help you keep your writing under control.

What other techniques do you use to keep yourself on track?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Question of Balance In Your Writing

Writing a story, a short story, novella, or a full length novel, is hard work. Most writers have a collection of unfinished novels and stories taking up space in the computer hard drive--stories that never got off the ground, or, just as likely, burned out after 100 pages or so.

Sometimes the story idea just isn't good enough, or the writer's attention is redirected elsewhere. Most writers have one or two stories that sit around in cyber never-never land, waiting to be finished.

At times, however, the story idea is fine--but the writer becomes overwhelmed in the middle of the first draft. Experienced writers are familiar with the "100 page curse", and often the writer is hard-pressed to understand why the story stalled out. Too often the writer blames "burnout", or "writer's block" for the problem, when in fact it is something very different; the real problem is that the story has been thrown out of balance, and the writer gives up and moves to another project.

Story balance is an important element of writing that is overlooked. A balanced story has just the right mixture of plot, character development, and setting. Most novel-length stories emphasize one of these elements over the others, but the best novels weave all three elements together in a way that elevates the entire work to a higher level.

That's great, but what about that unfinished manuscript? 

The first trick is to identify what type of writer you are. Some people write monumentally long first drafts and struggle to pare the finished manuscript down to size. Some writers throw a first draft together with the bare minimum...and then the challenge becomes fleshing out the finished product in a way that doesn't bury the original story.

Most writers do one or another at various times. I'm this type of writer, although I must confess that I tend to write a more streamlined first draft than I did back in the day. "Judgment Tramp" was purposefully written to be plot driven, and I tried to add just enough character development and setting to flesh the book out. 

The setting of "Judgment Tramp" was important to me--I love South Haven, Michigan, and I wanted it to be a big part of the book. I also made a decision to emulate Frederick Forsyth--I wanted my readers to have the opportunity to walk around in the town where my story was set and be able to find specific buildings and areas described in the book. But it was equally important to me that the setting of "Judgment Tramp" didn't take over from the story. I resisted the urge to write too much description of South Haven--and the finished book isn't bogged down by page after page of narrative that detracts from the plot (at least I hope it isn't!).

I also wanted my characters to be molded by the setting--we are all shaped by our locale, and Eb and Maggie are reflections of their upbringing. Michigan is a big part of who they are, and that's a key for a writer seeking balance; the characters and setting are to a great degree intertwined with each other. The plot of any story is dependent upon that character-setting relationship. Recognizing this is a huge step forward for a writer, and almost every first draft ever written needs tweaking to bring these elements into harmony with each other.

Next time I'll delve into techniques that will help writer's check their story for balance.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

An Interview With Author Michael K. Rose

Michael K. Rose is quickly becoming an Indie author to watch.  He is a writer of science fiction and literary fiction novels and short stories. His work has received rave 4- and 5-star reviews and the books in his Sullivan's War series are frequent inhabitants of the Science Fiction Series bestsellers list. More information about his writing can be found at

Michael, thanks for allowing us to ask you a few questions! Did you always want to be a writer?
Actually, no. I've always enjoyed writing and publishing a book was on my bucket list for a long time but during various times in my life I've wanted to be an astronaut, an actor, a musician, an archaeologist and a travel writer (which counts, I guess, and still might be something I try my hand at).

When did you first begin to think you had an aptitude for writing?
A few years ago I had written some short stories. This was when I did begin to think about being a writer. I thought they were pretty good and so I started submitting them to the fiction magazines. I did this for a couple of years, collecting rejection slips, before finally deciding to put them out there on Amazon and to see what kind of response I got.

Was there anything specific in your educational background that provided a spark for writing?
I've always been an enthusiastic reader. Early on my dad introduced me to the Sherlock Holmes stories and, via films and television shows, science fiction (I'm an unabashed Trekkie). My interest in Victorian literature has continued, as has my love for science fiction. During high school I went to a prep school in New England and had great English teachers there who introduced me to many of the classics. In fact, one of them lent me Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles from his own personal library. And writing has always come naturally to me. I never had much difficulty with spelling or grammar and there were few words that I troubled over when reading as a child. Again, I think my dad reading the Sherlock Holmes stories to me helped with that. I was exposed to words that my peers simply weren't using so as my education continued I was at an advantage in that respect.

Did you try going the traditional route at first--by wooing an agent? Or did you decide right from the start to become an indie writer? Do you feel like you made a good choice (to be an indie author)?
As mentioned, I paid my dues and collected a fair number of rejection slips before I decided to self-publish. And a year ago self-publishing wasn't even on my radar. It took getting a Kindle and finding all the wonderful self-published works available at Amazon for me to begin thinking about it. I decided I would start small, see where that went, and in November of last year I published a short story called Sleep and a collection called Inner Lives. Sales were not impressive but reviews full of high praise soon began trickling in. I was completely taken aback! I knew that I had a knack for writing but the overwhelmingly positive response was a big surprise. As of this writing, my work now has thirty-five positive reviews and only one negative review. It still amazes me that so many people think so highly of my writing.

Your books are "speculative" science fiction. How would you describe that to someone who is unfamiliar with the genre?  Do you see yourself sticking with science fiction in the future? 
Speculative fiction is simply any fiction that includes elements that are not found in the "real" world: magic, futuristic technology, vampires, etc. What I've always loved about the genre, particularly science fiction, is the limitless possibilities it offers. It is true that there are at least as many stories as there are people on the planet, but when we travel to other planets look at how many more possibilities there are! And I like the speculation, I like asking and answering the "what ifs." I like imagining what life would be like on another planet, on a spaceship, in a parallel universe. I find it endlessly fascinating to explore how other writers have imagined the universe.
Now, as a writer I do not limit myself to speculative fiction. It is the lion's share of what I write but I also have a few projects lined up that could best be called "literary fiction." Interpret that as you will. :o)

How balanced are your books--between plot, setting and character development? What aspect of this is the most difficult for you when you are knocking out a first draft? 
I actually find that setting plays less of a role in my work than either plot or character. At least so far. I have one project lined up that would, essentially, be a grand tour of the great cities of Europe and how each city affects the main character in different ways. Regarding plot, I suppose some of my more literary works (see the collection Inner Lives, for example) could be accused of being bereft of plot. They are heavy in character development. The Sullivan's War series is plot-heavy, particularly in the first book, but there is quite a bit more character development in Book II
Honestly, I find writing action the most difficult (ironic, considering how action-oriented Sullivan's War is). I sometimes feel like writing about people fighting gets a bit stale but based on the reviews I've managed to pull it off.

You recently released Book 2 in the Sullivan's War series, and I know you are planning on the release of Book 3 soon. Did you find that the first book in the series was the most difficult to write? 
Well, it's not too difficult with Sullivan's War, as they are all novellas. Each book was plotted after finishing the one before it, however, because even though I had a general idea of where I wanted to story to go, anything was bound to happen and throw a monkey wrench into my plans. So, that made it easier to keep things consistent. Book I came very easily to me. Book II wasn't too bad and now that I'm writing Book III, I find that I'm being over-cautious. I am trying to avoid repetition in the action scenes, descriptions, etc. So, I would say this last one is the most difficult for that reason. Book III is also the climax for the story. I have to get it right. It looks like it's going to be non-stop action from beginning to end, very fast-paced, and I hope my readers feel satisfied with the ending. I'm working hard to make sure that is the case.

What do you see as the future of the book industry? Will the traditional, brick and mortar bookstore survive? Do you feel as though the future is bright for indie authors? Is the playing field becoming more level with the rise of the e-book? Do you think e-book marketing is beginning to follow established patterns? Is there a clear-cut method for success as an indie writer? 
I'll address these questions as a whole rather than one at a time. I actually wrote a blog post about the future of books (here: Briefly, I believe that the mass market paperback will become a thing of the past and while books will survive, they will survive as collectors' editions, items for those who want a physical copy of a book they love to have signed, display on a shelf, etc. I like to use the analogy of audiophile-grade vinyl records. They are still produced in small batches for those who want them but most of the population will opt for the CD or mp3 version. I could be wrong in this but if an ebook costs the same as a paperback (and in many cases less) and ereaders become increasingly more common, I think a lot of people will find themselves preferring digital copies. I hope that bookstores don't die off. There are still many collectible books out there, books people will want on their shelves. Will stores selling exclusively new material survive? I don't know. Barnes & Noble made the transition to ebooks and they could still have brick-and-mortar stores fifty years from now. But I doubt they'll be the warehouse-type operations they are now. They will carry the collectible versions and if they're smart, they'll include a free digital version with each physical purchase (just as some CD manufacturers have done). If they're smart they'll also begin to offer ebooks in multiple formats. If they offer mobi files of a book at the Nook store they will not be formatting themselves out of  taking part in the biggest game in town: the Kindle. And the really smart retailer will produce an ereader that can read all the major ebook formats. They'll sell all the formats as well.
Regarding marketing, it is all about exposure, as far as I can tell. The more eyeballs on your book the better and it really doesn't seem to matter who those eyeballs belong to. I think ebook readers are, partially due to price, beginning to experiment outside of their comfort zones when it comes to book genre. Indie authors are developing large and loyal followings. It's completely possible a reader will pick up a book by an Indie author based on rank and ratings and not even realize it's self-published. The path to success seems clear: get your book out there in any way possible. But do so tactfully and respectfully. No one likes a self-interested asshole, which is something writers like you and I realize. Make connections. By helping each other we help ourselves. If a potential reader sees ten tweets about a book, it is certainly better that those tweets come from ten different people rather than one. And on that note, I would like to thank you for all the support you've offered me and other Indie authors. And thank you for the great interview as well!

Thanks, Michael! As you mentioned, we all have to support each other, and I enjoy working in concert with great people like you to promote Indie authors.