Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, February 5 & 6, 2013

After a couple of big posts, today’s is much lighter. I imagine you might appreciate that. Some of today’s posts are practical—character and setting development, for example—others are thought-provoking. Feel free to disagree with them.


This writing technique definitely won’t be for everyone. It’s certainly “different.” But if it works for you, terrific! What I’m talking about is Cinthia Ritchie’s (@cinthiaritchie1) piece on the Guide to Literary Agents blog called Marathon Training to Finish Your Book. Cinthia models writing a novel on Hal Higdon’s plan for training for a marathon. It’s a very different way of approaching the “write every day” mantra because it varies how much time you’re to spend writing, with “long writing days” comparable to the long training runs marathoners do as they prepare for the big day. Check it out. Maybe it’ll fit with your life and schedule. Maybe it won’t. If it doesn’t, forget it.

Two pieces today on characters and characteristics. Donald Maass’s (@donmaass) The Man (or Woman) in the Mirror on Writer Unboxed and freelance editor Jodie Renner’s (@JodieRennerEd) Essential Characteristics of a Thriller Hero on The Kill Zone. You can tell from the title that Renner’s piece is more focused on certain kinds of characters while Maass’s offers questions to ask yourself about yourself with the intent of then making those answers—good or bad—part of your characters, especially your protagonist. This is classic Maass and for my money a far better set of tools than creating the simplistic list of traits (what does your character eat for breakfast?) that other authors (NOT Renner!) often suggest.

Try this quote on for size: “…readers really don’t mind setting description so long as it entertains them.” Say what? So saith KM Weiland (@KMWeiland) in How to Create a Surefire Awesome Setting (emphasis hers, by the way). While I think I’d use “engage” rather than “entertain,” the point of the short video is that setting description can add to, even enrich, a story when its presentation is one in proper balance with other parts of the story.


Here are two pieces of news I found both interesting and potentially important. According to Brian Clark (@copyblogger) in his post Get Over Yourself and Get On Google+:

  • Google+ has become the second largest social media platform, passing Twitter, and
  • Google+ isn’t a social network, it’s a topical network (emphasis his), meaning it is more “organized around content” rather than people per se.

Clark also suggests that this difference is important to authors and their platforms (he quotes former Google CEO Eric Schmidt for support) and that the difference is one thing that distinguishes Google+ from its major competitors. Disclaimer: I do not have a Google+ account. (Okay, okay, so maybe I should. All I need is a 25th hour in my 24-hour day.)


Hmmm, I wonder if Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) was aiming Be the Gatekeeper of Your Mind at me—and you, dear reader. Why? She writes that she’s found she’s more creative if she reads fewer blogs, not more, and when she reads longer, more “immersive” work, like full-length books. Could it be she’s got a case of information overload? She seems to think so. What about you? Have you decided to pare back on your information input?

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, August 21 & 22, 2012

Welcome to the first multi-day edition of Great Stuff. There’s lots to share, so off we go…

Let’s start with some posts on craft, shall we?

  • Joe Moore’s (@JoeMoore_writer) post Fried Catfish and Grits isn’t about food; it’s about setting written so well (in Ace Atkins’ The Lost Ones) that it gave Joe a hankerin’ for those southern staples. He then goes on to discuss ways to make your setting details contribute to the story.
  • Kim Weiland’s (@KMWeiland) video on How to Use Foreshadowing to Jazz Up Slow Scenes tells the tale of how fantasy writer Patrick Rothfuss uses foreshadowing to keep his readers engaged through what Kim calls “[a] couple hundred leisurely pages of everything going pretty much the protagonist’s way.” A COUPLE HUNDRED PAGES!!! That’s some serious foreshadowing!
  • Next, David R. Gillham (@drgillham) provides 5 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction on the Guide to Literary Agents blog. While the title says “historical” and Gillham does indeed focus on that genre, what he suggests applies to just about any genre: “Fiction = friction,” “Using language or accents” to name just two.

OK, enough for craft, how about the business side of things? Sure!

  • We’ll start with Alan Petersen (@AlanPetersen) discussing 3 Really Good Self-Publishing Ideas and 5 Hilariously Bad Ones on The Book Designer. I don’t know if the the 5 bad ones are hilarious, really, but they definitely are bad. And the good ones? I’ll summarize them this way: if you want to make money (from your books), you’ll need to spend money (on getting them ready) first. Just do it wisely.
  • Speaking of bad ideas, M. J. Rose (@MJRose) discusses how not to commit Social Media Suicide on Writer Unboxed. Of course, don’t write stupid things is part of her prescription. So is not going crazy on social media. Seems being smart about how to use social media isn’t so easy, at least for some folks.
  • So how do you market yourself effectively on social media (and elsewhere)? Harvey Stanbrough (@h_stanbrough) offers a set of Resources to help you figure that out. While he includes himself, he does also list Steven Pressfield of The War of Art and Dean Wesley Smith’s web site, which includes the tab “Think Like a Publisher.” Hmmm. Have to check that out myself.
  • Finally for this section, Nathan Bransford (@NathanBransford) wonders, Does the Publishing Industry Care Too Much About Writing Quality? This is a continuation of the discussion about the quality (or lack thereof) of indie-published writing. Seems to me the answer is clear: the publishing industry cares (as it should) about making a profit. The books that sell lots of copies but aren’t “quality” writing in the eyes of self-appointed experts are the very books that allow publishers to sell the “quality-writing” books that don’t make money. This shouldn’t be an either/or question. The answer is both/and. IMHO.

So much for the business side, let’s close with a couple of personal life posts.

  • Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) writes about Dealing with Impatience: what might cause it, why it can be a problem, and what you can do about it if it’s a problem for you.
  • Karen Jordan (@KarenJordan) offers some tips on Taking Time Out on WordServeWater Cooler when something–maybe it’s that impatience–gives you a “flat tire” on the journey of life.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, August 18, 2012

Typical light Saturday. Just two items for you:

  • Barbara Scott (@BarbaraScott01) continues her Top 5 Self-Editing Tips series on WordServe Water Cooler with some notes on editing for Character. She relays a story about a correspondence between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor, Maxwell Perkins, about a draft of The Great Gatsby. Whether you’ve read Gatsby or not doesn’t matter, this conversation about how well Fitzgerald “knew” Gatsby, or didn’t, and what his intentions were for how he wanted to portray him, is revealing and interesting.
  • We’ve had discussion here before about how to capture a place in prose. Joe Hartlaub’s Kill Zone post Location, Location, Location continues that discussion, particularly with regard to New Orleans and surroundings, and the commenters chime in on how valuable Google Earth has been to them. Joe Moore (@JoeMoore_writer) adds what might at first seem to be a startling idea for a resource–until it’s followed by a flat-forehead salute: for looking at houses, inside and out.

Do you have any special resources you use when you need to find just the perfect place? How about any special techniques for self-editing for character?

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, July 25, 2012

Looks like it’s just going to be a busy week. Lots to get to, including something from The New Yorker! It seems that today’s theme is “knowledge.”

  • We’ll start with Rachelle Gardner’s (@RachelleGardner) Knowing What We Don’t Know. In this case, the knowing/not knowing has to do with how all the changes in the publishing industry are going to shake out and how we’re surfing that chaos–or not. “Interesting times” we’re living in.
  • Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) guest posts on Andrea Hurst & Associates’ Authornomics blog and answers a few of the questions she gets asked most: her most rewarding experiences, dealing with rejection, what authors should be concentrating on now, and suggestions for dealing with the changing publishing climate.

Moving from business to craft:

  • In my writers’ group we’ve had on-going discussions about semicolons, especially after a couple of recent submissions were replete with them. Veritable plethoras (plethorae?). So I had a pleasant surprise this morning when I read an e-mail from a member, relaying the article her husband had found in The New Yorker on that very topic: Semicolons; So Tricky, by Mary Norris.
  • Brian Andrews (@LexicalForge) guest posts on The Kill Zone about Scene Scouting: On Location or Wikipedia? Of course, being able to visit the locations a story is set in is best–if more than a little difficult if you’re writing off-planet science fiction or fantasy set in some other universe, but I digress–but there are options if the place is real but you can’t go there. Wikipedia is one, Google Earth is another (and not mentioned).
  • Finally, Kim Weiland (@KMWeiland) presents her weekly video blog post, this time asking, Is Your Character Stagnating? She offers ideas on how to tell and what you can do if your character has gotten stuck in the non-development swamp.


Critique Technique, Part 25—Misused Backstory or Flashback

A twisted red pencil

Image courtesy

Backstory and its kissing cousin flashback are techniques authors use to provide amplifying information about a situation, a location, or a character. Flashbacks and backstory differ from “front story” in that the author jumps away from the story’s current timeline to relate them, then jumps back (but not backwards) to the story’s present to continue.

Jumping forward in time—a “flash forward”—can have the same purpose, and everything below also applies.

Flashing back is in fact a technique for relating backstory. A brief interruption of the story’s flow, it can be:

  • Initiated by the narrator to provide information not available to the characters;
  • A character’s memory; or
  • A conversation between two or more characters (“You remember when…?”), to name just three.

The words “flash” and “brief” are important here: flashbacks are over and done with quickly.

Backstory can be told more leisurely, as a stand-alone scene, for example, but doesn’t have to be. It might take the form of just a single, telling detail. For example, there’s this line in the recent Robert Reed novella “Murder Born,” which centers around a couple trying to bring back their murdered daughter: “But that didn’t stop [Lauren] from…curling up on the mattress cover that was washed every two weeks, the same as always.” That last phrase, “the same as always,” is the droplet of backstory that tells us so much about Lauren’s grief, expressed in her continuing care for her dead daughter’s bedclothes.

So while “backstory” encompasses all the background information that doesn’t fit into a story’s or article’s primary timeline, what I want to concentrate on here are four improper or ineffective techniques of presenting that backstory:

  • Starting with backstory;
  • Using backstory too often;
  • Spending too much time in backstory; and
  • Using backstory as front story.

We’ve all run into stories—maybe even written them ourselves—in which the author starts by explaining everything she feels the reader will need to know in order to “get” the story once it begins.

When a new member of my own writers’ group announced a few meetings back that he intended to start his novel that way, he was, shall we say, “counseled” against it. After a few repetitions of, “No, Jim,” “Don’t do it, Jim,” “You wanna get smacked up-side the head, boy?” (we didn’t really say that—so far as you know), he conceded the wisdom of our advice. We’ll see whether the wisdom stuck with him when we get chapter 1.

You know, of course, to start in medias res and filter the backstory in later.

The next three techniques have an important element in common: they cause the reader to lose track of the primary story line. And a confused reader is something you don’t want—unless you do for the purpose of pulling her through to the end, but that’s something else altogether. For our purposes here, confusing the reader is a bad thing.

Using backstory too often is another case of the author wanting the reader to know everything she knows about the story, characters, setting, situation, etc. This time, the desire gets manifested as flashbacks or backstory details being inserted at every opportunity, whether they’re necessary or not. “Necessary” is the key word here. You, as the independent reviewer, aren’t emotionally invested in the story, so you have the ability to look at a detail, a flashback, even a whole chapter, and ask, “Do I need to know that?” The more often you find yourself asking that, the more likely it is the author is using backstory too much.

Using backstory as front story and spending too much time in backstory mean the author isn’t clear on what information needs to be doled out in little pieces to deepen and enrich the story at key moments. Instead, he delivers info dumps, lectures by the narrator, or speeches by characters. Yes, deciding how much is “too much” can be subjective but again, if you lose track of the main story line, the author is guilty of this error.

If the author is suffering from either of these problems, the flow of the story will come to a grinding halt as it wanders off into material that isn’t relevant to the story’s current moment. (We’ll talk about tangents in more detail next time.)

Here, then, are some questions you can ask yourself regarding backstory and flashbacks as you review someone’s work:

  • If you’re reading the beginning of a story or article, did the author jump right into the action and fill in the backstory later, or did he start with background information that could have waited?
  • Is the author peppering me with so many background details that I get confused or lose track of the story line?
  • Is the author dumping information, either through the narrative or via her characters, and causing me to lose track of the storyline?
  • Is the author spending so much time in backstory that I can’t tell what’s backstory and what’s front story anymore? In other words, has he lost track of his story?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you can start examining what information is necessary at that moment in the story, what can be told later, and what may not need to be told at all. Providing that information to the author will help her improve her work.

What other things do you look for when determining if backstory and/or flashbacks are being misused?

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, June 14, 2012

Happy Bastille Day (in France) and Flag Day (in the US). And since the Bastille and the American flag are symbols for something larger, that gives me my entry into today’s posts:

  • We’ll begin with Katherine Grace Bond’s (@KatherineGBond) guest post on DIY MFA, Find Your Talisman. The talisman she’s referring to is some object that serves as a metaphor or symbol for the theme of your current work. Now, I’m not exactly a fan of carrying said talisman around (most guys–this one in particular–don’t carry purses, after all), but the idea of having some particular thing around which to build a story’s theme is interesting.
  • Subtext, that expression of meaning that isn’t directly expressed in the text, is another way to convey theme. Ollin Morales (@OllinMorales) offers 5 Techniques for Adding Subtext to your Story in a guest post on The Bookshelf Muse. While some of his suggestions aren’t new (give you character a secret), I thought this one–make your characters talk in gibberish and see if the subtext is still evident–was very clever. It forces you to look at how the characters are acting as a way of communicating with each other.
  • Yet another way of communicating the story behind the story is by Using Setting as a Character. MaryLu Tyndall’s (@MaryLuTyndall) guest post on Rachelle Gardner’s (@RachelleGardner) blog suggests six ways to do this, although a note of caution is appropriate here, too: beware of falling into cliche if you do this. Just as with any other technique, you don’t want to beat your readers over the head with setting-as-character.
  • Finally, John Preston (@familymoneyblog) lists Six People Who Can Ease the Blogger’s Burden on @ProBlogger. I mention this post because you can substitute “Writer’s” for “Bloggers” and the post still works. Like bloggers, writers can benefit from having both people “ahead” of them in the business (Preston’s coaches, collaborators, and heroes) and “behind” them (disciples, confidants, and fans) to pull or push them along.

That’s today’s “greatness,” at least from this end. What do you think? Did you find something special out in your slice of the blogosphere?

Critique Technique, Part 20—Too Much Setting Detail

The flip side of providing vague or insufficient setting detail is providing too much. Drowning the reader in the minutiae of a setting not only kills the momentum of the story, it causes readers to lose interest. For the lucky author, the reader will just skip ahead—a few times, anyway.

But for the unlucky author, or the one who insists on describing the three green sateen ribbons on the head of the second Pekinese from the left, the one with the ghost-grey patch of fur on its back that looks just like a giraffe if you look at it from the right rear, which was hard to do because the dog insists on spinning around, always clockwise, never counterclockwise, to face you, but is now asleep in the brown wicker basket with the braided handle that Rosalee bought for just 50 cents at the neighborhood garage sale over in Johnsonville from that nice lady wearing the darling sundress with the purple and gold iris flower pattern that went so well with her blond hair, that was now sitting on the linoleum with the orange and white pattern of squares and triangles and the 6” diameter water stain reaching out  from the far wall, in front of the oak veneer bookcase that Rosalee bought on sale for just half price at the dollar store because it was a display sample and they wanted to get rid of it, especially because the middle shelf was missing a couple of screws and so it sagged toward the back and she—Rosalee, not Janetta, the sales clerk with the gold teeth who always wears those big silver hoop earrings—hadn’t had time to go to Lowe’s to pick up the nickel-plated #10 by 1½” hex head screws that would be hanging up in the rack down toward the end of aisle 13, up where she’d have to stand on her tippy-toes to reach them, in the dark blue plastic pouch that she found so convenient if hard to open, meaning she’d have to find those Fiskars scissors with the pretty pink plastic handles her Gramma Gemma had given her when she was just six and working on her Kindergarten Christmas card project—the one where she spilled Elmer’s glue and silver sparkles all over the sort-of-brand-new kitchen table—and still had and they were still sharp after all these years, but even after she fixed the shelf the bookcase would still be wobbly and she doubted she’d be able to get her collection of The Great Books with their wonderful brown leather covers embossed with real gold and that still smelled real good, like an old saddle maybe, or Aunt Barbara’s fancy coat with the long sleeves that she wouldn’t wear in the winter because it would get wet, if you put your nose up real close, to stay in it because it would probably collapse in a heap—pause for a deep breath—that author is going to have the reader throwing the book across the room.

If they don’t fall asleep first.

And that wasn’t even a good bad example!

The point, of course, is that somewhere between that 454-word sentence and “the bookcase,” there’s a balance point at which the author has given the reader enough information to build the rest of the scene in his head. The fact that the scene he sees with his mind’s eye won’t be—can’t be—the same scene the author saw with hers doesn’t matter, so long as he knows what’s important about the setting.

The challenge for you as a reviewer is to determine whether or not a particular setting detail is important. The author may be planting that detail now but its importance won’t be evident until later. That’s a favorite technique in mystery stories. Or, lots of details may be important for establishing the environment, beyond the immediate moment of the story. Pick up an early Tom Clancy novel, for example, and you’ll find a story rich in details, such as of the close confines, the equipment, the displays, the sounds, and the men of the sonar room of a submarine.

So, here are a few questions you can ask yourself as you’re reviewing someone’s work:

  • Are there so many details that they kill the story’s forward progress?
  • Do the details provide information but not knowledge? That is, do they tell me things, but I don’t understand why I need to be told them?
  • Are there so many setting details that I lose track of the story?
  • Are there so many details that I stop caring about the story and its characters?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, be sure to tell the author about what you’ve seen and suggest ways they might remove or compress details to make the story better.

What other things cue you to the fact that the author is providing too much setting information?


Critique Technique, part 18—Lost in Space

This is the first of three posts on setting.

Remember that old TV show, “Lost In Space”? Neither do I, really, but that’s OK. The title’s the important thing. I used to be in the Air Force, and there was a joke among us aviators that navigators were members of the Fugawi Tribe. (This was true for Naval aviators, too.)

“Why is that?” you ask.

“Because,” I reply, “you could often find them huddled over their paper charts (this is back in the day—today they huddle over GPS displays, mostly) with their compasses and protractors and special rulers and rotary slide rules. If you bent close and listened carefully, you could hear them muttering strange incantations and imprecations, in particular, ‘Where the fugawi?’”[1]

Or so I’m told.

In any case, something an author never wants to do is initiate their reader into the Fugawi Tribe. A reader who doesn’t know where he is—or where the characters are—isn’t going to be a happy reader. He doesn’t want to be lost in space…or time (which causes me to flash on another 1960s TV show: “It’s About Time,” whose theme song began with the lines, “It’s about time, it’s about space, / About two men in the strangest place…”).

TV and movies (and all the visual media) have a built-in advantage over printed fiction and non-fiction stories because they show the viewer, right up front and right away, where and when the story is taking place. They can’t help but do it.

It’s another matter in written fiction.  The author has to make a conscious effort to present that information to the reader. And she needs to do it quickly and in every scene. Well, maybe not every scene, but the exceptions are situations like where the story is quick-cutting between sets of point-of-view characters who are all in the same place. Once their position in the setting is established, so long as they don’t move or leave, those quick cuts back to them don’t need to reestablish the characters’ location. The reader will assume they’ve stayed where they were.

One of the members of my writers’ group demands to know where the scene is set immediately, right from the very first line. OK, I’m exaggerating a little, but her point is pretty much on target. Readers are usually willing wait a paragraph or two to find out where a scene is set, but after that they start to feel lost in space.

The solution, of course, is straight-forward: provide enough detail early enough in the scene or story to place the characters in time and space. At the beginning of the piece, the time-setting needs to be broad-scale: is it set in ancient Rome, the 1880s, the modern day, or some time in the distant future? This can be done many ways. Here are just a few:

  • By explicit statement: “By 1885, Dodge City…”;
  • By mentioning characters unique to the time: “Emperor Diocletian…”;
  • By mentioning a technology or using a term that is clearly identified with a period: “…the horseless carriage sputtered down the street…”;
  • By mentioning a custom, a style of dress, a building or event new or specific to that time and place, etc.

Later on, the details may be fewer and more specific, if the new setting remains within that original context. If it changes, of course, then the writer needs to provide more information.

Note that future settings can be tricky: it’s impossible to predict with confidence what a future setting will “really” look like and the farther into the future a story is, the worse the problem is. Science fiction writers get past this by establishing a futuristic setting and not worrying about the exact year in most cases. My own work-in-progress is set in the near future—2035-ish—which is actually harder than if I’d set it farther out, because we can take some educated guesses at what 2035-ish technology and living conditions might look like. It’s easy for a reader to disagree with my prediction–and be able to support that disagreement.

Some kinds of fantasy have their own unique situation when it comes to time: depending on the story, the setting may be completely divorced from the Earth we know and from its historical timeline. So while a sword-and-sorcery fantasy may be set in a place that looks like Medieval Europe, it may not be—Europe or Medieval. The good news is that fantasy readers understand this and are quite happy to go along without knowing “when in the course of human events” the story occurs.

Note, too, that time is inseparable from place, but place, while almost invariably intertwined with a time, can, in the hands of a skilled writer, transcend time or be used to show a lack of change over time, but that’s a topic for another day.

While it’s important to set characters in their time and place in each scene, it’s also possible to have too much of a good thing. I’ll write about that in Part 20 in a few weeks.

One final item. Super-agent Donald Maass, in his book The Breakout Novelist, says this about setting:

“Description [of setting] itself does nothing to create tension; tension comes only from within the people in the landscape. A house is just a house until it is occupied by people with problems.”

This time the questions for you to ask yourself as a reviewer of someone’s work are pretty straightforward:

  • Does the author establish the time and place of the scene or story at all?
  • Does she establish the time and place of the scene or story quickly enough that I don’t wonder when or where it’s taking place?
    • If the time or place is established too late, where in the scene or story would be a better place for it, and why?
  • When she attempts to establish the time and place, are both clear to me, or am I confused by one or both?
    • If I’m confused, why, and what could she do to make this information clearer?

In the next two posts, I’ll talk about providing too little information, or too much, about the setting of a scene or story.

For now, what else do you look for when evaluating whether an author has established the time and place of a scene or story quickly and clearly enough?

[1] Translation: “Where the fuck are we?” You figured that out on your own, didn’t you?