Fiction Writing Tips 11–20
Welcome to the second page of Fiction Writing Tips. Here you will find tips 11 through 20
To return to the tips index, click here.
Tip #11: Plant and Payoff—Part 1: Payoff without a Plant
This is the first in a two-part series on something I call Plant and Payoff.
If you want your readers to care about the right things in your novel, you have to include both the plant and the payoff.
It's a mixed metaphor, I know. I should call it the plant and the harvest or the investment and the payoff. Yawn. Boring.
The plant is when you let the reader know that something exists, that something is important, or that a character has an ability or piece of knowledge. The payoff is when you use that thing you've planted.
Examples will help.
In the original Star Wars movie, we think Luke Skywalker is pretty much toast in the Death Star trench because his wingmen have been taken away and Darth Vader is moving in for the kill. As far as we know, he's completely unprotected. But then in swoops Han Solo in the Millennium Falcon to save the day. "Oh, yeah!" we say. "Han didn't come with them. He would've been unaccounted for. That totally works! Go, Luke, go!"
The plant was that Han Solo was in the area but not with the attack group. The payoff was him arriving just in time.
At the climax of The Lord of the Rings Frodo comes to the Cracks of Doom to throw the ring into the lava, but there he stops. He's failing at the last. He's going to give in to the ring and go do Bad Things. But then out of nowhere Gollum pounces and wrestles with Frodo for the ring, ultimately saving him from his own bad choices.
Though Gollum had been out of our thoughts for a while, we did know he was still unaccounted for. He was out there, on the loose. That was the plant, though the reader wasn't aware it had been planted. When Gollum arrives, just at the crucial moment (the payoff), it makes complete sense to us. We go, "Oh, right! Gollum!"
Note that while those two examples are pretty similar, the plant-and-payoff dynamic is not limited to crucial moment interventions. But they serve as good illustrations.
What if we had never known the Han Solo character and then at the climactic moment this complete stranger zooms up and blasts Darth Vader? We'd be like, "Huh? Who's that guy? What's going on? That totally doesn't work."
What if we'd never heard of Gollum and then, right when the story needed someone to come in and save Frodo from his bad choices, this odd creature jumps up and takes the ring? We'd be like, "Um, what was that weird thing? What a stupid ending!"
Those would be examples of payoff without plant. Because the important element hadn't been introduced earlier (i.e., planted), it feels external to the story. It feels like an intrusion of something that didn't belong, not something that arose organically from the story. Introduce those characters earlier and suddenly it all feels right.
It sounds silly and obvious, but I see payoff without plant all the time in aspiring novelists' fiction. People we hadn't met before become the key group to rescue the hero. Treasures we hadn't even heard about before become the thing the hero acts like he's been after all along. Characters we hadn't met die and the protagonist is all broken up about it, but we're like, "Dude, who's that? Sorry he's dead, and all, but I don't exactly care. I'd never heard about him before now."
That's what a payoff without a plant is. If you don't introduce important things early on, we don't believe them or care about them when you bring them out later. A protagonist who for 300 pages has been a pipe fitter and then in the climax suddenly knows how to defuse a thermonuclear device is going to feel wrong to the reader. A car that for the whole story has been on death's door but then in the climax becomes a world-caliber race car is going to strike the reader as being completely unbelievable.
And it all would've been solved if only the thing had been planted somewhere earlier in the book.
If you have characters whose special abilities are going to be called upon in the climax, you'd better be very sure you've indicated to the reader before then that he has those abilities. If they key to the whole novel is the switch the hero has to flip to avert the earth-dissolving disaster, you'd better be double sure you've talked about the switch earlier in the book.
A payoff with no plant will just anger your reader. And nobody wants that.
Next time, the reverse: a plant with no payoff. Grrr.
Tip #12: Plant and Payoff—Part 2: Plant without a Payoff
This is the second in a two-part series on something I call Plant and Payoff.
Last time I talked about what happens when you give the payoff but haven't set it up with the plant. It falls flat and feels to the reader like you've pulled a rabbit out of your hat. It feels like you're not playing fair.
This time I want to talk about what happens if you plant something but then don't use it. That's a plant without a payoff. To the reader, it feels like a red herring, and it's equally frustrating. Worse, it makes you look like you don't know what you're doing as a novelist. (FYI, that's bad.)
Imagine you're reading a story and the author goes to great lengths to set up that the protagonist is a whiz with numeric patterns. I mean, we get pages and pages of how good she is with these. We're thinking A Beautiful Mind kind of thing.
As we're going along in the story we're waiting for that information to be important. We've assumed that you're showing us this because it's going to come into play later. So we're set up for it. We're ready. As situations develop in the story we're like, "Okay, I'll bet she sees some pattern in the flower arrangement and solves the mystery!" We're totally engaged.
Now let's say the rest of the story goes by and the protagonist never uses that pattern recognition thing. Not once. Has this pleased Mr. Reader? Nay, I say!
The reader feels ripped off and angry. "Wait a minute here. You made me remember all that about the numeric patterns and you never used it? It was never important? Why did I waste the brain storage space to retain that in ready memory then? The whole reason I got interested in your story is because I thought you were going to use that."
Plant and Payoff are like bookends. If you have either one but don't have its matching one on the other side, all the books fall off onto the floor. Figuratively speaking.
Make sure you don't spend page-space talking about something you're not going to use. Make sure you don't mention something about a character that you don't come back to later.
Recently I watched the excellent movie Night at the Museum. Hysterical film. But it had a plant without a payoff. It was small, but it irritated me.
Rebecca tells Larry that all the time Sacajawea was leading Lewis and Clark's expedition she was carrying her baby on her back. But Sacajawea in the museum has no baby. Then we see Teddy Roosevelt searching for something in relation to Sacajawea. And Sacajawea herself is looking kind of forlorn and distracted, as if she's looking for her baby who has perhaps gotten lost. We're completely set up for the search for Sacajawea's baby.
But it never happens. We're thinking there's a baby in peril somewhere, but it's never spoken of again.
That's a plant without a payoff. We thought it was a major plot point but it ended up being just a little factoid the writer threw in because he'd researched it. It angered the viewer (well, one viewer, anyway) because he thinks it's going to be important but it ends up not being so.
One final note about plant and payoff: they have to be in correct proportion to one another. If you spend pages setting something up, it had better be very important later. And if something is very important later, it had better have been set up sufficiently and not just mentioned in passing.
In Tom Clancy's massive novel The Sum of All Words (er, "Fears"), he spends probably 100 pages on one particular storyline: giant redwood tree trunks that have been felled in the Pacific Northwest and are being shipped to Japan, where they will be used in a temple. While at sea a fierce storm breaks out and the logs are dropped into the ocean.
Are you set up? For at least 100 pages you've been reading about these trees. You're convinced it's a very important thing because it's been given so much page-space. What kind of payoff could it be, you wonder. Will the good guys create some kind of torpedo using a redwood log?
So a submarine surfaces in the storm in order to receive a message on its antenna. But, oh no, something hits the antenna and it doesn't work. Hey, who put these redwood logs in the ocean?
That was it. One hundred pages of following these stupid tree trunks, and the only thing the entire storyline was there for was to have something to bonk a silly antenna! I was furious. The payoff was definitely not in proportion to the plant.
Don't do that.
Make sure you have planted everything you want to be important later, and make sure you give a payoff to everything you plant. And keep them in proportion.
Tip #13: The Invisible Novelist
In my opinion, the author should seek to disappear from his or her fiction.
What in the world does this mean? How can the novelist disappear and the novel still get written?
I don't mean the world should have fewer novelists (may it never be!), but that the author should seek to immerse readers so deeply in the story that they forget they're reading a book, with words and paragraphs, and instead feel that the story is happening to them.
In other words, the storyteller should step out of the way of the story.
You want your reader to suspend her disbelief, don't you? Especially in the speculative genres we want to be given license to tell however wild or wacky a tale we want, and we want the reader to stay with us. Then one of your imperatives is to stop reminding her that she's reading a book.
What we're talking about here is author intrusion. The reader was happily enjoying the story when all of a sudden the author drew attention to himself and broke the reader out of the illusion that the story was really happening around her.
Imagine you're trying to watch a DVD at home. You're curled on the couch with popcorn and dimmed lights. You slide the DVD in and the movie begins. Then suddenly someone jumps between you and the TV and begins to talk.
"Okay, you're going to love this movie. My original inspiration for it was something that happened in real life. Oh, my, but mine is an interesting life story. It all began with my mother. But to understand me you need to know my mother's life story..."
All the while you're craning your neck trying to see past this pest and see what's going on in the movie.
Finally you get him to sit down. You're really getting into the movie. In fact, you feel tears welling up in your eyes. Up jumps the guy again in front of the TV.
"That's going to make you cry, isn't it? I knew it! I have found in my vast experience as a well-read and well-traveled adult that people can be made to feel emotion if I manipulate the..."
Where did those tears go? Dried up fast. Mr. Explainer had to go and break the mood.
Later you're into the movie again and you're carried away by the special effects in the film. You're feeling like you're actually soaring through Earth's atmosphere on the way to Mars. You're getting a feeling for what it must be like to be an astron—
"That's all done in the computer; did you know that?" It's Mr. Explainer again, up in front of the TV. "I interviewed like ten special effects houses before I finally decided on this one. I didn't like the takeoff here as much as later when they're approaching..."
Okay, you get the point. When the author jumps up and draws attention to himself he both breaks the illusion that the reader is truly experiencing the story and frustrates and even irritates the reader.
There are many ways authors can intrude on their story, and just as many motives.
They may simply not know they're doing it. A dump truck full of backstory and explanation and exposition stops the story cold and draws attention to the fact that I'm reading a book. Why did the author do this? Probably through inexperience. He needs to read Tip #10.
Other times the author can do it because he subconsciously wants to draw attention to himself. Ornate language, "impressive" vocabulary, and the strikingly beautiful turn of phrase are sometimes the results.
Don't try to impress the reader. Don't try to make her think you're an amazing writer unlike any the world has ever seen. The reader didn't come to this book to be impressed. The reader came to be entertained by a story. You want her to love the story, not the storyteller. Be like John the Baptist: let the story increase while you decrease. Go back to Tip #1.
I don't mean to imply that these are the only two explanations for why novelists write this way. There are many others.
Some authors write prose that is truly remarkable to read. It's beautiful. People do come to those authors' books to revel in the prose. But most of us would do better to let it be the story and characters, not our stellar sentences, that we try to cause people to come to love.
How do you step into the background and let your story take center stage?
First, keep your vocabulary "normal." You don't want to dumb down your writing, nor should you atttempt to raise it artificially. Try to keep it within the bounds of what a typical member of your target audience would understand.
Second, avoid the bizarre turn of phrase. Sure, you want to avoid cliché and pursue originality, but not to the extent that it draws attention to itself. Any time you make the reader focus on the words you're using (as opposed to the story you're telling), you snap her out of the illusion that she's in the story.
Third, stick to said. Don't say, "'That's fine,' she breathed." Or "'That stinks,' she pondered." Or "'Okay by me,' she laughed." Ew. Say it with me: Ew.
Don't let characters sigh out words, or chortle them, or postulate, surmise, heave, opine, verbalize, snipe, deride, or question them out. All that does is draw attention to your words.
Said is invisible. Invisible is good. Invisible is what you're striving for. Asked is okay, too (as in "'Is that yours?' she asked"), but almost everything else is blatantly visible and knocks the reader right out of the beautiful construct that is your story.
You can write, "He said, laughing" or "She said with a sigh." Just don't have them sigh or laugh out the words.
What you want is a reader who is so into your story that she forgets she's reading words and turning pages. You want her breathlessly moving beyond the sentences and directly onto the front row of the story. Your words cease to be ends in and of themselves and instead become the vehicle that ushers her into this reality you've created.
When that happens, she'll get to the end of your book and look at the clock, only to realize with surprise that it's three in the morning.
Tip #14: Speech Attributions
Speech attributions are the "he said/she said" bits of dialogue in fiction.
What are speech attributions for? Three things: 1) they identify who is speaking; 2) sometimes they tell us some-thing about the way something is said; and 3) sometimes they're used as "beats" to manage the pacing of a conver-sation.
Let's look at all three uses.
Identifying the Speaker
"That's a mighty great Web site you've got there, Jeff," Stephen King said.
Garshk, thanks. [blushes]
The primary purpose of speech attributions is to tell the reader who is speaking. Without adequate attributions, the reader won't know who is saying what.
This is especially important when there are more than two people in the conversation.
I agree with Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (see Tip #10) that you should seek to minimize your speech attributions. When you've got only two people speaking it quickly becomes clear by context who is saying what.
In other words, you don't have to give the he-said/she-said after every line of dialogue. In fact, you should strive to eliminate as many of them as you can while not jeopardizing the reader's understanding of who is speaking.
However, when you bring a third person in, or when some description or anything else intervenes that might throw off the reader's fix on who is saying what, you have to ramp up the number of attributions you include.
"But that was before she...you know."
"Be quiet, all a youse."
Um, who's speaking here?
With speech attributions, as in all other aspects of fiction, strive to give just enough to let the reader understand what's going on, but no more.
Modifying How Something Is Said
The second purpose of speech attributions is to tell us something about how the line of dialogue was uttered.
"That's amazing!" she said sarcastically.
Without that little note in the attribution we would've taken the spoken words at face value.
Be very careful with this one, though. Here's where we get into pet peeve territory for me (see Tip #13).
Stick to said. Don't get too creative when modifying how something is said.
"Wow!" she sarcasticized.
When you're using a speech attribution to tell us something about how a sentence is said, stick to the he-said format and let the modifier come after.
"Brilliant!" he said, smirking.
"Well done, old chap," she said with a sneer.
Attributions as Beats
"You know," Rachel said, pretending to concentrate on her ironing, "you could always get a real job."
Here the attribution is used as a beat.
I haven't discussed beats yet but certainly will in a future tip. They're covered in detail in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.
In screenwriting and for the theatre (note the snobby "re" spelling; impressed?) when the writer wants to indicate that there is a pause before the next line is spoken, he'll write, "A beat" or just "Beat." The actor knows to pause there.
In fiction, a beat is simply text that is placed in the narrative to stand for a pause.
Can't you just hear the pause in Rachel's words as she pretends to concentrate on the ironing? You sense that she's trying to say something delicately so she's moving slowly.
Use beats in speech attributions to manage the flow, rhythm, and pacing of your dialogue. Use beats to tie the reader back down into the environment (see Tips #5–8).
"You're a total rock star, dude!"
Jason blinked at his friend. "Really?"
And the Rest
In that last one I used a beat instead of a speech attribution. It functioned as an attribution because it identified the speaker. Therefore I didn't need to add "Jason said" at the end. It was clear from the beat who was speaking.
That works if you keep the line of dialogue in the same paragraph as the beat identifying the speaker. If I had put "Really?" in its own paragraph, you might not have known who was speaking.
Another thing to remember about speech attributions is to keep them in the he-said pattern, as opposed to said-he.
"I already knew that" said Michael.
Sounds archaic. Sounds run-Spot-run. "No, it doesn't" said she.
"Yes, frankly, it does," he said, exasperated.
That's what I meant above when I mentioned the he-said format.
Finally, note the punctuation of dialogue and attributions. Most of the time you end a line of dialogue with a comma if you're going to give an attribution.
"I didn't know that," she said with a wink.
Even though the sentence is technically complete within the quotation marks the full sentence isn't done because the attribution is part of it.
This holds true even when the spoken sentence ends with a question mark or exclamation point.
"That's impossible!" she said, dropping into her chair.
The word "she" is in lower case because it's part of the larger sentence that includes the spoken words.
"Clear as mud?" he asked.
Speech attributions are simple but so often done poorly. Mastering them is one of the subtle ways you can reveal to agents and acquisitions editors that you know your craft.
Tip #15: How To Introduce Your Main Characters
Many novelists give little thought to how they bring their protagonist onstage for the first time. But this is very important.
It establishes in the reader's mind who this person is and what s/he is about. These things are important for your hero, your antagonist, and possibly a handful of supporting characters, as well.
Remember the opening sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark? The bit in the jungle where Indy is going after the golden idol. By the time that series of scenes is completed, when our hero is flying away in the water plane (with a snake in his lap), we know a lot about our main character.
We know that he's an American who goes on international treasure hunts. We know he's tough, savvy, and fearless. We know he uses a whip and is fond of his fedora. We know he knows his way around ancient ruins. We also know his chief adversary. Finally, we learn about his Achilles' heel: snakes.
When that sequence is over we know our hero very well and we've learned what kind of movie this is going to be. It's a masterful introduction of the story's protagonist (and villain).
Now, you don't have to take that much page-space to introduce your hero in your novel. That sequence ran about 20 minutes, or roughly one-sixth of the movie. If you spent one-sixth of your novel introducing your protagonist it would probably be overkill.
But what I do want you to take away from this example is that the storyteller was consciously introducing his protagonist so that all the things we need to know about him are introduced.
What is your protagonist's essential characteristic? Do you know? What is it that makes him heroic and likable? (Because if the reader doesn't like your hero you're doomed before you begin.)
What would be an ideal way to show your hero doing something that reveals this essential characteristic? Think of a scene that introduces your story world, is consistent with the tone of your entire story, and shows us exactly who this character is.
That's how to introduce your protagonist.
Be sure to include in this introductory scene a hint about what's wrong with your protagonist, too. You do have something wrong or unresolved going on with him, right? Your protagonist must have a satisfying inner journey (read Tip #3), which means he must begin in a flawed condition. That flaw ought to come out at some point during the scene in which he first steps onstage.
In summary: the first time we see your protagonist we should see 1) what's likable/heroic about her, 2) what her essential characteristic is, and 3) what weakness or incom-pleteness your story is going to address in her inner journey.
Be conscious of how you introduce your villain, too. Come up with a scene that reveals his character and perfectly shows us what is villainous about him. What is his essential characteristic? How could you show that? And, if you want to have a more realistic villain, remember to show some redeeming quality in him in this scene, as well.
Your important supporting characters should be brought on stage in a carefully crafted way, too. Your romantic interest. Your sidekick. Etc.
These scenes all still need to advance your story, of course. You can't stop your story just to have a song and dance to bring on a new character. Every scene has to do double- or triple-duty: introducing a character, advancing the plot, and establishing a location that will be important later, for instance.
If you've taken the time to fully know your characters, then coming up with the ideal way to bring each one of them onstage ought to be a breeze for you. (My character-creation system has as its final step a monologue introducing the character you've just developed, so you could simply adapt that for your introductory scene.)
Craft the opening scene for your main characters with all the care you'd bring if each one were a short story. Keep the example from Raiders of the Lost Ark in mind. And bring those people onstage with careful thought. You'll reap the benefits later on if you have introduced your main characters correctly.
Tip #16: Understanding Christian Fiction Publishing, Part 1—Who Is Your Reader?
This is the first in a three-part series on understanding the Christian fiction marketplace.
Who is the reader for Christian fiction? What does that demographic look like? I'm talking about all genres here. Who reads (or, more importantly, who buys) Christian fiction in the first decade of the 21st century?
In my 13+ years of working in Christian publishing I have learned that the main readers of Christian fiction are these people:
These are the people who walk into Christian bookstores or the Christian fiction area of secular bookstores. These are the people toward whom virtually all the attention and money in Christian fiction publishing is expended.
Certainly we can easily think of exceptions. There are some men who read Christian fiction. There are some non-Americans who read Christian fiction, notably in other English-speaking countries like Australia, Canada, England, South Africa, and New Zealand. There are some non-white people who read Christian fiction. There are some non-evangelicals and non-conservatives who read it. And there are many women who would ostensibly fit into this demographic who never read Christian fiction or would like it only if it were of a different sort.
But within the scope of the CBA publishing industry as it stands in early 2007, the demographic I've described com-poses something like 93% of the buyers and readers of Christian fiction.
What Does It Mean?
This is great news if the kind of fiction you write naturally appeals to this demographic. This group consumes thousands of fiction titles every year, making Christian fiction publishing a multi-million-dollar enterprise.
These women tend to be voracious and extremely loyal readers. Once you're in, you're in for life. Every time you write something new these women are going to eat it up and beg you for more.
If you write fiction that appeals to this demographic, you're going to find the doors to publication much more open to you than if you wrote to a different readership. Agents, editors, and Christian booksellers will all be predisposed to like your writing if it has a strong appeal to these women.
The flipside is that if you write something that doesn't appeal to this demographic, you're basically up a creek.
If your writing is very good you might be able to get an agent. You might even be able to get published. But you'll be facing a continual struggle, not only from bookstores, who wonder who is going to buy this book, but from your publisher's sales and marketing departments, whose job it is to sell a square peg into a market of round holes.
And no wonder: if the industry is set up to sell to Buyer Group A and you give them something that doesn't appeal to Buyer Group A, it's not going to make anybody happy.
Are there exceptions? Certainly. But not many. Not enough to disprove the rule.
Next time I'll talk about the genres this demographic most likes and, thus, what genres the Christian fiction publishing industry most wants from you.
Tip #17: Understanding Christian Fiction Publishing, Part 2—What Genres Does the Market Want?
This is the second in a three-part series on understanding the Christian fiction marketplace.
If it's true that the readership for Christian fiction falls into the demographic boundaries I described in Tip #16, what does it mean in terms of the novels this readership wants?
The typical member of that demographic doesn't want military fiction or hard-boiled detective thrillers or even, sadly, speculative fiction. The typical member of the Christian fiction readership wants novels that appeal to women in general, but with a Christian angle.
Here are the genres into which 97% of all Christian fiction titles fall:
What I mean by "female-oriented" is that the stories would either feature a female protagonist or be concerned with romance, relationship issues, family, and other topics typically of interest to a female readership.
If the CBA fiction readership were faced with a choice between two historical novels, would they be more likely to choose something about the plight and feelings of a mail-order bride or the adventures and hardships of an antisocial mountain man? If choosing beween a biblical novel about a prophetess, princess, or other famous or infamous woman in the Bible or, say, John the Baptist eating locusts in the desert, which would they probably choose? Exactly.
Look at that list. Five genres. Five. Imagine a Barnes & Noble fiction section with only those five sections. Those five genres are pretty much the whole universe for you as a Christian novelist and reader.
Where Do Male-Oriented Hard Science Fiction Novels Fit?
Well, they don't.
You can see from this discussion why it's so difficult for speculative authors (even the ones writing female-oriented fantasy, etc.) to make a splash in Christian publishing. The market that buys Christian fiction is simply not interested in fiction that falls outside the genres mentioned above.
It's no knock against anyone that these are the readers Christian fiction publishers reach and the kinds of novels they want. I have many dear friends who write and read these genres, and I hope they are able to do so for decades to come.
But it does kind of leave other authors (and other readers) out in the cold. Where does the speculative novelist go? Where does the author of men's fiction go? And where can the fans of these "other" genres go to get Christian fiction they like?
That, my friend, is the million dollar question.
If you write the kind of fiction you see in the list above, you're golden. You'll find the doors wide open to you, at least in terms of your topic, genre, and readership (you still have to master your craft and have a good story).
If you write in other genres, well, the doors are pretty firmly shut. You might still find an agent or editor willing to take you on, and might even get published, but the prognosis for your book's sales will not be good. The market has spoken time and again: "We don't like that weird stuff."
There are some exceptions and there are some strategies authors have tried. There are some things that fans of "other" genres can do. And there's even reason to be hopeful about the future of the fiction we love. We'll talk about those next time.
Tip #18: Understanding Christian Fiction Publishing, Part 3—Exceptions, Strategies, and Hope
This is the third in a three-part series on understanding the Christian fiction marketplace.
Perhaps you read Tips 16 and 17 and went, "Wait, I know a man who reads Christian fiction" or "Wait, I'm a woman in that target demographic and I don't like the standard genres you mentioned," or even "Wait, what about Ted Dekker's novels or Left Behind? They're not in the genres you mentioned."
There's no doubt that exceptions exist. What I have been describing is the marketplace in broad, general terms. I maintain that, for the most part, the Christian fiction industry and marketplace is as I've described.
Let's look at the novels that are different from the genres I listed. We'll look specifically at novels by Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker and the Left Behind series.
First let me say that the work Frank Peretti, Jerry B. Jenkins, and Ted Dekker have done for Christian fiction in general, and Christian speculative fiction in particular, has been stellar and groundbreaking and I hold these authors in great admiration. As I said in my interviews with these gentlemen and on the Booklist, I consider them to be pillars in Christian speculative fiction. Without them, we might not even be talking about such a thing.
But the question to ask is whether or not the successful sales of the books by these great pioneers have resulted in permanent new genres in the Christian fiction marketplace. Can you now walk into a Christian bookstore and choose from the End Times Fiction shelf? The Spiritual Warfare category?
Not so much.
For some reason, the powers that be have given a pass to these excellent authors, and we're all the better for it. But as for whether or not their work has convinced publishers and bookstores to devote permanent shelf space to more books like them, no matter who the author is...it's not happening.
If a bookstore is faced with the choice of carrying a new chick lit or a new supernatural thriller, 9 times out of 10 they're going to choose the chick lit. If forced to choose between a female-oriented biblical novel or "yet another" end times novel, which do you think they'll choose?
Bookstores, readers, and publishers return time and again to the staples I mentioned in Tip #17. If it's a new novel by Ted Dekker, well, that one of course will be brought into the store. But if it's the exact same sort of novel by someone else, probably not. And yet a romance or women's novel by an unknown author might find itself being welcomed into the same store, no questions asked.
I'm not casting aspersion on bookstores or anyone else for this practice. They have limited shelf space and they must fill those shelves with products their target market will be more likely to purchase. I'm just explaining how the exceptions prove the rule.
Strategies Some Have Tried
In the years I've been involved with Christian publishing I've seen a number of strategies people have tried to get around the demographic and genre parameters I've been describing. Some of these I think are terrific. Some have been successful.
I've seen publishers just try to ignore these realities (or hope they've changed) and put the "different" novels out there, hoping their target audiences will find them. I've actually been part of such efforts, with my own novels and other projects.
The marketplace tends to punish the publishers and authors who do this, simply by not buying the book. It's not what these folks went into the bookstore looking to read, after all.
I've seen male authors writing under female pen names, hoping to attract the largely female audience I described in Tip #16.
I've seen series that begin with a "straight" storyline in book 1 but then in later books in the series try to take the readers off into more speculative territory.
I've seen novelists write books in an accepted genre but include a speculative element.
These and more are all good attempts at getting around the industry expectations and realities. I'm pulling for each one.
Hope for Christian Speculative Fiction
Over the last few years, since 2000 or so, I have seen a radical upswing in interest and support for Christian speculative fiction.
I don't know if it's that these people are new fans or if it's only now, through the Internet (and blogs, in particular), that they have been able to find each other and band together in vocal groups. But whatever the case, there have never been more united fans of this kind of fiction.
I'm so excited about this development. Why? Because when you get bunches of people together all calling for action on any topic, change will result. Either the environment will change to cater to them or the people themselves will rise up and create the thing the group is demanding.
I see the rise of several sites (such as the Lost Genre Guild, the Christian SF/Fantasy Blogtour, and the Dragons, Knights, and Angels e-zine) as evidence that a grassroots movement is underway that will inexorably lead to a revolution in Christian speculative fiction publishing. And I hope my own Marcher Lord Press will be right smack in the middle of this revolution.
With the power of the Internet at POD (print-on-demand) publishing, I think the time is right. Let's go produce the kind of fiction we want to read!
Tip #19: Keep a Character's Dialogue and Actions in the Same Paragraph
I haven't done a purely formatting tip since Tip #2 so I thought it was time, especially after all that marketplace talk.
Beginning novelists don't always understand that there are real rules when it comes to formatting dialogue in fiction. They also don't always realize that the reader has come to understand that certain formatting cues imply certain things to the reader. But these must be understood and mastered in order to be sure the reader is not confused.
I won't go much into formatting dialogue except to say that the punctuation should almost always go inside the quotation marks and that you often use a comma where normally you would use a period. Here's an example.
Wrong: "That's a wonderful sentence." he said.
Wrong: "That's a wonderful sentence", he said.
Right: "That's a wonderful sentence," he said.
Note that the period should've been a comma in the first example and the comma outside the quotation mark should've been inside it in the second.
This pattern holds true even if the spoken sentence continues.
"That's a wonderful sentence," he said, "but shouldn't you stop talking now?"
"That's a wonderful sentence," he said. "But shouldn't you stop talking now?"
Keeping Dialogue and Action Together
Tell me who is speaking here:
Jennifer moved to the window.
"You don't really mean that, do you?"
"Of course I do."
"What does it mean?"
"It means we're no longer the 'it' couple."
He drained his beer.
On the mantle the clock chimed eleven.
"I hate you."
Now, besides the obvious literary grandeur of that exchange, what did you notice that was odd about it?
Hopefully you noticed that it was very difficult to detect who was talking. What if I told you that it was Jennifer who said, "It means we're no longer the 'it' couple" and it was Larry who said "I hate you"? Is that what you got out of it? Well, maybe that's what the author meant.
The point is you don't know because you can't tell. The author separated the character's spoken words from his or her actions.
It doesn't sound like a big error, I know, but it's very confusing to the reader. I see it all the time in the unpublished manuscripts I work with. The good news is that it can be easily fixed.
Now read the scene again and see if you can follow along better.
Jennifer moved to the window. "You don't really mean that, do you?"
"Of course I do." Larry belched.
"What does it mean?"
"It means we're no longer the 'it' couple." He drained his beer.
Jennifer sobbed. On the mantle the clock chimed eleven. "I hate you."
Note that it could've been parsed differently, and thus interpreted differently, by attaching different spoken lines to different action beats."
The reader needs you to attach the action to the spoken words in order to maintain a fix on who is speaking. For the sake of clarity, keep a character's dialogue together in the same paragraph with that character's actions.
What you're doing is using the character's actions in three ways: 1) as a speech attribution (see Tip #14), 2) as a beat to manage pacing, and 3) as a tie-down to the setting. Plus you're keeping your reader oriented as to what's happening.
Simple little technique. Big payoff. Go thou and do likewise.
Tip #20: Planting a Ticking Time-Bomb in Your Novel
At some point, every novelist hates his book and wants to blow it up. Verily, veriliy, I say unto you, you will eventually summon the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.
But that's not what I'm talking about here.
Here I'm talking about giving your novel an overriding sense of urgency that increases the suspense with every chapter and scene that passes.
The easiest illustration is the literal ticking time-bomb. Think of the movie Speed. The bomb was ticking, the bus was running out of gas, and the villlain was about to get his wish of blowing up the passengers. How long could our heroine keep the bus moving at above the minimum speed? She's getting tired! It was nerve-wracking and wonderful. Audiences were gripped, and every second that passed ratcheted up the suspense even further.
All because of a literal ticking time-bomb.
Now what about something just as dramatic, like an impending volcanic eruption (Dante's Peak) or an asteroid hurtling toward Earth on a collision course (Armageddon)?
Every moment that passes brings disaster that much closer. Our heroes, of course, are right in harm's way. Thanks to these built-in suspense creating devices, the storyteller had ever-increasing suspense working to the benefit of the story.
You, Too, Can Be a Mad Bomber
You don't have to write screenplays for Hollywood blockbusters to harness the power of the ticking time-bomb. Why not put something like this in your story?
It doesn't have to be as large or dramatic as an earth-destroying asteroid, though. Any impending event that will be bad for the hero if it's not prevented is a candidate for a ticking time-bomb.
If the hero doesn't raise the money by the end of the month the bank is going to reposess the house. If the hero can't learn this material for the test at the end of the week she'll be kicked out of school and have to move away from her boyfriend. If the kids don't find the way out of the sewers before the scheduled release of the dam's floodgates, they'll be drowned.
Every novel needs high stakes. (And stakes are what we're talking about here.) Every novel needs suspsense of some kind to propel the story forward and to impel the reader to keep reading.
Probably not every novel needs a ticking time-bomb, some OR-ELSE eventuality that is inexorably approaching. Then again, why wouldn't you use a tool like this that, once set up, effortlessly increases the suspense of your book on every page?
When we lived in Orlando we weathered three direct-hit hurricanes in one season. On the day the first one came, all we could do was watch the radar sweeps and feel the wind increasing outside. Every one of those brightly colored radar sweeps (which updated only every five minutes—another great suspense technique) showed that this massive swirling vortex of death had moved a tiny bit closer to our house.
It was excruciating. Talk about mounting suspense.
My poor daughter, in elementary school then, was getting increasingly anxious. The hurricane was a fast-mover, but still took all day and into the night to arrive.
Finally it hit. It was pitch dark outside (just to add to the feeling of claustrophobia) and we were all strung out with stress. Around midnight my daughter was wide awake but stretched tight. I happened to be on the phone to my brother-in-law in Texas, who was concerned because we all knew the eye of the storm was going to pass right over our house. Suddenly a giant gust of wind hit us and the lights went out with a clack.
My daughter uttered the scream heard 'round the world. Or at least all the way from Florida to Texas.
That's the cumulative power of the ticking time-bomb. When it finally arrives, suspense is at a fever pitch. I actually used an approaching hurricane in my third novel, Fatal Defect.
You should consider using such a device, too. Find some unwanted eventuality you can put in your story, something that can be announced early in the story (to begin the countdown for the reader) and arrive at the climax, and you'll raise the suspense throughout your novel.
One last note about the ticking time-bomb: the hero doesn't necessarily need to know anything about it. The main thing is that the reader knows about it. Sometimes it's even more effective for the reader to know that a disaster is coming but for the characters not to know. Play with different options, but definitely consider setting the explosives and getting them ticking.
Want More Tips?
Be sure to return to the tips index to get all the other tips.