Fiction Writing Tips 91–96

Welcome to the ninth page of Fiction Writing Tips. Here you will find tips 91 through 95.

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If you'd like to ask me about a tip or ask a fiction craft-related question, I'd love to hear from you. Either drop me a note through the Contact page or come to The Anomaly and ask your question.

Tip #91: Don't Include a Copyright Notice in Your Proposal or Manuscript

I understand why authors do this. They're convinced their novel is the most original thing ever written and they're simply unsure about what will happen to it once they send it off.

What if some unscrupulous agent or editor decided to just put his name on your work and go get rich and famous off it? Or even if no ill motives are involved, what if it just gets forwarded or photocopied so many times that people begin to wonder if maybe it's written by "Anonymous" and may be safely used to anyone's profit?

Best to just stick a copyright notice on there, right? And the more prominent the better. If you could have it in flashing fuchsia neon letters, that would be best.

I urge you not to do this. Don't put a copyright notice on it at all. And you don't need to mail it to yourself and not open the package, just to preserve the postmark to show that you owned this book before the other guys got their greedy hands on it. And you don't have to register your proposal or even your full manuscript with the Copyright Office.

Your writing is your intellectual property whether you put a on it or not. And it's protected by copyright law whether you actually copyright it or not.

People in the publishing industry know all this. They know your proposal and manuscript are protectedyea, even without being told by you. Nor are they interested in stealing your work.

Your proposal and novel are completely safe when you send them to publishing companies and reputable agents (see a starter list of agents here).

In fact, when you send your proposal or manuscript to these people and you've included a prominent reminder that you own the rights to this material, you are insulting them.

You're saying, "I know you're a crook, but I'm onto you. Don't even try it."

Even if that's not what you mean, it's what you're saying.

You're also saying, "I'm a rank amateur. You can tell because I don't know that my writing is protected even without this notice. Please don't publish me until I learn the business some more."

I once had a manuscript arrive to me on a CD-ROM in a sealed and taped-shut case. When I got it open and put it in the CD drive, I found that the manuscript file was password protected. I had to contact the author to obtain the password. Every time I needed to open the document I had to input the password, which was shielded by asterisks in place of my letters.

The medium is the message, right? The message I received from this medium was that the author was convinced I was an information thief. Question: did it positively predispose me toward that author or that author's manuscript?

Exactly.

The other issue here is that novelists sometimes believe their idea is so original that if even the merest hint of it were to get out to other writers, they would steal it and the first novelist would be left out of the fortune and glory that would surely follow.

A group of published novelist friends and I got together on a project to disprove this notion. We wrote a collection of short stories published as What the Wind Picked Up.

What the Wind Picked Up is, as the subtitle says, "Proof that a single idea can launch a thousand stories."

Each participating novelist was given the same elements to work with. Each story had to begin with the same opening sentence and end with the same closing sentence. Each story had to involve mistaken identity, a pursuit at a noted landmark, and an unusual form of transportation.

Though it could be argued that each author stole the main story elements from someone else, the result was 21 radically different stories.

Put your mind at ease about someone getting a whiff of your idea and then stealing it. As we proved in What the Wind Picked Up, stories can have lots of similar elements and yet be very different tales.

So if your writing isn't going to be published under someone else's name, if your stuff is protected under copyright law without you taking any measures whatsoever, if you don't need to put publishing professionals on notice that you're onto their scam, and if your idea isn't going to be co-opted by the mere fact of someone reading your synopsis, what's the point of putting the copyright notice on your proposal or manuscript?

There is no point. You're safe. Don't worry. Just send it on. And definitely don't give agents and editors good reason to be insulted or to mark you as an amateur.

Remove the little and trust God, my friend. 

Tip #92: Change the Metaphor You Use for Yourself as a Novelist

You're not a storyteller spinning yards beside a campfire.

You can't think of yourself that way. It will give rise to a number of fiction errors.

Now, in a real sense, you certainly are a storyteller. What is a novelist if not a storyteller? But you are not the guy sitting on a log captivating your audience of marshmallow-roasting hearers with your tale of romance or adventure.

When you think of yourself like this, you are going to do things in your written fiction that you shouldn't do.

You're going to explain everything, for starters. You're going to give backstory and shortcuts that help your listener but not your reader.

"Now Jake was a vile man. He'd killed three men with his bare hands in a barroom brawl and he liked to beat up old ladies because they usually had a bit of jewelry he could steal."

Something like that would work around a campfire. But in fiction, it's called telling (Tip #29).

If you think of yourself as a storyteller around a campfire, you're going to summarize everything.

"Jake moved through the wagon train, beating up old ladies, until he'd stolen every last piece of jewelry in the group. After that, he cooked the ox and had himself a fine steak dinner."

With a few lines of text I've relayed something that should've been detailed out in a full scene or set of scenes.

The storyteller metaphor encourages this kind of summary, while simultaneously discouraging good fiction technique.

If you think of yourself as a storyteller around the campfire, you're likely to violate point of view like crazy (see Tip #30).

"Jake slept off his ox-steak dinner. Then, unbeknownst to him, but knownst to us, Mary Ellen and Becky Sue got the women-folk together to come up with a plan. Mary Ellen was in favor of shooting the snake because she'd had a no-good husband like Jake once't before. Becky Sue was more of a mind to tie him up to a cactus, being of a more kindly nature and wishing to extend the love of Jesus to him, though he truly was a snake."

Hop, hop, hop, away you go, hopping into everyone's head. Works at the K.O.A. Not so much in a novel.

If you think of yourself as a storyteller around a campfire, you won't give proper descriptions of places, people, or events. You might mention "the barn," but you probably won't do the entire Tips 5-8 treatment, as you should. You probably won't give the crucial details that sell it to the reader.

In short, without making adjustments, good campfire storytellers make for lousy novelists.

What, Then?

You need to change your metaphor. You must cease thinking of yourself as a fireside tale-teller and begin thinking of yourself as a filmmaker.

Now the scenario is changed. Now you're using camera and microphone to convey your story. Now you have to dress your characters and light your scene and compose your shots. Now you are forced to show the story through action, scene, and dialogue.

You can't just summarize a scene; you have to play it out blow by blow and shot by shot. You can't just suggest a setting; you have to build it. You can't just assume the audience is going to imagine things happening in the background; you've got to put them there.

You can't tell anymore, as you can by the campfire. Now you're forced to use good fiction techniques. You have to pick whose story this is, so you can't go head hopping, as you could on the camping trip. Your characters can't be random blobs, as they could be in a storyteller's tale; they have to be precisely selected actors.

I promise, if you begin thinking of yourself as a filmmaker, someone whose story can be told only through the filmmaker's tools, your fiction will instantly improve. You'll be less inclined to fall into bad habits, and your stories will take on a new visual quality that they hadn't had before.

It might help you to read a book on basic filmmaking. Better yet, break out the video camera and make a simple movie. You'll discover that you need to be close in for some things and far away for others. You'll understand the need for an establishing shot. You'll see why you have to establish who all is in a scene if you want to use them later, or else they'll appear to materialize from nowhere.

And if you're really paying attention, you'll begin to see what telling is like. In a movie, telling would be like making the screen go black for twenty minutes while some boring narrator fills the viewer in about backstory.

You would never do a movie like that. And yet beginning novelists do it all the time. They stop their story (make the reader stare at a blank screen) while they explain the universe and the history between the characters and everything else. It won't work in a movie, and it doesn't work in fiction.

The filmmaker metaphor will help you on so many levels, it's almost like the ultimate fiction secret.

So toss aside your s'mores and put on your director's chapeau. It's time to stop telling stories and start making movies (on paper).

Tip #93: Understand Your Calling as a Novelist

As Christians we are all called to minister to two main people groups: those inside the Church and those outside it. We all have responsibilities toward both groups.

However, I believe each Christian may be primarily called to one group or the other. For instance, those Christians with the spiritual gift of evangelism are going to be spending most of their time focused on people outside the Church. While those Christians with the gift of, say, pastoring will be more focused on people inside the Church.

No matter our gifting or calling, we cannot neglect either group. Just because you feel called to the Church doesn't mean you can neglect missionary or helps ministries, for instance, and vice versa.

When it comes to Christian writersand Christian novelists in particularI believe a similar distinction applies. I believe Christian novelists have responsibility toward those people inside the Church and those outside it, but are primarily called to one or the other.

You probably know which calling God has placed on your life. If your heart beats to reach non-Christians through your fiction, then I'd say that's a clear indicator that you're called to write your fiction primarily for that group. If you find your groove when challenging and entertaining fellow Christians, you're probably called to write primarily for those inside the Church.

I don't understand why Christian novelists get into arguments about this, but I see it regularly.

One person feels called to Group A and feels that everyone ought to be called to Group A, while another person feels just as strongly that Group B is where everyone should be devoting his energies.

This is kind of like the early church getting mad at Paul for taking the Gospel to the Gentiles when the Apostles all thought the Good News was primarily for Jews. They finally decided to stop fighting God and let each party take the Gospel to the group each was called to.

So it should be with Christian novelists.

It's okay if everyone doesn't feel called to the same group you feel called to. I know it's a big job reaching the Lost or edifying the Church but it really is all right if some of the effort goes to the other group.

So, do you have a feel for which group you're called to? Do you write for the Lost or the Church?

Or is there perhaps a third group you feel led to try to reach?

For instance, Marcher Lord Press is dedicated to reaching a subset of the Church: those Christians who love speculative fiction but are not currently being served by the CBA publishing industry. I'll also be pleased if non-Christians discover Marcher Lord Press and find their way to salvation through them, but that's not the house's primary focus.

For whom do you write? Your lost relative and those like her? Your prodigal son and those like him? Some particular group or subculture? Praise God for your calling, whatever it is!

If you don't know your calling as a novelist, ask God.

Writing and Publishing for the Church

Once you know for whom you're writing, you'll have a good idea about what to put in your fiction and where to look when it comes time to seek publication.

When you know your target reader, you know how to write. You know what kind of stories will appeal to that person and what that person's issues are.

I recommend getting a photo of your ideal reader and pasting that photo up on your monitor. As you're writing, keep glancing at that person's face, keep imagining that you're crafting this story specifically for him or her. Then your story will be well-suited to all the people like your target reader, as well.

When it comes time to think about publication for your novel, your calling comes into play too.

If you're writing to the Church, then your publishing choices are clear. The CBA publishing industry is where you'll go. There are hundreds of Christian publishing companies that do a very good job of reaching the Church. Most of the Church, that is.

If you're called to writing to a part of the Church that the CBA industry doesn't serve well, your choices are more limited. If you want your fiction to reach Christian men, you're basically out of luck. If you want your fiction to reach Christians who love Clancy or Eddings or Fleming, you're in trouble.

As I've said previously, we're living in the midst of a publishing revolution (Tip #79) in which virtually every kind of Christian fiction will eventually find its audience. But aside from Marcher Lord Press and a handful of others, the revolution hasn't spread very far yet. You may have to wait for the market to catch up to you.

In the meantime, keep writing! When the right publishing avenue presents itself, how great it will be for you if you have several completed novels ready to go.

Writing and Publishing for Non-Christians

If you're writing to a non-Christian readership I have some bad news for you: the Christian publishing industry doesn't reach non-Christians. It doesn't.

Yes, I know CBA publishers are getting Christian books into Sam's and Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble. But in my experience these books are not getting purchased by non-Christians. They're getting purchased by Christians looking for reduced prices on books they would've purchased anyway.

It's undoubtedly true that some non-Christians picked up Christian fiction in these venues and that God has done amazing things with them. But by and large, Christian publishers sell to Christians.

Where are Christian novels shelved in Barnes & Noble? In the general fiction shelves? In general romance or science fiction or historical? Not so much. Most are put in the Religious Fiction area (what I like to call Death Row). And who even goes to those shelves? Non-Christians? Not likely.

If God has called you to write to non-Christians, you may be looking at non-Christian publishers for your fiction.

This is a sticky wicket and most of the Christian novelists I know who feel called to write to non-Christians have not fully figured it out. How do you get Christian stories into the hands of non-Christians?

If you go through an ABA publisher ("ABA" is a way to refer to secular publishers) won't you be forced to remove specifically Christian content? Worse, won't you be forced to include content that would be offensive to Christians?

There's no one answer to this. Some ABA publishers are exactly like this. Some are not. Some are so enamored with the idea of spirituality in fiction that they'll actually ask you to be more explicit in your Christian content.

Or perhaps you should go a more covert route: make the Christianity a theme in the background, or write an allegory. Many people allege that the screenplay for the movie E.T. was a veiled depiction of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the same advice mentioned above applies to you: the publishing revolution we're in will soon allow you to bypass all these artificial categories and simply get your books to anyone who will like them, Christian or not.

Was Jesus called to those inside the family of faith or those outside? I think we'd have to say both. He was called to Israel, but He spent most of His time with those who had been spurned by "good Jews." He came to the Jews but His ministry clearly extended to those from other flocks.

When Jesus spoke to His disciples, He taught with parables (fiction) and straight teaching. When He stood in the marketplace he taught in parables (fiction) to fish for men and reel them in to hear straight teaching.

No matter your calling as a novelist, and no matter the path God uses to get your writing to His intended audience, you have to do just one thing: keep writing. Keep telling these stories as if they're reaching your ideal reader and all those like her. Be wise. Think about strategies and avenues to get your stuff out there. Write well and with precision to your calling.

But in the end you must let God be in charge of taking your fish and loaves and multiplying them out to the people He knows need them.

Tip #94: One Modifier Trumps Many

There's a scene in Three Amigos in which some Mexican villagers want to send a telegram complaining about how terrible the villain El Guapo has been to their small village. They have a wonderfully descriptive telegram all planned out. The problem is they can't afford a message with that many words.

They want to say, "Come to Santa Poco to stop the horrible, evil, murdering, villainous monster, El Guapo." But they don't have enough pesos to pay for that. So the telegraph operator offers to help them out. He suggests they replace all their wonderful adjectives with one: infamous. "Come stop the infamous El Guapo."

"'Infamous'?" they ask.

"It means murderous, evilall like you said. And it will save you money."

(Of course when our clueless heroes receive the message, they don't know what infamous means. They interpret it as "more than famous," and hilarity ensues. But that's beside the point.)

Just like those penniless villagers, in your fiction you are better off cutting down on the modifiers. Not so much to save pesos, but to strengthen your writing.

Which is stronger:

"Tiffany was scared and worried and anxious."

Or

"Tiffany was scared."

Which of these is stronger:

"How was it possible for someone to fall in love and tug on my heartstrings and steal my heart in so little time?"

Or

"How was it possible for someone to steal my heart in so little time?"

What about these:

"She had colored her hair a brownish black with a touch of charcoal and raven."

Or

"She had colored her hair black."

When you're writing you may feel the urge to keep adding words to be sure you've rounded the corner on the feeling you're trying to get across. You may feel as though you need to keep adding nuances to be certain you've captured what you mean.

The problem is that it weakens your writing. A reader doesn't feel like you're trying to flesh out a description. A reader feels like you've already told her this and you keep telling her. She gets it already.

Worse, writing with multiple modifiers feels indecisive to a reader. Is she scared or anxious or worried? Make up your mind! Just pick one and stick with it.

Strive for a general economy of words, especially when it comes to modifiers. Your writing will feel sure and decisive and positive and confident. Er, I mean your writing will feel confident. It will seem like you are really seeing this story you're describing.

It may be that you need to write it out with all the modifiers that occur to you. If that's what you need to do in the creation process, go for it. Don't let finding the perfect word bog you down then. Just be sure to come back through in the editing process looking for opportunities to cut multiple modifiers down to one.

And strive to discipline yourself not to include multiple modifiers during the creation process itself. That's the ideal solution.

It feels counterintuitive, but one modifier is always stronger than two or more. One trumps many.

Your reader doesn't care that it might be a little sunny but kind of cloudy with maybe a hint of rain that might be chased away by windy conditions that could extinguish the promise of fog. Just say it's sunny.

Don't be a wimp. Pick a modifier and go with it. Select a strong one (like infamous) and be done.

It means all like you said, and it will save you money.

Tip #95: Know When To Take A Break

Most of my tips involve exhortations for you to get up and get cracking on your fiction. You need a finished manuscript before anyone in the publishing industry will take you seriously, and you need to develop the perseverance that will set you apart from the millions of posers who say they're going to write a novel one day.

But sometimes you need to step away from it for a while. Sometimes you need to take a break.

I took a years-long break in my own fiction, though I don't recommend that. I was in grieving over the loss of the first 33,000 words of a novel I was working on. When my hard drive crashed I turned to my backup CD, only to find that the CD was corrupt in one subdirectory onlythe subdirectory holding my work-in-progress.

For years I could literally not bear the thought of starting over, either to recreate what I'd lost or to just begin anew. I kept an ever-growing file of my notes and ideas for the story, though, and have finally begun working on it again. After like five years.

I did write fiction during that time. Just not anything on my magnum opus.

Sometimes we all need to step away from our writing. Maybe we've gotten frustrated or hit a wall or are grieving or intimidated. I wouldn't want anyone to use this as an excuse to procrastinate. A writer writes, after all. But a few days or weeks or months away from it might give you some much-needed perspective.

Use the time well. Read a novelist you enjoy. Attend a workshop. Write a short story just for giggles. Read something completely off-topic from your book. Go for long walks in the forest. Pray.

When you come back to the keyboard, you'll be refreshed and energized.

Sometimes you need to take a break simply because you're too stinkin' busy with other things. For most of us, writing is a luxury, a hobby, and those are the first things that go when busyness increases.

You'll come back to your fiction, certainly. Taking a break doesn't mean you're admitting defeat or conceding that you're not a writer after all. It means you're taking a break.

And that's what I'm going to be doing with this column.

As I write this, it's late August 2008 and I'm mere weeks away from the launch of my publishing company, Marcher Lord Press, and I'm basically freaking out.

For the last two weeks I've remembered this column only after I should've already done my weekly article for it. At this point I'm working evenings and weekends to get MLP ready to go, and right now I just don't have the brain juice to be brilliant in this column every week (no comments from the peanut gallery...).

So until further noticeprobably in mid-OctoberI'm going to be taking a break from this column.

Maybe you should consider one, too. Or maybe you need to knuckle down and just write it, baby. Either way, may the Lord bless your decision.

Tip #96: The Full Workup

Every setting in every scene in your book (and every character too, by the way) must be fully described for the reader. If you’re not seeing it, the reader sure won’t be seeing it.

As they say in preaching: if it’s a mist in the pulpit, it’s a fog in the pew.

Or as they say in theater: if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.

In other words, if the writer doesn’t imagine the setting herself and then render that description on the page, the reader will get a big fat nothing when she tries to imagine what’s going on in the scene.

If the writer doesn’t describe it, it doesn’t exist for the reader. You may be picturing the setting perfectly (although maybe you’re not), but if you don’t write it down so the reader can peek over your shoulder, she gets zilch in terms of a sense for what’s happening and where.

In my opinion, there are six main components to a full description of a setting:

Generic Descriptor—remember to let us know what the place is; these are words like stadium, desert, closet, and cockpit.

Establishing Shot—with this part of the description you’re answering the question: “What am I looking at?”; this is the big picture, the image you get when you paint with the wide brush; these are statements like “a vast clearing in the forest” and “a crowded metropolis street at rush hour” and “an expensive-looking conference room that looked like it could seat thirty executives”; many novelists go straight to details like furniture or flowers but neglect to answer the most obvious question: “What is this place? What am I looking at here?” (More on this in Tip #6.)

Comparison—give us a word picture or simile to know what this place seems like or reminds the character of or could be compared with; these are a terrific shorthand for the reader to get an instant handle on the setting; use phrases like “the whole place reminded him of what the floor of a Chuck E. Cheese’s must look like at closing time” or “the pond wasn’t any larger than the YMCA pool back home” or “the office looked like a cross between a factory floor and a powder room”; word pictures are your secret weapon for descriptions. (More on comparisons in Tip #8.)

Lighting—that’s my catch-all term to be sure you mention whether the setting is indoor or outdoor, whether it’s day or night (and if daytime, about what time of day), and the weather (if it’s outside); you might know that it’s a dark and stormy night, but you’d be surprised how many times novelists leave out that kind of information—and they’re pretty significant for helping the reader to picture the scene.

Detail—this includes evocative bits that help sell the setting, like that odd piece of furniture or the antique violin on the table; it also includes the full sensory sweep: what do I hear, smell, taste, feel, and see in this setting? (More on sensory details in Tip #7.) but that kind of information—and they’re pretty significant for helping the reader to picture the scene.

Place the Players on the Stage—how many people are here, what are they doing, and where are they in relation to one another?—when you walk into a room, this is one of the first things you notice (massive crowd? only ten people? your mom and the janitor?), yet many novelists don’t include this information, so we find out only at the end of the scene that really the entire cheerleading squad has been watching the whole thing; place the players on the stage as soon as the scene begins so we can know what we would know if we were actually there.

That last phrase is the key. The goal of a description is to reveal for the reader everything she would notice in the very first second of a scene if this were a movie. As soon as the picture comes on the screen and sound comes from the speakers, we get an instant gestalt of what we’re looking at. We’re instantly oriented. That’s what you should be giving your reader with a description.

Now, not every setting needs the full workup with all six major components. If your character is just passing down a hallway, for instance, you don’t need to give the full workup of that setting. But you need to provide something so the poor reader can begin to imagine the place. And if anything significant happens in that setting, it had better receive the full treatment.

Don’t get legalistic or formulaic about this. Some settings can really be helped by a description of the dominant aroma of the place, for instance, but we don’t need to know what every setting smells like.

Put your reader into the action of your book by giving your settings the full workup!

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