Genres (and why we write them)

Recently, I had the pleasure of taking part in a panel on genres and the expectations that are placed on novels based on how they’re categorized. The recording of the panel will be available during Virtual FantasyCon 2016, but it certainly got me thinking about writing, and writing’s evil twin–marketing. Part of the reason books are categorized into genres, after all, is to help readers find books they’d like to read.

Since there are so many authors writing so many genres, I thought I would open up this blog to other writers over the summer to talk about what drew them to their genres, and what challenges they have found came about because of the genres they chose. So for every Sunday through the rest of the summer, there will be guest blogs from everyone from high fantasy to cozy mystery writers talking about their experiences in the “Genres (and why we write them)” blog series. To start off, though, you all get to hear mine.

When I started out writing, I never much thought about how my stories would be marketed. There is an old piece of writing advice that says, “Write the stories you’d like to read.” Even before someone had shared that with me, writing things I wanted to read was entirely my approach. These days,  I still write what I want to read, but that can definitely make marketing a little more difficult–especially because readers of different genres have very different expectations. The Copper Rebellion

As a whole, I’ve always been a very character-driven author. How characters play off of each other has always been what I find most interesting. I imagine that is why I started off as a romance author. Since romances are entirely focused on the couple falling in/being in love, the plot is character-driven by necessity. Of course, romances also tend to follow a very specific formula. Namely 1) Love interests are introduced; 2) there is some problem that keeps them apart; 3) Love interests end up together. There are hundreds of good ways to use that formula (as a romance reader as well, I’ve seen many unique plot twists and turns that still end up following the same general formula) but since I’ve always been the type to let my characters lead where they wish, fitting into that formula to be a “true” Romance writer was never my strong suit. Some people have loved that, some people hate it, and it definitely can make marketing a little hairy at time–since straying away from what readers expect from their Romance novels can be dangerous–but they were always the books wanted to read, and that meant straying to the edges of the genre.

Raining EmbersNow that I’ve moved into the historical fantasy genre, I’ve found that being at edges of genres is apparently my modus operandi. While I certainly have the fantasy part down in my novels–people finding out they’re reincarnated gods really can’t be anything but fantasy–writing what I want to read still means character-driven plots, and that isn’t quite as expected in fantasy novels as it is in romance. One of the oddest things I’ve found of straying into character-driven fantasy so far is actually that a ton of people who state they “don’t generally like fantasy” love the book. Much like the romance readers who don’t like my straying away from the romance formula, however, many pure fantasy readers end up on the other side of things, unsure if they feel like they got what they thought they were going to.

Treading along the edges of genres can definitely make life difficult. More than once while reading meaner reviews, I’ve debated if it would be worth it to write something that would fit inside genre expectations. I entirely understand why people like the genres they do and don’t begrudge anyone who feels let down when a book they’re excited about doesn’t hit the things they love about the genres they read–I certainly know I don’t love every book I pick up. Being able to hit expectations more solidly would definitely make the marketing side of things less of a headache. But then I’d no longer be writing what I’d want to read, and being able to do that is part of what makes writing so much fun. So for now I’m left skirting along the edges of my genres, finding readers who want to read the same things I do, because they’re obviously out there, even if genre-bending makes targeted marketing a little more difficult than it otherwise could be.

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Outlining (as a Panster)

Happy June 28th, or as we’re calling it around my house, release day! I’m very pleased to announce my new style guide, Building the Bones: Outlining Your Novel, (part of the Red Adept guide series: Beyond the Style Manual) is now available!

Whenever I’m teaching a writing class, I try to make the point that there is no “right” way to write. If you need a binder full of notes before you start writing, that’s fine. If you want to jump right in and see how far you get, that’s fine as well. In perhaps the least sinister use of quoting Machiavelli, the end really does justify the means when it comes to writing. If you end up with a good completed manuscript, it really doesn’t matter how you got there.

When I first started writing, I was a die hard “pantser” (i.e. someone who “flies by the seat of their pants” and just starts writing with no outline). If someone had told me back then that I would one day be the one writing a “how to” guide on outlining, I would have told them they were crazy. After over a decade of learning to better my writing/developing my style, however, I’ve found myself stretching across the full range of outlining styles (from the basic character-goal-obstacle outline to a full scene-by-scene) depending on what each story has demanded. Though I still tend to fall on the less outline than more side of things when working out my novels, having done just about everything in the name of working out a story has allowed me to pick up a number of outlining techniques that can help nearly any writing style–so perhaps having pantser instincts actually has made it easier to write a how to guide than someone who has always used the same kind of full outline.

So, no matter your writing style, if you want to write a novel and aren’t sure how to get started or are generally a pantser but keep finding your novel fizzling out before you can get it finished, consider picking up Building the Bones. Hopefully all my years of floundering around will save you a little trouble.

Building the Bones: Outlining Your Novel
Now available HERE on Amazon Kindle through Red Adept Publishing

Do you have a story you’ve always wanted to write, but weren’t sure how to begin? Have you tried pantsing and floundered, unsure how to finish your novel? Learning the simple basics of outlining can help you plot with confidence.

This instructional guide booklet covers the easy, straightforward techniques you need to plan your story before you write. These guidelines will aid you in organizing your ideas no matter what genre you write or what age group you write for. Whether you use paper or a computer to plan with, these outlining concepts will help you navigate the unknowns of your imagination so you can bring your story to life.

Actions Speak Louder

One of the first pieces of writing advice almost all new writers hear is the old adage “Show don’t tell.” Back when I first started writing, I fully loathed hearing people say that–mostly because I don’t think anyone ever explained it very well beyond “don’t use to be verbs.” While trying to stay away from weak verbs is generally good advice, even brand new writers tend to realize going on a “to be” witch hunt get you awkward prose (at least I did when I had an English teacher tell us to write a story without a single was or were).

download

More than being about to be verbs, though, showing and not telling has to do with “showing” the reader actions and emotions rather than “telling” them what your character is like or is feeling. For example, you could tell a reader, “She was a quiet girl and wanted to be left alone” or you could show a little girl sitting at the back of a classroom, her shoulders pulled up to her ears as she prays in her head that no one comes to talk to her. While both make the same general point, the second paints a much more vivid picture and pulls the reader into the scene rather than just giving them statements to remember.

While it’s good to stay away from weak/telling phrases in general (I was; I felt; I wanted; I liked…) showing becomes immeasurably important when it comes to fleshing out characters. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell your readers that your character is quiet and shy, if all you show is your character being the center of attention at party after party, your character is going to read as someone loud and outgoing. When it comes to characterization, actions truly do speak louder than words.
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So, instead of telling your reader character traits:

1. Look for scenes that show important traits. For example, rather than telling the reader that your character is a good fighter (or having people talk about how good a fighter that character is–as seems common in TV shows) look for a scene where your character will be able to show off those skills.

2. Shape dialogue to show personality. No two people speak entirely alike. Some people share certain verbal tics, but personality shapes word choice, slang usage, wordiness, and all those other things that make a character sound like a person rather than the author. If your character is shy and quiet, their dialogue will likely be shorter and meeker than a character who loves attention and so pontificates whenever given the chance.

3. Make a point when your character is acting out of character. Sometimes, you’ll need your “stickler for the rules” character to go against type and break into work to steal a file. That’s fine, as long as you show that that’s not who your character normally is. Make a point that your character is nervous/uncomfortable with what’s happening or take the time for them to struggle with making the decision to act against who they are (ideally after you’ve already shown who the character normally is earlier on). By showing what is happening is the exception to the rule will help keep the reader from seeing a strange disconnect between what they’ve heard about the character and what they’ve seen.

Just remember, when it comes to learning about characters, seeing how they act is much more powerful than hearing once or twice or ten times that the character is X. Use showing to your advantage, even if you still need some was and weres in there.

Punctuating Dialogue

If there had been one grammar rule I wish I would have learned earlier on in my writing career, it would have been to learn how to punctuate dialogue. Where it’s possible to pick up many grammar rules without thinking about it, dialogue punctuation tends to be one of those unnoticed things that can then become very annoying to fix after the fact (especially if you’re a naturally dialogue-heavy writer as I’ve always been).

So, when writing dialogue, keep in mind:

1. Each speaker gets a new line.

This rule is simply to make it easier for the reader to see who is saying what. Every time you change a speaker, you will want to move to a new paragraph, e.g.

Correct:
“Hi,” Sally said.
“What’s up?” Jane asked.
Sally shrugged. “Not much.”

Incorrect
“Hi,” Sally said. “What’s up?” Jane asked. Sally shrugged. “Not much.”

Source: writersdock.com

Source: writersdock.com

2. Both tags and beats can be used to mark who is speaking, but they are punctuated differently.

Simply put, a tag is something connected to dialogue that is specifically how the line is said (e.g. said, asked, yelled, whispered…) and a beat (sometimes called an “action tag”) is an action that is taking place while/closely to when the line is spoken).

If you are using a tag, the tag will be treated as part of the same sentence as the dialogue and thus connected with a comma and followed by a lowercase letter (if the first word of the tag does not include a proper noun such as a name). e.g.:

Correct
“Hi,” she said.
“Howdy,” he shouted.

Incorrect
“Hi.” She said.
“Howdy.” He shouted.

If you are using a beat, however, the beat will be treated as a separate sentence and thus be separated from the dialogue with a period. The first word of the beat will be capitalized, no matter what word, much like any other sentence. e.g.:

Correct
“Hi.” She waved.
“Howdy.” He walked into the entryway.

Incorrect
“Hi,” she waved.
“Howdy,” he walked into the entryway.

Note 1: Special punctuation, such as a question mark or an exclamation point, follows the same general rule with tags/beats, acting like a comma with a tag or a period with a beat when it comes to capitalization. e.g.

Correct
“Who is she?” he asked. (tag)
“She who?” She looked around. (beat)

Incorrect
“Who is she?” He asked. (tag)
“She who?” she looked around. (beat)

Note 2: The first word inside quotation marks is always capitalized, whether it is preceded by a tag or a beat. See second example in point three.

3. A tag or beat can be used at any point in a line of dialogue.

It is possible to put a tag or beat ahead of dialogue, at the end, or even in the middle. e.g.

“Hi, Jane. When did you get here?” she said.
or
She said, “Hi, Jane. When did you get here?”
or
“Hi, Jane,” she said. “When did you get here?”

As long as it’s the same speaker, the dialogue remains on the same line no matter where the tag/beat falls. This, once again, comes down to readability. If dialogue begins to be separated from tags/beats, it can become confusing. For example, if you have:

“Hi, Jane,” she said.
“When did you get here?”

It will likely look like a new speaker (perhaps Jane replying) is saying “When did you get here?” rather than “she” continuing her line.

Note: If a line of dialogue goes on for several sentences, it is generally best to move a tag to either the start of the line or after the first or second sentence so the reader doesn’t have to get to the end of the line and then go back to attribute the line to the proper speaker.

4. If you only have two speakers going back and forth, you can drop some tags altogether.

Sometimes, if you only have two speakers in a scene, it is possible to have lines of dialogue with no tags or beats at all. For example:

“Hey,” Sally said.
“Hey.” Jane waved as she walked into the room.
“Are you staying for dinner?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Oh.” Sally frowned. “Let me know when you do?”

As there are only Sally and Jane in the scene, even though there is no tag/beat on lines three and four, the reader can assume that Sally asks another question and then Jane answers once again. Again, though, readability trumps all. You want to be careful that you don’t go for too long a stretch with no tags–as a reader might get lost as to who was speaking what line and have to backtrack to the beginning of the conversation to figure it out–and you likely don’t want to drop may tags if you have more than two people in a conversation–as you don’t want the reader to have to struggle to figure out if it is Sally, Jane, Tom, or Steve who answered the previous line.

When dropping tags, you also want to be careful that you don’t end up with talking heads–that is, so many lines with no tags (or only quick “said” tags) that the characters are no longer grounded to the scene. Dialogue should be able to carry a lot of emotion, but don’t forget to put in tone of voice or body language when needed–or show how a character is moving around in general–or it can quickly become like reading a script without actors to deliver the lines.

All in all, when writing dialogue, making it simple for the reader to keep track of who is saying what is the most important thing. There is nothing quite like having to jump away from a line of dialogue to find out who speaking (or having to go back to re-attribute a line to a different speaker) to take a reader out of a flow of conversation. After all, in writing prose, the author needs to provide both the lines and actors–if you prefer just dialogue, consider if your story might be better off as a play.

They’re Really More Like Guidelines

Happy Day 1 of NaNoWriMo! October just flew by this year. Hopefully everyone had a great Halloween/NaNo’s Eve and are now furiously typing away.

For today’s blog post, there’s really just a quick reminder that seems to be far too often forgotten when people start to argue about “writing rules.” Where there is a ton of really good advice out there about how to make writing better/stronger, but it really is just that: advice.

When people begin to argue whether alternatives to “said” should be avoided or if adverbs are best to be avoided, the go to response tends to be “well, find a book with no adverbs” or similar. That is, of course, taking the arguments to an extreme. Any standard advice you might read is a general guideline that tends to make for stronger writing. It is not an absolute that “you can’t write a good book without taking this as cardinal law.” You don’t need to hold witch hunts for telling, adverbs, or anything else people will generally tell you to avoid. You can even do the exact opposite of the advice if that is what works for you. The important thing, when it comes to creative writing, is you’re allowed to be creative. If you can make something work, then it works. Certain things are just easier to make work than others.

And that is where the advice comes in. Adverbs can be great. Much of the time, they become a crutch for weaker word use. Other tags rather than “said” can work well, as well, but often times they can be distracting.

So, while you’re writing, do what’s best for your story. You are the author and need to decide if an adverb is what is needed or not. Just keep advice in the back of your mind so you don’t fall back on things that are damaging rather than helpful.

Happy NaNo and happy writing!

Through His/Her Eyes

As October draws to a close, NaNoWriMo grows ever closer. And with thousands of writers joining the fray, I’m starting to get more and more questions about POV (Point of View). Last week I covered POV Bloat (having so many POV characters it’s difficult for the reader to connect with any of them), today I’ll be talking about how it’s possible to flesh out characters who aren’t POV characters.

Over the past week, perhaps the most common refrain I’ve heard from people who are considering–but aren’t sure about–using first person is: “I feel like first person would make for a stronger narrative, but I’m worried about being able to get in the other characters’ motivations.”

What always worries me about comments like that is the feeling that authors are relying on being inside a character’s head to tell information rather than working on showing events that let the reader learn about the characters organically.

Remember, it is not necessary to be in a character’s head for the reader to learn a lot about them. It’s not even necessary for a POV character to tell readers about him/herself. After all, “I don’t like going to zoos because…” is much less interesting for the reader than a character being dragged to the zoo and then going into fits because of a bad experience that then comes out. So, if you’re trying to build up a character without being in their head, try to:

1. Look for places you can show personalities rather than tell the reader about them. It is possible to bring across quite a bit about a character by showing how they interact with the world rather than relying on an internal monologue. There is an entire trope named “Pet the Dog” where a villain is shown to not be entirely evil by him/her having a scene where he/she is kind to an animal. Perhaps you don’t want to go with that specific example–as it is a bit of a cliché at this point–but character-specific scenes that give insight are always helpful, no matter who the character is.

2. Use dialogue. Sure, you don’t want your character to suddenly drop in and start spouting off his/her life story for no reason, but it is often possible to get characters to naturally talk about themselves here and there at least enough to show deeper motivations without needing to be inside that character’s head (just try not to overdo it or you could end up with the reader wondering why that character is always spouting off long chunks of backstory for no apparent reason).  Note: It is also possible to have other characters discuss the character you need more information about to get a similar effect.

and last but not least:

3. Trust your writing. If you have developed well-rounded, realistic characters, it won’t be necessary to explain that they have more thoughts and motivations than might come across just in the narrative. When characters feel deep, it isn’t necessary to tell the reader they have depth. (If you’re finding you’re having problems making a character feel real in small acts, consider doing more character building before continuing what you’re writing. That will likely come more in handy than just having a character think about who they are).

To everyone participating: happy NaNo planning!

What’s He Look Like, Again?

Today’s topic comes from the NaNoWriMo forums, namely, “How do you work in description in novels without making the story come to a stand still?”

When it comes to getting information across in a story, it can often be a struggle. You don’t want to give the reader nothing to go on–so they are confused/have no idea what anything looks like–but you also don’t want to hit pause in the middle of action to go “hey, by the way, this is what this room looks like.”

Excuse me while I take the next two pages to describe this generic hotel room. (Source: William Warby/Flickr)

WriMo Se.Ka.Ya. describes the struggle well, posting:

[My worst writing habit is] I don’t even do description, The reason I started leaving description out was that I started with too much of it. It’s like describing a picture in class – I had a character, room or whatever, and the story stopped while I explained what was there and how it looked and what material it was etc. – and then the story continued. So I started consciously leaving those parts out, which made me end up at the other side where I can’t even get the colors of [my characters’] uniforms right, because I [didn’t] think to mention something I have no plan for.

As with most things in writing, writing description is a balancing act, and it is very simple to swing too far to one extreme or another. The good news, though, is that there tends to be an easy fix when it comes to getting in some description without pausing action to give a laundry list of everything in a room/a character is wearing/etc. And that is:

Work in description while your character is interacting with the items being described.

There are very few people who walk into a new room and consciously begin to list off everything they are seeing. Therefore, it is both more interesting and more natural to start with one or two descriptors and then move on from there. For example:

Boring/Laundry List Description: John walked into the old, dusty room. It didn’t look like anyone had been in there for years. A red carpet sat on top of wood floors with a set of old chairs on top of the carpet toward the wall to John’s left. A canopy bed with matching red curtains was off to is right and looked just as dusty as everything else. On the far wall, a large window mostly covered with curtains let in a ray of light that let John see the deep green wall paper that was peeling off the wood walls. 

Description mixed with action: John walked into the old room, coughing as dust few up out of the thick red carpet under his feet. He batted it away as he tried to force his eyes to adjust to the dark room. It didn’t look as though anyone had been there for years. With any luck, he wouldn’t have to be in there much longer himself. Glancing around, John moved for the canopy bed to his right. If he had had to hide a treasure map, that was where he’d have put it. Pushing the equally dusty curtains out of the way, he scanned the frame for anything out of the ordinary…

As shown in the second “description” it is possible to get in much of the same information as the first laundry list all while keeping the action of the scene moving (John looking for a treasure map). As he continues his search around the room, he can move to the chairs, pull open the curtains, interact with the space as the reader gets a more and more complete picture of what is there with him. Just like with backstory, it works best to make chunks of information “bite size” and work them in as the reader goes along so things are never pulled away from the action too long to tell the reader chunks of information.

So, if you are struggling working in description, remember:

  1. Not everything needs to be described at once (start with the big things you would notice when you first enter a room first; the rest of the information can likely wait)
  2. It is possible to work description in while the action is still happening “on screen”

From there, with a little practice, you should be in pretty good shape.

Catching Openings

With November slowly creeping up–and thus the start of National Novel Writing Month almost upon us–I am getting more and more questions about how to start novels. I have previously touched on what is my standard advice is for rough drafts (namely, find the inciting incident and start somewhere near there. Worry about the exact opening in edits) but for those who still are looking for pointers, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Do: Try to start close to the inciting incident or, to put it another way, “on the day everything changes.” While several scenes of your character going about their life might be helpful for you as a writer, following a character wandering around with no sign of a plot starting isn’t very exciting for the reader.

Don’t: Start a scene and then fall into an info dump. Just as bad as starting too early is coming in close to the inciting incident and then spending pages 2 through 5 telling the reader everything that’s happened in your character’s life leading up to that point (or even just what’s happened the past few days that aren’t “the day everything changes”). Try to draw readers in with something happening in the present before stopping the plot to tell them a bunch of information about characters they don’t yet have any reason to care about.

Do: Start with action. Do your best to find something happening that will interest your reader immediately. This might be dropping into a conversation, your character taking a test that will make or break their schooling, or the beginning of a car crash. If it’s some sort of action that the reader can immediately connect to, you’re in good shape.

Don’t: Begin with your character waking up (or perhaps being chased). Connected to above, while it’s tempting as a natural start point, your character waking up is not a great start to a story–mostly because (unless your character is waking up to someone attacking them or something similar) there isn’t much to draw the reader in. Everyone wakes up in the morning (at least everyone in your reading audience likely does). A character waking up and getting ready for the day is generally mundane. On the opposite side, the first instinct many writers have when they hear “start with action” is to start with the main character being chased by something. Those openings can work if done well, but they can also easily feel overdone as they are so commonly used.

Do: Remember everything can be changed in editing. If you start too early or too late, if you start writing and then realize that that opening scene is rather, well, boring, you can always change it after the fact. For my novel, Raining Embers, coming out in November, I changed the opening twice myself and another time with my editor. Starting in general is more important than starting perfectly. After all, you can’t edit a blank page.

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Read an excerpt from Raining Embers–coming November 3, 2015–here

Raining Embers

Do the Twist

A great twist can make a story (think, would The Sixth Sense have been nearly as popular without people loving its?) but a poorly done twist can just as easily sink one (think every other M. Night Shyamalan movie that has been panned in the years since Sixth Sense).

The general advice I have when it comes to twists is only use them when it flows naturally in your story rather than being a planned gimmick. If you are trying to force your story to conform to a plan just for a twist, don’t do it. Ninety-nine percent of the time the damage you’ll do to your story will not be redeemed no matter how mind blowing the final twist is. Some gimmicks work, but more often than not a well-written story will beat out a mediocre but unique gimmick.

If you are planning part of your plot around a twist, however, some more specific things to keep in mind:

1. Make sure the story supports it. This is one of the major stumbling blocks that get many “twist-based” stories stuck. When the author starts becoming hyperfocused on their great twist, it often opens up the story to other plot holes. Sure, you can hand wave a lot of things in fiction if necessary, but when you start having readers question the very premise of your story (why would the aliens even want a planet that’s mostly water if they’re allergic to it?) you’re going to have a problem. If there’s no reason for the story to progress in the first place once you learn there was someone controlling it the entire time or it turns out a character is a turncoat, the twist isn’t going to protect you from criticism from readers left scratching their heads. Likewise, if your twist relies on other characters keeping information from one another, make sure they have a reason for keeping that information to themselves outside of “because the author said to” otherwise the rest of the plot can stop making sense.

2. Don’t make you characters seem like idiots. There is an ongoing joke that characters in Superman comics aren’t able to see that Superman and Clark Kent are the same person past a pair of glasses. At this point, it has simply become an accepted part of the storytelling along with the fact that no one ever really stays dead in comics. Unfortunately for those writing outside of the DC or Marvel universes, that level of suspension of disbelief doesn’t carry over to most other forms of prose. Where the people of Gotham may still not get that Bruce Wayne is Batman even though Batman for some reason disappeared at the same time as Bruce Wayne and he always seems suspiciously “away” when Batman’s out and about, readers are going to start getting a little annoyed when your character hasn’t put something together that it seems any reasonable person would have. You definitely want to have some sort of foreshadowing when it comes to a twist, but don’t offer enough so the reader has figured out the twist so far ahead of the character that the character seems dim for having missed the myriad of clues.

3. Foreshadow properly. As stated above, you don’t want twists to entirely come out of nowhere. If there has been absolutely no sign of anything nefarious happening, a twist that turns everything on its head can be just as annoying as a twist that was signposted way too early. Readers don’t tend to like being blindsided. Make sure there are some clues that foreshadow the ending. Just make sure they’re subtle enough so it make sense that your character has missed them without needing to throw in some sort of explanation about why they were uncharacteristically nearsighted when it came to an obvious twist. If some of your readers figure the twist out, that’s fine. You don’t need to try to trick every single reader. Readers like feeling smart, especially when it comes to figuring out where something is going before it’s revealed. You just have to make it difficult enough to figure out that 1) your character wouldn’t figure it out and 2) your reader doesn’t feel bored by the time they reach the twist because they figured it out ten pages in. So how do you foreshadow properly? It varies from story to story, of course, but some general tips to tread that line between blindsiding and boring:

  • Place “big” clues early on. The earlier on you are in the story, and the less your reader yet knows about the characters/plot, the simpler it will be to slip something in the reader will likely forget about until it becomes important later. If your reader mentions he has a sister working at [company] before [company] ever becomes important, it is more likely for the reader to take the fact and move on than if they just learned last chapter that [company] is doing something strange. If the sister is brought up following some suspicion being thrown on the company she works for, the reader is more likely to assume the sister is playing a larger role than we yet know about.
  • Spread foreshadowing out. Similar to utilizing dropping clues long before the reader has a reason to pay attention to them, it’s smart to not pile too many clues right on top of each other. If your readers just learned one piece to the puzzle, give it a little time before you give them another. This is especially true if the pieces don’t necessarily seem to connect. The farther apart you keep them, the less likely readers are to make the jump that X and Y must be related (or else why would they both be right here?)
  • Keep your characters from trying to purposefully mislead the reader (repeatedly). While it’s perfectly fine to have your character make an assumption that turns out to be wrong, don’t try to “trick” the reader by bringing up the wrong assumption repeatedly or you can quickly find yourself in a “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” situation. The more you bring up how obviously this means that, the more time the reader has to focus on that plot point and realize there must be more than meets the eye.
  • Determine how common your “twist” is. A twist doesn’t always need to be unique. There is a saying that there are no new plots, and in a way that is true. You can write something that is a fresh idea, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any tropes in it. And the more well known a trope is (especially in your genre) the more likely it will be that readers will be able to figure out the “twist.” For example, if it turns out that the “big bad” is a relative of your protagonist, that twist is well enough known that you likely will be able to get away with just a few clues before people start catching on (because they’ve likely seen Star Wars and a number of other stories with that same twist). There is nothing wrong with using the trope all the same, just keep in mind what readers might be expecting when choosing how much to foreshadowing. Also keep in mind, if you intend to subvert a trope, you can also use these assumptions to your advantage. By letting the reader believe you’re following a common trope, it’s possible to sneak in other clues to what the real twist is while readers are distracted by what they believe will be the twist.
  • Look for “throw away” lines. Especially if your twist is on the more common side, less is often more when it comes to foreshadowing. Readers are trained to expect that everything they read is important–after all, to keep up pacing, authors don’t tend to write in scenes that don’t matter to the plot. Because of that, if you put something in past the early “the reader doesn’t know what to look for” stage of a story that has a lot of attention drawn to it, the reader is likely to assume it is very important for some reason and take note. Look for ways to work in clues that are buried under other more obviously important information or in phrases that are nearly clichés. For example if someone says “what planet are you from?” when the twist is the character is an alien, the reader is likely to pass by the familiar saying less critically than something that sticks out as purposefully planted there (added bonus, the saying is also so easy to breeze over if you aren’t already thinking “aliens” that readers who have figured the twist out already will feel smart having caught it).

As with everything else, what exactly works for your story will be different from project to project. What is too much foreshadowing in one novel will be too little in another. When in doubt, look for beta readers who will be able to tell you if they figured your twist out too early or felt too blindsided at the end to have it be enjoyable. And then just keep on working at it.

Tense Slips

When it comes to narration, there are several choices to make based on what tone you’d like for your book. The one people tend to most talk about is if the narrator speaks in first or third person, but with present tense becoming more popular, Narrative Tense is becoming a hot topic.

(source: verbix.com)

(source: verbix.com)

For the most part, past tense has been the standard in story telling (“She walked down the street and looked around). With the popularity of present tense novels like The Hunger Games, however, the present tense is becoming more common (if not yet the standard). There are plenty of pros and cons to writing in either (some people find present tense more engaging, others find it distracting…) but the main writing rule when it comes to narrative voice is to be consistent.

One more than one occasion, I have been asked what to do in past tense narratives for facts that are still true after the telling of the story. For example:

My sister was named Sally.

Unless Sally is now dead, she is very possibly still named Sally. Wouldn’t you then want to say, “My sister is named Sally”?

Not unless you have a present tense framing device.

For, you see, the fact that you are using past tense in a story doesn’t mean that everything written is only true in the past. It is simply the narrative tense you are using to tell your story. As a coworker of mine once described it, “If I were describing my trip ten years ago to Germany, I might say, ‘It was beautiful. There were all these tiny streets and medieval buildings.’ It’s likely it’s still beautiful with tiny streets and medieval buildings. I just happen to be describing what it was like in the moment I was there. That is my narrative tense.”

For example Hirschhorn, Germany (Source: journey-to-germany.com)

For example, Hirschhorn, Germany (Source: journey-to-germany.com)

Similarly, unless you have a present tense narrator who is covering things in the past as a clear framing device (“I didn’t know it at the time, but…”) it is important to stay in a consistent narrative voice, even if that means you’re saying “John was a tall man” when John might still be a tall man after the story.

Similarly with present tense, everything in the story should be in present tense, unless you are actually describing something happening in the past (these would be sections that would be in past perfect in a past tense novel). For example:

In present tense:

I walk down the street, looking at the spot Jack and I went on our first date.

“I walk” is in present tense, meaning everything happening in-story should be in present tense  (e.g. you shouldn’t have something like “I walk into the building and looked around” but “I walk into the building and look around”) but as the narrator and Jack’s first date happened in the past, that verb is properly in past tense.

In past tense:

I walked down the street, looking and the spot Jack and I had gone on our first date.

Here, the narrative is already in past tense (“I walked”) meaning everything happening in-story is related in past tense. To show something happening before the story, you then switch to past perfect (“had gone”).

Once you have decided the narrative voice of your story, you should stay consistent in either using present for in-story and past for the past, or past for in-story (including things that remain true after the story) and past perfect for the past. Slipping between tenses once one has been established can at best be jarring, and worst look like sloppy writing.