Query letter hooks often end with a choice, some decision the main character must make, but when the relationship between the two isn’t clear, the reader is presented with a false choice
Author: M.L. Keller
It’s IWSG time again!
(If you’re here for my writing lessons and have no need for this warm-fuzzy-feeling stuff, I’ll see you Friday after next. I’m on vacation.)
June 6 question –
What’s harder for you to come up with, book titles or character names?
Book titles, hands down.
Maybe because I’m a pantser, but I never have any problem with character names. My entire writing process begins with a character. The characters begin with their names. If I don’t have a name, I don’t have a character. Next, I learn what this person wants. Followed by who is standing in the way. Once I have those things, I can determine how far he or she is willing to go to get it. Other bits I will pick up along the way. Nervous ticks? Physical description. These all come from the seed created by the name.
Why is the name so important? People are defined by their names. In some way a person’s name will have an effect on them throughout their lives. Winston Beaumont III or Billy Ray Jones? Whose scholarly article would you implicitly trust? Even if you personally don’t hold these prejudices, many people do, and a lifetime of reinforcement will have an effect on a person. Names are integral to identity.
As for the second half, finding a title for a book is an impossible quest. My working titles are usually named after the main character and the number in the series. Or I use sarcastic titles, for my own amusement. For example, in one WIP, the female character picked up an evil curse from a rock, so I called the book “Stoned.” I still don’t have a serious title for that one. Probably never will.
The idea of naming a book before it’s finished seems ludicrous to me. I have to have the entire story finished before I can pick a phrase to surmise the meaning. The only reason I follow any naming convention at all is because Scrivener forces me to name the file. That and I couldn’t keep calling all my books document1.
To continue on the blog hop
I have an announcement It’s Friday and I usually have a writing-related post, but today I’m taking a break for a special announcement In just a few short months I will be releasing my first writing book. Based on my “Beginner’s Guide to NaNoWriMo” blog […]
How to use amnesia as a plot device
Recently I was slogging through an ARC (and I do mean slogging) trying to figure out why I can’t get into the story. It’s a great idea. Something I’ve never read before. Time travel kid, alternate timelines, and a unique idea of using time as a web, which allows those with the ‘power’ to pull objects from alternate timelines into the character’s present. It should be awesome, but something was off.
The main character kept “remembering” plot-changing information, and then life went on as if nothing happened. In other words, the reader was never prepared for anything.
Preparation keeps plots from feeling contrived
Lack of preparation in fantasy is a disaster waiting to happen. Particularly one that categorized as magical realism. If you have a scruffy wizard grinding things with his mortar and pestle and something behind him explodes without explanation, the reader will forgive it. At Merlin’s table we expect magical things to happen. If the same thing happens at John Smith’s kitchen table, your reader is going to say, “Wait, what?”
In this particular book, the main character (MC) would inexplicably “remember” things when it was convenient for the plot.
During monster attack
MC: “But I’ve never touched a sword in my life.”
Sidekick: “Here hold mine.”
Never before mentioned memories of being Zorro flood back into the MC.
All enemies are dead.
MC shows no surprise at remembering being Zorro.
While this is a stripped down example, it is an accurate outline of something I had noticed throughout the book.
No, no, no, just no.
What to do instead
There are plenty of movies where an MC rediscovers lost memories. The Bourne Identity is a great example. In the movie, Jason Bourne doesn’t suddenly remember all his skills. In first fight scene he initially doesn’t fight back until the policeman touches him. The sensation triggers a sensory memory, which is a separate memory from the repressed cognitive one. Jason realizes the sensation of being attacked is familiar, and he follows the tactile memory. We see Matt Damon portray this internal dialogue through facial expressions, first surprise, hesitation, and then finally curiosity as he explores the memory. The entire sequence feels believable, despite the reality that a smaller Jason Bourne could not really wire-jitsu two much bigger men who were also trained in hand-to-hand fighting.
What to do instead
1. Plant a seed in a previous chapter.
Rather than have the master swordsman memory come out of nowhere, the author should have alluded to the skill earlier. Since the MC is a kid (Never mind that the Zorro memory in question occurred when he was 10 years old.) He could have easily been swinging a stick around in the woods and had a flash of familiarity. Find some realistic way of alluding to a hidden skill. In the Long Kiss Goodnight, ex-assassin Gena Davis is chopping vegetables in the kitchen and rediscovers her forgotten knife skills. She makes the wrong conclusion, (that she used to be a chef) but the hint is there: she’s really good with a knife.
2. The discovery
Take the reader through the process of rediscovering a forgotten or innate skill.
Internal dialogue: “This feels familiar” (recovered memory) or “What just happened?” (innate skill)
Internal dialogue: “Why do I know this?” (memory) or “How did I do that?” (innate skill)
- Test the waters
If your MC suddenly remembers he was Zorro in a past life, he is still going to be tentative the first time he uses his skills. He can gain confidence quickly, but the first few strokes will be restrained. Similarly, if your MC discovers his telekinesis, let him test it by moving a glass on a table, not by stopping a train.
- Build the new skill
Character has a small success (or let her fail a few times, even better.)
- Then move on to bigger things
3. Take time to process
Discovering a new incredible gift will affect your main character. I hate it when the MC suddenly has a strange power and is “taking it so well.” Cat Winters does a great job with this in “A Cure for Dreaming. (Affiliate, but I really liked the book.)” Olivia’s sudden magical ability affects her interactions with everyone in the story, and as a result, her relationships with those around her change. Winters also explores the Olivia’s fears that the ability will be permanent and how it will affect the rest of her life. These are thoughts a person would really have. The main character needed time to adjust emotionally to her new abilities. Even a helpful skill would take time to adjust to. If your MC is no different after attaining a skill than she was before, it will not feel authentic.
I’m only a third of the way through this book, and I’m hoping that these issues will work themselves out since I love the concept. But if I were at the bookstore, this one would have gone back on the shelf. As a reader I enjoy being surprised, but I hate being confused. Avoid this pitfall by preparing your readers properly. Then the magic will feel real.
This article is part of the author toolbox blog hop
To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop or to join, click here.
A few final things
First: Announcing my book
Based on my “Beginner’s Guide to NaNoWriMo” blog posts, this book breaks down contemporary plot structure into daily writing goals in order to guide the novice writer through the entire month. I’m currently looking for ARC reviewers, Bloggers, and/or Podcasters for the publicity campaign for the August release. If you’d like to participate send me an email michelekellerauthor(at)gmail Thanks!
If you are a querying author, don’t forget about #QuerySwap on June 1. It’s a Twitter party where you pitch your book, find a new critique partner and exchange feedback on query letters. All for free. For more information click here
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Overused words will ruin your prose
Every writer has words or phrases that habitually show up in their work. Like a verbal tick, writers insert them without even thinking. They become fillers when we need a beat in dialogue, or a crutch when we’re not sure what the character should really be doing. They badger the reader by constantly drawing attention to themselves, forcing the reader to see the prose, rather than the story. Don’t let overused words ruin your novel.
Identifying an overused word
I recently finished a book by a well-known author, published with one of the big five, everything we all want to be, and I noticed something strange: the people in this book smiled.
They smiled for deception. They smiled sarcastically. They smiled to calm their nerves. They smiled when they wanted to gloat over a victory. They smiled for just about every emotion, except happiness. And just like that mole on the end Grandpa’s nose, once I noticed it, I couldn’t stop.
I’m not sure if I noticed it because it was used in such a peculiar way or because I listened to the book rather than read it. (If you haven’t listened to your WIP read aloud, I highly recommend it. Nothing will point out bad writing faster than having it blared out your laptop’s tinny speaker by that lady who answers the phone for your credit card.)
After noticing this peculiarity, ever time I heard the word “smiles,” it was like being smacked in the head. It yanked me right out of the story and doused in a mad dose of the giggles. So I started thinking about it. This person is a well-known author, light years ahead of me, was I just imagining this thing? I had to know.
The Kindle app has the ability to count the specific instances of a word in an MS. I typed “smile” into the find bar. Result: 153. Spread out across a 400-page novel that meant someone smiles on average every two and a half pages, which for some words would not even be noticeable. But these instances weren’t spread evenly through the book. They clustered together appearing as many as four times on a page. Nearly every time two characters interacted, they smiled at each other at some point during the conversation. The smile had become a crutch: a habitual word choice inserted without thought.
Word crutches are something most writers have
Word crutches appear in places where the inner ear senses something is off in the prose. Either a beat is needed between lines of dialogue, a paragraph is too short, or a non-POV character needs a moment to think about something.These crutches bog down a manuscript and make it feel repetitive, or in the case of this particular book, paint an absurd picture where despite pints of blood and gore, everyone is perpetually grinning.
More often than not a good CP will find your crutches. However, they will likely not become apparent until well into the MS. So if you’re only passing out your MS in chunks, you’re missing an important opportunity.
Scrivener also has a built in text analysis tool. Select a document. Project> text statistics. You can even organize the list by frequency.
Once you’ve analyzed your text and found a few candidates, do a “find” in your word processor (I used Word. If anyone knows how to make Scrivener display the number of matches without replacing the word, please let me know) Be sure to click the “find whole word” otherwise it will include all the instances where your word appears as part of another word e.g. “port” in “support” Although you may have to run the search twice to account for plurals or verb tense.
Let’s take a look at a few examples from my MS.
Ex. 1 Mouth.
85 This is a maybe. This isn’t a romance, so this seems like an excessive use of a word that doesn’t come up much in daily conversation. I’m going to go back and make sure that it isn’t being used in the same way, or in some strange way that draws attention to itself.
Ex. 2 Eyes
272 This one is definitely a problem. I noticed it originally in my first draft. My supposedly adult MC was constantly rolling her eyes, which made her come off as a snot-nosed tweenager. But it looks like my characters are still spending too much time staring at each other.
Another good one to search for is “look,” since this can indicate you have too much telling in your descriptions.
But wait, I have 5000 “The’s.”
Little words that are used frequently in daily conversation get a free pass e.g. articles the, a, an, common pronouns, and even the dialogue tag said disappear on the page. And to some extent other frequently used words. The opposite is also true. The more unusual the word, the more your reader’s ear will pick it out. The same goes for words that evoke a strong reaction. How may times do you think your MC can use vomit before it begins to sound stale?
Can I just fix it with a thesaurus?
No. Simply subbing one word for another will not fix an action that has become habitual in your manuscript. If I change half the “shifted his eyes” to “shifted his gaze,” it isn’t going to change the underlying problem that my characters are standing around staring at each other. The crutch word is just the symptom. If I fix the real problem: my characters need to be doing more, the crutch word will disappear on its own.
The next time you read through your MS look out for habitual phrases, actions, and overused words. Taking time to eliminate these from your prose will keep it feeling fresh through the entire story.
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