April Updates

Well, April is upon us once again. Figured I’d take a few minutes and make a post since I’ve been somewhat lax in regards to the blog as of late. (There has been much writing and editing going on). Seems I’m on a fantasy kick as of late, editing Eldritch Heart while also putting some last minute touches on Emma and the Elixir of Madness, and also starting the first draft of Emma and the Weeping Spirit.

Some good news – Curiosity Quills has signed Emma and the Elixir of Madness, the fourth book in the Tales of Widowswood series (a middle-grade fantasy). Also, I’ve started drafting on the fifth, Emma and the Weeping Spirit.

The Eldritch Heart is in mid edits, and I am excited to the point of losing a little sleep since it’s proving difficult to pry myself away from the computer. There’s some welcome tweaks happening which is making the story more fulfilling and complete.

Also, in about a month, the fourth book in the Division Zero series, Guardian, will release. This is a novel I hadn’t initially planned on ever writing. The end of book three left Kirsten at a place I thought good to leave her… however, I kept having readers tell me they wanted more time with Kirsten. So, I sat down and spend a couple weeks thinking about various plot ideas before settling on what would become the fourth novel in the series. (Attention Book Bloggers: early review ARCs are available. If you are interested in reading Guardian early to post a review on release day, please email me. Mcox2112 at gmail dot com.

I’ve also been elbow-deep in edits for the second book of the Roadhouse Chronicles series – The Redeemed. I’m humbled at the wonderful feedback I’m receiving in regard to the first novel in that series, One More Run, and my editor seems to like The Redeemed. The only downside is having to wait for its release date.

Eldritch Heart will probably wind up back with the editor later tonight, and I’m fortunate in that she is as excited about it as I am. Anyway, I suppose I’ve rambled enough for now.

 

Happy reading!

Characters and Food

Perhaps I should have titled this post “Why You Shouldn’t Blog While Hungry.”

I was having lunch today and wound up randomly thinking of jalapeño-and-egg sandwiches, which in turn made me think of Kirsten from the Division Zero series. Ever since I wrote in that she’d developed a fondness for them, I’ve associated that food to her character.

From a development standpoint in writing, adding the little details to a character often helps deepen their reality for the reader. Small quirks such as a favorite meal add a bit of normality to characters. I once had a reader comment about Althea from Prophet of the Badlands. In one scene, she’s stuffing enchiladas, so she wants to keep her hands ‘food clean.’ When her leg itches, she scratches it with her foot. That minor action resonated with a reader enough for her to comment on it, specifically a character who by all rights is beyond a normal person (strong paranormal abilities) doing something like that – so mundane – that it made her relatable and real.

This of course got me thinking about the various main characters (and primary support characters) in my novels. I gave a bit of thought to what their favorite foods are (since I happened to be eating lunch while thinking around this idea). The result of this is a little ramble about my characters and what they like to eat.

(Yes I was hungry while writing this.)

So, without further delay, here is a list of my characters, the series or book they appear in, and their favorite foods.


During his days playing for the Arsenal Frictionless Club, a rather impressive fish and chips wagon frequented the area around the stadium. Aaron has been on a quest for F&C that’s anywhere near as good as what the old man with the cart made, but has yet to find anything close.

Chicken Enchiladas are the first meal she had after being taken in by Karina and Father. After spending half her short life enslaved for her healing powers, eating them always reminds her of being welcomed into their home and having a real family.

Anna ran away at twelve, forced to live on the streets of London after accidentally killing her father when her electrokinesis lashed out defensively during a drunken beating. She had few happy memories growing up. Her friend Penny begged, wheedled, and scammed enough money to somewhat routinely provide them both “the full English” most days. (At the time, it was the extent of her ability to cook). The elaborate breakfast always makes Anna think of the happier times she’s had.

Much of what Aurora does is motivated by her love to make people around her uncomfortable. She adores the way people squirm while watching her eat it.

Emma’s mother has never grown out of her fondness for Nan’s cherry pie. While not technically a “meal,” it is her favorite food item.

Much to Riley’s abject horror, her father lives as a recluse in the vast open nothingness of New Mexico. His cabinets are packed full of Spag-Os, which he likes for their ease and simplicity. He’s also rather fond of the taste.

A dish his grandmother served when he was growing up, and still makes once a year at family gatherings. During his time in the UCF Military, many of his platoon mates called him “Toofey” for his constant grumbling about not being able to have this dish.

A family recipe that’s been around for a few hundred years, Nan’s cooks-all-day stew is her favorite both for the flavor, for the way it warms the whole house with its fragrance, and because her grandmother made it.

  • Evan Wren (Division Zero) – Grilled chicken (with loads of black pepper).

It’s the first meal that Kirsten attempted to cook for him (and one of the few her nascent cooking skills don’t butcher).

A good steak dinner was always high on his list of pleasant meals, but it elevated to a state of fond longing after he became a vampire and could no longer partake.

During her time with the 494th Night Terrors in World War III, Genna returned to base after a harrowing mission she felt certain would kill her. Upon heading to the mess, she found the freshest thing available to be a tray of mac and cheese. Ever since, the simple dish has become like eating “holy shit I’m alive” in physical form.

From his years living low in the grey zones, Joey developed a taste for “the dreaded third stage.” When the molecular rearrangement of OmniSoy starts to break down, the food devolves into a puddle of tasteless slime. When enough time passes after that, it congeals into a cheese-like substance known as (by Joey) – the third stage.

After years of living in underground tunnels between the Sanctuary Zone and the Habitation District, Pope has gone from eating rat to survive to becoming fond of it. In addition to liking the taste of grilled rat meat, it represents his independence from both the high and the low end of “established society.”

With her insane metabolism due to her out-of-control pyrokinetics, Kate needs to eat about three times as much as a normal person not to starve. Since she is stuck living in bad parts of town, the fast food chain CyberBurger provides her most frequent source of meals, and her favorite: the double orbital – a two-patty monstrosity with all the trimmings.

Much of Katya’s childhood was spent as a ward of the OOI (Office of Operational Intelligence, the ACC’s military intelligence group), being trained as a “ghost” or spy. For years, she had no ‘favorite’ food, having a guaranteed (if plain) – meal at all felt like luxury. After defecting to the UCF, she’s developed a fondness for Italian food, especially if it is loaded with garlic.

Kenny’s favorite eats are simple. He lacks the patience for “fancy” dining and much prefers to grill something himself over an open fire out in the Badlands.

While attending UC Berkeley for Xenoarchaeology, Kerys spent many long hours sitting at a table in “Saint Vito’s Pizza.” A fan of chicken parmesan sandwiches since her early teens, she almost always had one while studying.

Long hours spent on the road driving other people’s crap between settlements always ends best at Wayne’s Roadhouse in Hagerman, New Mexico, where he can enjoy a “roadkill burger” cooked by the android Bee. He especially loves mashing French fries into his mouth while chewing on the burger.

  • Kirsten Wren (Division Zero) – Omelet sandwich with jalapenos.

Nicole (her friend) – suggested it once, and initially, Kirsten was hesitant at the idea of mixing jalapenos with eggs. After trying it, she’s become hooked.

A servant girl in the castle, Kitlyn’s options for food have been rather limited, though among her narrow choices, she has come to adore “servant’s feast” the most, which is made of various leftovers that go together mixed into a stew pot. (Typically some combination of turkey, ham, beef, beans/peas, and bread.)

Emma’s father’s favorite thing to eat is a breakfast of cheese, apple slices, muffins, and sometimes sausage. He loves stacking cheese atop apple slices and eating them together, which Emma cannot even bear to look at.

Mamoru is still a tween boy addicted to video games somewhere deep inside beneath the rigidity imposed upon him by being raised as a samurai. The noodles appeal to that part of him. Also, they lend themselves to being consumed fast, so he can get back to whatever he had been doing before needing to interrupt himself with food.

Masaru has expensive tastes, and often frequents the Toko Lounge, where he orders a spread of high-end sushi that can cost several thousand credits per serving.

Despite possessing an unusual intellect and a high-school education by the age of nine, Maya is still only a child. After years of re-hydrated prepack meals, she has fried chicken fingers at The Hangar (a military-themed bar) – and discovers the meaning of addiction.

Paige’s eight-year-old sister, she is soft spoken, cute, and highly girly… unless pizza is involved, at which point she turns into a little red-haired Tasmanian devil.

Emma’s grandmother’s favorite meal is baked ham, coated in enchanted herbs and seasonings and left to bake all day, best served with roast potatoes.

  • Natalie Rausch (Caller 107) – Rotisserie Chicken

After the divorce, Natalie would visit her father once or twice a month at his high-rise apartment. Whenever she spent the night, her busy lawyer dad would usually pick up a pre-cooked chicken for dinner and they’d share it while watching movies.

The dish got served at home somewhat frequently when she was growing up, and it is the first thing she cooked for Elizaveta.

As princess of the Kingdom of Lucernia, Oona has never known want for anything (except freedom from her obligations and a life without fear of assassins). Her favorite meal is Turkey, specifically drumsticks. Castle rumor holds that if turkey is served and she winds up not getting a drumstick, at least one servant will wind up reassigned to shoveling out the stables.

They’re quick, easy, and present an opportunity to dodge having to argue with her mother or deal with the fact that her mother often “forgets” to cook for Paige while feeding her little sister.

A long-time bachelor and officer in the Mars Defense Force, Pavo’s meal of choice is noodle bowls from any of the hundreds of vendors in Primus City. He does not have a particular favorite (shrimp, chicken, beef, pork, seafood) – as long as it’s got broth and noodles, he’s happy.

It’s the first “real” dish her mother taught her how to prepare. Of all the recipes in her cookbook, it reminds her the most of spending time with Mom.

The giant egg-and-bacon sandwich is the first food she has in several years that was not generated out of OmniSoy. Kree finding her leftovers and adorably “stealing” them cemented the vastly unhealthy thing as her favorite.

Sabine has spent more years as a vampire than as a mortal girl (8), so she does not remember much of real food. She has developed a fondness for the way a good-natured woman’s blood takes on notes of fruit or sweet things in a vampire’s brain. However, one thing she does remember is having breakfast with her mother, which often consisted of toast spread with fruit jam.

Sarah’s father Billy is a veteran, and qualifies for the free cheese sandwiches provided as assistance. Living out in the Habitation District where most people wonder IF there will be food, not WHAT to eat, she’s developed a fondness for the self-warming mystery meal that inflates to a simple cheese sandwich on white bread when activated. A reliable source of nutrition, she likes it because it’s always there for her and it also reminds her of Dad.

Growing up in the Enclave, where 95% of all food is vegetables, Triss became quite sick of sautéed vegetables, salad, vegetable stew and a dozen different permutations of squash. Soon after finding herself out in the Wildlands, she got a taste of Dust Hopper meat (think a massive rabbit) – cooked over an open flame. For being her first substantial meal that did /not/ consist of vegetables, she’s developed a fondness for it even if most people out there consider it “what people eat when they ain’t got nothin’ better.”


Well, now that I’ve written this, and re-read it a few times… I made myself hungry again. Happy reading!

/wanders off to have a snack.

Word Count

Word count. Love ’em or hate ’em.

I remember being in school, and being given an assignment to write a 1,000 word essay on something, and feeling like the world had just ended. Oh, if I had only known then… Lately, I’ve made a habit of writing 100,000 word books left and right. The idea of writing something at 1,000 words feels trivial now.

Clare, an indispensable member of the team at Curiosity Quills, recently teased me for never having read the Harry Potter series. In a recent lull, I remedied that – binge reading the entire series while watching each respective movie between the books. (A rather striking example of the difference between movies and books dare I say. That old meme of the movie being the mere tip of the iceberg shines clear.)

I noticed the first book went pretty quick, and out of curiosity, I looked up the word counts for them.

Philospher’s Stone: 76,944

Chamber of Secrets: 85,141

Prisoner of Azkaban: 107,253

Goblet of Fire: 190,637

Order of the Phoenix: 257,045

Half-Blood Prince: 168,923

Deathly Hallows: 198,227

When I first started writing and trying to get published, I kept hearing people say that a long book is never going to get printed. The first novel I completed writing, Virtual Immortality, clocked in at 255k at first draft. (I wound up editing it down to 206k, but it snuck back up to 211k during edits.)

As I sought advice on publishing, I ran into some people who took it like blasphemy to suggest a book over 90k words had a chance in hell of getting picked up. These people got quite sanctimonious at the mention of The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss’s debut novel over 250k words. At that point words like ‘anomaly’ and ‘winning the lottery’ got thrown around. To hear them talk, a book must be within 70-80k words. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but their advice – though given with a touch too much smarm – did have a point. While it is possible to have an agent or publisher pick up a brand new unheard-of author with a book outside the convention, it reduces the chances. It would have been better to hear “a book that big will be more difficult, you should consider writing something smaller,” rather than “oh, my God, you wrote a huge book for your first title? you are shitting over the entirety of publishing and offending the spirits of every dead author who’s ever put pen to paper!”

Okay, perhaps they weren’t quite that bad… but that’s the tone I took away from it. So, for any of you who might be wondering about getting that first book accepted by a publisher or by an agent, know that word count does matter. There is a preconception that a new writer will throw together 300,000 words of drek and hope to get signed. Thus, the larger a book, the less likely it is to get signed. However, if your work wows the agent/publisher/editor enough, the length can matter less. Some agents will see a wordcount past X and toss without even looking further. It’s a gamble.

In my case, I decided not to roll those dice, and wrote Division Zero #1. Compared to Virtual Immortality, it had only one main character (no rotating POV), and a less complex plot with fewer moving parts. Once that book got signed by Curiosity Quills, I sent them VI, and thankfully, they liked it.

It’s said that a writer doesn’t find their voice until they’ve written a million words. I’ve recently completed the first draft of Emma and the Elixir of Madness, the fourth book in the Tales of Widowswood series. At 90,147 words, it brings my lifetime word count (as of 3/9/17) up to 4,002,503. If there’s any truth to that ‘finding a voice’ thing, I hope I’ve done so. Maybe a writer is too close to ‘feel’ their own voice. If any of you think I ‘have’ a voice, please drop a comment : )

So for any of you who may be curious what my word counts look like–(I found the word counts of famous books fascinating)–here’s my list.

Happy reading!


Title Word Count Series
Prophet of the Badlands 144,279 Awakened
Archon’s Queen 126,855 Awakened
Grey Ronin 114,121 Awakened
Daughter of Ash 118,125 Awakened
Zero Rogue 106,528 Awakened
Angel Descended 197,421 Awakened
Hand of Raziel 144,876 Daughter of Mars
Araphel 114,175 Daughter of Mars
Ghost Black 111,508 Daughter of Mars
Division Zero 97,657 Division Zero
Division Zero: Lex De Mortuis 108,531 Division Zero
Division Zero: Thrall 144,914 Division Zero
Division Zero: Guardian 169,572 Division Zero
Heir Ascendant 113,000 Faded Skies
Ascendant Revolution 106,280 Faded Skies
One More Run (Novel) 136,291 Roadhouse Chronicles
The Redeemed (Roadhouse 2) 126,493 Roadhouse Chronicles
Dead Man’s Number (roadhouse 3) 140,152 Roadhouse Chronicles
Emma and the Banderwigh 59,410 Tales of Widowswood
Emma and the Silk Thieves 73,270 Tales of Widowswood
Emma and the Silverbell Faeries 66,974 Tales of Widowswood
Emma and the Elixir of Madness 90,147 Tales of Widowswood
Virtual Immortality 211,386 Virtual Immortality
The Harmony Paradox 231,536 Virtual Immortality
A Dream of Clouds (short) 20,290
Caller 107 54,625
Chiaroscuro: The Mouse and the Candle 100,741
Loose Ends (Short) 10,737
Maestro’s Requiem (Short) 13,066
Nine Candles of Deepest Black 109,045
Operation Chimera 42,180
Out of Sight (short) 19,530
Ruin of Man (short) 16,879
Stolen Orchid (short) 7,247
The Dysfunctional Comspiracy 110,942
The Eldritch Heart 128,707
The Far Side of Promise 108,500
The Old City (Short) 18,823
The Summer The World Ended 92,508
Wayfarer: AV494 98,509

Writing | Inspiration from Music

31035991-notebook-and-pencil-on-guitar-writing-music-stock-photo

Sometimes I’m asked where my inspiration comes from for my writing. Most of the time, it feels like ideas fly out of the blue. I’ll get a one or two-sentence long concept, jot it down, and then build it up into a more elaborate story. Every so often, I’ll be in the midst of writing a plot outline or perhaps even in the draft itself when I’ll get a song stuck in my head. A handful of times, a particular song has resulted in changes to the story, additions to a story, or wound up fitting the mood so well I developed a mental association between the writing and the music.

It’s been awhile since I posted something, and who am I to deny a sudden inspiration to ramble a bit. Here are some cases where a song has had an effect on my writing, inspired it, or developed a close association to it:

 

One More Run (Book 1 of The Roadhouse Chronicles)

omr_final

Nice Shot, Filter

While I was coming up with the opening scene of this novel, a wasteland-weary driver behind the wheel of an electric Dodge Challenger flying down a desert road, the bass line from this song came out of nowhere and got stuck in my head. Add to that, a car-to-motorcycle gunfight, and the song just fit too perfectly to ignore. I wound up titling the chapter “Nice Shot Man” since the song had been playing on loop in my head while writing it. The tempo of the music and even the lyrics fit the scene so well, if I get struck by lightning and this ever becomes a film, I’m going to lobby for it to be the opening track.


 

It Ain’t Me – Fortunate Son major-to-minor, Chase Holfelder covering CCR

This is a case where I hadn’t been expecting a particular song to influence the story. Usually, I can’t draft with music on because it distracts me. For some reason while writing One More Run, I happened to have YouTube going in the background and this song came up on random. The baleful, minor key got into my head and changed my early conceptions of the Dallas settlement from a typical outpost to a group of surviving US Military still holding it together as if the world hadn’t stopped. The sentiment of the song fits Kevin’s attitude at this point in the story – Someone’s gotta save the world, but it ain’t me. I wound up titling the chapter ‘It ain’t me,’ and added an old man playing the song on a guitar.

 

A Good Run of Bad Luck, Clint Black

For the Roadhouse Chronicles, despite it being a post-nuclear apocalypse with zombies, something about it made me want to impart a sense of a western to it as well. A friend had recently suggested I listen to some country music (after I said I didn’t hate it, which surprised her). This song wound up getting stuck in my head for a while. During edits, I wound up adding an additional chapter to the end of the book to (hopefully) create a more satisfying ending of the first in this series. This song fit the mood perfectly, and also lent its title to the chapter.


cover2500

Nine Candles of Deepest Black

Wither, Dream Theater

In the beginning of the story, Paige is severely depressed and struggling to find the energy to even get out of bed to go to school. I didn’t have this song in mind while writing the chapter, but later, when I heard it, it struck me how apropos it was to the story and her mindset at the time. During the blog tour for Nine Candles, one of the participants asked me to put together a playlist of songs, and this one leapt to mind right away.

Secrets, Bevin Hamilton

At one point in the story, a ghost is attempting to communicate with the girls, and does so by causing a computer to turn itself on and start blaring a song. I stumbled across this one while hunting for a song that might be appropriate for a ghost trying to call someone a liar. After sifting among the search results, I clicked on this one. The combination of title, lyrics, and the eerie harpsichord fit the mood so well I decided this to be the song. Alas, Paige doesn’t quite get the message right away.


fsop

A Ghost Among Fireflies

The Touch, Stan Bush

Okay, I’m dating myself with this one, but… While writing the short story A Ghost Among Fireflies, which is in my anthology The Far Side of Promise, this song came out of nowhere and lodged in my head. Early in the story, the main character is flying her spaceship into a gauntlet of defense satellites in an effort to reach a quarantined planet. While she’s dodging laser blasts and flying like crazy to keep from getting blown up, I had this song in my head. In this case, the scene made me think of the song, so it’s the inverse of where inspiration came from the song.


Zero Rogue (Awakened #5)

Menu_Awakened

(This book doesn’t yet have a cover)

Aqualung, Jethro Tull

In the fifth book of the Awakened series (which isn’t released yet), Aaron is wandering along and winds up sitting on a bench in the park. That tripped a synapse in my brain which brought this song up. Despite the story being set in 2418, I couldn’t help but work in a few referenced lines (since both characters involved are from London). This too is a case of the scene calling to mind a song, not so much the song inspiring the scene – though it did cause a bit of banter.


Dead Man’s Number

(Book 3 of the Roadhouse Chronicles does not yet have a cover)

Burn – The Cure

In the third book of the Roadhouse Chronicles series, one of the characters gains a measure of victory over someone they’ve been quite angry at for a long time, and as a message, blasts this song in the room while the target of their anger is bleeding out. My head filled with the mental image of the character slow-walking away with this music playing.


Emmacover2500

Emma and the Silk Thieves

(Book 2 doesn’t have a cover just yet, but here’s the cover for book 1)

Walpurgisnacht, Faun

During the second book in the Tales of Widowswood series, the Feast of Zaravex (a harvest festival) occurs in Emma’s village. Since the image of satyrs features prominently in that holiday (the deity Zaravex is depicted as a satyr), my brain linked the scene to this song and wound up hearing it on loop while writing the festival scene. In this case it’s a matter of synchronicity – the song fit the scene perfectly, but was not the inspiration for it.


Division Zero

perf6.000x9.000.indd

Memoria, Unheilig

Finally, an after-the-fact case. A few months after Division Zero #1 released, I stumbled across a German band, Unheilig. Their instrumental track, Memoria, struck me as the most perfect title music to use if Division Zero ever became a TV series. The haunting tech-influenced song captured the essence of the story – a woman dealing with ghosts and spiritual beings in a world overrun with technology.


bk_phones

Well, there you have the most prominent examples of when music influenced my writing (or synchronized with it). If any other writers happen to read this, drop a comment if you’ve been inspired to write something based on a song.

Happy reading!

Writing | Character Agency

night_watch

Character Agency

The ‘agency’ of a protagonist character refers to their ability to take action on their own behalf, change the course of the story, and have a tangible effect on the primary plot arc. One of the aspects of creating a compelling character is giving them enough agency to allow readers to root for them. A weak or unmotivated character that floats like a piece of driftwood through what is supposed to be their story is often neither compelling nor entertaining to read about.

For example, a while back I read a story about a man who had recently (and somewhat reluctantly) become a vampire. He, rightly so, had some adjustment pains to this new supernatural world around him, and functioned as if in a fog. Over several violent encounters, he routinely got his ass kicked and had to be saved by the side characters. Most of his dialogue consisted of complaining or lamenting his situation. He rarely made an important decision regarding the story, and the one or two times he did, it ended disastrously. The love interest character had all the agency, made all the decisions, and felt like a far more well-rounded person than the supposed protagonist. In essence, the novel felt like it had been written more about the side character than the main, who drifted along wherever the plot took him without doing much  more than curl up into a ball and hope not to get hurt too much.

As you may expect, I wound up not much caring what happened to him one way or the other, but I got invested in the side characters. The main became forgettable.

A few types of main characters that lack agency include:

The perpetual victim

victim

This is a character who is weak (either physically, mentally, or both) and retreats from any and all conflict. They need to be saved from any situation that presents a challenge or danger, be it having to stand up to an antagonist at the office, a bully at school, or a more extreme situation such as being kidnapped, robbed, or someone trying to kill them.

The perpetual victim never takes control of a situation, frequently whines about why everything happens to them, and is always in need of rescue.

While it’s fine to have a character start off this way, the problem arises when they never develop agency throughout the course of the story. A main who starts off as the perpetual victim, but has an epiphany or awakening of courage/determination can make for a strong protagonist. However, if they remain always in the background, always needing someone else to make the decision, pull their ass out of the fire, and so on, they come off as uninteresting, and the reader will likely reach a point of eye-rolling and lose respect for the character.

faceplant

The incompetent

This type of character is one who tries to have agency, but never quite manages to achieve it. Everything they try ends in failure, requiring other characters to step in and get things done. Note that in comedic stories (something along the lines of Greatest American Hero) where the failure is a shtick, this is fine. The problem arises when the story is not going for humor and the constant inadequacy of the main character gets cloying. The reader will likely reach a point of ‘oh come on’ with the character.

As with the perpetual victim, if the character’s arc eventually leads them to success/achieving their inner potential, awesome. Alas, if the character reaches the end of the story and still hasn’t done anything for themselves, the book could use some revisions to address their lack of agency.

White_Marshmallows

The marshmallow

This type of character is a blend of weakness and apathy. They lack agency more out of their inability to decide on or do anything, and require other characters to make all the decisions or initiate any actions. A marshmallow’s friend might be threatened, and they’d be content to sit on the couch waiting for someone else to deal with it… taking no action until the side character shows up with ‘hey, we need to go out there and get Bob’s back.’

Outside of comedic intent, the marshmallow’s lack of urgency is a fast track to being uninteresting. Do something to your marshmallow. Shock him or her into action. Yes. Shock your marshmallow – don’t mind the smell. Some burning is normal.

David Victorious Over Goliath Painting by Gabriel Joseph Marie Augustin Ferrier; David Victorious Over Goliath Art Print for sale

David Victorious Over Goliath Painting by Gabriel Joseph Marie Augustin Ferrier

Characters need agency

In short, your protagonist needs to take control (at some point) of their story. No one starts off at the end of their journey, so it’s fine if your protagonist begins the story without agency. The problem arises when they fail to evolve and adapt. A character’s story arc is a journey that you should want the reader to take along with them. If a character is in the same place they are at the end of the book as they started, the boat has been missed.

The most interesting characters learn, grow, and develop strength. Give your characters the agency necessary to be the protagonist of their story; they shouldn’t feel like background elements to someone else’s.

 

Writing | Point of View

POV1

This post is part of Curiosity Quills’ A-Z blogging challenge. Click here to check out the rest!

https://curiosityquills.com/category/a-z-blogging-challenge-2016/

One of the most important decisions facing a writer when they embark on the creation of a novel is choosing the point of view from which to tell the story. A different point of view can change the entire feel of a story, and a writer should take care to select the option they feel best suits what they are trying to do. Here are some thoughts on different POV options.


First Person

POV_1st person

First person POV allows the reader to experience a story as close as possible. This POV puts the reader smack dab in the character’s head. Sometimes first person is set up like the character is talking directly to the reader, while others an “interview” setup is used. (For example, the main character is recounting the events of the novel to a reporter, or a cop, or some other person… in that end they are ostensibly speaking to that other character.

When a story demands the reader be up close and personal with the main character, first person is the way to go. Be wary of head hopping in first person. If the character narrating the story can’t see, hear, feel, or know something, it shouldn’t be described. For example, if a character is hiding in a dark closet while burglars ransack the house, all the description of what the burglars do should be conveyed by sound. Describe noises that suggest what they might be doing, or share the characters thoughts on what they think the burglars are doing. If the narrator describes the thieves picking through her dresser drawers or trying to work the dial on a combination safe, and she hasn’t opened the closet door to peek at them – it’s an error, as she can’t see them doing it without leaving the closet.

Writing in first person allows the reader to share every emotion, thought, and feeling of the main character while dosing everything liberally with the character’s opinions and attitude. Some stories demand this POV as without the ‘tone’ of the main character’s opinions, they’d come off completely different in feel. The below excerpt is from “The Far Side of Promise,” a short story that demanded I write it in first person.

Futility was something I had long gotten used to since arriving on Planetoid R1840M. Some nimrod in a fancy suit, impressive office, and ridiculously expensive chair decided to name it ‘Promise’―as in a ‘bright new future with Far Horizon Mining.’ The only thing a day here promised was another fourteen hours of ass busting work extracting Mithrinium ore from an obstinate lump of rock. The surface was mostly hard and brittle as glass, with some large swaths of softer dirt and the occasional patch like driving a seventy-ton collector into a lake of wet baby shit.

Yeah, this is paradise.

That’s what the M stood for, by the way. Mithrinium, the highly volatile metallic salt somehow vital to the process of faster than light travel. I’m no chemist; all I know is the crap is worth a fortune, and the last guy to light up a butt within twenty meters of the stuff is probably back to Earth by now―without a ship. Either way, my ass fell for their bullshit story of a better life. Sure, the money isn’t bad, but it’s all waiting Earthside. Not like there’s anything to spend it on out here in the ass end of nowhere, anyway.

In first person, changing the POV character and staying in first person can confuse the reader. For example, in a nonexistent novel, Chapter 1 is Jenny getting ready to go off on a date with Clark, and Chapter 2 is Clark being all nervous about the upcoming evening. If both chapters are written in first person, it can mess with the reader’s head. After chapter 1, they’re acclimated to thinking of “I” as Jenny and hearing things in her voice. When they hit chapter 2 and they hear “I pace around the house, unable to sit still,” it gets confusing as to who “I” is.

While it is possible to pull off rotating POVs with first person it’s a lot harder to keep the reader from getting lost. (One trick I’ve seen done is to have the main character use first person POV and for chapters where someone else is the POV character, use third limited. That way, if the reader is seeing “I do this” and so on, they know whose head they’re in.

Tension and Mystery: for first person, the reader should not be made aware of things the character isn’t. If they’re heading into a building where a bomb has been planted, the reader is going to be as shocked and surprised as the character when they find it. (Hopefully with enough time to run away, or the story’s going to be short.) Likewise, if the protagonist is investigating a murder, the reader is not going to know who the killer is until the end (and the character solves the mystery – or doesn’t).

Inner monologue: sometimes novels present a character’s inner thoughts as dialogue, letting the reader ‘hear’ the little voice in the character’s mind. This is set off by italics.

Wow, coming here was really stupid of me.

In first person, as the entire narrative is told from the POV of being inside the characters head, inner monologue is attributed to the protagonist by virtue of it being inner monologue. They are not going to hear the mind voice of another person (barring telepathy). There is no need to use dialogue attribution for inner monologue (tacking an “I thought” onto it) as by virtue of it being first person, inner monologue is known to be coming from the narrator character.

Pros

Brings the reader right into the character’s head.

High immersion.

Allows dialogue conventions into the narrator voice, as the entire story feels like the main character talking to the reader. Colloquialisms and dialect are usable outside dialogue, and grammar rules take a back seat to the ‘feel’ of the narrative.

Cons

The reader can’t be made aware of anything the character doesn’t experience or know.

A frequent tendency to overuse “I,” as in sentences: “I do this. I do that. I see this” and so on.

Everything is presented in the framework of the main character’s personality. If a reader doesn’t like the character’s tone, it can put them off the entire story.


Second Person

POV_2ndperson

Second person is (thankfully) rare in fiction writing, as it can be quite awkward to read. In this POV, the narrative speaks to the reader. “You approach the end of the corridor. Rusty patches mottle the door in front of you where the grey paint has peeled away.”

Perhaps my eighties are showing, but this tense always makes me think of the “choose your own” adventure type novels. This POV is rare in fiction writing and tends to show up more in “self-help” books, how-to manuals, roleplaying game books, and writing of a similar nature.

Tension and mystery: With second person, the narrative is presenting information to the reader as the reader becomes aware of it, so, like first person, nothing the character/reader is unaware of gets presented. Tension originates from wondering what happens next.

Inner Monologue: Considering the protagonist of second person writing is the reader, there likely isn’t much need to even use inner monologue here.

Pros

If you can pull this off, you’ve joined a short list of novelists who can.

Cons

Awkward.

Prone to overusing ‘you’ in the way that first person can overuse ‘I.’


Third Person (Limited)

POV_3rd person

Limited third person is arguably my preferred POV as a writer. It combines the exclusivity of the POV character’s experience with a wider “camera angle” so to speak. While everything presented to the reader in limited third must remain within the grasp of the protagonist’s knowledge as in first, this POV does not read like the main character is telling their story.

It is a slight step back from first person, one I compare to standing next to the character as the story unfolds (rather than being the character), but still standing right in the scene with them. Here is an example of third limited from my upcoming vampire novel, Chiaroscuro: Forsaken of Heaven.

Devoted to his preparations, Father Antonio Molinari weathered the bumps and sways of a moving coach while attempting to decipher the rather rushed handwriting of Pope Pius IX. The task would’ve been daunting even in stationary surroundings and without the horrors of Vienna still fresh in his mind. Whenever he closed his eyes to sleep, he found himself surrounded by it again: the chill upon his back, the smell of death, and the sound of fear―a pounding heartbeat in his head. His work for the Order of Saint Michael brought him face to face with sights that defied the science of mankind to explain, and the soul to withstand.

When he could no longer tolerate staring at blurry smears masquerading as words, he wiped at his eyes and sighed. Crumbled bits of red and white wax flaked onto his black pants as he rearranged the pile of missives in his lap, a modest parcel of cloth in the facing seat his only traveling companion. Warm air streaming through the window carried the scent of meadow grass and pollen.

He grasped the red-padded wall when the wheels hit a rough patch. Two lanterns hanging outside the carriage swayed and thumped against the sides. His surroundings pitched and rocked, and the tall grass rushed by, dotted here and there by white sheep and goats. Two teenaged boys and a dog attempted to keep them grouped; the sheep seemed compliant, but the goats went wherever they pleased.

Once the road smoothed, he settled against the plush bench and spread open the letters. The topmost, he had already read four times. A man, Henri Baudin, claimed his daughter suffered the harrowing of Satan. His words were terse, earnest, and packed with desperation. The condition of the paper, worn and refolded, supported the story it had been passed through many hands.

Beneath it laid two replies from local clergy to an inquiry Father Molinari had sent in response to the man’s request. The first, penned by a Father Michaud, claimed the young woman seemed normal to him, and showed little sign of external influence. A deacon from an outlying chapel also wrote to say he believed the woman was only seeking attention. While no one claimed to have witnessed any arguments, the deacon believed she wished to delay or avoid an imminent wedding.

Somehow, the case had been elevated to a bishop who had seen fit to refer it to Molinari’s immediate superior, Cardinal Benedetto.

He’d barely set his bundle down in his room before the summons came.

“No rest for the wicked… or the righteous.” He rubbed fatigue from the bridge of his nose, offering a halfhearted smile at his belongings, as if the lump might answer.

With third limited, it’s possible to change POV among characters, but it should be done in an organized fashion. Ideally, the use of breaks or entire chapters to separate one character’s POV from another. Each section should have a specific character who “owns” the point of view, and the events and thoughts described therein limited to those of the POV character. When something slips in that shouldn’t, like a statement of intention or knowledge the POV character couldn’t possibly be aware of, that’s a “head hop.”

For example, in a chapter where William is the POV character, if he’s talking to a shady character named Carl, and something like this happens:

“Didn’t you tell us the mine would be opened in a week?” asked William.

Carl looked down, chuckling. He needed a few more hours to get the bodies out of there, and couldn’t let anyone – least of all the son of the owner – find them. “Maybe I did, but there’s been an issue with the struts in Shaft C. Inspector’s not lettin’ anyone down there yet. Go on home. I’ll call ya as soon as we get the go-ahead.”

Here, the narrative presents knowledge that is both Carl’s intention (to keep William from going into the mine under false pretenses) as well as knowledge William couldn’t have (there are dead bodies in the mine). In third limited, the above example is a “head hop.” Things should be limited to what William can see or know. However, in omniscient third, the above section would be fine.

Tension and mystery: In third limited, let’s say your protagonist is about to go into a building where the “forces of evil” have planted a bomb. Neither the character nor the reader knows the bomb is there until the character finds it. This creates a sensation of surprise and shock.

Another example of this could be a story about a detective and a killer. Neither the protagonist nor the reader has a clue who the killer is for sure, and every other character they interact with might potentially be the murderer. The reader finds out when the character finds out. Tension comes from not knowing and wondering who it is / trying to figure it out along with the protagonist.

It is possible to present more of a “thriller” than a mystery even in third limited, but it would require a POV shift to show the “bad guy’s” side of things. An alternate chapter where the reader sees out of the killer’s eyes, so the reader knows who the killer is but the protagonist still doesn’t, or the reader gets a POV out of the person planting the bomb before the protagonist shows up at the house.

Inner monologue: Like first person, in third limited, the inner monologue (indicated by italics) represents the current POV character’s mind voice. This inner monologue line appears like dialogue, but in italics, and it does not need dialogue attribution (tags or beats) as it is identified as belonging to the POV character by virtue of it being inner monologue.

For example: [ Coming here was a really stupid idea, he thought. ] is an error as inner monologue in third limited doesn’t need attribution. It’s already attributed to the POV character by virtue of being inner monologue.

Pros

Keeps the reader close to the action (though not quite as close as first person).

Useful for stories where multiple POV characters are used in a rotating basis. (Telling multiple stories that intertwine.)

It is a common POV readers are comfortable with.

Cons

Lends itself to filtering words. Saw, heard, felt, realized. Filtering (while not an error) lessens immersion and weakens the writing.

May tempt writers into head hopping when the narrative presents things the POV character couldn’t know or experience.


Third Person (Omniscient)

POV_omni

Omniscient third is another step back away from the character. If third limited equates to the reader standing in the scene near the character, omniscient is more like the reader is watching the story on a screen. They’ve been removed from the scene and are no longer limited to the thoughts and experiences of one character at a time.

Many beginning writers gravitate to omniscient narration for various reasons, presumably out of a desire to “show everything” to the reader. Paradoxically, omniscient is more difficult to write well than third limited. A lot of new writers mistake excessive head hopping for writing in omniscient third. There are times when writing done in third limited looks identical to writing done in third omniscient, the difference lies in the nature of the information presented to the reader. It’s a common mistake to set out to write in omniscient third, but produce what is essentially third limited with a ton of head hops. The primary difference lies in being objective versus subjective.

True omniscient third uses an objective perspective where the narrator has no emotional bias or perspective skew in favor of any of the characters. Third limited, by default, is subjective toward the POV character, tinting things with that characters opinions and bias. A poor implementation (where an attempt to write in omni produces head hoppy third person) creates a confusing tangle of rotating subjective perspectives.

The challenge when writing in omniscient (and why I will admit I am not a fan) is the distance it creates between the reader and the characters/action. With the extra layer of separation between characters and reader, creating that feeling of being immersed in the action becomes more difficult. When done well, it allows for complex multi-layered stories, but it’s easy to wind up with a book where the reader never quite gets past that feeling of “staring at words on a page” rather than being in the world.

I often grumble about filtering and how it lessens immersion. Omniscient narration is another type of removal from the action. In third limited, filtering makes the reader feel like they’re watching the story happen on a screen rather than being in there with the character. Omniscient narration also feels like the story is happening on the screen. Filtering inside omniscient narration is like having the television on in the other room and all the reader’s getting is the audio. (For more information on filtering check out: http://www.matthewcoxbooks.com/wordpress/2014/03/28/writing-on-filtering/ )

Tension and Mystery: with omniscient, the narration contains all sorts of information from a “top down” view that the character doesn’t know. Rather than take the reader along while the bomber plants the bomb, the narrative may simply use a device like “Bob walked into the house, unaware that Dave planted two pounds of C4 in the basement on a six minute timer.”

In omniscient writing, the tension comes from knowing things the protagonist doesn’t, and watching them careen toward the apparent disaster they’re blithely unaware of. Also, the narrative is free to add deeper and deeper bits of information that the character has no way to know. For example, the narrative might mention something that the previous owner of the house did fifty years ago before the protagonist was born, and a long-standing feud between them and some corporation. Another example: Consider a scene where characters miraculously survive, say, a train crash. The narrative may tell us that the empty lot their train car rolled through once contained a house destroyed in a tornado… and the only reason it remained an empty lot (and didn’t have another building there which would’ve killed the characters) was that the insurance company continued fighting the claim.

Inner monologue: in omniscient third, the reader is never “in anyone’s head” specifically, so inner monologue needs attribution like other dialogue, as it has no default POV.

Man, coming here was a damn stupid idea, thought Ronald.

Pros

Allows the author to show things to the reader that the protagonist does not know. Also allows showing things that no characters know.

Useful in stories where the inner thoughts and feelings of multiple characters need to be shown to the reader often within the same chapter, and scene breaks / POV shifts would be too numerous or clumsy otherwise.

Cons

May lend itself to long swaths of exposition that interrupt the flow of a scene as unnecessary details are presented.

Low immersion. The reader is not brought as close into the story as other POVs.

More difficult to pull off well than other POVs. Easy to mistake third limited with head hops for omniscient.


Tense

I once read something in third person present tense, and never quite managed to pierce that feeling that “I am reading a book” versus being part of the story. Third present sounded like I’d had the auditory captioning turned on for a TV show, a voice-over narrator describing what the character did. I suppose it didn’t help that the writer made consistent use of short, choppy sentences:

Bill sits at his desk. Bill turns on the computer. The screen lights up. Bill opens a program and starts typing. The phone rings. Bill picks up the phone.

Most of the book read like that, and it didn’t do much for me.

Other than that, the choice of past or present tense is a style decision. First person present (I walk to the window and look down at my parents unloading the car.) vs past (I walked to the window and looked down at my parents as they unloaded the car.) doesn’t have as much of an impact on the feel of the story as the decision between first or third person. The most important thing to do with tense is to ensure consistency. Be careful not to drift back and forth from one tense to another, especially if you are trying something new (present tense) that you aren’t used to writing in.

Tense can also be used for effect, such as a story wherein the “real time” events are narrated in present tense while frequent flashbacks are written in past tense. In this way, tense can provide a subtle clue to the reader to reinforce that the flashback parts are in the past.


Choose Wisely

When you’re planning out a story, take some time to consider what point of view will help the most. Is it important to keep the reader in the dark along with the character? (Choose first or third limited). Is it vital that the reader knows what everyone is thinking at all times? (Choose omniscient and put on a helmet). Are you writing a manual, guidebook, or doing something quirky? (Consider second but be wary).

Happy writing!

-Matt