Friday, September 27, 2013
Secondary characters should not the focus of your story, but they make the difference between a great novel and a ho hum one. Shakespeare knew this when he gave us great secondary characters like Bottom in a Midsummer Night's Dream. Bottom isn't the focus of the story, but his antics are a welcome relief from the tension between Oberon and Titania.
Secondary characters can add comic relief, or give background color. They buy the reader into your story because they make it real. Major characters even the great tragic heroes don't live in a vacuum. Hamlet needed Polonius.
Sometimes writing a character driven piece, the author can forget that the protagonist isn't the only character in the world. I recently reviewed a book, Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield. The writing is good, but the plot is thin, and the major character fills the story to the exclusion of everyone else. William, the major character is a self-centered workaholic. That's fine, but the other characters were flat. They made their appearances, spoke their required lines and moved off stage. I felt the lack of more complex characters made the story shallow. I wanted at least one other character to be other than a foil for William.
On the other hand, I'm reading Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile. This book is also a character study. There's more plot, but the real difference is the secondary characters. Charlotte, the main character has a family full of people with individual traits that help to show us the environment in a small southern town. Although you follow the main character, it's always fun when one of the secondary characters like Miss Honey, Charlotte's very determined grandmother, tries to take control of the action.
I'm not trying to encourage you to let the secondary characters take over, but making them real people with identifiable traits lends fulness to your story. Also, readers can become attached to secondary characters. One way to keep them reading is to give glimpses of their favorite characters.
Make your secondary characters come alive. They can make the difference between an unforgettable novel and one your reader puts down before it's half finished.
Monday, August 26, 2013
The ending is one of the most important parts of your story because it leaves the reader either wanting more of your fiction, or deciding to avoid it in the future. So an easy answer to the question of what makes a good ending is that it leaves the reader satisfied. There are several types of endings that don't do that:
- The solution to the mystery comes as a total surprise at the end because it has not been foreshadowed. I recently reviewed a book like that A Dying Fall by Elly Griffiths. The setting was interesting, but the main character raced about wringing her hands and in the end had nothing to do with the solution which involved characters with a very minor role in the story.
- The ending doesn't resolve the issue. In How to be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman the second half of the story builds up tension about whether Marta is the victim of a plot, or mad. Unfortunately, the ending keeps us guessing.
- The ending is obvious from the beginning. In some ways this is less serious than the other two problems because sometimes you read a book, particularly a romance, knowing the lovers will get together, but it's an attractive setting, you like the characters and it's good escapist literature.
I have found several things that make a good ending. One is a twist at the end that leaves the reader saying “Why didn't I see that?” This only works if the information is there but cleverly disguised so that it comes as a surprise, but the reader doesn't feel cheated because they could have guessed. A good ending is also one where the characters show some growth, or understanding of the condition of their lives. I enjoy a book where I feel that the characters are going on with a better chance for happiness then they had before the story began.
So endings shouldn't be cop-outs, or shocks. The ending should be a resolution that pulls the threads together and leaves the reader feeling satisfied. It's a laudable goal, but not as easy as it seems from all the bad endings I've seen in the books I review. Still, it's worth trying for.
Saturday, June 29, 2013
You've worked hard on your novel. The opening is a block buster. You know how the story will be resolved, but now you're faced with the long slog through the middle. It's been my experience gleaned from reviewing books, that this is where many stories fade.
There's lots of advice on how to attack the middle. Have a minor climax so you build up to a plot point before the slide into the ending and the major climax. This is good advice, but how do you get there. Some authors view the middle as a place for long conversations between the characters. The search for answers, particularly in a mystery, becomes a leisurely stroll. The investigators revisit old hypotheses and discuss them at length in an effort to decide what to do next. At some point, readers start turning pages wondering when something is going to happen.
On the other hand, some novels get so caught up in action that you almost have another story building up in the middle. I read one recently where the initial chapters focused was on horse racing, then action veered to drug smuggling, and finally ended with murder and a psychotic love triangle. I'm exaggerating a bit, but too much action can move the story away from the plot line, introduce new characters, and give the book a chaotic feel.
How do you handle this? In the first place, I recommend forgetting about word count. Sometimes I think the author gets carried away trying to get to the magical sixty thousand words so the book is a novel. (Anything less is a novella or short story.) If you understand your characters and their story, the length is a function of the interaction between their goals and the endgame. You don't have to, and shouldn't, pad the text with description, too much off topic conversation, and attention to subplots.
Readers like to get into the groove. They want to be presented with solutions to the plot puzzles as you go along. No one wants to wander around in an unfocused middle trying to figure out what happened to the driving force in the story.
It may not be easy to solve your problems with the middle. Sometimes there really isn't enough action to carry the story through the doldrums, but careful attention to character and an outline of plot points and the scenes that lead up to them should solve some of the problems.
Saturday, June 1, 2013
A great opening is supposed to hook the reader, snag the editor, and send writers on their way to fame and fortune. It's good advice, but what about the rest of the book?
I'm a book reviewer. In some ways it's like being an editor. You get the chance to see a lot of books and sometimes you're able to select the books to review on the basis of the first few pages. When I open the book, I'm on the lookout for interesting characters and a plot with lots of tension and conflict. Setting is important, but it's the icing on the cake.
So I open the book, read the first few pages. I love it. It has everything I'm looking for including an unusual setting that I'd like to know more about. I read about the first third of the book, if I'm lucky, and things start to fall apart. The characters engage in more reflection than action, the plot begins to drift, and now it's a chore to pick up the book and read the rest. The ending is often worse. There is a plot resolution, but no twist to make it interesting. Even worse a character crawls out of the woodwork to solve the problem.
Of course, all books are not this way, but too many are. I wonder if as writers we're taking the advice of editors and writing teachers too much to heart. Yes, you need a terrific opening, but if the opening is the best thing about the novel, you run the risk of leaving the reader, or worse the reviewer, disappointed. I am hopeful that with self-publishing authors will begin to look beyond the great opening to have a complete novel that doesn't disappoint.
Monday, April 15, 2013
Prices for ebooks have been steadily declining over the past year. Some of this is due to the publishers' settlement with Amazon. Although this affects books by the major publishers the fallout affects prices for self-published books, too. If you self-publish, you can set the price for any amount you want with certain minor restrictions. However, if best sellers are selling for $7.00 and some as low as $.99 it doesn't make sense to price yourself out of the market.
If you want to make money, you have to follow the price trends. This means most self-published books should be priced no higher than $3.99, unless you have a niche market that guarantees sales. The problem is that if you price your books between $3.99 and $.99 you have to sell a lot of books to make any money at all. Unfortunately, although there are some best-selling self-published authors, most of us are not in that category.
Most self-published authors don't make much money from their books even with higher prices, so the question is why do you write. In today's market, more of us can become published authors, but very few of us will become rich. For me, this issue is: how much do you love writing? If it's something you have to do to make yourself happy, it's easy. You keep writing no matter what the prices are and even whether you get published. If you want fame and fortune, in today's market you may be better off trying to get on Survivor. For me, I'll keep writing. I treasure the people who buy my books, and I will keep trying to do my best for them . . . no matter what the price, or how much money I make. It's the psychic rewards that are important.
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
I asked Alison some questions about here experience writing One Traveler:
1.Why did you decide to write Traveler?
I was a teenager and had just read Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I wanted to tell a story about the Civil War from a “northern” angle. Over the years, I worked on other projects, but I always returned to One Traveler. The work wouldn’t let me go. Of course it has morphed into something very different from what it was when I began at the age of fifteen! The book deals much more with the Underground Railroad than the Civil War.
2.What kind of research did you do for the book?
I read everything I could get my hands on about the Civil War and the Underground Railroad. I traveled to Sidney’s hometown of Roswell, Georgia, where I toured old homes and absorbed the ambience. I also spent a lot of time at the Luzerne County Historical Society, looking at maps of Wilkes-Barre and reading microfilm issues of newspapers from 1860. And of course, as I revised the book, the internet was invaluable—supplying information on period dress, allowing me to search the pages of a cookbook from 1865, and even showing me how to load an Enfield Rifle Musket.
3.Who was your favorite character and why?
It would have to be Rachel White, the Yankee girl who captures Sid’s heart. She is spirited and strong . . . and I think she became that way as I revised the book. I originally pictured her this way, but somehow readers saw her as a weaker character. I changed some events and those changes brought out her inner beauty and feisty attitude.
4.How long did it take you to write the book? How much revision did you do? Any tips for other authors when taking on an historical novel?
I’ve already hinted at how long it took. Twenty years! But this was not twenty years of constant work on the novel. I went to college, got married, had children, and worked on other writing projects during this time. I’m sure I revised it ten times or more. My writing and the work itself changed so much over those years that it’s hardly the same book.
My advice to authors taking on an historical novel would be to keep careful records. And don’t assume that you’ve already checked out historical facts. I found myself so caught up in the process of creating that I made things up and later on I couldn’t remember if I’d researched them or not. I would have saved some time if I’d highlighted those questionable sections and made a note to research them.
5.How did you find a publisher?
God and my husband worked together on this one! I had decided to go to a publishing workshop on the day of my daughter’s 5th birthday party. Well, that day came and of course I thought I had too much to do. I told my husband there was no way I could go. He proceeded to push me out the door and tell me everything would be fine! So I went, and the workshop was led by Lee Sebastiani of Avventura Press. On a whim, I told her about my book and she loved it!
6.What's your writing schedule? Do you have any tips for beginning writers?
As a busy mother, this is difficult. I don’t believe in robbing myself of sleep or my husband and children of my presence in order to write. It’s all about balance, though, because I know I cannot be a good mother or wife if I don’t make time to write. At this point, I dedicate one day and one evening a week to writing. Sometimes life interferes with this, but for the most part I am able to use this time well. The most important tip I have is to use the time you have to write. Don’t wait for inspiration. It will come if you are faithful about doing your creative work.
Blurb for One Traveler:
Sidney elbowed his way towards the courthouse where the marshals led the fugitives. As they reached the courthouse steps, one of the Negroes broke away from the deputy that held him. He took off running straight towards the crowd, as though he expected the people to part and make a pathway for his escape.
Shouts came from the group of people behind Sid.
Some cheered. “He’s escaping! Run! Run for your life!”
Others clamored, “Stop him! Don’t let him get away!”
As the fugitive bolted by the front of the crowd, Sidney burst towards him and knocked him to the ground. The man was strong. He fought hard. But someone was helping Sid and together the two of them wrestled the darky until he lay face down on the ground. His taut muscles relaxed. Sid kneeled on his legs while the marshal tied his hands behind his back. Panting, Sid looked up to see who had come to his aid. Joshua Smith was holding the runaway’s shoulders to the ground. He winked at Sid.
“We stopped this nigger in his tracks, eh partner?”
Sid’s stomach turned. He stood up and the marshal helped the fugitive to his feet.
“Wilson!” he said to one of the deputies. “You hold this one.”
The deputy complied and the marshal turned to Sid. “I’m Marshal Jacob Yost.”
Sid shook his hand. “Sidney Judson.”
“On behalf of the United States Government, I’d like to thank you for your assistance.”
Sid nodded. “My pleasure, sir.”
Marshal Yost went to Joshua then. Sid turned his back on the runaways and stole a cautious glance towards the crowd. He’d seen them around town, but most he hadn’t met. Then he saw Bill Gildersleeve, towards the rear. Their eyes met and Mr. Gildersleeve shook his head with a frown. Sid looked away, searching the other faces. Some turned to leave. Mr. White was nowhere in sight. Rachel stood in the center of the square, her hat hanging behind her windblown head.
A hand clapped him on the shoulder. It was Joshua.
“I knew having a southerner in town would come in handy,” he said.
Sid swallowed. “Uh... thanks. Thanks for your help.”
The marshals led the bound fugitives into the courthouse. Joshua left with the remnants of the crowd. But Sid stood by the courthouse, his hat in his hand, wondering what he had just done.
He wandered next door and sat on a wooden bench by the public office. He stared down at his hat. Dark spots appeared in the dust on the street below as sweat dripped from his forehead. What had possessed him? Loyalty to the law? He ran his fingers through the thickness of his hair.
In time, the officials came out of the courthouse with the fugitives and led them towards the marshal’s rig, waiting by the office. Just before the darkies were put into the carriage, the one Sid had wrestled broke free again and began running desperately toward Main Street, his hands still tethered behind his back.
“Stop!” One of the deputies yelled, drawing his handgun. “Stop! Or I’ll shoot!”
He kept running. He did not see Sid as he ran by him. The deputy fired. The black man fell, writhing in pain, holding his leg with both hands. Sid rose from the bench. The deputy ran over to the black man. Sidney began to follow. The Negro groaned. Blood covered his hands as he held his leg.
“I’ll teach you to run away from a U.S. Marshal!” the deputy pointed his gun at the pitiful figure.
Sidney felt as though he were watching something from a dream. He saw the deputy’s hand as his index finger squeezed the trigger. A shot rang out, echoing on the buildings around the Square. The Negro’s body jerked as the bullet hit his chest. He fell back, his eyes meeting Sid’s for a split-second before they glazed over. A cold fist seemed to hit Sid in the stomach. He gasped.
“There was no call for that,” he said.
Sidney turned and looked at Marshal Yost, standing by the rig.
“Damn you, Wilson!” he called. “You’re going to catch some flack for that.”
He put the remaining Negro in the rig with the other deputy. Then he strode over to Wilson, who stood silent by the body.
“I ought to take away your badge—at least for a while.” He shook his head. “Go into the courthouse and get the Sheriff.”
Wilson nodded and started toward the courthouse.
Sidney turned his back on them. He walked fast towards Market Street, taking big gulps of fresh air. But as soon as he thought his stomach was settling, guilt washed over him again. He was responsible for another death.
Review - Five Stars:
Romance, a Moral Dilemma, a Family Secret
Heartbroken after the death of his parents, Sid leaves his home in Georgia and travels north to Pennsylvania to be with his aunt and uncle. On the eve of the Civil War, he's leaving behind his sweetheart, Catherine, and his whole way of life. In Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, he's exposed to his aunt and uncle's involvement in the Underground Railroad. Helping people is good, but this is in direct conflict with the law. He misses Catherine, but there are other girls in the north who challenge his allegiance to his almost fiancée. He is also faced with the mystery of why his father ran away from Wilkes Barre. Was it is Southern identification, or something else?
I enjoyed this novel. Sid is a sympathetic character. His life is in upheaval. His ideals and the underlying story of his life are being shaken to the foundations. His struggle is something anyone can relate to. The other characters are equally well drawn. We can understand his aunt and uncle's worries about how he will act when he learns about their involvement with the Underground Railroad and their delight at having family back in the north.
The historical perspective is accurate, except in one instance where the author indicates she took license with the facts to improve the drama. I recommend reading the historical notes at the end of the book for additional information on the period.
This is an excellent book for both young adults and for adults interested in the Civil War era.