They Don’t See What You See

If you aim to be an author, you must observe the world as a writer does. You’ll write better stories if you do.

When I use the word ‘observe’ I mean it in the general sense of perceiving by one or more of the five senses (or beyond those five, even). I’ve blogged before about conveying the five senses in your stories, but here I’m referring not to your characters, but to you perceiving the real world.

Writer ObservationBefore we get to writers, let’s discuss observation in general. While acknowledging there are other epistemological theories, I’ll assume there is a single, physical world out there, and each person observes it differently. Those differences are due to observations taken from different physical locations, accuracy of senses, mood, previous experiences, and many other things.

Observation, then, is a combination of a signal from one or more senses, and the mental activity resulting from the signal. We perceive with our senses and our brains.

Early in life, we discover the universe is too big and filled with too much stuff for us to see every little detail, so we learn to filter some things out. We focus on the parts we find most useful.

We recognize patterns, and form mental models of how the world is. That way we can tell at a glance if something doesn’t fit, and we can fill in the details we can’t sense but assume are there. Some people hone their senses to a fine degree of accuracy through practice, and some do not.

What does it mean to observe the world as a writer does? A good writer:

  • Considers the world as a source of story ideas, details, and descriptions;
  • Sees places as potential story scenes;
  • Notices people and incorporates aspects of them in story characters;
  • Hears all talking as potential dialogue;
  • Watches people when they’re experiencing intense emotions, so as to pick out appropriate appearance, expressions, and gestures for story characters;
  • Tastes food with the intent to describe it as a meal in a story;
  • Picks out the most telling details in real places or people, so as to better describe scenes and characters;
  • Goes ‘people-watching’ and imagines background stories for the observed people; and
  • Practices observing with all senses to improve both sensing accuracy and the ability to describe in words what is sensed.

You might doubt this advice will help in your particular case. Maybe the scenes in your stories look nothing like the world you live in, and your novel’s characters are completely unlike anyone you know or see. That’s common when writing fantasy or science fiction.

Even in such cases, it benefits you to practice and improve your powers of observation. That ability to pick out and convey the right details, in a manner that transports the reader to your fictional world, will help you no matter how unusual your scenes and characters are.

For further study, I recommend you read this WikiHow article and also this post by Maria Popova.

If you practice perceiving the world and people around you, really strive to develop that skill, one day you might achieve the acute observational prowess of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 28, 2016Permalink

8-Fold Approach to Marketing Fiction

You’ve spent innumerable hours all alone writing your book. That’s done; the book is published. All you have to do now is switch personalities, become an extreme extrovert, and market your book. For some, that’s easy and fun. For others, not so much. This post is for those who are confused by, and a bit scared of, marketing their fiction.

Marketing Your BookThere’s plenty of advice out there, both online and in excellent books, about marketing your stories. Many websites provide long lists with scores of tasks for you to do. It’s a bit intimidating.

My intent today is not to make marketing easy, but rather to break down the problem into chunks. Specifically, just eight chunks. I encourage you to explore the subject further. Read the long-list blog posts. Read the books. Watch the videos. But go into it knowing you won’t be doing everything they suggest. Nobody does that (because nobody can).

Your marketing campaign will be different from that of all other authors. Uniquely yours. You’ll do the things you can, the things you’re comfortable with. In time, you’ll stop doing the things that don’t work, and you’ll experiment creatively with new things.

What follows is my attempt to organize the marketing process into parts. There’s some overlap between them, because the process is interconnected as an integral whole, all focused on getting readers to buy your books.

  1. Plan the Campaign. Here’s where you do the advance thinking, figuring out your target audience, your approach, and your budget. You’ll study how others have done it. You’ll write out a marketing plan. You’ll consider timing your book launch for maximum effect, and create your launch strategy.
  1. Brand Yourself. In this step, you craft the picture of you that you want potential readers to have. This is about you, not your book, though your book must be a consistent part of the story, or image, that is you. Through your website, social media, author photo, e-mail signature, and practiced elevator speech, you’ll convey your intended brand.
  1. Explode Outward and Reach People. The goal here is to seem to be everywhere your potential fans are. Not in an annoying way, but suddenly they can’t stop noticing you. Wherever they are, you are, on podcasts, at conferences, book signings, social media, e-mail newsletters, interviews, etc.
  1. Think Like a Potential Fan. You need to put yourself into a reader’s place and make it easy to buy your book. Test out all the links and all your promotional material to ensure they aim toward the sale. You want every interested person to be able to buy your book with ease and without frustration.
  1. Tempt Future Readers. Work on your “curb appeal.” Ensure your website, book cover, author photo, book trailer, etc., are irresistible. Run contests, offer coupons, provide giveaways, show free book excerpts, and hand out swag.
  1. Create Buzz. The idea behind this might seem identical to Step 3, but this one is intended to leave others talking about you and your book. This involves book reviews, blog tours, press releases, entering contests, etc.
  1. Maintain Reader Connections. Here we think long-term and work on retaining your fan base, once initially established. Keep contact with loyal readers via newsletters, e-mail social media, etc.
  1. Manage Your Time. As I said earlier, you can’t do it all. You’ll have to budget your time; stop doing what isn’t working; schedule some time for each part of your marketing plan, and balance that with writing your next book.

This is just the start of your marketing journey. Read these excellent posts by Kimberley Grabas and Caitlin Muir for more in-depth information. By grouping the overall process into eight chunks, I hope this post has simplified and de-mystified the marketing game for you.

Oh, yeah. And buy all the books you can find by Steven R. Southard, also known as—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 21, 2016Permalink

13 Rules for Writing Fight Scenes

Conflict is central to fiction. Not all conflict is violent, of course, but at some point, one of your stories might require a fight scene. Therefore, even if it’s distasteful to you, it’s best if you learn how to write such scenes.

Fight ScenesViolent interactions can take many forms beyond individual combat. These include war, rape, terror, shooting sprees, etc. This post focuses on fights between two characters, but many of my suggestions apply to other situations.

People use a variety of weapons when fighting, including bare hands and feet, clubs, knives, swords, guns, any object available in the environment, and a wide array of science fiction or fantasy weapons. Again, most of the guidelines for fight scenes are general, and applicable to any weapon type.

For the following list of fight scene rules, I drew from, and combined, ideas from the following people’s blogs: Joanna Penn, Angela BourassaAmber Argyle, and the contributors to Wikihow. They’re all great sources of information, and I recommend you read each one. Now, here’s my list:

  1. If possible, observe a real fight. Note offensive and defensive movements, tempo, exploitation of speed vs. strength, etc.
  2. Study fictional fight scenes written by great writers. Pay attention to details selected, sentence structure, word choices, and techniques used to heighten tension.
  3. Ensure your scene is relevant to, and advances, your plot.
  4. Consider using the fight to reveal or further develop the characters’ personalities, and maybe the story’s theme. SwordintheStonePosterMy favorite example of this is the “wizard’s duel” in the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone. During their fight, Merlin and Madam Mim are each turning themselves into various animals. Madam Mim’s animals emphasize power and strength; Merlin’s emphasize cunning and intelligence. The superiority of brain over brawn is the lesson Merlin has been trying to teach young Arthur, and is the major theme of the movie.
  5. Ensure you’ve established that both characters have appropriate motivation. Why is each one fighting? What does he or she hope to gain by winning? That helps the reader care about the outcome.
  6. Break up the lunges, punches, slices, gunshots, etc.—the mechanics and logistics of the fight—with short dialogue or description to keep from boring the reader. When using dialogue, skip the ‘said.’
  7. Don’t overdo the description of the fight itself; trust the reader’s imagination to fill in such details.
  8. Use short sentences, with few adjectives or adverbs.
  9. Weave in all five senses in the fight, to put the reader there.
  10. Show the Point of View character’s thoughts and emotions as the fight goes on. This is as important as the description of the fight itself.
  11. Ensure your word choices and detail selections are appropriate to the genre and your intended audience. A fight in a military thriller must be accurate, believable, and authentic. A fight in a romantic adventure should focus on the POV character’s feelings.
  12. Don’t forget about the aftermath of the fight, how much the POV character hurts, his or her feelings about the opponent, thoughts about whether the fight was worth it, etc.
  13. In subsequent drafts, cut to the minimum.

It’s my hope these rules will help you write effective and compelling fight scenes in your stories.

Not to brag, but your characters couldn’t last one round with characters written by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 14, 2016Permalink

The Well-Written Villain

Villains, or antagonists, have come a long way. During the history of literature, they may have evolved even more than heroes, or protagonists. We’ll discuss that evolution, and show you how to create a well-written villain for your story.

A villain is a character opposed to the protagonist, who is usually cruel and who may be involved with crime. Not all stories have villains. The word ‘villain’ comes from the same root as ‘villa’ and once simply meant ‘farmhand.’ Only later did the word get loaded down with evil connotation baggage.

VillainFor centuries, when much of literature served the purpose of inculcating morality, authors portrayed villains as one-dimensional characters devoted to pure evil. Writers made it easy for the reader to distinguish the villainous characters from the good ones, by appearance, speech, and actions. Authors provided no reason for the villain’s malevolent nature, nor were such reasons expected. The villain was just bad, that’s all.

Then a change occurred in literature, and villains evolved. From the timing, I associate it with the advent of psychology, the study of the human mind and behavior. I may be wrong about that linkage, but it makes sense to me.

Since the early- to mid-Twentieth Century, it has not been enough to portray a villain as purely evil, without explanation. Gone are the black cape, the curled moustache, and the menacing sneer. (Well, maybe you can use such a stereotypical character for comedic effect.)

The modern villain starts out as a normal person, indistinguishable from any other character. Something happens to that person; a disturbing event triggers a change in the way they think. (Rather than a single event, the character could be raised from childhood in a peculiar way, but then that way must have an explanation.) The character twists the event, obsesses about it, and it becomes a driving factor for later behavior.

As this happens, the villain may not change in outward appearance, so he or she will be indistinguishable from other characters. This warping toward villainy occurs only in the antagonist’s mind. The resulting villain will likely have many good, even endearing, traits, all while harboring a secret inner drive toward nefarious ends.

While writing your story, you’ll need to convey this explanation for your villain’s behavior, even if it’s backstory. No modern reader will accept a character who is evil ‘just because.’

Moreover, the chain of events must lead to the villain being opposed to the hero. The protagonist and antagonist are a matched set. Often, the villain’s desired ends have nothing to do with the hero, but the hero becomes the irritant the villain must deal with to achieve his goal.

To ensure your story is interesting and to give your protagonist a worthy problem to solve, the villain must be at least as smart and powerful as the hero. Your hero must strive beyond his or her own perceived limits, and suffer nearly insurmountable hardships to overcome the villain. But neither can your villain be invulnerable. You should depict your villain as being on a quest of his own, contending with problems where not all of his machinations work all the time.

In preparing this post I studied, and villainously stole from, other wonderful posts on this topic, including this one on wikiHow, the Wikipedia article on ‘Villain,’ and Hallie Ephron’s article in Writer’s Digest. I encourage you to read each one for more in-depth information.

Now you should be ready to create your own villain. With this blog post finished, I can get back to my fiendish scheme to take over the internet! Bwa-ha-ha-ha! Soon the entire world will bow down to—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 7, 2016Permalink