3 Reasons Kathryn Stockett’s The Help Became A Bestseller

bestselling novel The HelpTime to get honest. We all want our book to become a runaway bestseller and get turned into a movie.

And we all know exactly what it takes to get there–a great book and word of mouth. That hasn’t changed and won’t change no matter what technological advancements come along. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Social media maven Kristen Lamb pointed out that one of the best ways for novelists to create a great book is to examine successful books to figure out what worked for them. Once we recognize what helped make them great, we can incorporate those things into our own books.

So today I wanted to look at three reasons Kathryn Stockett’s The Help became a bestseller.

Unique Character Voices

The Help uses three first-person narrators to tell the story. (It’s not as easy as Stockett makes it look.)  Even if you weren’t told each time you hit a switch, you could identify which character was speaking because Stockett gave them each a unique voice.

How? Well, she kept in mind their background, education, and personalities.

Abileen’s voice is lyrical but filled with grammatical mistakes. She uses “they” when she should use “their,” and “a” when she should use “of.” You can hear the accent of black women in the South 60 years ago when she says, “First day I walk in the door, there she be, red-hot and hollering with the colic” (pg. 1).

This is Abileen’s voice, and only Abileen can say it just this way because of who she is. She dropped out of school young to work, but always had a knack for writing, and she’s been writing her prayers ever since so she doesn’t lose the ability. She’s older than the other POV characters, and it shows in her accent and attitudes, and in the slightly slower way she moves about things.

Minny’s is sarcastic, cynical, jaded. Her speech is sprinkled with profanity and criticisms of the foolishness she sees around her. Her metaphors tend to center around food.

What makes Minny so different from Abileen? She’s younger and has more education so she lacks the accent and grammatical mistakes, she’s extremely practical, but it’s more than that. Minny looks at the world the way she does in large part because her alcoholic husband beats her. And her food metaphors spring out of her love for cooking. She never burns the fried chicken.

Whether you have one POV character or ten, each of them needs to sounds like an individual.

A Theme People Connect With

You might think the theme of The Help is civil rights and equality for blacks and women. While those issues play a huge role in the book (after all, Skeeter is writing a book that tells the real story of black maids in the South), if that was the theme, it wouldn’t connect with people on an emotional level the way this book did. Civil rights is a political issue you vote on, not something that reaches in, grabs your heart, and squeezes it until it aches.

Stockett weaves a much more subtle and poignant theme throughout each POV character’s story–the struggle to feel worthy, worthwhile, loved, and valuable.

Skeeter feels like an embarrassment to her mother. She’s unmarried and dresses in ways that give her mother heart palpitations. Her hair is completely unmanageable. When she finally gets a boyfriend, she’s forced to choose between being herself and being who he wants her to be.

Minny works for Celia Foote. Celia comes from Sugar Ditch (basically the wrong side of the tracks). She desperately wants to make friends, but her heart of gold is overlooked because she’s tacky and trashy and married to the ex-boyfriend of Hilly, who has all the other white women under her thumb.

Abileen works for a woman who’s ashamed of her daughter. Elisabeth barely picks her toddler up because Mae Mobley is fat with a bald spot on the back of her head. Abileen spends the book trying to teach Mae Mobley that she is kind, she is smart, and she is important.

Each story connects to the theme in a different way, but it’s there under them all. And it’s something we can all relate to in one way or another.

Fresh Descriptions and Metaphors

George Orwell advised, “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” His point was that if you’ve seen it in other books before, it’s no longer fresh. It might even be verging on cliched. Worse, it makes your book forgettable.

The best metaphors stick in people’s minds because they don’t remember ever hearing them before. They also stick because they give people something tangible to hang on to.

The dread in my stomach is flat and hard and hot, like a brick in the sun (pg. 178). When I read this, I understood dread in a new way. My gut reaction was “Yes, that’s exactly how it feels. She just put into words something I’ve known all along but haven’t been able to articulate.” That makes for a memorable metaphor.

It smells like meat, like hamburger defrosting on the counter (pg. 232). Even now, months later, this metaphor still turns my stomach. This is how she described the smell of a miscarried baby. I’ve never seen a miscarried baby, never smelled what that sort of death smells like, but with this description, I knew. Stockett associated something unfamiliar to most of us to something familiar to most of us, allowing us to play an intimate part in a foreign experience. That also makes for a memorable metaphor.

Have you read The Help? What did you love about it? What else do you think made it a bestseller?

Marcy

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

How to Make the Most of a Scene – Guest Post by Jami Gold

Jami Gold fantasy authorMarcy and Lisa are pleased to welcome special guest poster Jami Gold.

After outing a tribe of incubi in government, Jami Gold moved to Arizona and decided to become a writer, where she could put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fortunately, her muse, an arrogant male who delights in making her sound as insane as possible, rewards her with unique and rich story ideas. Fueled by chocolate, she writes paranormal romance and urban fantasy tales that range from dark to humorous, but one thing remains the same: Normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.

Take is away Jamie . . .

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Whether we plot our stories ahead of time or write by the seat of our pants, we need to ensure our scenes are working as hard as they could be.

  • If we’re plotters, we consciously decide on the focus of our scenes ahead of time.
  • If we’re pantsers, we make up our scenes as we go along, and the conscious evaluation doesn’t happen until revision time.
  • And if we’re somewhere in the middle, we might have an idea of where the scene is supposed to end up, but we take a rambling path to get there, so our revisions will look more like pantsers.

However we get there, at some point we’ll be taking a hard look at every scene. Is this scene needed? Is it too long or too short? Does it have tension? Does it avoid information dumps? Etc., etc.

Great, but that’s all a little vague. After all, how can we tell if a scene is needed? Sure, some scenes might be obviously unnecessary as we pantsed our way down a rabbit trail, but other scenes feel like they’re needed. So how can we tell?

Guidelines for What Makes a Good Scene

Good scenes should have at least three reasons for existing. Those evil info dump or backstory scenes falter not only because of bad structure, but also because they fail to be relevant to the overall story. They’re missing those other reasons for existing.

So as we go through our story, we need to make sure every scene has at least three of the following revelations:

  • a plot point
  • a character’s goal
  • action to advance the plot
  • action to increase the tension
  • character development
  • a cause of character conflict
  • an effect of character conflict
  • how stakes are raised
  • a reinforcement of the stakes
  • character motivation
  • character backstory
  • world building
  • story theme
  • foreshadowing
  • the story’s tone or mood

Janice Hardy has a great blog post about how to mix and match these elements in a way to make the scene feel like a full meal. She points out that some elements, like foreshadowing, world building, or tone should be treated more like appetizers. In other words, those elements shouldn’t be the main point of the scene.

I Have Three Elements in This Scene, Am I Good Now?

Making sure every scene has three reasons to exist proves the scene needs to be in our story, but we still haven’t checked to make it the best it could be. When we’re consciously evaluating a scene—whether during initial planning or revisions—we need to be aware of the main reason that scene exists.

In her post, Janet talks about the elements that are legitimate main points for a scene: Is a character pursuing a goal? Are we revealing important information? Is the plot advancing? Those questions ensure we’re not just padding an info dump scene with two other minor elements.

But even those questions don’t get to the heart of a matter. A story is more than just a collection of plot points. Stories are meant to evoke emotion. So the most important question to ask ourselves is:

“What do we want this scene to accomplish from the reader’s perspective?”

Maybe we want the reader to be scared, or worried, or excited, or whatever. Then we need to look at the actual plot points, dialogue, revelations, character emotions, and whatnot in the scene and decide:

“What’s the best way to show the elements of this scene to accomplish that?”

Once we know what we want to accomplish, maybe we’ll decide the words of the dialogue are revealing the right information, but the tone is wrong. Or maybe we’ll decide there’s a better way to show the protagonist’s vulnerability. Or maybe we’ll decide we let the protagonist advance the plot too easily.

This takes hard brainpower and conscious focus. I’ll admit this deep evaluation doesn’t come easily to me. But if I take the time to do it, I’ll often see how a sentence here or a reordering of paragraphs there will create stronger emotions in the reader. And that’s what good storytelling is all about.

Have you evaluated your scenes in depth like this before? Does it come easily to you or not? When you’ve evaluated your scenes, what have you discovered?

Find Jami at her blog, Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and Goodreads.

Connect with Marcy on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+. Connect with Lisa on Twitter, subscribe to her on Facebook, or join her circles on Google+.

And don’t forget to subscribe to Marcy’s new blog Life At Warp 10 and Lisa’s new blog Through the Fire.

Mystery Sub-Genres

types of mysteriesWe’ve gone through fantasy, science fiction, and thrillers. Today we’ll be covering mysteries before finishing our series on genres and sub-genres with romance tomorrow.

Cozy Mystery – Cozies are the softest version of mysteries. They don’t have explicit sex or violence, and are often set in small towns rather than big cities. The protagonist is a female layperson (think Murder She Wrote) with a knack for getting into trouble and solving puzzles. She’s not a member of the police or other law enforcement. In fact, the police in the story probably view her as a pest.

The fraternal twin of the cozy mystery is the hobby mystery. Basically this is a cozy where the main character is involved in a niche hobby and the crime is intimately involved with that hobby. For example, your protagonist collects rare books and a rare book is stolen from the used bookstore in town.

Police Procedural – The focus of a police procedural isn’t so much on the reader figuring out who the criminal is but rather on how to catch him and prove he was the one who committed the crime. In fact, the bad guy is often known in the beginning of the book. Readers of police procedurals expect detailed descriptions of the investigative techniques used by the police. For a TV example, look no farther than CSI.

General Mystery –  The protagonist in a general mystery is normally a private detective rather than a police officer (police prodecural) or a layperson (cozy mystery). Oftentimes, however, the PI will have a non-PI friend/employee/client who plays a key role in the plot as well. The emphasis in these stories is the puzzle, figuring out whodunit. Examples include The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith and A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton.

Historical Mystery – These stories revolve around a historically significant crime (real or fictionalized). Anne Perry and Steven Saylor are well-known writers in this sub-genre.

Noir/Hardboiled Mystery – On the opposite end of the mystery spectrum from the cozy is the noir or hard-boiled sub-genre. With its realistic, gritty portrays of sex and violence and dark tone, this sub-genre got its name from its tough voice and unsentimental take on life. Protagonists are so deeply flawed, self-destructive, or damaged as to almost be anti-heroes. These mysteries aren’t for the faint of heart.

Don’t forget to check out Lisa’s post on genres and sub-genres that began our series.

Do you prefer to know the criminal in a mystery or do you like to try to figure it out as the book goes along?

Marcy

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Thriller Sub-Genres

suspense genreSo far this week we’ve looked at fantasy and science fiction sub-genres, but since not everyone loves speculative fiction as much as I do, I’m going to take you through thriller sub-genres today and mystery sub-genres tomorrow.

Espionage – Also called spy fiction, espionage is the land of the CIA, assassins, secret agents, and James Bond. If you’re writing something like Robert Ludlum’s Bourne books or you want to be the next John La Carre or Alan Furst, you’re probably working on an espionage novel. They’re often set during World War II or the Cold War, but that focus may now be shifting to more modern settings as well.

Medical Thriller – Your POV character in a medical thriller is going to be employed in the medical field (e.g. a doctor, a medical examiner) or be closely tied to a hospital setting. This type of thriller is a race to uncover or fix a deadly medical situation–organ black markets, an out-of-control virus, patients falling in mysterious comas, etc.

Psychological Thriller – These are battles of the mind and the wits. They’re often dark and focus more on emotional trauma to the characters than physical trauma. Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris and Along Came a Spider by James Patterson would both be categorized as psychological thrillers.

Legal Thriller – Similar to medical thrillers, the POV character in a legal thriller is an attorney. The story centers around a legal dilemma or courtroom drama. John Grisham’s name is almost synonymous with legal thrillers.

Historical Thriller – If you set your thriller prior to around 1960, you’re likely going to fall into the historical thriller sub-genre. Readers of this sub-genre expect historical accuracy and engaging details as well as a fast-paced read. Good historical thrillers can be especially challenging to write due to the need to evoke a rich historical atmosphere without slowing down the story.

Techno Thriller – The most powerful technology of today has fallen into the wrong hands, and it’s up to your main character to get it back or destroy it. Ever read a Tom Clancy book? Then you’ve read a techno thriller.

Military Thriller – Military thrillers have a lot in common with techno thrillers, but instead of focusing on technology, they focus on military objectives. Your main character in a military thriller is likely to be a member of the military (no shock there). Both techno thrillers and military thrillers are often global in their scope.

Supernatural Thriller – Supernatural thrillers blend the expected fast-moving suspense plot with some paranormal or other worldly element. Your main character might be a psychic or see ghosts.

Don’t forget to check out Lisa’s overview post on genres and sub-genres that started it all.

Thrillers are my second love (after speculative fiction). What’s your favorite genre? Do you ever read outside of it?

Marcy

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Science Fiction Sub-Genres

SciFi subgenresYesterday we started our foray into sub-genres by looking at some of the major categories of fantasy. Before we get to science fiction sub-genres today, I think we should answer one question.

Why do we fight so hard against genres and sub-genres?

I’m sure many of you will think I’m wrong, but here’s my theory. We don’t fight so hard against classifying our books into a genre or sub-genre because we truly believe it’s the one book ever written that defies genre classification. We do it because we’re confused by how many different options are out there and we’re either too lazy (sorry, I know it’s true because I was) or too overwhelmed to try to sort them out. Hopefully this series of posts will help erase both those excuses for you.

Now, on to science fiction sub-genres . . .

Cyberpunk – Cyberpunk plots (if you couldn’t guess from the name) revolve around computers, artificial intelligence, cyberspace, virtual reality, hackers, mega-corporations, or some combination of those elements. Rather than being set far in the future, they’re usually set in the near future. These books are often dark and focus on the dangers of technology.

Steampunk -Steampunk plots take place in Victorian England or another real-world setting where steam-power still rules. They combine the technology of the time with future technology as the people of that era imagined it would be (rather than how it really turned out). Not surprisingly H. G. Wells and Jules Verne are the grandfathers of this genre. Steampunk can be a lot of fun if you don’t take yourself too seriously.

Dystopian/Utopian – These novels look at the extremes that our world might one day come to, either good or bad. The Road by Cormac McCarthy and I Am Legend by Richard Matheson typify the dystopian sub-genre. Dystopian also goes by the name Apocalyptic.

Time Travel – As the name implies, time travel novels take you either forward or backward in time. Before you object that this should be fantasy rather than science fiction because time travel isn’t possible, keep in mind what sets science fiction and fantasy apart. This is science fiction because the writers are working on the assumption that at some point in the future scientists might invent technology that would allow us to travel through time. If they can make the technology sound believable, then it falls firmly into the science fiction realm. (If you’re sent back in time because of magic, you’re back in the fantasy genre.)

Military Science Fiction – Nations, planets, or races are at war in military SF and the focus is often on the technology and military protocol and procedures of the combatants. Consequently, these stories end up being told through the POV of one (or more) of the soldiers involved. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein is one of the early landmark works of military SF. Shard of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold, Death Troopers by Joe Schreiber, and Old Man’s War by John Scalzi are other examples.

Space Opera – Although this term can have a derogatory tone to it, this is another SF genre that’s a lot of fun if you let yourself just sit back and enjoy. These novels are set on distant planets and focus more on the adventure than on the science.

The fraternal twin sister of space opera  is Space Westerns like the television series Firefly. They take the fist-fighting, gun-fighting, and themes of westerns and set them in outer space.

Hard Science Fiction – So named because it takes current knowledge of the “hard” sciences of mathematics, chemistry, physics, or biology and speculates on where they might lead in the future, this is the sub-genre of science fiction where accuracy and attention to detail make or break your story. Not surprisingly, most of the successful hard SF writers work (or have worked) in one of the hard science fields.

Soft Science Fiction – Soft SF takes its what if from the “soft” sciences like psychology, sociology, or anthropology. The lines between hard SF, soft SF, and dystopian SF can blur at times, but a good rule of thumb is that dystopian often deals with an end of the world type scenario where a catastrophe has happened, while soft SF looks at what would happen if certain soft science theories were taken to their extremes or logical conclusions.

People often have strong opinions either pro or con science fiction? Do you love it? Hate it? Which sub-genre best fits your book?

Marcy

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Fantasy Sub-Genres

Fantasy sub-genresIn September, Lisa started out our series on genres and sub-genres by giving you a look at some of the genres your novel might fall in to (and explaining why you do indeed need to choose a genre for your book). This week, I’m going to help you sort out the tangle that is sub-genres. And to make this easier on everyone, I’m going to focus on one genre a day.

Why do sub-genres matter?

A couple very simple reasons actually.

First, many agents will represent one sub-genre but not another. If an agent only reps urban fantasy, for example, and you send them your epic fantasy, you’ve wasted their time and yours.

Your chances of making a sale increase the more accurately you can identify your target audience. Sub-genres help you do that by helping you find books similar to yours. People who read those books are likely to enjoy your books as well.

While I can’t cover every sub-genre for you, here’s your crash course on the major ones to get you started, beginning with fantasy.

Historical Fantasy – I had to start with this one because this is the genre of Lisa’s and my current co-written work-in-progress. Since this is our blog, I think I get to show it preferential treatment 🙂 Historical fantasy takes place in a recognizable historical time period and in a real world location. This sub-genre encompasses things like the King Arthur legends and Robin Hood. It’s more about how the author plays with history, myth, and legend than it is about magic.

Epic Fantasy – Epic fantasies are what most people think of when they hear “fantasy.” They’re defined by a large cast of characters, multiple POVS, and complex plots. They’re set in a fictional world, and the plot often revolves around the rise and fall of kingdoms. The ultimate epic fantasies are George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Urban Fantasy – First of all, urban fantasy is set in a primarily, well, urban/city setting. You can’t set your fantasy in a medieval-esque pastoral setting and call it “urban fantasy.” It’s darker, grittier than most other fantasy, and you’ll usually find it populated with demons, vampires, werewolves, witches (not the Harry Potter kind), or zombies.

Superhero Fantasy – Secret identities, superhuman powers, and villains who are more than a little unhinged are part of what make superhero fantasy so much fun. Superhero movies like X-Men, Spiderman, The Green Lantern, and Captain America are all great examples of this genre.

Traditional Fantasy – Traditional fantasy is basically a teeny, tiny epic fantasy. It’s set in a secondary world (i.e. not our world) like epic fantasy, but it has a smaller cast of characters, fewer POV characters, and a plot that focuses more on a single character (or small group) and their unique struggle than on the creation or destruction of worlds/kingdoms. Magic in some form is usually a key element of traditional fantasy. A classic traditional fantasy is The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle.

The fraternal twin sister of traditional fantasy is sword and sorcery, where the plot focuses more on the swashbuckling adventures and daring doos of the main character than on the magical elements. In other respects, they’re the same. Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora is an icon sword and sorcery fantasy.

Contemporary Fantasy – This sub-genre of fantasy sets the story in our modern-day world (as opposed to historical fantasy) and, although they can have dark elements to them, they also aim to give their reader a sense of joy and wonder. Contemporary fantasies often involve a “world within a world.” If you’ve read any of the Harry Potter books, you’ve read contemporary fantasy. (Urban fantasy is actually a sub-genre of this sub-genre, but it’s easier to consider it as its own sub-genre. Confused yet?)

Alternate History – Don’t let its name fool you. Alternate history plots actually fall into the fantasy genre rather than the historical fiction genre because at some point in time the history of the story world diverged from the history of our world. What if the Nazis won World War II? That became the inspiration for The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. Depending on the focus of alternate history plots, they can also be categorized as science fiction.

Do you find that you read more in one of these sub-genres than the others? Where does your fantasy novel fall?

Marcy

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Using the Military Correctly in Your Fiction

In honor of Remembrance Day/Veteran’s Day this week, we wanted to bring you a special guest post on how to believably use military characters in your fiction. So we enlisted Marcy’s husband to help us out.

Chris Saylor is a former Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps Reserve. For five years, he served as a Combat Engineer with the 4th Combat Engineer Battalion, with which he deployed to Iraq in 2005 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Take it away Chris . . .

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military characters in fictionWith the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military characters or former military characters have become increasingly popular in fiction. But for writers who haven’t been in the military, getting the details right can be a challenge.

Getting them wrong can destroy your book’s chances. Some estimates suggest that 20% of the current US population either is in the military or has served in the military at some point—and that number doesn’t even include their friends and family. If you get it wrong, people will notice.

Understanding how to realistically write military characters is important for historical fiction writers, thriller writers, science fiction and fantasy writers (knowing our military system helps you invent new ones), mystery writers, and even romance writers. So what does it take to get it right?

Here are a few things to keep in mind when writing about fictional military stuff:

Get the names of the members of each branch correct

Marines are not Soldiers, Soldiers are not Airmen, Airmen are not Sailors, and Sailors are not Coast Guardsmen. Each member of the military is proud to have earned their respective title, so use their titles accordingly.

When speaking generally about members of a specific branch of service, remember that members of the Air Force are Airmen, members of the Army are Soldiers, members of the Coast Guard are Coast Guardsmen, members of the Navy are Sailors, and members of the Marine Corps are Marines.

Use correct rank designations

If you ever watch A Few Good Men (in which two Marines are on trial for murdering a fellow Marine who complained about his working conditions aboard the Guantanamo Bay naval base), the two Marines on trial are not called the same thing every time. Private First Class (PFC) Louden Downey is referred to as Private several times, and Lance Corporal Harold Dawson is several times referred to as Corporal. Neither of those uses is correct in terms of the Marine Corps. PFC Downey would always be called Private First Class, PFC, or simply Marine. LCpl Dawson would always be referred to as either Lance Corporal or simply Marine.

A good place to find US military ranks is http://www.defense.gov/about/insignias/enlisted.aspx for enlisted ranks and http://www.defense.gov/about/insignias/officers.aspx for officer ranks.

Correctly describe military equipment and activities

Also in A Few Good Men, you see military inferiors being blatantly disrespectful to their superiors, Marines saluting indoors when not under cover or under arms (wearing a head cover or armed with a weapon), and military members easily losing their composure and destroying their military bearing.

Being disrespectful to superiors causes dissention in the ranks, a breakdown of the military discipline that is necessary to complete a mission or achieve an objective, and can actually get the disrespectful person hauled in front of a court martial (military court) and, eventually, put in confinement/sent to prison.

Marines and Sailors don’t salute indoors unless they are under cover (for example, a Reserve unit conducts a formation inside on the drill deck because the weather outside is too poor for a formation, so they’re all wearing their covers) or under arms (armed with a rifle, pistol, or ceremonial sword).

Bearing is one of the most important things a servicemember can have, and is related to military discipline. A person who loses their bearing is a person who loses face in front of his or her peers and superiors. It’s an admirable quality for a person to be able to hold a good “poker face” no matter the situation.

Correct terminology matters

I also tend to see military weapons referred to as guns (they’re rifles or weapons, not guns); boats referred to as ships, and vice-versa (a boat in naval terminology refers to a submarine, whereas a ship refers to surface vessels, like aircraft carriers); or combat personnel using the wrong hand signals. A good–though not always 100% correct–resource for this is http://www.jargondatabase.com/Category/Military.

Use military dates and times correctly

The correct way to write military dates is in a YEAR/MONTH/DAY format. For example, September 5, 2011, would be written as 20110905.

Make sure you’re getting military time correct, too. Anything from one minute after midnight to one minute before 10am would be written as (for example) 0930. 10am to 12pm would be written as (for example) 1030. For anything after 1259, you would write it the same way, but add 12 to whatever the time is, so 1pm would be 1300. The only time that this does not apply to is exactly at midnight, which is written as 0000, though is often said to be 2400.

Someone who was in the military wouldn’t say, “I’ll meet you there at 7:30 tonight.” They’d be more likely to say, “I’ll meet you there at 1930.”

What questions do you have about how to correctly use the military and military characters in your fiction? Have you seen some of these mistakes before in movies or books?

Military Fiction

This is Chris

Chris

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Reactive and Proactive Characters: Buffy vs Bella

Your main protagonist should begin as reactive and eventually progress to proactive. Buffy (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was this bada$$ character who didn’t take junk from anybody including Spike. Everywhere she went, she influenced the action around her. Bella (from Twilight) seems to be in need of rescue all the time.

Buffy the vampire slayerI love movies and television – anything that will bring me into a great entertaining story. I especially LOVE vampire stories – everything from Bram Stoker to Buffy to Twilight to Van Helsing to Daybreakers to Underworld. Bring it on. (Hence today’s title.) I love a strong female character, one who doesn’t take junk from nobody. I have no patience for the Daphne’s of the story world – remember Daphne? The female fashionista from Scooby-Doo who gushed over Fred and was always being kidnapped – ALWAYS. That’s annoying. I mean, even Scooby and Shaggy decide to be monster bait after some Scooby snacks.

At some point in your story, your protagonist needs to go from reacting to situations outside of their control, to taking control and influencing the action – otherwise (as a general rule) your readers will quit the story. Gone are the days of the 50’s pirate romances where the damsel in distress is kidnapped by the pirate and by the end sees all his redeeming qualities beneath that hard damsel-stealing exterior and falls in love with him. Oy. That’s where I quit reading and beat myself with the book as punishment for wasting my time.

Reactive characters

Usually every novel begins with a reactive protagonist. Cue the ‘normal’ scene with Buffy at school or waking up, and then BAM – a vampire appears out of nowhere and knocks her flat. She’s forced to react to a situation outside of her control or influence. Bella is reactive for nearly the entire novel – but more on her later. Most stories begin by putting the protagonist in a situation outside of their control they can’t walk away from, often a life-threatening situation. The kind of novel you’re writing will dictate what kind of situation this is and what the stakes are.

You raise the stakes for your protagonist by continuing to heap problems on them they can’t walk away from. It’s like a cliche country song – first your truck dies, then your dog dies, then your girlfriend leaves you… But reactive characters depend on others for solutions to their problems.

Proactive Characters

Proactive characters are the ones who take action into their own hands. This is when Buffy goes all – ‘that vamp’s so dead,’ and marches out of the library wooden stake in hand. She makes a decision, good or bad, and acts on it – and her action moves the story forward. It wouldn’t have been nearly as fun if Spike had to always kidnap Buffy and Angel rescued her. Yawn. What kind of vampire slayer would that make?

The proactive character doesn’t wait for others to create a solution, he is involved in creating his own solutions. They make decisions about their situation, maybe come to a fork in the road, maybe make a bad decision – but they don’t wait around for others to fix things. These characters are more interesting to read about, and because the reader is along for the decision-making process they’re invested in the character.

The Problem With Bella

Bella in school parking lot

I really enjoyed reading Twilight, it’s light and entertaining. A welcome escape from reality for a bit. However, here’s my biggest beef with Twilight – Bella is reactive. Stuff happens to Bella and she waits for Edward to rescue her throughout almost the entire novel.

She’s almost smushed by a truck in an icy school parking lot – Edward rescues her.

She’s a social outcast who’s never had a boyfriend – Edward, the guy every girl wants, decides to date her.

She’s targeted by vamps who want to eat her – Edward whisks her away to safety.

It’s not until the third-last scene in the book that Bella takes one small proactive step and agrees to escape her protectors to meet the bad guy to save her mom – and then what happens? Edward rescues her. She gets bitten – Edward sucks out the poison. A model for teen girls Bella is not.

If you’re stuck in a vamp-infested cellar in an all-out smackdown – who do you want with you? Bella or Buffy? Point made.

Luke Skywalker vs Anakin Skywalker

My son is a huge Star Wars fan. But here’s my problem with Star Wars – if you watch all 6 movies it becomes clear that the whole series is really about ‘the chosen one’ Anakin Skywalker, not Luke Skywalker as those fans of the first trilogy thought.

Everyone loves Luke. Luke runs back to save his aunt and uncle, he decides to follow Obi-Wan into unknown danger, he trains to be a Jedi with Yoda, he rescues Chewie and Leia and Hans, he faces his fears and not only defeats Darth Vader but redeems him as well. He creates his own solutions.

But Anakin? He’s found. He’s trained. He follows Obi-Wan. He does what he’s told – he complains, he cops an attitude – but he still does what he’s told by everyone: the Emperor, Padme, the Jedi Council… He reacts. He does four proactive things in 6 movies: he kills his mother’s murderers, marries Padme, and he agrees to serve the Emperor and become a Sith – which lands him in yet further reactive situations until he throws the Emperor in a pit. I think that’s a big reason why there are more fans of Luke than Anakin.

But Twilight‘s a NYT Bestseller – and it breaks this rule

I hear what you’re saying – ‘but Bella sold A LOT of books.’ Really? Bella is the point of view character, but which characters are selling that series? I would argue it’s not Bella, who is the one telling the story – you’re never in Edward’s head and only briefly in one book do you get to see inside Jacob’s head. But it’s Edward and Jacob (both proactive characters) who sell the story to fans, not Bella. Are you on Team Bella? Point proven. The secondary protagonists steal the show. I think that story would be a lot more interesting if Bella was a bit more Buffy.

Camy Tang has a really great article on proactive characters if you want to read more on the topic.

What about you? Do you agree that proactive characters are more interesting than reactive characters? Who’s your favorite character – are they reactive or proactive? What about your main protagonist?

Lisa

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Research: Getting The Details Right

Ever picked up a book and enjoyed the storyline right up until that moment when the author gets something wrong? It’s a writer’s job to get the details right. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, one small detail out of place or incorrect can ruin the story or your credibility.

Research  – how and where do you do your research?(Warning: Copyright activists may be angered)

library stacksPublic Libraries

We love public libraries – especially for genre and historical research. When you’re thinking of marketing or writing in a new genre, do yourself a huge favor and go pick up a number of books published in that genre, written in that time period, about that topic. See how other writers are describing things, weaving details in, etc. If you’re fortunate enough to live near a university take advantage of their library. If you’re alumni you can often borrow for free, but even if you’re not, an afternoon in the stacks with a photocopier card can work miracles.

The Wonders of Google

Google Earth let me, from my living room, walk down the streets of Providence, RI for a mss I was working on. I’ve studied the topography of Southern Ukraine. If you’re writing about a place you can’t visit yourself, or have never been to, definitely check out this tool.

Google Books is awesome! They have so many out-of-print and history books cataloged – I’m still amazed by this tool. Always check Google Books before paying ridiculous amounts of money for older or hard-to-find books from Amazon.

I’ve spent a lot of time with Google Translator reading websites in Russian (don’t ask). Sometimes the best references are from the source country. Don’t let a language barrier stump you. Super cool tool.

Blocked from reading a really relevant journal article because you don’t have a subscription? Put the name of the article in quotation marks and Google the title of the article. Usually, it’s been published somewhere else online for free.

Online sources

A word of caution researching online: anyone anywhere can post anything online as though they’re an expert. Always double-check your sources. A general rule I use is to see that same information posted in 3 unique places (not just others copying verbatim the information I’m looking at). The exception to this rule is when I’m looking at government websites (usually signified with a .gov at the end of the url) or a university website (.edu at the end of the url) and credible non-profits (.org often). Even Wikipedia, which I know gets used a lot for research, is only as reliable as the people posting there. If there isn’t original sources listed as references, be cautious.

In-Person Interviews

There are some things you just can’t learn off the Internet or from a book. Interviews give you insider information that people outside of that profession wouldn’t know.

For instance, I have a manuscript in a drawer, and if I have anything to say about it will never see the light of day, but the main character was a firefighter (yeah – it was a romance). So, I went to the local fire hall and had the ‘longest tour in history.’ I spent a whole morning chatting with firemen. They let me feel their hands (don’t laugh – the feel of a man’s hands are an important detail in romance), they let me try on their suits, they told me stories. It was awesome. They were ecstatic to have an audience so interested in what they do. They invited me back, and the second time they were prepared with videos on their laptops. They told me how to set plausible fires. Great stuff. Lots of professionals are more than happy to let you into their world.

Email

Most professionals and experts are more than happy to answer your questions. But don’t waste their time, do your homework first. Don’t ask them questions you can easily enough find the answers to online. Save the questions you can’t find answers to, and ‘what-if’ scenarios for these people.

Facebook

Facebook is a really great tool for finding sources. I’ve often posted that I need to interview someone who’s done this or is an expert in that – and through six-degrees of separation my Facebook friends always come through. Also, when I do an interview part of my due diligence as a freelancer is to Google the person. I creep their Facebook page to see if what they’ve told me jives with their profile information.

Sweat The Small Stuff

The little cultural nuances and details make a story come alive. For instance, as a Canadian, I can tell right off if the writer talking about being in winter has ever experienced winter (or at least, not done their research). There’s an appreciation for winter born out of living in temperatures so cold the seats in your car have no cushion, the outer fabric of your winter parka crackles, and your hair turns brittle with frost a minute after you leave the house.

Getting these little details wrong will jerk your reader out of the story. Think of all your senses and find someone who’s experienced it to give you those rich details if possible. If you’re writing a historical, talk to the local historical society or reenactment group. There’s nothing like sweating all day at an interpretive site in period clothes (made of wool) to give you a bit of historical empathy.

What about you? Has a writer’s lack of research jerked you from a good story? What lengths have you gone to in the name of research?

Lisa

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

6 Steps for Your Final Edit

how to edit a novelLast week, Lisa covered the big picture edit to take your manuscript from first draft to second draft. But now you’re ready for the final pass before you send your novel off to an agent, editor, or publisher. Here are the seven steps you need to take to make sure your story is ready to go.

(1) Look at Every Scene and Ask, “Did I Wimp Out?”

The scene might be structurally fine, it works, but your instincts tell you that something is off. You copped out when writing it. You know this scene could be better if you wrote it differently, but that different, better way involves a lot more work.

A “wimp out” scene can happen during the first draft when we’re focused on making our word goals or we’re tired or we’ve lost sight of the overall flow of the plot.

Don’t be fooled into thinking a scene isn’t a “wimp out” scene because it has conflict either. It might very well have conflict, but it doesn’t have enough conflict or it doesn’t have the most effective conflict.

In our novel, we have a scene where Zerynthia, our main female character, goes to the temple to worship, only to discover that the altar to the deity she’d worshipped her whole life had been replaced by a shrine to another goddess. It worked as a scene, but on second read-through, Lisa and I agreed it was fluffy. I rewrote it to show not only the emotional effect on Zerynthia, but also the dark, disturbing aspects of this new goddess and her worshippers.

(2) Check for POV Mistakes

POV mistakes sneak in when we’re trying to convey information. If your character doesn’t see it, think it, feel it, taste it, touch it, or smell it, you can’t describe it. (For more on POV, check out our posts Problems with Point of View and 5 Tips for Writing Deep POV.)

In the first draft of chapter 2, we wrote about Zerynthia, “She pushed against the familiar binding constricting her breasts, her hair in a warrior’s tail down her back.”

But why would Zerynthia be thinking about her hair in a warrior’s tail down her back? We’d meant it as her doing a check list, but it wasn’t coming across that way to readers.

We changed it to “She pushed against the familiar binding constricting her breasts, and tightened the tie fastening her hair in a warrior’s tail down her back.” A small change, but it erased the POV violation.

A second aspect of POV is to consider the speech patterns and word choices of each character. Would he use that word? Would he say it that way? Our characters are not us, and we need to be careful to be true to their voice when we’re in their POV.

For example, if a character speaks in short choppy sentences, a scene written in their POV shouldn’t have long, flowing sentences that pile phrase upon phrase. Scenes in their POV don’t need to replicate exactly the character’s speech patterns, but there does need to be a sense of consistency.

(3) First Lines and Last Lines

I’m sure you know the first line of your novel needs to grab your reader and pull them in. But each chapter needs to do the same thing to a smaller degree.

In her post this Monday, Kristen Lamb wrote “Never leave a place to put a bookmark.” The end of a chapter is the logical place for someone to set your book aside until later. Use your last line and first line to push them over that potential rut so they can’t slide in a bookmark.

Copy and paste all the first and last lines in your novel into a Word document and look at them isolated from the context. Would they make it so that you couldn’t put the book down?

(4) Eliminate Weasel Words

Weasel words are slimy and slippery and lack all value. If you can cut a word from a sentence and the meaning doesn’t change, get rid of it. (Word’s “Find” feature works great for this.)

  • that
  • really
  • great
  • just
  • a lot
  • interesting
  • wonderful
  • very
  • sure
  • often
  • usually
  • many
  • most

(5) Kill the Clichés

ClicheSite.com provides a listing of 2100 cliches, euphemisms, and figures of speech you need to murder. Unless you’re using them in a character’s speech as a way to define that character, find a fresher way to say it.

(6) White Space

Zoom out to about 50% (so that you can see two pages at a time) and scroll through your book looking for big blocks of text or areas where there’s too much white space.

Big blocks of text are a hint at slow spots, and too much white space in a row indicates you might be skimping on the description/setting or internal dialogue.

Fiction is about balance. If your novel runs at a harried pace the entire time, eventually your reader will feel the same as if they’re listening to a speech where the speaker is shouting the whole time. That’s no more effective than a speaker who’s always talking in a monotone. Vary your pace to keep them interested.

What last minute check do you just have to make before you send your “baby” off into the world?

Marcy

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.