Sometimes one of the greatest hurdles when it comes to writing a novel or short story comes from deciding the method with which to tell it. And although you’d think that was fairly straightforward, sometimes it’s not.
To get this out of the way, most stories are told from a point of view that we call “Selective Omniscience”. This is a form of non-participant third person narration in which the narrator knows everything that happens in your world, but chooses not to tell you it all. This is the style that all the Engen novels are written in to date, with the exception of select passages (ie: Mandy’s journal). In this, the narrator can skip time, go back in time, see what’s in a characters head, and switch the camera to a different narrator at any point it chooses.
It’s often confused with regular old Omniscience. The key difference is that with Omniscience, that narrator knows everything and actually tells you. This works for epics like the Odyssey and Beowolf, but not for everyday fiction. Can you imagine a murder mystery that started with the line: “David Nesbit looked suspicious, for he had just killed his wife Debra.”
It doesn’t work. So, our omniscient narrator is selective in what he tells us, for all our benefits. So, we’re clear on this.
Now before I get a bunch of hateful comments, I’m aware that this may not be the most used form of narration. Sorry if that was confusing. It’s simply the type I use most. There is a third type of non-participant narration that also gets used a lot called Objective narration, in which the narrator is basically a camera in the room that coldly and dispassionately records the events going on. This isn’t my favorite method by any means, but it will get the job done.
Other forms of narration exist in participant narration. This is when the narrator is actually a character in the story, and is typically told from the first person. It can be done via a major character (Bag of Bones) or a minor character (One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest). It doesn’t matter. It’s your story.
There are of course many sub-forms of narration I plan on tackling, like letter narration and monolog narration, but I just kind of wanted to introduce this more academic explanation early on. The thing to remember here is that you aren’t limited. It’s your story and you can do, really, whatever you want with it. So go nuts.
Yes that’s a real term, and no I didn’t make it up.
K-Mart Reality is a funny term for something we all know very well: the inclusion of real-world name brands and products into your fictional setting to make your world more believable.
Nowadays people look at this stuff in movies and yell “product placement!” But I usually think these people are conspiracy nuts. While I know that product placement does clearly exist, sometimes it’s just the writers / set designers trying to make their story more real. Pepsi is everywhere, ergo if your world is noticeably devoid of Pepsi, is would seem weird.
**A note on the conspiracy nuts: I’ve actually had one claim that I got funding from Coke because I often mention that the girls of Coral Beach like drinking Cherry Coke… What the heck is wrong with these people?**
Regardless, K-Mart Realism is a good thing. It can suck your reader into a story and make your story real, and I employ it more and more.
Beyond that, using substitutes for real-world products can be very jarring and distracting for the reader. We’ve all read those futuristic novels set in the year 3000 where the characters are eating at an obvious McDonalds resteraunt that the author refuses to call McDonalds, and it just becomes irritating. Just call it McDonalds, you hippie. I can almost guarantee you that if fast food still exists in 3000 AD, so will McDonalds.
But I’m guilty of this myself, to a degree. When I first started publishing books in 2007 I was worried that if I mentioned certain products a giant lawyer foot would descend from the heavens and smash Engen Books to bits. But that’s just not the way it works. Like with product placement, retailers like getting their products out there.
Two examples: In the first Black Womb novel, Xander and Mike seem to be obsessed with a game called Marble Mutant Warriors… And just about every 20-something man out there understood that this was the Marvel Superheroes arcade game. I was worried Marvel would be pissed… But why would they have been? I’m showing people loving their games and characters.
Another example is in Roulette. Mandy Peterson is trying to get the gang to go to a movie. The movie playing is a triple feature, all three Defense Command movies.
Now, this is both a cover-up and a nod to my friend and college, Kenneth Tam. He writes a series of fictional memoirs called the Defense Command series, and even within the series, the events happening have been made into movies. So I thought that would be a fun nod. However it came from my not wanting to mention the Terminator franchise. That’s why she says the third movie sucks. Because Rise of the Machines sucked.
So anyway, this is my plea to you all that K-Mart reality is a good thing. Honestly and for true. Get out there and use it to make your world a more believable place, because if we buy into your world, any other madness you throw at us will be accepted.
Okay, so when we left off last time I’d just started plotting Black Womb (the character). At this point though, he was still just one character in a sea of characters I’d created. Then, like now, I’d had a deep-seated desire to be my own mini-version of Stan Lee, so I “canceled” Alexis Temple’s series at issue 100 and branched off into two or three separate series’ I started plotting right from issue one. So, one of these was Black Womb… Right?
No. Well, yes and no. It’s complicated. In my writing panels (both virtual and otherwise) I preach the need to keep an open mind about your characters. That maybe if you’re having trouble writing about some person or event that you just haven’t found your character.
Or maybe you have and you just haven’t realized it yet.
Originally there were lots of characters in my plot. I mean, a lot. Like thirty. And there was nothing to really distinguish Black Womb from the rest, except his personality. His personality was largely intact.
And now we get to the point everyone’s been waiting for: the explanation of the character’s appearance. And I know that every comic fan-boy ever is screaming “Venom, it’s a Venom ripoff” at the top of their lungs, but let’s take a look at the way Black Womb was originally presented:
He was a man who donned a black suit with slanted blue eyes that had claws and the ability to teleport from one fixed destination to the next via localized black holes that he creates himself. He got this power from an experiment involving black holes that went awry, resulting in the creation of the suit. So yes, he was initially inspired by a Spider-Man villain:
The Spot, from Spider-Man: the Animated Series
I’m not kidding.
Further inspiration came from multiple sources. And I do mean multiple. The slanted-eyes look I eventually adopted was inspired not by Spidey/Venom, but an indie comic called Grendel. I actually put a homage to that fact in the first book, in the character of Julian Grendel, so I’m honestly very surprised when nay-sayers don’t get the connection. It’s called Google, people. Look it up.
That said, I’ve never read an issue of Grendel. But I did read the novel Past Prime, which featured illustrations by Wagner and those wonderful slanty-eyes, in the same black-and-white style I would later adopt.
Other inspiration came from recurring nightmares I had as a child, the black man dreams. For those unfamiliar there’s a great discovery channel program on it, but basically its a form of Hag-dream where one is attacked by a shadow-man, or a man made of shadows. I had these hideous night-terrors up until the point I started writing Black Womb, and attribute the writing to my taking control of this particular demon. Ignoring that though, these two factors combined to create the look and feel of Black Womb.
So, I went on plotting my major/minor superhero epic. In these days the Womb had a much gruffer personality, and I had fun hinting that the reason for this was a troubled past, but never revealed it. Also around this time I started to realize I had made him too powerful, and kept running into the “Superman problem” where the character cannot easily be beaten. So I took a page out of DC’s handbook and retconned the character into something more akin to the version we see today.
Around this time Marvel published a very important series called Origin that controversially chronicled the true origin of Wolverine. At the same time, the tv series Smallville was starting to make it big, so there was a lot of superheroes getting their origins told. Taking this into account, I plotted a flashback miniseries that told the origin of Black Womb when he was still in high school.
And there it was. A month or so later, for reasons I can’t explain, I sat down at my desk and started to write a story, rather than just plotting one. I chose the origin story, because I’d liked it. I thought it was fun.
The intention was to only write that one and then skip ahead to the other plotted stories, but I never did. This was it. This was what I was doing now. The plotting stopped, and the writing began again.
This one will be short, I think. I’m not sure if it should go under Common Mistakes or not, but I’m putting it here.
I’ll get right to the point: look at the characters you’ve created. All of them. Pay particular attention to the secondary and tertiary characters. If you have two characters that provide the same function, one of them has to go.
It’s that simple. Let’s say your main character has two best friends who stick by him no matter what. They have the same skills, roughly the same attitude, and neither betrays him. That should be one character.
Just look at all the nameless yahoos who died in the first Matrix movie. That all should have been one character. I’m sure you can think of a lot of movies where multiple characters seem flat all at once (a lot of fantasy movies / books are guilty of this. If a hero leaves with a team of 12, only 6 get developed… So why weren’t the extra 6 exited out in the second draft?)
Another topic in this same vein is: if you have a secondary character that steals the show, get rid of them.
This is onl y true of single-lead stories. But if your lead character is constantly getting upstaged by a secondary one, that’s bad for your narrative. You need to make a choice: either get that character out, or make the story about them. I suggest taking them out and saving them for another project, but that’s just me. I like recycling. 😉
Anyway, so that’s some things to think about character. Hope it helps those who need help, and if that’s not you… Why are you reading blogs? Go write something. I can’t wait to read it.
Ever since last October with the release of Ignorance is Bliss and Infinity, Engen Books has been an international small press publisher. That term seems oxymoronic. Oh well.
Since then we’ve released four titles: the two listed above as well as Becoming and More Sci-Fi from the Rock. Two more are coming out at this year’s Hal Con: one new one (Inner Child) and one re-release (Compendium).
The move to the international stage meant a lot of changes for us. It put pressure on us to refine our editing process now that the whole world was watching. It made us more willing to expand our stable of authors so that we could produce more material on a regular basis.
It also meant we had to change our covers.
Our new printers / distributors do not print covers at the size our books were at before (pocket paperback). The smallest size they will go to is 5×8. We experimented with just keeping the cover design the same and enlarging it, but I’d been feeling insecure about the covers to the Black Womb series for some time, and this seemed like an excellent opportunity to rectify the situation. So, we hired an amazing young artist named Zach Aboulazm to paint the Infinity cover, and I set about designing the new standard for the Black Womb series. This is a very long introduction to a very short concept, but basically I’d like to share the way I design my covers, because I think it’s cool. Maybe you will, too.
So this is the first stage. This is just a sketch. We’re going to be looking at the cover of Ignorance is Bliss, which features Julie Peterson. I suppose from a marketing standpoint I should be doing Inner Child, but I like Julie. She’s one of my favorite fictional people. I like this sketch of her, she looks great. Very rarely do I feel I’m able to capture with a pencil what I create with words, but this is an example where I was pleased. Anyway, this is the original scan.
Next we clean up. Yah clean up! Let’s do the ten second tidy! Lol. I use two main programs for image exiting: Nero Photo Viewer (in edit mode) and Adobe Fireworks. For this stage I open the original scan initially in Fireworks and get rid of any grit or pencil lines along the edges, then I save and open in Nero and use the brightness/contrast to darken the lines and improve the quality of the image. It also brings out shadows that were there in the original sketch, but for some reason are lost in the scan.
(Edit: I should point out that in reality, there would be more than two images at this point. I re-save as a new file for every change I make, so that if I mess up I can easily go back.)
Okay, here’s the weird part. At least, I think it’s weird. It might be a normal method for image design, I don’t know, but I was never taught it. As far as I’m concerned I made it up myself.
First you need to decide what colors are going to be in the final image (in this case flesh tone, red, white, blue and brown). You open the second image in Nero and, using the duo-tone tool, create a version of the image for each color where the only colors are black and it. That’s a confusing sentence. There’s an example to the left. I’m only uploading the flesh tone version because to upload them all would simply be overkill.
So now you open up Fireworks and you create a new file with each of these colored images as a different layer. Then starting with the top layer you peel away any unnecessary image. For example, on the red layer I deleted everything except her lips. When done, you should have a flat image with all the colors where they should be, like this.
What’s the point of doing this? Well now I can remove each layer at will, creating artsy versions of the cover easily. I especially like a version where it’s just her hair and mouth, it looks great.
But from a more practical standpoint, I can now edit each color without affecting the other. I can shade each until I’m happy with it without harming the other factors. So here’s where I shade it and try to make the image come alive.
After this, it’s all practical. I love the image as is, but we’ve made a stylistic choice to keep some black and white element in from the old covers. I feel it harkens back to the old days of horror, those good old Twilight Zone episodes. So, we open the newly-shaded image file in Nero and convert to gray-scale.
Now we just open it up in Fireworks again and, using the blur tool, get rid of those obvious lines around her head. I feel this also gives it a painted look.
From here it’s simple. Once we’d decided on the new cover format (different color each time with a vertical window instead of the old horizontal ones), we just created a standard template for that and add it into it. The result is, in my opinion, a fairly cool cover to our first international title.
Let me know what you think, or if this method has a name.
Okay, so there’s only so much I can write “in order” as I’ve been doing. So far these Writing Process blogs have followed the basic process I go writing a manuscript. But once you get to the point that the first draft is done, what else is there? Well, lots. But we’ll get into that some other time.
What I’d like to do is go over the different methods I use to write. I’m going to go through them one at a time to avoid major confusion. Unlike what I’ve been doing up to this point (which I consider the most effective way to do things) these are the frills of writing… The extra stuff you can do if you feel like it to improve the way you write.
The first of these writing methods I call “Multiple Leads.” I imagine I didn’t invent it, and other people may call it something else. Feel free to add the real name in the comments below, if you’re smarter than me. All I know is, it’s a method of storytelling that I’ve found suits me well.
What it is, or what my definition of it is, is to literally have multiple leads in a story. To basically have three stories going on at one time, at all times. So this is a trick not for the faint of heart, or perhaps not for beginners. But I suspect that’s not the case. I think anyone would be able to do this, if they’d only give it a shot.
So let’s do an example. I do crime fiction, but you could do it for any genre I think. But for my benefit, we’ll use crime fiction as our example. Let’s say we have three characters: a rookie cop who has just been promoted to homicide, a district attorney in the middle of a messy divorce, and a normal Joe who stumbles upon a grisly murder and is unsure of if they should come forward or not, and his girlfriend thinks he doesn’t. So already we’ve got lots going on. Any of these plots could make up a whole novel… But we’re going to use them all at once.
What we’re going to do here is switch back and forth between the three. So Rookie-Lawyer-Bystander. Then repeat. Just start a scene, write it about the Rookie. Write the scene to it’s natural conclusion, doesn’t matter how short or long it is. Then write the lawyer, same deal. Then the bystander. Then repeat. Then keep repeating.
I know that seems trite, but honestly it works very well on multiple levels. If you’re the type who gets bored easily then switching between storylines will help you remain engaged in the story. If you’re the type who gets writer’s block easily, then switching to a new storyarc will give you a chance to get the problematic one straight in your head.
And I know what you’re thinking: how can three separate stories told from three different points of view make a novel?
Well the answer is that these stories are going to converge. Eventually the bystander is going to go to the cops with his story, and only the rookie will believe him. Or maybe he doesn’t come forward, and the genius rookie finds him. Either way, once their stories meet… Keep the pattern, except now both characters are in those scenes. So now it’s:
This will give the reader the illusion that the story is picking up pace.
So eventually these two might branch off into separate scenes again, but usually once two characters / plots mesh up like this they tend to want to stick together. And I mean that. The plots will almost demand that you keep the characters in scenes together. Eventually, as any Law & Order fan knows, they’ll have to get the lawyer involved. Now we’re into the climax and it’s all one big scene, and you just go crazy. Combining the three plots into a dovetail in this way is exciting to read, and gives the impression we planned it all along… Even though we may not have. Sometimes we did and sometimes we didn’t, but having say the Lawyer there all along rather than just dropping her in in the third act makes you seem the better writer.
I know it seems formulaic, but I find it works. Not only that, but remember it’s a first draft you’re penning. When you go through it for a second draft you’re going to feel that there should be another bystander scene added that won’t fit the pattern. And you’ll find one of the Rookie scenes useless and delete it. So by the time the novel gets into the reader’s hands, the pattern won’t be noticeable. Trust me.
And remember, this can work with anything. Romance, Scifi, doesn’t matter.
So that’s Multiple Leads. I hope that if you try it it works well for you, as it has on occasion for me.
Let me know how it goes!
Never Look Back
Okay, so we’re running on the assumption that you’ve finished your first draft at this point. Who knows, maybe you’ve stockpiled eight first drafts or so, sometimes that’s how it works. Either way, the question now is: what now?
Well, if it’s anything like my first few manuscripts, your first draft is a bloody mess that you love more than life itself, so you’ve got a big problem. You’ve got something in dire need of editing but that you’re too enamored with to look at objectively, and that’s good for nobody. So I think the first goal should be to put it in a drawer for 1-2 months and forget it exists. Start a new project. It’ll wait. So will we.
See? Now it’s two months later. Seemed like nothing, right? Right. So now it’s real simple: read the damn thing.
That’s it, just read it. Nothing fancy. You can do it on your computer or on a physical copy. I prefer to have a physical copy, a red Bic pen, and a cup of coffee (decaffeinated nowadays… People bug me.) But that’s me. Basically just take your manuscript to your reading space and read it. If you see errors, mark them with your little pen. But we’re not looking for them yet. What we’re looking for is things that MAKE NO SENSE.
They’re there. I don’t care how smart you are. You could be JK Rowling herself, I really don’t care. There are things in there that make no sense. I’ll give you a few tiny examples:
– In the first printing of Stephen King’s “The Green Mile,” there is a character bound with a straight jacket that wipes the sweat from his brow. That’s clearly impossible, and makes no sense. Now to me that’s small enough to leave, but the publisher actually recalled and reprinted the books over that little gaff.
– A personal one: in Black Womb, the characters spend the first chapter of the novel talking about a big party that will be at Julian Grendel’s house on Saturday. Problem is: the party is on Friday. That’s embarrassing, and will be fixed for the next release. But here’s the thing: that book has been out for 4+ years, and it was only last July that someone noticed. That’s frightening.
So there are errors. And I don’t even mean editing slips, I mean stuff that makes no sense. In the original draft of Infinity, Abby Fisher yawns and goes to bed right after seeing Hunter murder someone. Yes, seeing a grisly murder always makes my eyelids hang. So that’s an easy fix.
The big problem are the logic gaffs. You’ll notice them. There are points when you’ll be reading and just go: what the fuck?
The issue is that most people are so in love with their first draft and want to protect the integrity of it that they convince themselves it’s okay. They shrug and move on. It’s not okay. If you’re reading and you come across a whole section that doesn’t feel right, circle it with your red pen and write FIX THIS, YOU IDIOT across the top. Then when the whole thing has been read, look up those marked pages on your file and get to rewriting.
And I know your gut reaction. The book is like your baby, and you don’t want to mess with it. You’re worried that by screwing with it you’ll make it less than it was before. I can assure you that’s not true, but just to quiet your mind, create a folder on your computer called “first drafts”. Put a copy in there and never touch it. Now, edit the real copy to death.
I didn’t have someone to tell me this with Black Womb or Transformations in Pain, and I feel both books suffered for it. While people tell me that Black Womb is great, there’s a part of me that’s still nervous about seeing someone read it.
By Smoke and Mirrors I’d gotten over it. The first draft of that is NOTHING like the printed version. How different? I literally rewrote it scene for scene. I was that unhappy with the first draft. All the events are the same, not one sentence is.
So yeah, get going. Read it. Re-Read it. Read it until it makes sense to you, because if it doesn’t make sense to you it REALLY won’t make sense to readers.
But whatever you do, never throw it aside. No matter how much you get frustrated with your abilities while reading your manuscript, never give up. The fact that you can see your errors means you have the skill and intelligence to fix them, just keep plugging.
It’s the people that can’t see them I worry about.