All posts by matthewledrew

Character Development 2: Extraneous People

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.

The MatrixJust 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.

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew

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International Covers the Engen Way

Ignorance is Bliss, 2010 edition, Matthew LeDrew, Engen BooksEver 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.

Julie Peterson, stage one
Julie Peterson, stage one

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.

Julie Peterson, stage two
Julie Peterson, stage two

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.

Julie Peterson, stage three
Julie Peterson, stage three

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.

Julie Peterson, stage four
Julie Peterson, stage four

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.

Julie Peterson, stage five
Julie Peterson, stage five

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.

Julie Peterson, stage six
Julie Peterson, stage six

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.

Julie Peterson, stage seven
Julie Peterson, stage seven

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.

Julie Peterson on the final, finished cover of
Julie Peterson on the final, finished cover of “Ignorance is Bliss,” 2010, Engen Books

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.

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew

My Writing Process 6: Multiple Leads

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:

Rookie/bystander-lawyer-bystander/rookie: repeat.

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
Matthew LeDrew

My Writing Process 5: After Drafting

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.

20110918-090139.jpg 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.

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew

My Writing Process 4: Writer’s Block

20110918-090527.jpg You still haven’t written anything yet? Dear Lord!… Don’t worry, I get that way too. It’s hard to talk about the writing process past the start of it… I mean, to an extent, if you plot: write till the plot is done. If you don’t plot: write till you feel you’re done. It sounds obvious, right? Yet the MOST ASKED thing at these panels is: how do you do it? I talk to hundreds of writers who start book after book and then abandon them 10,000 words in. One guy I told to publish them in an anthology called “unfinished tales”. He didn’t find it amusing.

But it’s a real question: how do we deal with writer’s block?

I think the first hurdle is to admit something. I’ve talked this over with many authors, and they all agree: there is no such thing as writer’s block. Writer’s Block is an imaginary illness made up by writers to make themselves feel okay about the fact that they aren’t producing jack shit. What the term should be is writer’s laze.

That’s right, writer’s laze. I get it, so do you. We’re lazy. Writers love being entertained. That’s why we do what we do. We entertain ourselves with our stories and are our own biggest fans. But sometimes it’s easier to be entertained than to be the source of it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been like: “It’s time to write… But wait! There’s a Criminal Minds marathon on!”

It happens to us all.

So when friends tell me they can’t write, I say bullshit. When they say they don’t have the dedication, I nod knowingly. If you’re writing, be prepared for the most time consuming job on the planet. It will absorb your every thought and spare moment.

To control this madness, I set myself at 2,000 words a day. If you’re just starting you can do 1,000, but 2,000 is a good number to be at. It keeps you engaged in the story each day but not so bad that you get burnt out.

And if you find you think you’re writing crap? Power through. Just keep producing that 2,000 words until your first draft novel is done. Fixing crappy scenes is what editing is for. And like with poker: you don’t count your money while sitting at the table, and you don’t edit while you write. Don’t even read while you’re writing.

Stick to this regimen, and you’ll be done before you know it.

And never look back.
Matthew LeDrew

My Writing Process 3: Story Arcs

Okay, this one is a little different. If you’re writing along with the posts then you’re already well into the first few pages of your novel, so this post is either going to come too early or too late, lol.

Basically, this is something I tend to cover in my typical, face-to-face writing seminars with Ellen Curtis and Kenneth Tam that tends to go over very well, so I’m going to try and duplicate it here.

There’s a way that I structure story-arcs for my series’, specifically the Black Womb series, and it’s served me very well. It’s a way of thinking about multiple story-lines and character arcs so that you can keep track of them all.

Please forgive my art, I’m not terribly talented as it is, and even worse when using the Draw! app on my iPhone. Hopefully this won’t be too confusing.

Story Arc Alright, so this one is fairly straightforward, yes? I hope so anyway. If not, blame me. This is supposed to be the storyarc for your novel. For those looking for the experience of an actual writing seminar, picture me scrambling madly while scribbling this on a dry erase board.

So, this black mark represents the story of your novel. As the line gets higher, so does the excitement of your reader. At least, that’s the hope. Then green mark represents the beginning of your story, and the purple one the end. See that red one? That’s the climax. In Back to the Future, it’s Marty rides the lightning back to 1985. In Almost Famous, it’s when the kid finally gets his interview with the rock legend. It’s the end of the story, really. Everything before it is buildup and everything after is cleanup. This is the moment your audience should remember.

Not marked here (sorry) is the inciting incident. Basically it takes place near the beginning of the story and is the question that is answered by the climax. In Black Womb it’s Jamie Dawkins’ death, and the climax is the revelation of he killer.

Story Arc But it’s not that simple, is it? Nothing really is. Some children’s novels are that simple (and that’s fine), but you’re writing an epic. You’re writing a goddamn masterpiece. In this next image, we again have that pesky black line representing your novel, but this time its got company. These are your sub plots. In this novel, we have three. They’re the green, pink, and purple lines. Going back to the Back to the Future example, it’s the romance between Marty and his Mom. Another is the romance between his Mom and George. A third is if Doc Brown will die or not. See? All these plots start at different times in the larger arc. They can also end at different times… Although if you can swing it so that they all end at once and dovetail together, it makes for epic storytelling. It doesn’t always work, but when it does both writer and reader feel great about it. It’s goosebump-inducing satisfaction to produce that kind of fiction.

Most novels are structured this way.

So, great! You’ve made an epic novel. Interesting characters, and wow that climax! All the plots converged at once!… What now? I mean, some people would just repeat the same formula and make another epic novel… And if you do that, move power to you. You’ll probably make more money than me, you little Stephen King in the making, you.

Story Arc But that’s not what I did. I prefer series’ to individual novels. So that’s what this next diagram is about. In this one the black arcs are still novels, but there are four novels in the series so far and they’re all connected by the orange arc: that’s the storyarc. I do this with Black Womb. The first three novels form a great little arc. Books four through seven form another arc I call “Peterson Syndrome”. Another good way to look at this diagram is like seasons of a television show. Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Each black arc is an episode, and when you put them all together they make a season, one BIG story. Like the Glory / Dawn arc in season four. Or the Dark Tower series, another great example. Remember that within each black arc there are multiple character arcs and smaller subplots. If possible, these novels should have a common theme. Theme isn’t necessary, but it’s nice. If possible the action should be upped with each additional book as well, until the last one is just an epic season finale.

Story Arc Okay, you’ve got your box set of like, four books. You can count yourself amount the Tolkiens and the Kings. Are you done? I’m not. The next stage of the game looks like this. The orange arcs represent the three to four book “seasons” that they did in the last sketch, now with a fancy purple line encompassing the whole thing. This is the series plot. Just like all other plots, it has a beginning, middle and end. It gets more and more exciting until it’s conclusion. This is he model I’m working with, remembering again that within each season are multiple novels and within each novel are multiple plots. This is a massive undertaking, and is the reason guys like Jay Paulin referred to people who start a series as “gutsy” in his review of my first book. It takes a lot of planning and even more work afterward.

Story Arc Here’s one that doesn’t quite fit with the rest. It’s basically the same as the last, but shows different character arcs. Here there are three, but if I had to map them all there would be hundreds. Let’s look at the pink one. Let’s call that Cathy. Maybe her main arc starts at book eight and ends around book nineteen. Or whatever. And each character could have more than one. So there are layers within layers of this.

There are other schools of thought of course. I feel like I’ve been preachy during this post, and if that’s he case it wasn’t intentional. Some plots follow a graph much closer linked to a three act structure. Some are all over the place, but honestly those tend not to do well. Sometimes they become cult classics, but it’s rare.

One example of a different sort is The Dark Knight. It used a plotting scale called “constant climax” which would look more like this:

Constant Climax Basically after that first, initial slow beginning it never stops. This is hard to do and requires meticulous planning. I have never seen this in a novel but would love to. It’s something I tried very hard to emulate in Becoming, the seventh Black Womb novel. Don’t think I quite hit the mark, but had fun doing it.

So these are plot arcs, or at least how I conceive them. I don’t often actually draw them, but I find it helpful to organize my thoughts by thinking of the plots this way. One of many compartmentalization tricks I’ve learned over the years. 😉

Hope this helped anyone who needs help.

Never Look Back,
Matthew LeDrew

Character Development 1: Developing your Lead

As a part of my series of Virtual Writing Seminars, I’d like to start a series of blogs on character development today. This series of posts has no definite end in sight, and may go on for quite some time. It will focus on how I develop characters both for a series and for a single novel or short story, and will hopefully give some insight as to why some insight into why some of your characters pop and others… Don’t.

With this post I’m going to focus on the most important character you’ll create: your lead. While other characters may be more entertaining or even interesting, your lead is the hook on which every other event in your story is hung. It’s his story (pardon the male pronoun… Nothing against female protagonists).

The first thing to make sure of is the your lead is three dimensional. I know that sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it’s not. A lot of books and movies feature one-note characters, and it absolutely drives me insane. Think of yourself. Do you act the same way towards your mother as you do your partner? Or to your friend? Or your boss? Of course not. We all wear different hats at different times, and so should your character. Sit down with a list of all your characters and figure out how your lead interacts with each of them. Does he love them? Does he hate them? Is he attracted to them? I don’t know. But you should.

This also leads into having the character fleshed out at the start of the story. It really draws a reader in when characters are fully formed, real people. Take Victor from Infinity. He’s enigmatic and we know little about him… But I do. I know everything about him. I even know where he went to high school. I’m not telling you that yet though… I simply know it ahead of time so that he can react appropriately to the situations I put him in. The result works well. There’s a reason we, as fans, love characters like Mal from Firefly and dislike characters like Bella from Twilight… It helps when the writers knows what they’re doing beforehand.

That said, a big part of your character is dialog. This is what makes your character believable, and almost all suspension of disbelief hinges on it. Nicolas Brenden once said of Buffy the vampire slayer that: “It’s realistic. Well, the things that happen aren’t realistic but the ways people respond to them are.” (I’m paraphrasing from memory, apologies if it’s off). What he’s saying is true: it doesn’t matter that a dragon just came out of the floor. If your character responds to it realistically it will be bought.

On the flip side, if you claim your character is a scientist and they get every scientific fact they say wrong, his (and your) credibility is gone.

Also, if you say they’re “grim” but all they do is joke around, you’ve undermined yourself there too. (side note: it’s better not to SAY your character is anything, just to let your reader decide for themselves… But that’s a rant for another time).

Another point is to not let them be passive. This is one that’s not so obvious. A lot of professional writers do this, myself included. I consider Xander (in the first Black Womb book only) to be passive. It’s something I’ve tried to resolve for the international release. For those of you who haven’t read Black Womb (what’s wrong with you? Lol) a good example is Jennifer Connoly’s character from The Strangers. These characters are frustratingly passive. They don’t affect the plot, the plot happens TO them. This isn’t just bad character development, it’s bad storytelling. Make the character the active part of the plot. Make their actions affect the story and the world around them. If it’s a crime story, have him hunt bad guys rather than simply react to their actions. If it’s a love story, make the character be proactive in his relationship rather than just reacting to their partner. This, above almost anything else, makes engaging stories.

Once that’s all done, be consistent in how you’ve portrayed them. Nothin comes out of left field more than a character acting in a way that doesn’t jive with the rest of what you’ve told us. That said, they can’t remain the same. The characters have to move over an arc. They have to grow and be different at the end of the tale than they were at the beginning.

Hopefully I haven’t been too overwhelming with all this, and that you’ve got a great character in mind. Don’t be afraid to base them off yourselves or even other characters in fiction either, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Hope your stories are coming along great.
Matthew LeDrew