Traveling towards the novel

Story tellers usually start small. I did this with little sketches referred to as flash fictions, often under 500 words. I won money in contests and published some of these. I began receiving the response, ‘this intrigues me but I need to read more of the story.” So, I added detail and created more of a set up for the final twist.. This moved my work into the 4000 to 5000 word short story category. Then, some stories burst the expected maximum of 7500 words. But, I still wasn’t ready to tackle the full length novel.

When reading a short novel entitled Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori, I noted that each chapter resembled its own short story. These were not thrilling stories, but ones that gained my interest as I saw the secrets of a family uncovered. First there was the wife who committed suicide, then the daughter who silently mourned her, followed by the husband who was unsuccessful in hiding his mistress, and finally the mistress who grew miserable after becoming his new wife. In vain she attempted to eradicate every remnant of the prior wife. Of course, the first wife’s daughter still remained, and this child grew stronger, leaving her family and learning that she could risk loving someone as her mother did. I begin to sense that these secrets might be the same as people I knew in my own life.

The difficulty in moving to the novel could be spanned by a series of connected short stories. However, this could not be a collection of incongruent tales. The stories had to deal with the same characters, move in a chronological sequence, and achieve a goal–the resolution of the main problem.

When novels were published in periodicals a chapter at a time (think Dickens and Twain), the author had to know the eventual direction that the plot would take. Most of the time, the ending was already set up before the story was pitched to the magazine. However, after the major conflict appeared, successive chapters might weave in and out of different characters’ lives. These could be entertaining on a weekly basis. But, if a person binge read all of the periodicals, this meandering technique becomes frustrating, if not downright irritating.

So how does one transition from writing the arc of a short story to writing the arc of a novel ?

The readers need to see the protagonist’s normal world and the conflict arising early in the novel, just as in the short story. Then, the protagonist reacts to a rising crisis and makes a choice that reveals an important trait in the novel. This kind of character growth may never exist in the short story. Also, the crisis is not a single one in the novel; it is introduced as small problems that continue to grow with each chapter. As the novel progresses there are waves of relief and increased tension. The major problem expands until the protagonist hits a point of no return, followed by complications and a descent into the depths. The protagonist must arise from the bottom to reach the final goal. Also, the novel has a concluding chapter, or two, describing what happens after this.

With each of these steps determined, creating chapters in short story form to piece together a novel is still not easy. But stick with it; the journey for the main character is also a fulfilling one for the author.

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The secret to naming characters

Writers seek every secret advantage that they can to make characters appealing. Choosing a good name for the character is supposed to confer one of those advantages. The only rules I see for naming a fictional person is to make it match the person and make it pronounceable. I’ll deal with the second rule, first.

Readers may not be comfortable discussing your book, if they are unsure how to pronounce the characters’ names. I used the slightly obscure Swedish name, Tove, for a female character and found initial readers were embarrassed because they didn’t know if it rhymed with dove or clove. Actually, it didn’t rhyme with either. Tove is pronounced To-vay, which may have sounded beautiful rolling off my tongue, but eventually I gave in and changed it.

Typically, I use uncommon, but not bizarre names for my major characters based on the time period of their life. As most of my writing is set in the late 20th and early 21st century they may receive one that is a little old-fashioned. However, people assume information based on their own background no matter when a story is set. In a series of short stories occurring in the late 1990’s one main character is a male child named Walt who owns a Gameboy. Some people thought he was living in the 1950’s or was an older man just because of the out-of-date name. They ignored what they knew about gaming systems or events in the late 1990’s. My take away from this experience is that the right name may depend on the experience of the reader.

The question continues to arise about naming characters in science fiction and fantasy. I often hear the old adage applied to that genre–invent a name that matches the character. That often means creating a name based on Germanic languages. Darth Vadar means dark father and Mordor sound like murder. However, the world is full of other languages from which we can borrow sounds for unique, but still pronounceable, names. Basque and Banjar are two of my favorites.

The only research I have come across on the sound of names found across cultures is the bouba/kiki effect. Wolfgang Köhler (a German speaker) tried to determine which speech sounds were matched to specific shapes across areas speaking various languages throughout the world. The “kiki” sound is associated with sharp pointed shapes, but often used in female names like Kitty. The “bouba” sound matches bulgier and rounder shapes, and the sound is often attached to male names like Bubba.

A shortcut for choosing names for fictional characters from another world is to select names that are similar to common names, and then switch out a pair of letters. However, no matter what name you create for a science fiction or fantasy character, it will probably be a real word or name in some language. So, Google the invented name (just like you do for your own) to find out what it really means and avoid later embarrassment.

As you are writing your fantasy/science fiction novel, choose common names as placeholders for efficiency’s sake, and to take the load off the spell checker. When you determine the real name that matches your character, use the search and replace function. However, avoid names with diacritics (accent, cedillas, etc.) because this can create more nightmares preparing your manuscript than you can imagine.

So what is the secret to naming characters? There actually is none. As long as the name is not outrageous we will remember Anna Karenina, Fitzwilliam Darcy, and Atticus Finch not because their names appeal to us, but because the characters are compelling.

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Real characters

The difference between being believable and being realistic may not be that different between works of fantasy and novels about “real life.” Books about life as we know it are often not realistic but contain an adrenaline-charged or romanticized version of our world. This kind of fiction includes impossible coincidences and people with characteristics or abilities that may exist in less than one percent of the population. In thrillers and mysteries, the reader is often expected to suspend disbelief just as much as when reading science fiction and fantasy. 

However, in fantasy, science fiction, alternate history and other “unreal” genres, the author is expected to create a set of rules for his world. The readers need a story that is believable despite existing in another time or universe. This semblance of believability connects it to our world, so the novel does not read as a digression into nonsense. The key to this is creating limitations.

Assume that you want one of your characters to be able to read or even control the minds of other characters, but you don’t want that character to be too powerful. The key to that is including limitations that are common occurrences. For example, listening to one person is easy, at least for a while. Hearing five or six people chatter at the same time leads to the inability to comprehend them, and maybe a massive headache. Hearing the constant thoughts of that many people would likely drive someone insane. This would require withdrawing from a crowd or shutting down this subliminal communication. Limitation to the very unreal ability to read or control minds could be similar to those for hearing and comprehending people that are speaking.

Limitations are just as applicable when writing believable mysteries and thrillers. Creating events viewed through the lens of reality may slow down the action, but more action does not necessarily lead to more tension. The destination of a trap door or the conclusion to a car chase may be in question the first time this device is used. But after the second time a character faces that same situation, readers might start yawning if they see it again. The character’s inability to know how to respond is what builds tension.

I’ve sometimes heard authors claim that characters “take on a life of their own” and start making the choices that they want. That could be the cue that a character is not interesting because he does not have to struggle enough. The writer is still the creator who decides what the character will and can do. The author still weighs which actions would be best for the story and decides what goes onto the paper or into the computer. Characters, like children, need to face limits to grow.

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How I Judge Books

People are supposed to judge books by the cover, by the blurbs and by who the author is. I have favorite books with unappealing covers, done in an out-of-date style, or an old illustration slapped on the front. I tend to avoid books in which the author’s name is larger than the title. That’s a lesson I learned after picking up a few of those and being so disappointed that I did not bother to finish them. Maybe the authors had produced better quality at one time, but fame or the quantity of books they pumped out, resulted in a negative effect on that quality.

Rarely do I pay any attention to blurbs, unless one happens to be written by someone whose judgment I trust. (There are only a handful of people I trust to know what I like to read.) If I peruse a book that interests me, I do not read the first pages. But I choose randomly, often a section in the middle of the book. I don’t expect the text to grab me immediately, but a good author is able to be engaging throughout the book and not just in the first chapter.

Finally, I don’t really pay attention to the author’s ethnicity, age, or gender, or even the year that the book was written.

Years ago, in the main Cincinnati Library, I picked up The Idiot because the title intrigued me. At that time, I was young, not well read, and still reading the first chapter to evaluate books. As I read this one the conversation between the characters intrigued me—a man who had been isolated for years and another so infatuated with being in love that he was dangerous to the object of his love. I had never heard of Fyodor Dostoevsky before. Yet, reading that book convinced me that it was worth my time to read others by him.

Recently in an online class, I asked an American Asian author why he was so intent on the idea that knowing ethnicity, gender, and age of the artist were as important as knowing what the author wrote. He indicated that knowing the background information about the author was necessary to interpret the works correctly. If that is true, I wasted years reading books that I didn’t realize were written by Europeans, Africans, Central and South Americans, and Asians. I didn’t study the authors’ backgrounds first. I decided if I liked their work based on their actual writing.

Having to learn about the author doesn’t make me think more highly of their work. A good writer reaches for universal themes. The readers should be able to bring what they have as human into the writing in order to gain something from it. If I have to know about the author’s background in order to appreciate the book, then the author is not really doing their job.

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Play the words well

Mastering literary devices is like playing an instrument – you must practice improving your performance by working on only a few songs at a time. So how do you practice?  First, start with your own writing. Check to see which devices you are already using. For convenience I usually categorize them according to the following types.


Using “musical words” is selecting words for their unique sounds, such as sloshing and crackling, which are examples of onomatopoeia. Long words, like onomatopoeia, seem elegant to the ear, even if their meaning is not. Short words, especially those ending in consonants, have a sharper, slangy ring.

Consonants are not to be confused with consonance which is another device defined as repeating the same consonant within a word, such as spinning and ringing. If you repeat the first sound (for example, special spinning), that is called alliteration. But, don’t worry if you cannot remember these terms, just remember to repeat sounds occasionally for a poetic effect.


Music is recognizable as certain melodies because of repeated sound and rhythms. Repetition can either move the story along or bring it to a screeching halt. Repeating the same sentence structure makes reading easier and picks up the pace. But, too much of this and the writing seems utterly childlike.


A good melody is also marked by different speeds. Short sentences with direct verbs can be the antidote to a dragging pace. However, few readers can stomach an entire work of short choppy bursts. When you drive a car, alternating between the gas and brake pedals jerks the car uncomfortably. That’s not true of writing. Inserting a five word sentence in the middle of long ones creates an interesting contrast.

Word choice

These literary terms bring us to the last device we will discuss, which is diction. Diction is demonstrated by a distinct choice of words, and the most obvious being the level of formality. If you use colloquialisms or street slang for effect and you are employing diction as a device. Use of passive is also part of diction. Don’t be so quick to condemn passive verbs. They have their place. They create a style that is gentler and less accusatory than its counterpart. “The door was left open, again.” is a bit kinder than “You left the door open, again.”

As you continue to layer on literary devices you will find a piece will reach a saturation point. You don’t want to force the reader to slog through your text. Learning how to handle and apply literary devices with the right touch will help you to “play the words well.”

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The dance of suspense

Suspenseful writing is a dance between plausibility (what makes sense to readers), and the unexpected. Not just any unexpected events, such as inheriting a million dollars, but ominous ones, such as discovering that the previous person who inherited that same fortune did not manage to survive the six weeks. It is a dance because that kind of revelation causes the reader’s adrenaline to rise, but after the initial thrill, it will start to waiver again. The unexpected events must be carefully paced, without seeming predictable.

Suspense often originates from hints of what the unknown holds. But that unknown has to make its presence known to the readers somehow. What are some techniques to do this?

Showing the antagonists viewpoint in addition to that of the main character works to build suspense, if it is done sparingly. The reader will tend to agonize over the person lurking in the dark as the protagonist arises from bed to start a morning routine, unaware of the danger. Only showing the viewpoints of the two characters creates a cat and mouse game. Increase this number of viewpoints, and the reader will have to start keeping track of the characters. This may lead to a more cerebral and less emotional, and therefore less frightening, view of the situation.

A paranormal vision, in which scary but clouded glimpses of the future appear, is a frequently used technique. Perhaps too frequently used. Many readers realize this is an easy kind of foreshadowing that occurs when not much is happening in the actual story. Therefore, using premonition requires some finesse. If the foreshadowing is too heavy handed, it smacks of amateurism–especially if a horrifying vision is simply used as a kind of jump scare.

Even though the reader’s adrenaline may rise with this first supernatural vision, it will lower with each repetition. Limit the amount of time spent on the visions by limiting their number, rather than having a lot of short vague ones. It should leave the reader with some apparently concrete information but still questioning how events will all unfold. The response of the character to the premonition can show how unnerving it is.

The writer has to continually raise the threat, which usually means outlining the plot to plan the rising arc of danger. This might occur if the character misinterpreted the vision or it turned out to be reality and not a premonition. But, you can’t use those twists more than once, either.

As the author you know very well what will happen. So, expect to recruit a second and third, or even fourth person, who is ignorant concerning you and your plot, to read your work. Take their critiques seriously. As the author creating suspense, you are always “the man who knows too much.”

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Searching for the perfect quest

A friend of mine who had a desk cluttered with Star Wars memorabilia, raved about each movie. Yet, she admitted sheepishly that she never finished Lord of the Rings because she just couldn’t get into it. When I read the trilogy, it was so popular that I couldn’t get the first book from the library. I started with the second, and then finished the third book. Because I was enamored with this tale, I went back and read the first, and found it still thrilled me, even though I knew how it would end.

 Obviously, you can’t write the perfect quest for all people, because their expectations differ. But most quests, even those not in fantasy or science fiction, share similarities. First is that the trip is not aimless, but has a goal, whether it is reached or not. Sometimes the treasure that the adventurers seek, is not the one they bring back to their home. Some things are more valuable than wealth.

The goal may be one of the following:

  • Find a fabled treasure or another rare thing, such as a substance to stop a plague or prevent another kind of disaster (very common).
  • Locate a new place to live; often the initial part of the story describes the conflict that led to the need to find a new home (somewhat common).
  • Find a special person, or kind of people; the most frequent source of this quest is discovering that they have something, often knowledge, that the main character needs (also somewhat common). Less frequently found is the protagonists who seeks people to give them an item, or information, that they desire.
  • The idea of taking an item to its destruction, as in Lord of the Rings, or finding an item that must be destroyed is not used often but worked well for Tolkien. You may also be able to invent a quest around a more unique storyline.

No matter which you choose, the writer must indicate the value of the quest before the characters start trekking for weeks on end. Which brings us to the next problem. What kind of trials and obstacles will your characters face? This requires a variety of trials over a period of time, and not just repeated fights and skirmishes. The danger can come from surviving dangerous terrain, severe weather, wild animals, or the deceit of friends, as well as armed enemies.

How do you find inspiration for all of these ideas? Borrow events, from the present, from past history and from mythology. Myths are not always restricted to ancient civilizations. People continue to produce and be enthralled by them. (Why do you think the superhero movies are so popular?) Many secretly have a grand desire to be strong enough to be in charge of their destiny. You don’t just see this train of thought in the old myths. It’s quite popular in predictions of scientific advancements for the future.

However, you’ll need to make sure your characters are not that strong. Otherwise their ability to defeat any obstacle unassisted will quickly become boring.

 Are you ready to start your search for the perfect quest?

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The human factor in science fiction

Hardcore science fictions readers may mourn the loss of science fiction writers whose keen insights led them to glimpses of the future. Jules Verne created novels in which characters sailed under oceans throughout the world and traveled to the moon. Ray Bradbury with his prescience about technology predicted wall size TVs in a kind of theater room and “clam shells” that a people stuck in their ears to replace the world’s noise with music in Fahrenheit 451.

However, the past writers were taking potshots when guessing about new technology. No one has traveled to the center of the earth, and considering the heat and pressure that exist there, no one probably ever will. Neither have we seen advancements to colonizing Mars or creating androids indistinguishable from humans as recorded in The Martian Chronicles.

We have yet to see humans on another planet or a computer with truly independent thought processes, even though Arthur C. Clarke wrote stories making these events seem plausible. Tales of space travel to distant solar systems (or even galaxies) are entertaining. However, the amount of time it takes for light from these places to grace our skies is mind boggling. If is doubtful humans will ever be able to span these distances. Therefore, travel in outer space is being usurped by journeys into inner space. The new frontiers in science-fiction literature are virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

The VR and AI that exist today are used in very prosaic ways, such as recalling steps while working as a mechanic or teaching your phone to recognize your voice. These are not exactly thrilling plot lines. Jaron Lanier, one of the founders of virtual reality, argues that computers will never become masters of matter and life. As humans we don’t have the intelligence to produce ones that run programs that are not cumbersome and error-prone, because we are error-prone. Science fiction authors are again taking potshots at predicting the future by creating virtual reality and artificial intelligence that is sophisticated far beyond human cunning.

The real threat, according to Jaron Lanier, is the belief that our collective wisdom can spawn ideas superior to that of a few individual humans. The “hive mind” relieves individuals of responsibility for actions. A pack of anonymous people online can turn into a vicious mob. So, if an author is looking for a new twist on the use of artificial intelligence in fiction, one only has to look as far as the errors made by masses of mislead people in the past. It may not be the dangerous self-perpetuation of artificial intelligence that drives the new science fiction plot towards the crises. AI only amplifies the biases that humans already have. Crowds using their new technology in recklessly irresponsible ways are likely to be the villains of the new breed of science fiction novels.

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Don’t let your main character get away

One item that agents and editors expect—or demand—is that the author provides enough about the main character to draw in the reader from the very beginning. They don’t want a detailed description of appearance, education or employment. However, the text should reveal the character’s name, age, sex, major motivations and level of savvy. 

The other requirement for submissions is that the novel open with the major character or a close friend on the edge of death—or at least in a volatile conflict that cannot be easily resolved. The beginning must drop readers into action to keep them going forward for pages to uncover how this event will transpire. If the author offers a promising hook, and then retreats into a backstory, that is a bad sign.

Both of these techniques are assumed to engage readers. The reason why authors struggle with beginnings is due to the difficulty of doing both at the same time.

When the inciting incident occurs immediately, such as on the first page, the movements and thoughts of the main character focus on the goal of getting out of trouble. There is scarce time for self-reflection. Revealing the protagonist so the reader can relate requires internal thoughts, conversations with others, or responses to more normal troubles. It’s a poor tactic to simply dump information about a character’s motivations or level of sophistication. Doing this right consumes precious reading time.

I experience this conflict of expectation. I sensed that my decision to not reveal the gender of a child in a story told from the first person until the end was a point of contention for one prospective editor. For another not dumping a young adult protagonist into immediate danger meant nothing was happening.

In an attempt to show readers the inside of an adolescent named Mariela, I included interior thoughts in which she considered what her younger sister was likely to think. A beta reader dismissed this with, “That’s not normal in a teenager!”  

Of course, Mariela is not a normal American teenager, which is a major cause of the conflict. She takes her responsibility seriously as the “little mama” in her family. However, for the reader who is unfamiliar with Mariela’s culture, there is no time to follow this character around to demonstrate who she is. I must grab their attention by introducing danger immediately for such a person to remain interested.

So, what is to be done? Often the author is stuck with listing the character’s name, age, sex and major identifying traits within the first page while launching the action. There is no time for showing; I have to tell. At least, I should choose unique words and poetic phrases, so that this telling seems somewhat intriguing. Or, I could be brave and go against the current. I might spend delicious time to unfold my main character so that the reader has a deeper level of involvement as the threat looms on the horizon. Most often, I choose the second path.

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The illusive pervasive theme

A website for identifying my writing doppelganger named Cory Doctorow when I used a sample from a short story and Kurt Vonnegut when I used one of my articles. As I tested different parts of a novel, the analysis said my writing was like Stephen King, Agatha Christie, and Cory Doctorow, who showed up more than any other author. I do a bit of blogging and have just begun to dabble in science fiction. But, the website uses measurable writing traits such as syntax, frequency of parts of speech, length of sentences, and reading level. My content is not the same as his. According to critique partners my fiction is closer to the work of Catherine Ryan Hyde or Melody Carlson.

My writing style is simple and straightforward with a few of my favorite nuanced words thrown in the mix. Some of these are higher level vocabulary. I tend to use phrases ironically and describe characters through their dialog. The style is not hard to read, even though I’ve been told by more than one person that it borders on poetic. However, I show much more than I tell, which means longer amounts of text are required for each scene. Sometimes I feel like I must go back and carve my stories out of the monolith I have created.

Reader’s preferences are subjective. Readers of my short works either love them or ask to be told exactly what is occurring. This second group of readers struggle with understanding what others pick up easily. My challenge is to figure out what kind of person prefers my writing style and substance as this doesn’t seem to be defined by age group or favorite genre.

Finally, I settled on the idea of looking at the themes in my writing. Those are the cohesive elements found throughout my poems, short stories, essays and few longer works. The following were the themes repeated throughout my work:

· Becoming mature as an adolescent/young adult

· Adapting to not fitting in to society

· Repaying for the damage one has caused

· Dealing with atypical mental processing or personality disorders

· Sacrificing for another person/group of people

· Approaching old age and death as an adult

A theme is the underlying main idea that is integral to the story. It makes no statement and is not the same as didactic writing in which the reader is told what to think. People may not even consider the themes of their stories. But, they all have at least one, whether the author realizes it or not. So, take the time to review your work and discover the focus of your themes.

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