Story and Characters: Love-hate affairs across cultures

Earlier this month I was introduced to the most successful German-language musical of all time, Elisabeth das Musical.

This fictionalized account of the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria has been translated into seven languages and seen by over ten million, although apparently never in the United States. It made me wonder why, since it has been successful not just in Germany, but Hungary, Russia, South Korea, and Japan. In fact, the cross-cultural adaptations are worth a study in themselves. Here is a multi-language compilation of the prologue. I’m particularly fond of the Japanese costuming. And here is the international trailer with an English introduction.

Personally, I love a good anti-hero and in this case that would be Death, not Elisabeth, the heroine of this story.

Having grown up in a culture similar to the one that Elisabeth grew up in, I’d like to share my take on this story.

Know then, that for most of history, people did not marry for romantic love. Most of those who ruled didn’t (I’m sure there were exceptions). The peasants, shop keepers, and nobles didn’t either, although they had, perhaps more freedom in that regard, depending on the time period, etc.

Today, we live in a culture rich enough to allow us to casually enter into marriage based on romantic love, with less thought given to the economics involved, than in the past. All it takes in most places in the US, is a drive down to City Hall or a Justice of the Peace, the payment of a fee, and you are married. Most people are free to fall in love and marry just for that. Whether it lasts or not is another matter. So, go into this knowing, that that was not the case in Elisabeth’s time, and it is not the case in most of the world even today.

My parents’ and grandparents’ generation in Communist Romania certainly thought of marriage in terms of economics, despite it being the 20th Century. Nobody cared about love. What did they care about?

Does he have a good, stable job?
Will he be able to support a wife?
Will he be able to support a family?
Is he husband material in other ways?
Is she wife material?
Can she have children?
What kind of mother will she be?
Do undesirable traits and behavior run in his or her family?
Can the families get along?

Living as part of an extended family that were always in your business, did not allow an unmarried man or woman the freedom to just fall for someone and call it done. Even if the respective families couldn’t stop you from marrying, they could certainly withdraw and refuse support, and often did. It was also not that unusual for the older generation (the grandparents’) to be responsible for child-rearing, and for younger cousins and sisters to be involved as well (as nannies and baby-sitters for girls must learn how to be mothers themselves some day), since the concept of a nuclear family was unknown.

And I can tell you without a doubt that the idea of living only for oneself, for one’s own selfish desire was not praiseworthy, was not encouraged, much less celebrated. In contrast, today, there are plenty of young men and women who pursue “their bliss” well into their thirties, often as a result of parental generosity.

Elisabeth (as portrayed in this musical) is in many ways a contemporary embodiment of what we so often see today. She is raised in an ideal environment, which, while desirable, does not reflect the reality of the world. One moment she swears off marriage for the freedom to do whatever she wants. The next, she’s fallen in love (at first sight no less) with the Emperor of Austria (a man intended for her older sister).

Then when she does have children, they are taken away from her to be raised by her mother-in-law. She fights to get them back, but then abandons them in retaliation for her husband’s unfaithfulness. Now, I realize that some of this is being done for story reasons, and that’s fine. Conflict, shattered expectations, and a character arc all demand it. Otherwise we’d have no Story, or at least not this story, and it is THIS story that is compelling.

Elisabeth sacrifices everyone (including her beloved son) for her own freedom, while at the same time enjoying an unearned material wealth. Audiences are drawn in and cheer on her declaration that she belongs only to herself.

While it’s interesting, and entertaining to watch the character arc, the love triangle between Elisabeth, her husband, and Death personified (and yes, I enjoyed the heck out of this play–I watched the German and Hungarian versions–and it’s in the “watch again” bin) there were so many times when I wanted to reach out and strangle her and shout “You are such a selfish, silly <insert expletive>!” Then I take a deep breath and remind myself that it’s a Story, it’s meant to be entertainment, and I should just enjoy it.

Which leads to “Why am I willing to watch this again, when I don’t particularly like Elisabeth as a person?” Yes, Mark Seibert as Death makes up for a lot, but he’s not on the stage that long. And it’s not just Seibert’s portrayal of Death, even though I’d jump at the chance to go see him on stage even if that meant actually going back to Europe. Kim Junsu’s portrayal of Death in the Korean version is just as good, if not better.

It’s the characters, stupid! Plot, logic, and inconsistencies matter not when the characters have you in their grip, just like with a book you read again and again, even though you know not just the ending, but every plot point along the way. It’s why I’m on a mission to watch the Japanese and Russian versions as well, provided I can find them.

Even the language barrier was not enough to dampen my enjoyment and I’m not a fan of theater in general. The fact that it was in a foreign language made it more interesting. I really admire the translators since they had to translate not just the words, but make the syllables fit, and oh, by the way, some of it still rhymes. Think of it this way. In English, “I” is one syllable; same in German, Hungarian, and Russian. But in Japanese, “I” is “watashi(-wa)” which is three or four, in Korean it’s “naneun” also three. From what I saw of the subtitles, they did it while preserving context in most cases. It’s shown particularly well here, in a multi-language compilation featuring several of the actresses portraying Elisabeth during the 20th Anniversary Tribute. Notice how the song smoothly flows from one language to the other (I identified German, Dutch, Korean, and Japanese. Finnish might also have been in there, although I didn’t verify it).

As a writer, I also appreciate how well the Story (not the plot) delivered a highly satisfying ending.

When it was all over, I asked myself, was this a romance (i.e. it had a happy ending) or was it a tragedy? And the answer is, it was both. The climax was a tragedy, but the denouement was a happily ever after. Yeah, that’s right. THIS and the compelling characters is why Elisabeth das Musical is such a hit.

Now I’m off to add “learn more about the Habsburg Empire” to my ever-growing list of stuff I’ll probably never get around to. I really do wish they’d have spent more time on this part of history when I was going to school.

One final thing. The story shows the rising nationalism of the time period. I believe it is historically accurate. If you’re going to get offended by the appearance of National Socialism and its anti-semitism (slogans, symbols, etc), despite their portrayal as the bad guys, you might want to skip this.

Random musings on Romance and The Terminator

1

I know it’s only January. But I’m nowhere near as bad as the grocery stores that were selling Christmas candy alongside Valentine’s candy and St. Patrick’s day candy, so bear with me.

I wouldn’t say I’m a huge Romance reader, i.e. it’s been some time since I’ve read a Harlequin novel of any kind. So, some of what I’m about to say comes from distant memories of it and some of it comes from the excellent material from the Genre Structure class I took (Psst, it’s really great and if you want to learn more about genre conventions, I can’t recommend it enough. In fact, all of WMG’s classes are top notch).

A lot of writers take pride in pushing the boundaries of genre, refusing to be constrained by it. Indie publishing has turned genre mixing into some sort of bloodsport though, where anything goes, which is fine to an extent.

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Characterization and Word Choice

One of the gripes I hear most from writers is about the challenge of making characters sound different, i.e. giving them each an individual voice. Let’s explore the subject, shall we?

One way of making your characters sound different is to give them an accent. And this can certainly work, as long as you use their brogue or twang sparingly, like you would spice. Add too much and it becomes distracting gibberish that’s hard to parse out.

The other way is to change their syntax. But don’t go all Jar-Jar on us. One of the best examples of syntax usage is R. M. Meluch’s character Dr. Mo Shah.

Dr. Shah’s voice sounded again from the intercom. “Captain? May I be having a word with you?” Confidentially, Mo Shah’s tone added.

“Oh. These are not being signs of slaughter. These are being medical communications. Physicians conferring with each other, I am believing.”

“He did not pass the drug scan,” Dr. Shah reported.

Farragut pursed his lips. Spoke at last: “What’s he doing?”

“The whole pharmacy,” Mo answered. “And the R&D lab.”

The Myriad: Tour of the Merrimack #1

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Movie Cheats: A Perfect Getaway (Spoilers Included)

A Perfect Getaway is a 2009 movie starring Milla Jovovich, Chris Hemsworth, and Timothy Olyphant. I was also promised Gerard Butler.

The storyline reads:

For their honeymoon, newlyweds Cliff and Cydney head to the tropical islands of Hawaii. While journeying through the paradisaical countryside the couple encounters Kale and Cleo, two disgruntled hitchhikers and Nick and Gina, two wild but well-meaning spirits who help guide them through the lush jungles. The picturesque waterfalls and scenic mountainsides quickly give way to terror when Cliff and Cydney learn of a grisly murder that occurred nearby and realize that they’re being followed by chance acquaintances that suspiciously fit the description of the killers. (Source: IMDB)

It took $14M to make and grossed $15M in the USA. Despite the eye candy (there is some breathtaking scenery, and yes, I mean both kinds) and a lot of potential, it is a mediocre movie at best.

It’s been out like nine years. Why bother?

Well, someone suggested that I watch it and just before I got around to watching it, some of us were having a discussion on Facebook about how it’s easy to spot writers that are NOT prolific readers, but rather prolific movie watchers. So it seemed apropos to take this mediocre film and demonstrate what that means, i.e. when a writer is first and foremost, a movie watcher, rather than a reader.

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Equality:A Short Story (warning: graphic content and dangerous ideas)

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“You call that a dick?” a strange, distant voice said.

A flash broke through the veil of crimson pain. The smell of hot metal, burning sawdust and dirt scorched its way down Libby’s throat. An awful ringing swelled in her ears. And then … silence. Silence and darkness.

***

February 25, 2036

Libra Baingana adored the beauty of the sweeping arches that circled this part of “The South’s Most Romantic City.” Despite the lack of lighting and the lateness of the hour—it was past midnight—the arches gave the perimeter of this heavenly little district a distinctly positive and empowering atmosphere. Much better than walls or fences.

The cab came to a stop in the turnabout, alongside the “Welcome to Clinton—A Peace Enclave” sign. The brand-new, exclusive, inclusive community boasted a plan optimized for walking and cycling. The cab driver could take his vehicle no further. Only electric vehicles making deliveries that benefited the entire community were allowed on the few streets wide enough for cars.

Libby swiped her watch across the billing scanner. Ordinarily she prided herself in giving drivers a generous ten-percent tip if they went above and beyond. Sometimes she’d add a bit more if they were willing to listen to her sing the praises of the Enclave. But she’d not opted to sing tonight—the driver, a man with the boring name of “Joe” looked about as MAGA as they made them. Had she had a choice, she’d have called for another driver, but her app said none would be available until morning. It would be better for everyone if she invested his tip in some carbon credits instead. Besides, with gas as cheap as it was nowadays, there really should’ve been a discount, but greedy people like him insisted on overcharging those who needed their services.

She slammed the door shut and stepped away, expecting him to peel out and leave her choking on a cloud of carcinogens. Instead, he eased that criminally oversized four-seater into gear and drove the five-mile-per-hour speed limit all the way out as if he didn’t care at all, which he wouldn’t if he habitually overcharged. Not tipping had clearly been the right decision.

She took a deep, satisfied breath and started walking. It was an easy twenty minutes to her cottage even in heels and a dress. She set out across the community park with its exercise-encouraging footpaths. When the motion-activated solar lights failed to keep up with her pace, she slowed.

The glass of the framed certificate in her bag rattled a bit so she pulled it closer. She couldn’t wait to get home and put it on her wall, right above the ranking belts. They were like a rainbow—white, yellow, gold, orange, green, purple, brown and red. The final rank, black, was the reason she was out so late. She’d gone out to celebrate with the rest of her karate friends. But none of them lived in the Enclave. And her Enclave friends didn’t care for her karate friends’ violent ways. Which was completely ridiculous. There wasn’t a violent bone in their bodies—or hers. Karate was about discipline and conditioning. She loved moving through the forms. She’d even sparred. It wasn’t that hard and she’d only been bruised a couple of times. Karate had shown her the power within her own body. It had shown her that she was as strong as anyone else. Fierce. Independent. Equal.

Something caught the edge of her vision as she passed the communal composting drums. The small building that housed one of the park’s restrooms was up ahead, its blue, police call-box shining like a beacon. Usually she loved the Enclave’s energy-consciousness—it felt a bit like celebrating Earth Day every day—but the stupid path was so poorly lit, she’d have felt safer with a pair of light-up shoes. The hairs on the back of her neck stood, insisting that something was wrong.

Stop it.

Libby took a deep breath and shook off the trepidation. That MAGA cab driver had really gotten to her. She walked faster. In just fifteen minutes, she’d be in her own cottage, enjoying the—

A hulking silhouette stepped out of the dark and into her path. She spun and bolted without thinking.

The blow to the back of her head sent her reeling.

She dropped to her knees. Her palm scraped the sidewalk as she pushed up with one hand and drove her elbow back. It connected with a meaty thud and bounced off a wall of muscle and bone. There wasn’t even a grunt.

Fingers bit into the back of her neck, shoving her forward again as her voice caught in her throat. Freshly laid sod cushioned her landing.

She twisted and kicked under the pounding of piston-like fists.

They just kept coming, driving each and every breath from her body.

“Stop.” Blood gurgled into her throat.

Her arms were a meager shield. Pain exploded from her cheek. Her nose. Her jaw.

She fumbled for the watch with its SOS app, but it was gone.

His grip nearly yanked her scalp off—

“Don’t.”

—as he dragged her across the grass.

Light seared through swelling eyes.

She’d lost her heels. Her hose had torn. And then they were off and she was bare against the tiles.

Crimson dripped into her eyes, blurring her vision.

Straddling her hips, he looked down at her through a black morphmask.

She flailed under him going for his face. It was out of reach.

His hands wrapped around her throat.

She tried to break his hold, wedging her arms between his, but he was too strong. She punched from the side. He blocked with his elbows.

Adrenaline-powered knees pounded into his back. Once. Twice.

He didn’t buckle.

He didn’t budge.

The morphmask closed in until the reek of his breath was all she could smell.

He smacked her head into the tile. The world swam around her. Something wound around her neck and then the smell didn’t matter anymore.

All that mattered was air. The air she wasn’t getting. She could no longer feel the harsh unforgiving tile beneath her, could no longer see the uncaring light around her.

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Smashwords Interview

Want to know what makes me tick? Why I write? Smashwords asks thirteen questions about me and my writing.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
What is your writing process?
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
How do you approach cover design?
What are your three favorite books, and why?
What do you read for pleasure?
What is your e-reading device of choice?
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
When did you first start writing?
What’s the story behind your latest book?
What motivated you to become an indie author?
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?

Click HERE to see the interview answers.

If you haven’t done so already, SIGN UP for my newsletter and get announcement of new publications and a free short story that I’m releasing on 11/5/18.

The 10,000-hour Rule

I had two questions a while back from an aspiring writer. The first one was, “I’ve got thirty-thousand words written. Should I start looking for an agent?” I hate these kinds of questions because I can’t tell them what they want to hear. So after giving them what I figured was the correct answer, the follow up question was, “Okay, so once a writer finishes the book and gets an agent, how long before they can quit their day-job.” I admit, I was a bit dumb-struck and while my brain was going “Let me break out my divination toolkit” and refusing to come up with something encouraging, I finally settled on “I have no idea.”

I still don’t have an answer (that fortune-telling kit I bought is pure bunk; don’t waste your money), but I do have some thoughts on writers, writing, and their expectations.

So here goes…

Probably like most people, I was introduced to the 10,000-hour concept via Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success. (If you haven’t read it, it’s a pretty quick read and well worth the time).

To condense it to its most basic form, the premise for the 10,000-hour rule is that it takes ten-thousand hours of work/practice to become an “expert.” The specifics of what constitutes “work” or “practice” or an “expert” seem to have inspired a bevy of criticisms since the book came out in 2008.

I ran a quick search on “ten thousand hours rule” this morning and was surprised to find the links “debunking” the concept preceded a link to the book itself. My understanding is that search results are ordered by popularity which suggests that people have been far more interested in the articles “debunking” the concept than not. To be honest, I’m not surprised. Who wants to be told they’ll have to put in 10,000 hours of work on anything.

Yet, the articles didn’t so much debunk as get into the nitty-gritty of what constituted practice, work, and expertise, as well as pointing out that there are physical traits and aptitude that will skew the results (No duh, experts, thank you. Honestly, where would we be without you.)

Ten years after the book came out, I still recall the example given, in that if you work a 40-hour week (and spend all 40 of those hours actually doing your job, rather than in meetings, travel, etc.) it would take 250 weeks, or FIVE years (50-week year) to become an expert at your job. I remember this because it paralleled my own work experience. It’s about how long it took to unlock that “expert” achievement level, and if you switched jobs you usually ended up resetting the clock or moving it back a bit.

Then Gladwell wrote about what it would take to get to the 10,000-hours in FOUR years: an extra ten hours per week (50 hours x 50 weeks x 4 years=10K). Again, these numbers stick with me because working as a salaried engineer, it seemed that we were always working 50- or 60-hour weeks. Problem was, of course, that those ten or twenty extra hours weren’t always “work” in the sense that we were doing our jobs. Mostly I’m casting the stink-eye at meetings that could have accomplished their goal by memo and various time-wasters like mandatory company training, i.e. HR meddling and getting in the way of doing work.

So, what does this have to do with writing? Well, I’m always stunned by the number of people who proclaim that they’ve been writers for N years, as if that means something. It’s a totally meaningless number, unless “year” in this case means 2000-work-hours, and each one of those work hours represents actual writing or something directly related to improving your writing skills.

It does not include research, except when you take said research and figure out how to use it in the actual writing process. It does not include marketing (which is promotion of your writing, but isn’t writing). I would argue that it includes editing, if we’re talking about editing that involves implementing editorial requests (in this case an editor NOT being a person YOU pay, but a person who your publisher pays). I would also say that includes any activity that goes towards developing your writing skillset, such as continuing education. This could include a class, a book related to the craft or skills of writing, taking a book you enjoyed and studying how that author did what he did.

Most writers are part-time writers. They have day-jobs. There’s nothing wrong with this. It does however mean that if you only have ten hours a week to devote to writing, that it’s going to take twenty years to get to that 10,000 hours. Unless you’re incredibly lucky, well-connected, or already in the industry in some other form, you’ve set yourself on a long, slow path to success.

There’s a faster track, a ten year one, if you double up to twenty hours a week, stick to it, and don’t veer off of it.

Most writers veer off the path at one point or another. Life gets in the way. Things happen.

You’ve won the lottery if you can devote forty to sixty hours a week to developing your writing skill set. You could actually achieve that four- or five-year plan as if you had a job. But it’s still a four- or five-year plan. It’s not a one-year plan. It’s not 30,000-words and “Should I start looking for an agent now?”

Hard work is key. So are realistic expectations. Becoming a writer is a marathon, not a spring, although sometimes it does feel like you’re sprinting the entire time.

 

How to Write Best Selling Fiction: Entry Five

This is the last installment in my review of Koontz’s, How to Write Best Selling Fiction.

It is interesting to note Koontz’s fervent advice not to allow yourself to be labeled as the writer of any specific genre, i.e. a science-fiction writer or a mystery writer. Instead, go for the label of “writer.”

Just because we start out writing in our favorite genre does not mean that we will remain there, or be successful at it. We might find greater success in a different genre. How did we start this? Wasn’t it with epistolary Gothic espionage novels set on the planet Mars in the seventeenth century? I can see his point.

Nevertheless, Koontz spends an entire chapter (the twelfth) on two genres (science fiction and mystery) and how to write them well. I will tell you up front,  I skipped the section on writing mysteries, but I’m sure it’s as packed with good information as the part on science fiction.

The main focus was on bringing aliens to life, i.e. how to write them so that they are not (a) cardboard or (b) humans with spots painted on them. It is one of the best written pieces on the subject that I have seen, and best of all, Koontz provides us with great examples. I would recommend his book for this section alone.

The takeaway, for creating aliens as well as alien milieus, was the same: you need lots of specific details to make them believable. It is, by far, the hardest aspect of writing science fiction because you must not only come up with the details, but they must mesh and they must be believable. You must have the skill to create suspension of disbelief and maintain it throughout.

Within science-fiction, there are a number of genres, most of which Koontz does not deal with by name, but rather indirectly, via a discussion between writing near-future vs far-future stories. It would be of no surprise to any sci-fi writer that writing near-future is far harder than writing about the far future. The former requires extensive research and a skill for extrapolation, while the latter is more speculative and relies more on imagination. Whether you choose one or the other, the key to success lies in making it cohesive. If something stands out as a red flag, you must world-build to a sufficient degree to sell the red flag to an editor.

Chapter 13 deals with pitfalls and how to avoid them. Rather than summarize them, I’ll focus on the takeaway since it’s one that I rarely see emphasized: “a writer is only in competition with himself.”

There is also a short, somewhat useful section on overcoming writer’s block, but nothing that one couldn’t find via an internet search.

I skimmed Chapter 14 (Selling) because I think most of it is out of date. When it comes to selling, pretty much any of the books below are a far better investment of your time and money:

Chapter 15 consists mainly of a list of best-sellers deemed worthy of study. Like the chapter on selling, it has not aged well, but may be of use to some.


I hope you found these entries as educational as I did. I think that in order to be a successful writer one must continue learning. And it’s particularly difficult when it comes to writing, because so many think that stringing sentences and paragraphs together somehow automatically turns into fiction that will sell.

We can watch someone cook and get a fair idea of what’s involved. We can follow a recipe. But do we ever get to watch someone write? I argue that we cannot.

Even if one were to perch on a writer’s shoulder and watch them work, one would not be privy to what’s going on in the writer’s mind, what thoughts led them there. I think that writers think about writing all the time (even if only subconsciously). We spend a great deal of time inside our own heads before we are ready to sit down and type or put pen to paper. Therefore, even a keen observation of the “writing” process would miss out on all the essentials that went into getting the writer to the point where they sit down and start typing. Perhaps if the writer started giving the observer a running commentary, we might be able to witness the process of creation, but even that would be marred by the commentary itself, for if the writer is explaining to you why he chose one word over another, he is no longer creating.

How to Write Best Selling Fiction: Entry Four

Continuing with Dean Koontz’s, How to Write Best Selling Fiction…

While Koontz’s discussion of viewpoint takes up only part of his chapter on style, I realized I could not give the subject adequate treatment except via a dedicated post. It’s because of the way that he defines omniscient viewpoint. Nothing he says is wrong, but the way the terms are used has changed and I wanted to do a more in-depth exploration of the subject. If you’re not a writer, this may not be helpful to you in terms of craft, but it may help you understand why that book that someone was so keen on didn’t resonate with you even though it had all the markings of being your thing.

I’ve written about viewpoint before, and at length, not only because I find the subject itself facsinating, but because I think it’s a key component of immersion and a difficult subject to master. It is one of the reasons I dread reading slush or first drafts. It is the number one reason I set a book down and walk away from it, never to pick it up again. Perhaps a scant two percent of books with viewpoint flaws (meaning the mixing and misuse of them) engage me enough on other levels to keep me reading to the end. They are the exception to the rule. Remember, just because [Insert Famous Writer of Your Choice] can get away with it, doesn’t mean your unproven behind can.

I’ve observed, and others have confirmed, that narrative styles/techniques have changed in the last four decades, and certainly since the golden age of science fiction. Some genres are more hospitable to newer narrative viewpoint choices, such as multiple first person present tense, i.e. erotica or YA (young adult) or NA (new adult). “Literary” is definitely more open to choices such as second person and/or future tense. And if you’re writing how-to books or blog posts, then second person is a deliberate and appropriate choice.

I think a lot of confusion about viewpoint stems from the fact that there is no standard terminology. Unlike physics where “work” has a standard definition (work equals force times distance), viewpoint terminology seems to be rather fluid. In more discussions than I care to count, it’s been obvious that when one person uses the term “third person limited” they mean something completely different than another person using the same term.

Koontz starts out by discussing modified omniscient, which is explained as a technique where the author may write one scene from the protagonist’s viewpoint and another from the antagonist’s and another from a third character’s. These multiple viewpoints may be used in whatever order the plot requires. Today, this would be called “multiple third person” not modified omniscient. And the reason I can say that with a high degree of confidence is because Koontz emphatically  (and correctly) states:

It is never permissible to switch points of view from one character to another within a single scene. (p. 204)

Today, many writers would argue that omniscient viewpoint allows them to switch point-of-view multiple times within a scene, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. In fact, when challenged they can present you with reams of works that do just that. They are not wrong. Many stories are written in that manner and when the author’s presence is strong and present throughout, the technique works. But when done badly, it doesn’t. And when it’s done poorly, you have this…

Dropping into the minds of both characters in a single scene is jarring and it shatters the illusion of reality [of the story]. (p. 205)

…when the author dances through several points of view in a single scene, the result is confusion and chaos. (p. 205)

Koontz’s section on “modified omniscient” is a worthwhile read because it goes into the many advantages of it. It has been so successful that at the time he wrote this (1981) it comprised three-quarters of all successful mainstream stories. And he’ll tell you why that is. I’m not sure where that number stands today, but I have read similar statements, i.e. that the most used narrative choice is multiple third-person (what Koontz calls modified omniscient.)

Next, he delves into “pure” omniscient, a narrative style where the writer addresses his comments to the reader. We would call this, breaking the fourth wall. On page 203, he states:

Ninety-nine percent of the novelists who use the pure omniscient viewpoint have passed into total obscurity; their work is now unreadable.

How unreadable? Well, apparently, if they exist at all, modern versions of their work are edited or abridged to eliminate this “stylistic ineptitude.”

Next, Koontz tackles third person limited, where the word “limited” refers to the use of ONE third-person narrator throughout the story (limited in this case does not refer to the other way it’s used, i.e. narrative distance). The main advantage of this choice is that it focuses attention on the protagonist at all times. Koontz sees it as suitable for genre/category fiction, but NOT for a mainstream audience.

First person is defined as a narrative where the hero tells his own story and is deemed as the best choice only if your lead is “fresh, unstereotyped, and individual.” If your intent is to color the story with the hero’s opinion of the events then this is an ideal choice.

Speaking for myself, I think this is where many first person novels fail: they are devoid of opinion and the needed color. And I think there are two reasons why first person fails. Number one is because writers either don’t understand what makes first person a good choice, but use it by some default or for the wrong reason. Number two is that they are afraid to inject color and opinion because of political correctness. Better to have a hollow husk of a character than be accused of any “-ism” because we live in a world where far too many idiots (and that is exactly what they are) attribute the opinions and attitudes of a character to the author himself.

While the discussions of third- and first-person narrative technique are good, they are very brief. If you are interested in better supplements specific to that subject, I highly recommend Orson Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint (Elements of Fiction Writing) and Nancy Kress’s Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints (Write Great Fiction). Both of these references uses different definitions of omniscient, so if this is your first exposure to the technicalities of narrative viewpoint, please make sure you understand which definition is being used.

This highly relevant chapter on style closes with a very memorable quote that I hope all of you will take to heart.

The only thing you really have to sell is your style. All the stories have been told. There are no new plots. (p.207)

How to Write Best Selling Fiction: Entry Three

Continuing with Dean Koontz’s, How to Write Best Selling Fiction…

In the chapter on Background (Ch. 9) Koontz gives several useful pieces of advice about how to incorporate background material (what might be called milieu) into a story. He goes into the advantages and disadvantages of using contemporary vs other types of settings. He also gives good advice on research.

The most important piece of advice is that details make the story authentic and I have to agree. Stories sparse on details tend to be a boring conglomeration of dialogue and action, the cardboard characters in a white room that are such a pet peeve of mine.

He goes into how to make even a mundane setting interesting and how to get readers to accept speculative elements.

He obviously wrote this before the “crime” of “cultural appropriation” was invented because he says (quite correctly) that no geographical or cultural element can be exhausted (not by one book or a hundred).

Certain people will insist that readers are tired of certain settings (countries, cultures) and only “marginalized” cultures and peoples are worthy of further exploration. The implication is that you as a writer, as a unique human being, cannot bring your own point of view or perspective to a story. How insulting to dehumanize the most relevant minority on Earth–the individual.

Chapter 10 –Grammar and Syntax– talks about the importance of getting two things right: background details and a respect for and knowledge of basic grammar. These are two mechanical elements not subject to taste. Koontz insists that since they are both skills that can be self-taught, they are not part of the mistakes for which a new writer should be forgiven. And don’t expect your copyeditor to fix it.

It should be noted that when he speaks of respect and knowledge of basic grammar, he is not speaking of syntax and style, both of which make your writing voice unique and should be left alone.

In Style (Ch. 11) he covers the differences between real-life dialogue and fictional dialogue and the pitfalls of making your fictional dialogue sound just like the dialogue you’d hear in real-life. He also covers how to make your dialogue better (so it’s a must read), including the pitfalls of using creative dialogue tags [I covered the same material in this blog post].

Cliches, simplicity and transitions are also covered in this chapter, as well as viewpoint. However ,due to its importance, I will save covering viewpoint for the next entry.