Several years ago I worked as a school secretary. Occasionally my tranquil day of answering the phone, printing handouts, filing records, sorting mail, taking temperatures, etc. would be enlivened with parents who would enter the office and say, “May I ask you a question?”
My canned response was “Go ahead. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll make up something.”
They were probably relieved when Hubby got a new job and we had to relocate.
Fiction writers are probably the biggest liars out there (my mistake … we’re right behind politicians). But readers are willing to suspend disbelief because they expect us to entertain or inspire or instruct them with a compelling story.
Any conman will tell you the most effective lies are seeded with truths (I feel like I’m contributing to the delinquency of readers here). It’s no surprise the best stories, no matter how fantastical they are, get embraced because they speak from a reality people can identify with.
Writing any genre of fiction will involve throwing in some facts, but part of the fun is twisting reality to fit your vision. Luckily for fiction authors, history is full of holes, contemporary time presents unknowns, science is still working out theories, and fantasy has been with us since the first caveman said “Hrmph!” (translation: What made that sound?)
It makes you wonder about the underlying psychology of writers. What twisted component in our brain makes us want to engage others in our flights of fancy? Are we really that needy for attention?
Yet ironically, many writers tend to be introverts. And since most of us are avid readers ourselves, can you really call it a symbiotic relationship between storyteller and audience?
I think it boils down to we just got to be crazy. See, when I don’t know the answer, I can make up something….
Okay, the plot to your story is planned, your characters are developed, and all that’s left to do is get writing. But after you finish it you discover that, like a plot twist, something went wrong.
You read it and it falls flat despite your brilliant ideas. Or worse yet, a beta reader gives it back to you with a shrug and an “Eh.” And that’s when you realize the words on the page are merely functional. They need some zing and zap to make your writing sparkle.
We’re going beyond the show, don’t tell concept here. We’re going to dissect the words themselves (ew, gross!).
The thesaurus is one of my best friends (and I’ve always been a dinosaur nut as a kid … sorry, couldn’t resist). “He cried out” may not be precise enough for the image you want to project. Maybe he actually yowled, or bellowed, or squealed, or yammered.
Throwing in some alliteration can get certain phrases to click. Repeated letters in words draw attention to them, conveying they mean more than their simple dictionary definition (draw dictionary definition … isn’t that sold as Pictionary?). They are also used to boost memory or create a mood or (attempt to) insert humor.
Reading the story aloud can help (hint: do this when nobody is around to call the people with butterfly nets and those long-sleeved jackets). Is there a pleasant rhythm to the way your words flow together, or do they seem to clank and clunk? Think of the flow of poetry and vary the length of sentences.
As in all things, moderation is the key, or you wind up with the dreaded purple prose. If you’re unfamiliar with what that is, it sounds something like this:
It was a bright and sunny day. The radiant daystar, that golden orb and glorious lamp of heaven, prodigiously illuminated the proliferous landscape with aestival and resplendent effulgence that inspired the everlasting soul and prompted Peter to pipe vociferations while he pranced out to his pepper patch and picked a peck to pickle for the parish picnic.
You’ve probably heard of the adage for “Write what you know.” But how much thought have you given to NOT writing what you know?
I know, I know, it sounds likes I’ve gone off the deep end, but bear with me….
Remember that character in your story who’s become your imaginary friend? How did he/she/it get to be that way? Do you catch yourself starting to set a place at the table for [insert name here] because you think about that story so much your fiction has blurred with reality?
(I’ve never done that … yet.)
And if you did, what will your buddy have for breakfast?
One of the best ways to make characters real to the readers is for them to become real to the writer first. They can’t emerge as three-dimensional unless they exist that way to you. J. K. Rowling commented about Harry Potter that she knew things about him that would never make it into the story.
You should know details about the characters that readers wouldn’t want to know. What’s his routine in the bathroom every morning? How does she plan her outfit for tomorrow before she goes to bed? How does it recharge while everybody else is sleeping?
Admittedly putting this much thought into your story development can spill over into daily life. I did once call one of our kids by the name of the protagonist in a story I was working on (But I don’t feel badly about that … Hubby has called him by the dog’s name.). If family and friends are wondering if you need to be committed, that’s just evidence you’re committed to the story.
Just don’t go off the deep end!
Note: If you don’t know what Ding Dongs are, they’re kind of like chocolate Twinkies. If you don’t know what Twinkies are, then I can’t help you….
“Poke it with a stick.” Keegan didn’t look at him as they kneeled in the brush and gazed at the grounded combat device lying at the edge of the clearing.
Reuben did cast a quick glance at the young sergeant before responding in an equally low voice. “That’s your answer to everything.”
“No, my everything-answer is to shoot it, but I know you won’t let me do that this time.”
Shooting the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle was as inadvisable as poking it. They didn’t want to give away their position, but the fact it was no longer airborne caused his suspicion to cook up various scenarios.
Earlier that day the flight under his command completed their mission of taking down a supply convoy. In typical guerilla style they disabled the vehicles, pillaged the enemy’s equipment, and scattered in sections of two. He and Keegan, with their loot of mostly communications paraphernalia, were cutting through the forest to regroup with their fellow combatants.
The sergeant had spied the derelict UAV a split second before Reuben did. They both dove for cover behind some buckbrush and used the momentary stillness to determine what course of action was most advisable now that their situation was less stable than before.
“What worries me is we haven’t heard any fire exchange.” Reuben kept his gaze on the military drone. “If that got grounded in a skirmish, it’s been there a while. Have they really lost it or are they still using it for surveillance?”
“That wouldn’t make sense.” The sergeant chewed on his lower lip. “Those UAVs are more efficient up in the air. They aren’t going to waste resources by leaving one on the ground.”
“Which brings us back to the question why they haven’t retrieved it already.” His eyes narrowed as he regarded the devious drone. “Maybe it isn’t salvageable, but considering it’s a target model, it could be either unstable enough or just reprogrammed to blow if somebody else tinkers with it.”
Keegan seemed to freeze for a few seconds before his lips pressed together. “Like a civilian hoping to cannibalize it for some parts. Jiminy, I hate it when you come up with these worst-case scenarios.”
Reuben shook his head. “Then we need to investigate it.”
“Screw that. Just let me shoot it.”
“I’d rather not advertise we’re here if we can avoid it. But if it’s active, I’m hoping to disarm it.”
“Really? And if you wiggle the wrong wire, you could find yourself disarmed. And dis-legged. And dis-headed.”
“We won’t have to get that close.”
The sergeant cast a sidelong glance at him. “What delusions of grandeur are you having now?”
“Some of our booty includes reconnaissance equipment. All we’ll have to do is pilot a micro drone down there and see what readings it gives us. If that UAV is dead, then we can scoot outta here in good conscience. If it’s booby-trapped, we’ll use the same peewee to reprogram it into pacification.”
“That’s why they made you the captain.” Keegan smirked. “But you do realize that if it’s active and we monkey around with its system, they might still figure out our position from the sensor readings?”
“The odds are much smaller than if you get trigger-happy.”
“Well, I guess I’ve had enough explosions for today. Let’s get a tactical drone down there.”
The tiny UAV they unpacked was about the size of a fat quarter sporting four round propellers. After it established its radio link to the palm-sized readout system, Reuben operated the drone while the sergeant helped to guide its position. It skimmed over the larger UAV that resembled a torpedo with extra fins.
Keegan also watched the screen as the drone’s signal fed data back to the device. “Crap, it’s armed. I hate it when you’re right.”
“Let’s see if we can get the pen to be mightier than the sword.” Reuben tapped on the screen to direct their stolen drone to sync with the UAV’s system.
“At least they’re talking to each other,” the sergeant murmured. “I just hope nobody else is listening to that conversation.”
“I doubt it’s being monitored since they wouldn’t be expecting somebody to do what we’re doing.”
“This is one time I’d be happy if you’re right.”
There was something satisfying about using the enemy’s own technology against them. As Reuben negotiated with the grounded UAV through the tiny drone, he was encouraged this plan was going to succeed. And that, said a small, still voice in the back of his mind, is when trouble happens.
His comrade drew in a sharp intake of air. “That display looked like a power spike.”
That was their only warning. With a thunderous boom, ragged metal and twisted components shot in every direction.
As they sprang to their feet to beat a hasty retreat, he thought he heard Keegan gasp “Should’ve poked it with a stick!” Considering the consequences as they galloped into the forest, he figured they might as well have.
So here is this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle. As usual, it’s sparked plenty of interesting ideas from other people, so feel free to check out the other stories that have been submitted!
I’ve had more than one person tell me they’ve started a story, but then they’re so eager to rush to the end they wind up floundering in the middle and quitting.
They don’t get stuck because the middle is there to fill up space until you get to the end. They get stuck because the middle is extremely crucial. If the middle of your work isn’t as compelling as the beginning and ending, you’ve got work to do.
This is where the plot and characterizations get a workout. A flashy beginning and an explosive ending don’t mean squat without the middle to tie it all together. And if you lose your momentum in the middle of the story, the reader might not bother going to the end.
So what’s one suggestion to keep your middle rolling?
Readers love it when the bad stuff characters go through in a story gets worse. It’s not because we’re all sadists at heart, but it gives us more reason to root for the character. If Frodo got to skip off to Mordor and flick that wretched ring into a barely active volcano, readers would yawn.
So in a nutshell, this is when you make things worse for your characters. The Law of Murphy rules. And if you find it’s a struggle to write a middle worth its mettle, just keep telling yourself what you tell your protagonist: What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger.
And on that note, Happy Birthday America! Whew, I’m glad I made it to the end of this blog….