Monday, March 1, 2010

Writing Pitfalls 3: Common Mistakes

Forgetting Your Goal
The goal of paranormal romance fiction writing is to engage and entertain readers with a unique story, enthralling human and supernatural characters and an intriguing plot that touches the heart and haunts the mind. Do this in a suspenseful style that’s enjoyable to read, and you’ll hold their attention. But if you include outdated elements or novice mistakes, you’ll minimize the chance of your audience finishing and liking your story. Read on to learn how to avoid common writing pitfalls and please your audience.

Info Dump
To write a story about a paranormal entity, you do research to describe its special traits and powers. But if you interrupt a scene of action or dialogue to insert one or more paragraphs of description or facts, that’s info dump. Reporting the history of vampires or the powers of witches in the middle of an ongoing scene brings it to a screeching halt.

An out-of-context summary changes the tone, voice and focus, detracting from what’s happening in the present. When you digress, you stop writing as the POV character and start sounding like a narrator explaining a supernatural being’s abilities. Worst of all, this narrative pauses your characters’ interaction. The transitions before and after an info dump usually are awkward because the forced middle section takes readers out of the scene. None of this helps your audience keep its place in your story.

If you need to include some of those details, incorporate them through the POV character’s thoughts, dialogue and actions. Make sure that character really would think your exact words at that very moment so you don’t switch to a narrator-type voice.

Telling Backstory
You have a lot of information you want readers to know about your characters. But be careful how you present it. Years ago, an author used a narrator to summarize a character’s backstory. A long narrative might not have a setting or time period. It was a pre-story historical recap with countless facts and details. The non-character narrator would summarize/report/explain someone’s relationships and what had happened in that character’s life before the story began.

A form of info dump, unloading anyone’s past over paragraphs or pages prevents the scene and story from moving forward. Read the short example below. Then follow the advice to write as the POV character, and you’ll avoid this second technique that brings the present scene to a screeching halt.

“Sam Baker grew up in Boston and earned a Harvard law degree. He joined a prominent legal practice in New York City where he met Jill Hewitt. When he hadn’t proposed after three years of living together, she moved to London. He hasn’t dated since.” This boring recitation of past facts devoid of emotion sounds like a narrator imparting Sam’s backstory simply for the audience’s benefit. As the POV character, Sam knows his own history. So he wouldn’t summarize his life in his mind like an uninvolved outsider. You must keep all his thoughts believable.

The mark of a great modern fiction writer is devising artful ways to sneak in relevant past details without sounding like a narrator proclaiming them to get readers up to date. Sprinkle backstory snippets periodically through the POV character’s thoughts, memories and dialogue in subtle ways. Tease your readers by allowing a feeling, caring POV character to reveal ongoing tidbits of his personal life in genuine ways. And you’ll hook them until the end.

Lengthy Flashback
Current writers don’t use the flashback as much as our predecessors did. A long diversion to the past stops the momentum of the in-the-moment scene and forestalls the progression of your entire story. But if someone really needs to flash back to his or her past, keep it short. No one can recall a lengthy decades-old conversation word for word or what everyone wore and did.

The flashback works best when a character is alone with his or her own thoughts. Or instead of replaying a pre-story scene, have the character use in-the-moment memories and thoughts to make decisions about his or her life. Like info dump and telling backstory, the flashback puts the brakes on the driving force of your story. So keep it brief if you can’t present that scene in the present. Transitions before and after a flashback may sound awkward, so make sure readers can follow the shift back and forth in time.

Before including a flashback with two characters, realize how the scene plays out in the present. The one reliving an earlier time in his or her head for pages appears to ignore the other. This puts any interaction between them on hold. So this is the third way you can bring the current situation to a screeching halt. While one reflects, the other is bored or worse because nothing is happening in the present.

Unless you want to portray the daydreamer as insensitive, this type of flashback is a poor choice. If the lost-in-the-past character treats the other as invisible for a long time, the neglected person shouldn’t be in that scene. You’re better off keeping the action and conversation moving. Try turning the memories the flashback generates into dialogue. If the character can’t reminisce aloud in conversation, he or she should be somewhere in seclusion to reflect alone.

Setting and Time Period Vagueness
Establish the setting and time period early in your story. Make any changes clear at the beginning of each subsequent scene. If you use an actual place, make sure all references are accurate. And just because you know a real setting well, don’t assume all readers will too. Years ago, novels began with lengthy descriptions of the setting long before any action or dialogue. Today, describing characters’ surroundings isn’t as important as their interactions and relationships. Every single scene requires a setting. Even in a short scene when someone is thinking or remembering, place your character somewhere specific at a particular time.

If you stated in a 2009 story that a 25-year-old character was born in 1984, the math doesn’t add up in 2010 or later. Instead of specifying a year, supply current references like cell phones, internet, satellite TV, etc. to indicate modern times. For historical periods, mention outdated things like corsets, oil lamps or Model Ts. Work in the month or season directly or through weather references. Unless you invent a new universe, realism will resonate with readers.

What’s Next?
Practice the writing tips in this and my other blog posts. Keep checking the Cliffhanger Books website for announcements of selected stories, publication dates and future anthologies in this and other genres.

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