TSTL* – Too Stupid To Live

A while back, I finished reading a book by a big-name author and was completely disgusted by the hero and heroine.  About three-quarters of the way into the book, the hero makes a TSTL* (Too Stupid To Live) decision that I couldn’t believe, and then to make the situation even worse, this TSTL decision was promptly followed by the heroine upping the TSTL quotient, to the point that I almost threw the book against the wall.  The only saving grace was that I bought the book off the bargain rack and didn’t pay full price for it.

As I thought about the book, I realized that the author needed to get the hero and heroine (H&H) into a bad situation.  Okay.  I understand that.  They needed to be there for the rest of the plot to work.  I’m good with Hs&Hs being put in bad situations.

What wasn’t okay with me was that in order to get into this nasty situation, the H&H had to make several TSLT decisions in a row.  Morons!

So I thought some more:  There are plenty of good books out there where the H&H end up in nasty situations without making TSTL decisions.  So why did this author do it this way?

About a day later, the answer came to me.  In this book, the villains were so stupid that they were beyond TSTL-stupid!

Ah! I thought, that’s what the problem is.

The plot needed the H&H to get captured, but the villains were so incompetent that they couldn’t capture the H&H on their own, which meant the H&H needed to be even more stupid than the villains.  **sigh**


So, here’s the lesson:

If your Hero and/or Heroine have to make TSTL decisions to make the plot work out, THEN SOMETHING IS WRONG!!

Please fix whatever is wrong, so that your characters aren’t forced to be TSTL and your reader won’t want to throw your book against the wall.

Which, of course, begs the question:  What is the something that is wrong?

— In this case, the villains were too stupid for the quality of the H&H

— In other cases, the plot is too stupid for the quality of the H&H

— In another case, the hero was too stupid for the heroine

— Or the last example that came to mind was a TSTL secondary character, and the H&H had to be TSTL to keep hanging out with that person, and then continue to be TSTL to have to clean up the mess this other person made.

In each of these cases, the fix for the TSTL problem is obvious.

So FIX them, and quit writing books with TSTL characters making TSTL decisions because you-as-author are too lazy to do the work to fix the underlying problem with the villains, plot or other characters.



*TSTL does not apply to children, teenagers, or adults without the capacity to make competent decisions.

Critical Reading of a Beginning

A friend is trying to sell her first book but not getting good responses from agents and editors, and she’s getting very frustrated and depressed about the whole process.  I read her book a couple times during the editing process, but I hadn’t seen the version that she’s shopping around.  When she emailed me the other day that her new website is live, out of curiosity, I popped over to check it out, and I couldn’t resist taking a quick glance at the first chapter she had posted.

When I read the first sentence, my thought was “It’s no wonder everybody is turning her down, because I’d turn her down, too.”  Which is sad because she’s a marvelous storyteller.  But the sloppy mechanics of the beginning sentences of her book overshadow her fantastic storytelling ability.

So how does the story begin?  I’ll give you the first paragraph (with the character’s name and details changed)

Chapter 1
Thursday, September 2, 1908: Afternoon

George Martin ran with perspiration matting his hair and streaming down his face. He gave an impatient shake of his head to clear his eyes only to stumble over a stone and almost fall. Regaining his balance, he doggedly ran on. If he just could run fast enough, he might be able to get home and avert disaster. He might be able to keep the horriblness away, and so he prayed as he ran, the prayers bursting through his clenched teeth in disjointed rasps of desperation. “Holy Mother of God…dear Jesus…oh God please, please, please…dear God, please…”

and now, my thought process as I read it, so you can understand how a critical-reader (editor/agent) might process your story as they read it.

Thursday, September 2, 1908: Afternoon

I like this, because it saves a whole lot of trouble for everybody.  But,  Montana is an very big place, so it doesn’t pin down the setting very much.  And the very specific date/time combined  with so general a location is a strange combination. Not a red-flag, just unusual.

George Martin…

Good, the author gave me a last name.  I like last names because they give me subtle insight into the character. When the first names and last names clash in terms of ethnicity or flavor, or when the name clashes with the story’s setting (ethnically or culturally), it hints at a character already in conflict with themselves, which I like.  With this character’s name there’s no conflict, which is fine, and tells me that this character won’t be dealing with those specific internal conflicts.
What else does this name tell me?  Since the story begins with a specific name, this character is probably the hero/heroine of the story. Since it’s a novel aimed at adults, this character is likely an adult.  And the character is likely male, but I say only “likely” because I’ve known a couple women called “George”, so I will reserve judgment on the character’s gender until I learn more.

… ran with …

Active verbs are good, especially in first sentences. And George (still not sure about age or gender) is running WITH somebody, so we get to figure out more about George by finding out who he’s running with.

… perspiration matting his hair and streaming down his face.

Huh?!?  I need to go back and re-read the sentence to make sure I didn’t read it wrong… which is the death-bell for any query.  If I was an agent, I’d have fifteen other chapters sitting here waiting for me to read, a dozen phone calls that are vital to make in the next hour, four full-manuscripts to read, and that’s before my office-hours start.  I wouldn’t have the time or energy to deal with an author who makes me re-parse the first sentence of their story.  Come on, folks, you should know better than to write sentences like this.
Okay, I just re-read the whole sentence.  It is: “George Martin ran with perspiration matting his hair and streaming down his face.” *snicker* I have to admit that the visual is amusing.  But *sigh* I’m sure that’s not what the author meant.  This is red-flag #1: if an author is THIS sloppy with their sentence structure in the MOST IMPORTANT sentence of the whole book, then it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the book.
But, it may be a fluke, a typo or a quirk, and authors are human just like me, so I’ll give them a break and read some more.

He gave an impatient shake of his head to clear his eyes only to stumble over a stone and almost fall.

I found out  “George” was a “he” in the previous sentence, along with the fact that it’s hot enough wherever he’s at for him to be sweating, so no new information is given in this sentence.  I still have no idea of the character’s age, personality,  location, or setting… other than there’s a stone, and that can still be just about anyplace.  And still no plot reason for him to be running.

Regaining his balance, he doggedly ran on.

He’s got reasonable reflexes and seems determined for some reason, but no other new info and no hint of a plot.

If he just could run fast enough, he might be able to get home and avert disaster. 

He’s running “home”, but we don’t know where or what home  is.  To “avert disaster”, which is a good “plot” bit,  but we don’t know anything about the disaster, nor do we know if he’s running to the disaster or from the disaster.
Nor have we learned anything more about the character, location or setting.  Is he in the country or in town?  Running on concrete, gravel, dirt or grass?  Is the disaster at home or where he came from?
So, to summarize, the reader knows we have a sweaty,  adult male, hero of story, in decent shape to have run all this way, with some unknown disaster behind or before him that he thinks he might be able to impact in some way.

He might be able to keep the horriblness away, and so he prayed as he ran, the prayers bursting through his clenched teeth in disjointed rasps of desperation. “Holy Mother of God…dear Jesus…oh God please, please, please…dear God, please…”

Okay folks… I know this should be obvious, but maybe it’s not… an agent or editor will be reading your submission in an email window… and my email window underlines misspellings!  Don’t submit stuff with misspellings in it.  Sure, things happen, like spell-checkers don’t catch switched words and things like that, but when a word is clearly underlined as a misspelled word, there’s no excuse for that.   And, yes there are various ways of spelling words, you can argue that later with your copy-editor, for right now, make sure no words in your submission are underlined as misspellings.  A spelling error in the first paragraph, on top of that first sentence that I had to re-parse, is red-flag #2.
Beyond that issue, what more did we learn in these two sentences about the character/plot/setting?  We learned he’s likely some version of Catholic.  Okay that’s good.  But saying that  the disaster is “horrible” and he’s “desperate” doesn’t tell me-as-reader anything new, because those attributes are implied in the use of the word “disaster”.  So, I haven’t really learned anything new in these two sentences.
I, personally, find all these generalities (disaster, horrible, desperate) annoying, especially in first sentences of novels, because it seems so out-of-character for a  person in this situation.  And for me, this inconsistent characterization is red-flag #3.
Think of a real person: he’s running, either to or from a “disaster”, he stumbles, he’s sweating, he’s desperate and he’s praying.  I can’t imagine that a real person would be thinking in the terms/words/thoughts that this character is using.  Wouldn’t that person be thinking about the details of the “disaster”?  Who might be hurt and why?  How did it happened? How could it be averted?  And so on.
Now, I’ll grant you that all this information wouldn’t fit into the first paragraph, but when the only information given to the reader in 100 words is “a sweating, coordinated, determined, praying, Catholic male is running to/from a disaster that he feels he can influence”… well, I said that in 18 words… it seems a waste of the other 82 words.
And… I’ll grant you that if the story had started out with only those 18 words, I’d complain even more.  🙂

I’ll stop here with the detailed analysis, and if I was an agent/editor, I’d skim a page or two more, but if something didn’t crop up to strongly offset these problems, then I’d hit the thanks-but-no-thanks button.

I know that new authors get told again and again: “SHOW don’t Tell”, which is all well and good, but the “showing” needs to be useful showing.  The “showing” needs to give the reader as much information as possible, not be useless showing.

So many opportunities were wasted in this paragraph, especially considering George Martin is an eleven-year-old boy running across farm fields toward home to tell his father (who is the hero of the story) that [changing the details but keeping essence of the story] the blight has hit the neighbor’s farm.

It only takes a word or two, scattered around the paragraph to add so much to the story.

How would I do it differently?


George Martin ran with perspiration matting his hair and streaming down his face. He gave an impatient shake of his head to clear his eyes only to stumble over a stone and almost fall. Regaining his balance, he doggedly ran on. If he just could run fast enough, he might be able to get home and avert disaster. He might be able to keep the horriblness away, and so he prayed as he ran, the prayers bursting through his clenched teeth in disjointed rasps of desperation. “Holy Mother of God…dear Jesus…oh God please, please, please…dear God, please…”

Quick, first draft, of possible new beginning:

Desperate, George Martin ran through the freshly harvested field.  He had to get home; he had to tell Dad that the blight had taken Pa Stoke’s entire crop and the family had nothing  left to eat.  As George wiped sweat from his eyes, he stumbled, then caught himself and ran faster.   With a mumbled prayer to St. Mary, he hurdled the stone fence.  Thigh-high weeds tugged at his jeans, slowing him unbearably.  If only he was sixteen instead of just eleven, he thought as he tried to make his legs move faster on the uneven ground, then he’d be stronger and for sure he’d get home in time for Dad to stop the blight from taking their harvest.

Okay… obviously a draft, a little silly, a little longer, and obviously a totally different writing style… but do you see my point?  Do you see how much more information is included in the second example?  It has character, setting, plot and stake.  All put there in one-, two-, and three-word bits.

In the original version,  the lack of detail and all the generalities left me feeling ho-hum about the story and character, because there wasn’t anything worth investing myself and my time.  Whereas, I think that the second version gives me connection potential, because the character is clear, with a clearly defined problem and a clearly defined stake, in a defined setting.

And, no, you shouldn’t put the entire plot of your story into the first paragraph, but put something there for me-as-reader to connect to, and do it without making me re-parse sentences and without spelling errors.

Cautionary Reminder: All beginnings of stories must be consistent with the situation the characters find themselves in and representative of the remainder of the book.  If you book is a leisurely romp, then you wouldn’t begin the story with the intensity of this example.

Toolbox Building Exercise:

Critically-read the first 100-200 words of your story.  What information are you giving to your reader?  What are you saying about character? Plot? Setting? Stake? Is it enough to get the reader invested in the story so they’ll keep reading?  Or are you skimping on so many details that the reader doesn’t care about the character or the situation?

Editing Is The Hard Part

From the email bag:

Editing is the hard part, and I keep trying to avoid it. It’s easier to get on with the next book, but I’ll never move up the ladder to published if I do that. Writing, getting that first draft out of your head, is just so much fun. The rest, editing, is painful, but challenging.


And yes, I understand completely about the “editing” part of the writing process.  It’s not fun.  😦

When the words of the story just pour out of you in that rush of creating the first draft, that’s grand fun.  When the writing is going great, there isn’t a high like it in the world.  Then the book is done, it’s time to edit, and the let-down is awful.

The good news is that once you do learn to fix something in the editing process– like an error that managed to spread itself across your entire manuscript, which I’ve done more times than I care to admit –you’ve practiced the fix so much that it has become unconscious and **drum roll** you never have to fix it again.  (Or at least if it does sneak in, the fix is on a much smaller scale.)

So each book that you write requires less editing, because with each book you’ve edited you learned all those lessons so they are automatic in the writing process.

Look at it like you’re learning a new skill, maybe playing the piano.  It doesn’t come automatically, you have to practice.  And “editing” your manuscript is the practice part.

The more you practice, the more automatic it all becomes.  Until finally, just like with the piano player, there comes a point in the practice (editing) that the skills have become so ingrained that the “writing” part become effortless and truly beautiful because the editing skills are now unconscious and automatically incorporated into the words you write, which are so polished they require little, if any editing.

Moral: The more editing you do now, the less editing you will have to do in the future.

Revision Letters Part 1: Ego

You have received a revision letter from an editor or agent, or any kind of detailed critique, and you’re falling apart at the seams.  How can you fix the situation so you can do what needs to be done?

First, you need to:

Take your ego out of the whole situation.

You can do this by remembering two things:

1) Edits requested for a manuscript have no bearing on you as a person.

Just because your manuscript wasn’t perfect when you sent it in doesn’t lessen your worth as a person. It doesn’t mean you’re a “failure” in any sense of the word.

In fact, edits have nothing whatsoever to do with you as a person.

You could be Mother Theresa, and if you submitted this book under a name that wasn’t ‘Mother Theresa’, they’d still ask for the same edits.

You as a person and your worth as a person don’t even come into the equation.

So save yourself the grief, and take your ego out of the equation… your manuscript isn’t “you”!

2) The manuscript isn’t your baby.

Getting a request to fix a manuscript doesn’t mean that you’re chopping off fingers or toes… because…

A manuscript is a thing.
It’s a product you produced.

Just like me working for six months creating a computer program… it’s a thing that I produced. And guess what? My computer program didn’t work the first time, in fact, it didn’t work the 20th time. And when I finally got it “working” (for my value of working) and I took it to my boss, he told me to fix this and that. So I did. Then I took the new version to my boss’s boss, and he told me to fix other this’s and other that’s. So I did.

And I fixed them without getting bent out of shape, because it was a computer program, it wasn’t “me”, nor was it my “baby”. And then I released the program to the world, I had a whole bunch more this’s and that’s that needed to be fixed because.. guess what?… I wasn’t omniscient and I hadn’t taken everything into account. Just because the computer program worked for me, didn’t mean it worked for everybody in every environment. Duh! 🙂

Which isn’t to say that you have to please everybody, because you don’t. Trying to please everybody would be a disaster.

But what you have to do is get out of your ego and understand that you’re not omniscient and other people have new information.

You have to be able to step back, see your manuscript as a product, and ask:

“Is this new information useful and will it make my product better?”

If the information truly makes your product better, then do the “this” or the “that” that the new information requires you to do to make the product better. If the information doesn’t make the product better, ignore it.

But get your ego out of the way so that you can truly look at the new information and judge its worth in respect to making you manuscript a truly better product.

 If you can take your ego out of it, then your next revision letter will only be a source of new information, not an emotional disaster.

After you accomplish this, see Revision Letters Part 2: Symptoms

Revision Letters Part 2: Symptoms

You have received a revision letter from an editor or agent, or any kind of detailed critique, and you’re falling apart at the seams.  How can you fix the situation so you can do what needs to be done?

First, you need to: Take your ego out of the whole situation.  See Revision Letters Part 1: Ego

After you’ve done this, the second part of dealing with revison letters and critique is to:

View every critique as a list of symptoms not a list of factual problems or issues.


Because most times, a “problem” exists in the manuscript long before it grows big enough for the reader to notice.

So an editor can say “fix X”… but the real problem isn’t “X”… because “X” just happened to be the first place the issue got big enough for the editor to notice that something was wrong.  The real problem is “Y” that happened three chapters before, and in the intervening chapters “Y” _grew_ into “X”.

So, instead of taking the editor/agent at their literal word and fixing “X”, which doesn’t fix the real problem, because the real problem wasn’t “X” it was “Y”…

View “fix X” as a symptom, apply some brain cells to the situation and say to yourself:

“The editor says ‘fix X’, but is ‘X’ a real issue in itself, or a symptom of something else?”

Sometimes “X” is the real issue, but a lot more of time it’s only a symptom of something else.

Deciding Your Story’s Genre

Deciding your story’s genre is one of the first decisions you have to make when writing a novel or short story.  Experienced writers often know the genre before the story is begun, but it’s not unusual for the inexperienced writer to be faced with the decision after the first draft is completed.

Why is a story’s genre so important?  Can’t I just write any story I want?

For a short story, its genre decides which magazines/e-zines you can send your story to, or which anthologies you can submit to.  Therefore, if you have a magazine in mind, you need to write a story that adheres to their genre guidelines if you want to be accepted.

For a novel, the genre most obviously decides where in the bookstore the book will be shelved.  But genre also decides many other things for a novel, including:

    • the audience for your book;
    • often, major plot line requirements;
    • what un-written rules will have to be adhered to;
    • sometimes, the length of the book;
    • which agents you’ll submit to, as they often specialize in their favorite genres;
    • and which publishing houses and imprints you’ll submit to.

Okay, I can see that it’s important, but what is “genre”?

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “genre” as “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.”  So, for a story, the “genre” of the story is the “category” of the story “characterized by a particular style, form, or content.”

Let’s take the “Romance” genre as an example.  In order for a story to be categorized in the “Romance” genre, a story has to be character-driven (style),  have the hero and heroine’s romance as its most-major plot line (form), and it must have a happy ending (content), plus adhere to a half-a-dozen or so unwritten rules that I won’t go into here.  Other genres have other requirements.

How do I find out a genre’s requirements, both written and unwritten?

Read extensively in the genre, and ponder the commonalities of what you’ve read.

That’s the best was to discover the rules, but there’s also plenty written on the web about each genre’s requirements.

What are the most common genres?

See Genre & Sub-Genre for a fairly complete list.

How do I decide my story’s genre?

Answer the following questions:

    • In which bookstore section do you see this story sitting?
    • What genre do you read most?
    • If your story crosses genre lines (as in Romantic-SF), which plot begins first and ends last (Romance plot or SF plot)?
    • What genre do your beta-readers say the story is?

The genre that appears in the most answers is likely the genre of your story.  Or at least is a close enough starting point to get you going in the right direction.

Genre & Sub-Genre

The basis for the following lists are from www.FictionFactor.com/genre.html and  www.cuebon.com/ewriters/genres.html (see their website for definition of the sub-genres), with additions from various other sources.


  • Sub-Genres
    • Alternate worlds
    • Arthurian
    • Bangsian
    • Celtic
    • Christian
    • Comedic
    • Contemporary
    • Court Intrigue
    • Dark
    • Dying Earth
    • Erotic
    • Fairy Tale
    • Fantasy of Manners or Mannerpunk
    • Feghoot
    • Heroic
    • High or Epic Fantasy
    • Historical
    • Historical High Fantasy
    • Juvenile
    • Low Fantasy
    • Media tie-in (Buffy novels, etc.)
    • Medieval
    • Mythic (mythopoeia, mythpunk)
    • Prehistoric
    • Quest
    • Romantic
    • Science Fantasy
    • Series
    • Superhero
    • Sword & Sorcery
    • Urban Fantasy (nerd outfoxes supernatural)
    • Wuxia

Science Fiction

  • Sub-genres
    • Aliens
    • Alternate Reality
    • Alternate Humanity
    • Apocalyptic
    • Bestiary
    • Clones
    • Cyber Punk
    • Dystopia
    • Erotic SF
    • Extra-sensory Perception
    • Faster Than Light
    • Frontier
    • Generation Ship
    • Gothic
    • Habitat
    • Hard Science Fiction
    • Hollow Earth
    • Humorous
    • Immortality
    • Invisibility
    • Lost Worlds
    • Media tie-in
    • Military SF
    • Other Worlds
    • Parallel Universes/Worlds
    • Post-apocalypse
    • Pulp
    • Religious SF
    • Soft Sci-fi
    • Space Opera
    • Space Travel
    • Super Humans
    • Theology
    • Time Travel
    • Under Sea
    • Utopia
    • Voyages Extraordinaires*
    • Wetware Computer
    • World-building {unusual solar systems}
    • World Government
    • Xenofiction


  • Sub-Genres
    • Contemporary Romance
    • Fantasy Romance
    • Futuristic Romance
    • Historical Romance
    • Paranormal Romance
    • Regency Romance
    • Romantic Suspense
    • Time-travel romance
    • Western Romance
    • Chick-Lit
    • Mommy-Lit
    • Erotica
    • Romantica
    • Inspirational
    • Sweet


  • Sub-Genres
    • Cross Genre
    • Cutting Edge
    • Dark Fantasy
    • Dark Fiction
    • Erotic Horror
    • Extreme
    • Gothic
    • Lovecraftian, Lovecraft Mythos, Cthulhu Mythos, etc.
    • Noir
    • Psychological Horror
    • Quiet (or Soft) Horror
    • Supernatural
    • Surreal
    • Suspense (or Dark Suspense) and Thriller
    • Visceral
    • Weird


  • Sub-Genres
    • Amateur Investigator
    • Bumbling Detective
    • Caper (heist)
    • Child in Peril (woman in peril)
    • Cozy
    • Culinary
    • Doctor Detective
    • Handicapped
    • Hard-boiled (noir)
    • Historical (Chinese, Elizabethan, etc.)
    • Inverted or Howdunit
    • Legal (courtroom)
    • Locked Room or Puzzle
    • Police Procedural (forensic, serial killer, stalker, etc.)
    • Private Detectives (female PI)
    • Serials or Series
    • Supernatural
    • Whodunit


  • Sub-Genres
    • Aviation
    • Comedic
    • Conspiracy
    • Disaster
    • Ecothriller
    • Espionage
    • Exploration
    • Legal
    • Medical
    • Mercenary
    • Paranormal or Supernatural
    • Political
    • Psychological
    • Religious
    • Survivalist
    • Technothriller
    • Treasure Hunter


  • Sub-Genres
    • Australian
    • Black Cowboy (buffalo soldier)
    • Bounty Hunter
    • Cattle Drive
    • Civil War
    • Cowpunk {outrageous cross-genre}
    • Doctor and Preacher
    • Eurowestern
    • Gunfighter
    • Humorous or Parody
    • Indian wars
    • Land Rush
    • Lawmen (Texas Rangers)
    • Mexican wars (Texan independence)
    • Modern Indians
    • Mormon
    • Outlaw
    • Prairie Settlement
    • Prospecting (gold rushes)
    • Quest
    • Railroad
    • Range wars (sheepmen)
    • Revenge
    • Romance
    • Town-tamer
    • Trapper or Mountain Man
    • Wagon Train
    • Women

Young Adult

  • Sub-Genres
    • Amateur Sleuth
    • Christian (Jewish)
    • Fantasy (comedic, scary)
    • Gay Teen (lesbian)
    • Historical
    • Other
    • Realistic Life
    • Science Fiction

Children’s Literature

  • Sub-Genres
    • By Children
    • Early Readers
    • Middle or Junior Readers (chapter books)
    • Picture Books
    • Pop-Up Picture Books
    • Traditional Stories

There Is NO Privacy On The Internet

For a couple days, this issue has been going around the various loops and blogs that I read, and I’ve resisted posting it because I figured y’all have seen it already. But John Scalzi came up with another twist on it, so I thought I’d share.

Here’s the initial story:
“Today’s Writing Contest To Run Like Hell From”

And here’s the update:
“First One Publishing and 404 Pages”

In essence, the first one talks about a writing contest with really awful rules, like: “By submitting an entry, all entrants grant Sponsor the absolute and unconditional right and authority to copy, edit, publish, promote, broadcast, or otherwise use, in whole or in part, their entries, in perpetuity, in any manner without further permission, notice or compensation.

And Scalzi goes on from there, ripping apart the contest rules. **shaking my head at contest sponsor** Did they really think they could get away with it?

The second entry says that the original web page with the rules has been taken off the sponsor’s website (hence people getting the “404” which is the web page error message saying the computer can’t find the page).

But his blog entry also goes on to state that no web page really disappears on the web… and he links to the page that Google has cached (held in storage on Google’s computers to make page loading faster). You may have to go to “View => Page Source” to read the whole set of rules… but they are there, for the whole world to see, even after the original page was taken off the website.

So, morals of the story:

1) Don’t create stupid rules for your contests

2) Check and double-check and triple-check every word you type into any website, be it your own website or Facebook or ANY! website… and include in this warning every EMAIL that you send… because once it’s saved/sent, consider it a permanent fixture on the internet. And I guarantee that if it’s not kind, generous, in good taste and professional… it WILL come back to bite you!!!

3) The web is NOT private, no matter what your privacy settings are set to, because anybody who can SEE your page, can also COPY your page and POST it or email it to anybody and everybody they choose. And there are many, many places that cache pages for various purposes. If that’s not bad enough, many people never delete their old emails, so every message you ever sent them is there for them to forward to another person at any time in the future.

4) And if you have kids, reinforce rules #2 and #3 again, and again, and again. They may think it’s cute or cool to post things on Facebook and blogs… but those things NEVER disappear. One of the first things colleges do is a web search on applicants. And EVERY serious job applicant will be searched on the internet before they are offered a job.

You never know who’s going to copy/forward/post/cache the things you post/email. Be VERY careful what you put out there.

My Blackberry Is Not Working!

I got this from my brother and couldn’t resist passing it along.

If you love British humor and plays on words… this is for you.

“My Blackberry Is Not Working!”

One warning:

  1. Put your drink down

The moral of the video (to make this a writing-related post) is to be very careful about the words you use in your stories.

Do the words that you use mean the same thing to your readers as they do to you?

False Suspense

A long while back, I edited a manuscript from one of my mentees.  The manuscript was aimed at a romantic suspense publisher, and while the story was good, and the characters were well handled, and the setting well done, the way she handled the suspense drove me absolutely bug-nuts.

I tried several times to explain my issue, but I didn’t have the words to explain the troubles I was having.  A couple weeks ago, I read a published novel that was obviously a first book, and this book used the same technique to handle the suspense, but this author took the technique so far to the extreme that I was able to clearly see what was driving me so bug-nuts about my mentee’s book.  Then last week, I read a book by a big name author who used the same technique, but used it effectively.

So here I will try and explain the technique I call “False Suspense”, using examples from “Mentee”, “FirstBook”, and “BigName”.

All three stories have a heroine with a nasty past that is going to come back and bite her.

In Mentee’s manuscript, the heroine begins the story already having a boyfriend, but after an incident where her picture ends up in a national tabloid, she dumps the boyfriend and meets the hero.  Heroine mentions a couple times to a friend “I have a nasty past”, but says nothing to the hero, and hero and heroine go along their merry way falling in love. Meanwhile, the reader gets intermittent scenes from the bad-guy’s POV, while the bad-guy plots his nasty plots.  Suddenly, at the black moment of the book, bad-guy poofs! into the hero and heroine’s life, captures the heroine and does typical bad-guy nasty things.  The hero, of course saves the day (it’s a romance after all), and the heroine learns all kinds of great things and the bad-guy is vanquished. But it left me unhappy in a way I couldn’t define.

In FirstBook’s book, the heroine again has a past that is going to come back and bite her.  In this case, heroine meets hero and they blithely proceed on their merry way falling in love, with the past briefly mentioned by the heroine to a friend, but again not to the hero.  Meanwhile, we-the-reader are given very lengthy scenes from five different police-people’s POV, plus the bad-guy’s POV… all talking about things that the hero and heroine are totally oblivious to.  At the black moment, the hero and heroine are completely blind-sided by the bad-guy, but they are saved by all the cops who are on the bad-guy’s tail, and the day is saved. I found it a deeply unsatisfying read.

Can you see the technique that both of these writers used?

False Suspense Technique

  • Have Hero or Heroine with a nasty-past that is going to come back and bite them.
  • Hero or Heroine share their nasty-past with a friend, or dream about the nasty-past, or things happen at various points in the story that require remembering the nasty-past, so the reader is sufficiently informed of the threat from the nasty-past.
  • Have Hero and Heroine meet, but because they are so fearful, the nasty-past isn’t shared until a very long way into the book, and maybe not until the nasty-past actually bites them.
  • Hero and Heroine blithely go along with their story completely oblivious to any threat.
  • Meanwhile, because there is no suspense in the Hero and Heroine‘s storyline suspense needs to be generated, so external POVs are inserted into the story, usually at least the Bad-Guy‘s POV, and often other people’s POVs also. All of which the Hero and Heroine are completely oblivious to.
  • At the Black-Moment, out of the blue as far as the Hero and Heroine are concerned, Bad-Guy attacks.
  • Bad-Guy is defeated and situation is resolved.

And after reading the FirstBook‘s story, I was able to see why it drove me so bug-nuts.

The book is supposed to be a suspense, but the main plot line contains no suspense until at the black moment when the main characters are blind-sided by a big bad thing they had no idea existed before.

The suspense was artificially created by the addition of a POVs that had no correlation to the main plot line.

And that annoyed me no end.

The technique might work for some readers –as it obviously did for FirstBook‘s agent and editor and her various readers who went on to buy her other books– but it doesn’t work for me, because I seldom read scenes written in the bad-guy’s POV, especially not long scenes written in the bad-guy’s POV.  When I read, I read for character.  I want to read about how the good guys face their world and their lives, I want to read about the lessons they learn, and how they learn the lessons, and I want to read about how good-people think, so I can become a better person.  As a reader, I really don’t care how the bad-guy thinks. In these two books, because all the “suspense” was carried by characters who I didn’t care about, I wasn’t invested in the story to the extent the author obviously thought I should be, and I wouldn’t buy another book by FirstBook.

Now, that all said, how did BigName author use a similar technique in a way that worked for me as a reader?

BigName‘s book began much the same.  Heroine had a nasty-past. Hero and Heroine meet, and Heroine hides past from Hero.  Bad-Guy’s POV appears in a couple shortish scenes.  But, in BigName‘s book, the two plot lines intersect about a quarter of the way into the book, rather than at the black moment… so the majority of the book is the Hero and Heroine dealing with both falling in love and the Heroine’s nasty-past.

The differences between the book that worked for me and the two that didn’t are three-fold:

  1. the main plot line contained suspenseful elements long before the black moment
  2. the hero and heroine didn’t get blind-sided by the bad-guy
  3. the bad-guy’s scenes were really short

In BigName‘s book, the hero and heroine worked together to deal with the situation, and as they did so, they learned and grew more together.  And for me, because the book was so much more focused on the main plot line rather than on side-people who I didn’t care about, it ended up being a much stronger and more satisfying book.

So… what would I deem a better technique for the circumstance when the lead character has a nasty-past that’s going to come back and bite them?

Effective Suspense Technique

  • Have Hero or Heroine with a nasty-past that is going to come back and bite them.
  • Hero or Heroine share their nasty-past with a friend, or dream about the nasty-past, or things happen at various points in the story that require remembering the nasty-past, so the reader is sufficiently informed of the threat from the nasty-past.
  • Have Hero and Heroine meet, but because they are so fearful, the nasty-past isn’t immediately shared.
  • Meanwhile, because there is no suspense in the Hero and Heroine‘s storyline suspense needs to be generated, so external POVs are inserted into the story, usually at least the Bad-Guy‘s POV, and often other people’s POVs also. All of which the Hero and Heroine are completely oblivious to.  All of which are kept as short as absolutely possible.
  • Somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of the way into the book, the nasty-past bites the Hero and Heroine, and two plot lines join.
  • For the rest of the book, Hero and Heroine are forced to deal with nasty-past, along with all other plot lines.
  • At the Black-Moment, Bad-Guy attacks, and Hero/Heroine are prepared to deal with him.
  • Bad-Guy is defeated and situation is resolved.

So, that’s my theory.  What’s yours?


Addendum: Several people have asked me: “Aren’t black moments supposed to surprise the characters?”  And, yes, the whole point of black moments is to surprise the characters, but it should be a surprise of scale and scope (it’s bigger and wider than they’d ever anticipated), rather than what I’m talking about here, where the characters have no idea that there even is a black moment approaching until it blindsides them.