Category Archive: Voice

Guest Post: Advice from a Slush Pile Reader

Welcome guest blogger Alex Hurst! As a slush reader for a Science Fiction and Fantasy magazine, Alex has first hand experience getting stories out of the slush pile and into the hands of editors. And today she’s going to share what makes her recommend stories and what makes her pass…

Slush PileI have been a slush reader for a while now. I read for the semi-pro SFF magazine Fantasy Scroll Mag, and I love my work there. I read 10 to 20 submissions a week, and I probably flat out reject all but a handful every month. The reasons why are numerous: the author failed to check our magazine’s genres before submitting, I’ve read (and accepted) far too many stories with similar characters and theme (yes, zombies and vampires are still a hard sell), the story was not well-edited, etc.

While I don’t want to go on a tangent regarding the last, I will say this: some authors post that editing should not matter as much as it does, because, well, the publisher has editors for a reason. And yes, on the very, very rare occasion I read a story that is absolutely fantastic, sans some editing concerns, I still pass it on to my editor because the value of the story makes up for its structural woes. However, most markets are competitive and most (proper) markets pay you by the word. They want to be paying for good, polished words. Not second or third drafts.

A story with typos, syntax errors, and improper capitalization, among other things, gives slush readers huge red flags. Fantasy Scroll Mag prides itself on reading submissions all the way through, even when we’re pretty sure of our decision by the end of page one, but not every market has that luxury. Reading a story takes time, and especially for short fiction markets, the moment our mind starts thinking about how much longer it will take to finish reading, the “reject” has occurred.

In short, the old adage that your story’s first sentence, first paragraph, and first page are the most important elements is true. You typically have one page to convince a slush reader to keep reading. But that, alone, is not enough to get a slush reader to slap a “YAY” on your manuscript.

Here are four things that I’ve come to understand, as a slush reader, make the difference between the stories that end up in my reject pile, and those that I happily send off to my editor.

4 tips to get your story in the YES pile


This is, by far, the most common form of criticism that pops up in slush reader comments, but I think a lot of authors have trouble understanding what this really means.

The greatest writers that the world knows (Poe, Tolkein, Fitzgerald, King, Gaiman, etc.) all have one thing in common: their writing is recognizable. These writers employ cadence, alliteration, and deliberate vocabulary, elevating the act of reading until it is in and of itself part of the story experience.

Think of the litany of teachers, speakers, politicians, actors, and news anchors you have listened to in your lifetime. Think of that uncle of yours who has practiced telling his best stories so many times that, though embellished, you can’t help but listen all over again. Think of the greatest of those orators, and what made them great, or what made them… not. Apply that to your own writing.

If you can harness your own voice, and use it consistently throughout your work, nine times out of ten, any slush reader looking at your work is going to stay glued to the page until the very end. 


There is a modern trend in fiction that has, to an extent, abandoned the concept of the great epic. Long, drawn-out stories of battles and moral wars and the thousand deeds of Hero of the Year are out of style. Readers want to get up close and personal with the soul. This is true of any genre. Character is king.

This means that readers need to care about your character before the stakes are raised. The edgy hook that throws the reader into a moment of high tension at the very beginning (more on that in a moment) is starting to lose its effectiveness on slush readers, who, due to the style of reading required by the job, must read, not for casual enjoyment, but critically, straight from the outset.

Character development is particularly important and tricky. Character development is not simply getting Sally from Point A to Point B. It involves exposing her true nature by putting her in situations that she never would have been in before the start of the book and showing the reader what happens when she fails (more on that later, too). Strong characters equal strong story. Think of the characters in Catch Me if You Can––the plot is simple. It has been done a million different ways in a hundred different genres. But it is the characters, especially Frank and Hanratty, who carry the movie. It became more than a chase scene. More than a blue-collar James Bond. The film was alive with their juxtapositions and banter.

Go deeper with your characters. Make sure they are real people. Do that, and the plot might not even matter. The same can’t be said going the other way.


“The Hook” has been a long-time favorite device among authors to skip the boring preamble of a book and get straight to the action. It, on its own, is actually very effective. Most Hollywood movies use it to great effect––the audience’s heart rate starts pumping and excitement fills their veins… problem is, it’s been used to death in fiction, especially short fiction.

Some stories can still get away with using The Hook. I’m not advocating for the complete avoidance of it (and any advice that tells you to always or never do something should be taken with a grain of salt anyway), but I would caution authors to take care. The Hook can be very effective as long as the tension introduced is maintained for the rest of the story. Using a hook to draw the reader in, only to follow it up with a page or more of backstory, exposition, or flashbacks, kills any tension the opening provides, and for me, it’s generally hard to drum up the same level of energy again. Yes, your opening needs to be strong. But it’s also just the starting line. Tension should rise toward a climax in Western storytelling. Don’t fire all your pistons at once.


Finally, I want to talk about conflict: the thing that turns a room full of characters and the events in their world into a story. Conflicts come in all sizes and all complexities, but you’d better make sure your story actually has one, and you’d better make sure that your central characters have a crucial part to play in it. If all of your major conflict is happening, or worse, being resolved, off-screen, slush readers are going to wonder why they’re even reading about Axe Warrior Kraven at all. Character is king, but conflict proves his mettle.

It seems impossible, to some, to imagine a story where there is no conflict. But conflict also needs to match the length of the story in question. A 500-word story is going to have a simplistic conflict by necessity. A 80,000-word novel could not retain that same conflict, without adding an intense amount of complexity. As well, a story may have conflict, but it isn’t compelling or believable. Frank dropping his ice cream cone isn’t exactly compelling, but it could work for a flash fiction, if the author’s voice and character building are superb. A woman busting into a man’s life with the answers to all of his problems and the faults of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl isn’t really believable, and besides, if she never stumbles, there’s no conflict anyway, right? (No, his reluctance to commit isn’t really a conflict, either.)

Make sure that your characters are responding to the conflict stimulus in genuine, meaningful ways. Make sure they are in on the action. Make sure they need to be there to make the story work.

I’ll be honest with you. You don’t have to harness all four of these things to make your story work. But at the end of the day, my editor only allows me to give him one of three words: Yes, No, or Maybe.

One word to encapsulate all of your blood, sweat, and tears.

I can say “Maybe. This story was amazing, but the prose (author voice) never really drew me in.” Or I can say “Yes. I loved every word of this. The characters were believable and the story (conflict) kept me guessing. So well-written (author voice)! I couldn’t put it down until the end (not just a “Hook”).” Which one would you choose to spend your time on, as an editor with a limited budget and a maximum number of words to fill?


portrait-ii-version-3Alex Hurst was raised in the wilds of the south. Lightning storms and hurricanes created the playpens of her youth, and in the summers, she used to spend all of her time dodging horseflies in a golden river, catching fish and snakes with her bare hands, swinging from vines, and falling out of magnolia trees. These days, she tends to move a lot, and is currently on her way to Vancouver from Kyoto.

Alex writes primarily character-driven fantasy, when she’s not slush reading for Fantasy Scroll Mag. When it comes to fiction, Alex loves realistic characters in unreal worlds, high stakes and meaningful reflections on what it means to be human (or nonhuman).

Visit her at

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Audiobook Pitfall: Lack of Dialogue Tags + 1st Person POV

Serial podcastI began listening to audiobooks a few months ago. Though if I’m honest, it all started with the SERIAL podcast. Unable to resist the hype, I jumped on that bandwagon and was not disappointed – great storytelling! After it was over, I was in the habit of listening to something while I did dishes every night, so I tried other podcasts but none grabbed me. What I loved about Serial is that the whole season unfolds like a detective novel. That’s when I realized what I was really looking for were books I could listen to. Luckily, it’s the 21st century and audiobooks are all the rage.

If you’re interested in stats and studies, here are some articles about the growing popularity of audiobooks:

The New Explosion in Audio Books, The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 1, 2013

Global Audiobook Trends for 2014, Good E-Reader, June 5, 2014

Listen Up! The Audiobook Revolution, Publishing Trends, Jan. 7, 2015

Like the articles above mention, I’m a multitasking audiobook listener. Why not? I never have enough time to read all the books I want to, and audiobooks allow me to enjoy a novel when my hands and eyes are otherwise occupied. Because of audiobooks, I’m consuming twice as many stories each month. Yippee! Plus, I actually look forward to doing the dishes and cleaning the bathroom now that those chores mean I can enjoy a book.

But after a few months I’ve noticed that not all books convert well into audiobook format. So I’m starting this little series: Audiobook Pitfalls. The sale of audiobooks is on the rise, and most new releases (not just bestsellers) are now made into audiobooks as well as e-books and print books, so it’s important for authors to be aware of how their writing may or may not work without the visual cues of the page.

Audiobook Pitfalls

Pitfall #1 = Lack of Dialogue Tags + 1st Person POV

Let’s start with the dialogue tags. Commonly, writers are told not to use dialogue tags. If your writing is good, the reader should be able to tell who is speaking from the tone/subject/construction of the dialogue itself. And for the most part, I agree with that. However, when “no dialogue tags” is combined with “1st person POV” we run into this problem…

Did the protagonist say that out loud? Or was it just a thought in their head?

I found myself wondering this constantly during the last book I listened to. I won’t quote the book; instead I’ll make up a lousy example so you can see what I mean. Here we go:

I fiddle with the monitors until he finally breaks the silence.

“So, are we robbing this bank or not?”

Hell no! Cops are crawling all over this place.

I turn off the monitors. “I just think this isn’t the right time.”

So the basic construction of that example is:

  • Protagonist is in conversation with another character.

  • Character says something to protagonist.

  • Protagonist thinks something silently in their head.

  • Protagonist replies out loud to character.

When you’re reading it, you can see the quotation marks and it’s clear what is the protagonist’s thought vs reply. But when you’re listening to it, there’s no delineation. That audiobook I was listening to used this construct a lot, which meant I often reacted with, “Did the heroine just say that out loud?!” or “Why did she say that? That’s so stupid!” only to realize a line later, where she says something different, that the first line must have been in her head and the second line is the one she said out loud.

At least I think that’s what was happening.

If you want to be published, either traditionally or indie, audiobooks could be a big part of your market, and you don’t want confusion to be the dominant emotion people feel when listening to your story. So you may have to be a little more clear. Like this:

I fiddle with the monitors until he finally breaks the silence.

“So, are we robbing this bank or not?”

Is he crazy? Can’t he see that this place is crawling with cops?

I turn off the monitors. “I just think this isn’t the right time.”

So all I did there was put the other character’s pronoun in the protagonist’s thought. By using “he” it makes it clear this is something the protagonist is thinking, because if it was a reply the protagonist would have addressed the other character as “you”.

There you have it – another thing to look out for in your writing! On the plus side, audiobooks are awesome, so go forth and write great stories that are just as enjoyable to listen to as read.


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5 Tests for Writing Multiple POVs

Multiple POV means writing separate scenes from the viewpoints of different characters, staying in one character’s POV for an entire scene and not switching to another character’s POV until a new scene.

Stories with multiple POVs are difficult to write. I’ve read more books that attempted this technique and failed than books where multiple POVs not only worked but improved the story. But recently I began reading Neal Shusterman’s Unwind series and OH MY GOSH GUYS the first two books blew my mind with how well the multiple POVs were handled.

Unwind book series

Here’s a basic list of what Shusterman did right:

– Each POV character has a distinct outlook on the situation (main plot problem and world of the story).
– Each POV character has a unique role to play that affects the main plot.
– Each POV character has a fascinating and fully flushed out character arc (they change).
– Each POV character has their own complete storyline (no one is a mere sidekick to the others).

These are all great things to have in your novel even if you’re not telling it from multiple points of view, but if you are, these things become absolutely essential. Now the big question: if you’re writing a novel with multiple POVs, how do you know if you’re pulling it off? Well, I’ve made a little test for that.

Test That POV – is it warranted or unnecessary?

1) Does this POV character disagree with the other POV characters? Even if they’re pals, they better not have the same outlook or their POVs are redundant. The foundation of great multiple POV stories are characters with wildly different opinions and perspectives on the same situation.

2) Does this POV character give the reader crucial information regarding the main plot that could not come from another character? If yes, then you have a legit reason for telling the story from their POV. If another character could give (or worse does give) the reader the same information or perform the same actions, then this POV character is unnecessary.

3) Does this POV character change by the end of the story? If no, then this person isn’t affected enough by the plot to warrant telling the story through their eyes. Stick to POV characters who are deeply affected and changed by the story because readers will care about them more, and caring is what keeps people reading!

4) Is this POV character the hero of their own story? In other words, if you took away the other POVs, would this character still tell a complete story? For example, in Unwind the three main POV characters are Connor, Risa and Lev. If we only had Connor’s POV, we’d still have a complete story with an inciting incident, rising action, crisis and resolution, we just wouldn’t know as much about the situation (i.e. everything that happens outside of Connor’s viewpoint). Same if we followed just Risa or Lev. All of these characters could have carried the whole novel from just their POV, but the story is richer because their individual plots weave together. If a POV character couldn’t be the hero and carry the story, then they’re unnecessary.

If you’ve done this test and concluded that your POV characters are all necessary or discovered POVs that weren’t and cut them, the last thing to do is write a few scenes that switch between the POVs. But before you give these pages to beta readers, take out identifying names and gender hints. Replace all names with “Character” and all gender identifying pronouns with “they”, and ask your beta readers this:

Test That POV – is it distinct?

5) How many POVs did you read?

If you had four POV characters but your beta readers only identified two, a couple of your characters’ voices are too similar. Find out which ones and work on making them distinct.

It’s a lot of work to write novels with multiple POVs, but if done right, you might just blow some lucky reader’s mind. (Thanks Neal Shusterman!)


Footnote: For those who’ve read UnWholly, you know there are DOZENS of POV characters, too many to be heroes most people would argue. After all, some of these POVs are only used once or twice! However, each POV character is majorly affected by the story, even if just for that scene, and each experiences a change and gives the reader information no other character could know. So, impossible as it sounds, this test actually works on that novel. Honestly, that book blows my mind!


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V is for Vocabulary

BLAST_VFor writers, words make the Earth spin round. We can battle extraterrestrial invaders or colonize a new galaxy all with the power of our language. We use words every day, and yet we still want to blast them with a death ray when they refuse to obey. Today it’s all about the words and the struggle to contain the passive and rejuvenate the boring.

Since I’ve written a number of posts on developing historical fiction vocabularies, this post is more generalized.

3 Tips for Vocabulary

Use vocabulary as character markers and to develop relationships. Language helps create personalities. Everyone has spoken traits or quirks, and as writers we can use a few idiosyncratic words to make each character more memorable. I try to give the key characters a signature word or phrase. This helps keep dialogue clear without excessive tags. Creating a nickname can also make a character more memorable or create tension between characters. It’s not a coincidence that Han Solo always calls Leia princess, highness or your worshipfulness.

Vocabulary choices with or without author intention, will mark a character’s age and social status. If a character uses longer words and a more varied vocabulary, the reader will perceive them as educated and/or older. If a child talks the same way, they might come off as fake (or as a prodigy). Foreign words can also help differentiate characters. Just be very careful about this technique. Recently I read a book where only one character spoke with a peppering of French words. When the same words showed up in the mouth of another character, it pulled me right out of the story and sent me flipping back and forth looking for clarity.

Picking memorable words: a curse or a blessing? When you use a distinctive word, you are rolling the dice. Some readers will appreciate your ingenuity; while others will hate you for making them look up a word. Think about your ideal reader. If you’re writing a smart political thriller, using advance vocabulary gives a feeling of credibility. You can also get away with a distinctive or archaic word if you want to make the character sound strange or dated.

2 Examples for Vocabulary

I know some writers who don’t read the classics, but they are a great place to build your vocabulary. I don’t think you can go wrong with Edith Wharton. Three Pulitzer nominations are hard to beat. If you can’t manage one of her novels, try her short stories.

Short stories in general are a good bet. If you get a collection of them, you can use it to focus on how each writer’s vocabulary selections help shape the tone of the stories. You might like one of these easy to read classics:

Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
The Telltale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

1 Link for more help

If you still need more help, try this post on 5 simple ways to improve your vocabulary from Write It Sideways.



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U is for Unreliable Narrators

BLAST_UI love unreliable narrators because they go hand-in-hand with surprise endings. No matter the genre, when a narrator is not telling the truth there is mystery in the story.

3 Tips for Writing Unreliable Narrators

Track the truth. Whether the narrator is lying on purpose or not, you the writer need to keep track of what really happened. Depending on how complicated the plot is, this might require a simple list or a detailed spreadsheet comparing the real truths versus narrator falsehoods. 

Conviction. To make an unreliable narrator believable, everything the narrator relates must be done so with conviction, either because the narrator believes his own lies or convincingly acts like he does. That said, always write like you believe the lies too!

Consistency. Going hand-in-hand with conviction is consistency. The narrator should be unreliable in the same way all the time. This creates a pattern that makes the narrator believable, whether readers know the narrator is unreliable from the beginning or they don’t find out until the end. Yes, believability is important even if the reader is aware the narrator can’t be trusted.

2 Examples of Unreliable Narrators

CODE NAME VERITY. This novel is an excellent example of conviction. The narrator makes not only the reader believe her story, but the other characters involved. After all, her life depends on it!

DANGEROUS GIRLS. This novel is an excellent example of consistency. The narrator never wavers from her story, even when others doubt her, even when the evidence is stacked against her, so much so that the reader can’t help but believe her! So when the truth comes out at the end, even though we suspected it, it’s still a surprise.

1 Link for more help

Here’s a post on the do’s and don’ts of writing unreliable narrators in 1st person POV who are purposefully lying. How can narrators lie if readers are in their heads? Read the post to find out!

If you’re just joining us, here’s a list of more BLASTOFF to Stellar Writing posts from last week:

O is for Outlines

P is for Pinch Point

Q is for Questions

R is for Reversals

S is for Writer Sins

T is for Trello

Coming Up:

V is for Vocabulary

W is for Writer Wellbeing

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N is for Narrative

BLAST_NNarrative is a story’s fuel, and just like rocket fuel, if you use the right amount you head for the stars in style. Add too little, and you get no lift off. Add too much, and we know what happens, and it’s not good. To make matters more complicated, narrative is a compound – POV, dialogue, tense, voice and more all working together. Mix the ingredients wrong and you will spoil the formula.

3 Tips for Narrative

Keep it interesting and keep it moving. Too many writers slip into passive, telling prose without even realizing it. Dump those sentences with “to be” verbs and find better verbs. I never want to read another sentence with more than one “has”, “had”, or “was” in it. Please, just stop! Narratives with too many of these verbs read like someone is making a shopping list. And I shouldn’t have to say this, but here goes: show, don’t tell. You can describe just about anything in active and engaging terms, it just takes more work.

When in doubt, cut it out. Chances are if you’ve started to question the number of sentences used in the description of anything, you’ve already gone too far. Most writers have a greater tolerance for our own narratives than their readers, so don’t overwrite. Keep Chekhov’s Gun in mind; never put a gun on the wall unless you intend to use it. I tend to mitigate this classic advice a bit. My theory is: hang the darn gun on the wall if it works to enhance the setting, but don’t tell me about the disabled firing pin unless you intend to use it.

Don’t wed yourself to a single narrative formula. Unfortunately narrative formulas, like genres, rise and fall in popularity. A while back everyone wanted to write books in the first person, present tense formula. However, every writer’s strengthens are different. Every story project is different. Don’t become attached to a narrative formula that isn’t working for you and your story, find the one that works best instead. Every writer, agent and publisher wants to find the next great new voice. And the way a writer finds their voice is by experimentation and hard work. You will never find your voice if you’re always chasing the style of another writer or trying to catch a popular narrative style wave.

2 Examples of good Narrative

You just can’t beat Mark Twain in fiction or in nonfiction for having a distinctive voice. His gift of using dialects, colloquial language, is unmatched. He could write for kids or for adults. He just nailed narrative is so many ways. If you don’t have the time or the inclination to reread some of his longer works (since most of us read them in school), read his short stories and get a feel for his unique style that way.

Next I’m picking SOULLESS by Gail Carringer. This book pretty much put steampunk as a genre on the map. Prior to Soulless, steampunk lingered at the Sci-Fi fringes for decades, loved by some (like me), but it just couldn’t hit mainstream popularity. Carringer lifted it out of obscurity with her refreshingly witty style (clearly influenced by one of my favorite writers P. G. Wodehouse) and sparked hundreds (if not thousands) of copycats.

1 Link for more help

This one was hard, we have too many posts to pick from.  I’ll go with Heather’s Reading for Writers 101: Narrators.

And in case you’re just joining us, here’s our April A to Z list thus far:

A is for Antagonist

B is for Backstory

C is for Character Change

D is for Dialogue

E is for External Conflict

F is for False Stakes

G is for Genre

H is for Heroes

I is for Internal Conflict

J is for Juxtaposition

K is for Kittens!

Coming up:

O is for Outlines

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D is for Dialogue

BLAST_DWelcome to day four of the Write On Sisters Blogging from A to Z Challenge. Today we BLASTOFF with D is for Dialogue.

This is ground control, come in Space Station! Repeat! Come in Space Station!

… Communication link disabled …

We don’t think much about how we talk to others until it’s gone. If you’ve ever gotten laryngitis you will know what I mean. It makes you feel helpless!

It seems counter intuitive, but we just can’t write dialogue the way we talk in person. Real verbal communication is full of non speech sounds and dull pleasantries. Here are some simple tricks to keep your crew talking.

3 Tips for Improving Dialogue:

  • Think about the communication goal. Why do these characters need to talk? Is it to show character bonding or fighting? Is it a way to transmit background information to the reader? Unless there is a plot-related reason for the exchange, your dialogue might be story filler.

  • Don’t use dialogue to tell the reader information they already know from the narrative. Instead use the dialogue to develop new story elements, increase the tension, build character relationships and bring in backstory components.

  • Don’t use tags carelessly. If only two people are talking you may not need any tags at all. In a group scene, consider foregoing tags in the early drafts as a great way of evaluating how successfully you’ve created distinctive character voices and physical tells. You will need some tags, but not as many as you might think.

2 Examples of good dialogue craft:

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again here: novel writers should read plays and scripts. This is where you will find the best examples of clever, sharp, raw, inventive and boundary stretching dialogue. These are the writers that live to put words into characters’ mouths! Don’t cheat yourself of their wisdom.

  • Read Shakespeare. They are all good, but A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Much Ado About Nothing are my favorites. Yes, the language is archaic, but the timing, the banter and the quality of the conversation is just unmatched.

  • Read, watch or just live in the moment that was Veronica Mars. Not the movie; stick with the TV show. Witty, intelligent and able to stand the test of time, this show has some of the best dialogue ever put on TV. Or study Sherlock, another solid dialogue standout.

1 Link for more help:

We have a number of posts on writing dialogue (use our search in the sidebar to find them), or just read this one by Heather. I think it’s our best one.

Screenwriter Tips for Novelists: Writing Dialogue

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How To Choose A Main Character

In a novel, the main character must go through a life-changing event that transforms them by end of the book. (For more read What Is Character Change and How to Create Character Change.) With that in mind, it should be easy to know who is my protagonist, right? Just build the novel around whoever has the biggest change to make! Except in my current WIP I’m not sure who that is. Who to Choose?Both potential heroines will change by the end, but who should lead the story?

This wouldn’t be such an issue if I wrote in the omniscient 3rd person. But I really want the story to be in 1st person, hence the need to make a choice.

Now you’re probably thinking I can just write it from both their perspectives. Problem solved! But multiple POVs should only be used for two reasons: 1) the characters have very different ways of seeing the same situation, and/or 2) the characters inhabit separate plotlines. A good example is Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka – three girls with contrasting views on their polygamous community. And each girl has her own story to tell, though they overlap a lot.

That’s not the case in my story. Sure, they see things differently because they are separate people, but not enough to warrant telling the story from both their POVs.

So I came up with some questions to try to figure out who would be the best Main Character, Taryn or Eve:

Q: Which character’s life is changed most by the story’s series of events? A: Taryn.

Q: Who wrestles the biggest demons? A: Taryn.

Q: Who has the ability to save the day? A: Both.

Q: Who is actually trying to save the day? A: Eve.

Q: Who propels the action of the story forward? A: Eve.

Q: Who will rise from the ashes at the end? A: Both. Or just one. Wow, this could go either way.

Q: Who has the goal that is easiest to root for? A: Eve.

Q: Which character is the best window into the story? A: Depends on the genre.

After the first questions, I was pretty sure Taryn was the main character because her demons are bigger and therefore her change should have a greater impact on the reader at The End. But the next few questions made it apparent that Eve leads the story and is easiest to root for. However, the last question was a revelation: different genres require different main characters.

If I was writing a coming-of-age story, the main character’s change would trump all. But I’m not. I’m writing a mystery thriller, and for that type of story the character who has less information makes the best “window” because the reader can experience her fear and frustration as she figures out the mystery.

Therefore, my main character has to be Eve because Taryn knows too much.

Laying it all out like that makes it seem obvious, and I’m embarrassed to say that took me months to figure out. Oh well, another thing learned in the seemingly endless quest to be a better writer!

Anyone else ever have trouble choosing your main character?


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Pros & Cons of Breaking the Fourth Wall

My youngest illustrates a stage actor breaking the fourth wall.

The technique of breaking the fourth wall generally applies to plays, TV shows and movies. It means that a character talked directly to the audience. The term originated from the idea that a theater stage is made up of three solid walls, the fourth wall is invisible. The audience looks past this last wall like voyeurs. Whenever an actor leaves behind the other players and momentarily includes the audience in his dialogue, he’s breaking the imaginary separation between the pretend world of the stage and the real world. In TV and movies they have the actor looking right into the camera as they speak. Monty Python was famous for breaking the fourth wall, as was filmmaker Mel Brooks. In fact it’s fairly common to see comedies break the fourth wall. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is another great example; that movie breaks the fourth wall from start to finish with useful tips on how to avoid going to school.

As I fight my way through my latest writing project, I’ve learned breaking the fourth wall is one of the many tricky issues a writer of a frame story might encounter. According to the Urban Dictionary:

“In fiction, “breaking the fourth wall” often means having a character become aware of their fictional nature.”

One of the most common ways a writer breaks the wall is to have a narrator foreshadowing or telling the reader about an event outside the frame of the other character’s viewpoint. Sometimes they will do this by addressing the reader as “the reader.”

Some writers believe this is just another form of literary direct address. Others say we should discount the effect if the primary narrator is the one speaking to the reader. The logic behind this claim is the reader always expects (to some degree) for the narrator to speak to them.

I think we can differentiate between a standard narration from one that breaks the fourth wall by style and content. A standard narration might tell the reader about the character’s back story, or impart information about the surrounding events or even remind the reader of a past event.  When a narrator comments on future events or tries to bring the reader into the story with a question or direct comment, I think the narrator has broken the wall.

Pros for breaking the fourth wall:

  1. It grabs your attention. Starting The Book Thief with Death speaking made me read faster and I think others would agree.
  2. It can help make the events seem urgent.
  3. It lets the writer reveal something they want the readers to know, but that characters can’t or shouldn’t know about.
  4. The structure allows for a character to form a one-on-one relationship with the reader.
  5. Since breaking the wall is often told with a first person POV, the reader feels he is being personally addressed and perhaps that character cares about him. This is particularly true in children’s books.
  6. The character can appeal directly to the reader and advise him and act as a guide. It’s not uncommon for the character to impart valuable advice or a message to readers during the exchange.
  7. Depending on the characters, it can make them more personable to the reader or make them seem even more horrifying and deadly.

Cons for breaking the fourth wall:

  1. It’s easy for the character to come across as crazy or stupid.
  2. It can feel like the writer just made a mistake.
  3. If done too subtly it might go unnoticed.
  4. Done too heavy and it can disrupt the fantasy and drag the reader out of the story.
  5. It can overshadow the story too much, reducing tension.
  6. It can disrupt the pacing of the novel and make the reader feel like the story keeps stopping.
  7. It can seem clumsy, awkward or downright laughable. That’s great in comedy, not good for other genres.
  8. The writer might flat out confuse the reader or leave him unsure how to respond to what he just read.
  9. It reminds readers they are reading. It eliminates the readers from recast themselves as the lead character.
  10. Worst of all, some readers hate it. This is a big one, there are loads of rally cries against breaking the wall and readers that find the act unforgivable.

I like it when a great writer breaks the wall, it’s daring and adventurous. And sometimes being willing to take a risk is just what a writing project needs. I’m not sure if the fourth wall will come down in my project or not, but I’m picking up my literary hammer and giving it a good whack. For now I’ll just see what happens. Maybe I’ll make a dent or maybe I’ll turn that wall into rubble.



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Retro Robin: You Are Mistaken, Mr. Darcy: How to Use Literature to Build Your Fiction Vocabulary

We’re running retro-posts for Robin while she’s moving into her new house. Hurry back, Robin, we miss you!

PridePrejudice423x630The ability to mass produce books gave birth to the popular novel, the Bronte Sisters, George Sand and perhaps one of the best-loved novelists of all time, Jane Austen. Since Austen’s first book was released over two centuries ago, people have studied her work. We love her books because they’re packed with social humor and memorable characters. They’ve been copied, adapted for media, and countless modern writers have expanded on her universe with new plot twists. For those of you writing in England’s Regency era, Austen might represent the first or only stop you’ll make in vocabulary collection.

However, for most of us, no single author (or collection of authors) ever generated enough work to cover all of our needs. In addition, popular novels were written by the privileged classes, for the privileged classes. Today, we can take universal literacy for granted in much of the world, but in the past, the best someone from the lowest classes could hope for was to make their mark (write their name) and little else. If you want to create a more balanced approach to vocabulary development, you should expand the search to include poets, playwrights, and children’s novelists.

  • Poets push the boundaries of language, pulling from the archaic as well as the newest slang. They understand human nature, they can be bawdy and off color, or deeply spiritual and romantic. Poets were often interested in the lower classes, and looking for ways to make the people in power see the depravity and poverty that surrounded them. Often these deeper messages are lost on modern readers, so you will need to seek out annotated versions whenever possible. Depending on your era, you’re bound to find a few poets tucked away in the history. Poetry collections are often a good place to start. Zero in on a few poets, and let them give you the words to describe what society was feeling.
  • Many authors complain about not knowing how people talked in the past. For the most part, it’s a fair gripe. Studying letters can help, but plays help even more. Plays contain dialogue. We can’t take it for granted the dialogue is 100% accurate, but it can’t hurt to give it a shot. Lucky for us, Wikipedia to the rescue. Check out their List of Playwrights by Nationality and Birth dates, it’s quite impressive. Let’s say you’re writing a novel set in 1850’s Australian, no problem, try playwright Garnet Walch. Playwrights by nature love the spoken word, so look for puns, funny sayings, or for them to use words in non-traditional ways.
  • Last, I advise you don’t dismiss children’s fiction. Children’s literature is often ripe with what scares society. The 1800s started a boom in children’s books that never abated, and many of history’s leading writers have ventured into the field. Some achieved lasting success only with the children’s fiction. Most people know J. M. Barrie for his “play” Peter Pan. But he was also the foremost playwright of his generation and produced a huge body of important work. Or Frances Hodgson Burnett, best known for The Secret Garden, she also wrote well-respected adult works, as well as plays, and magazines articles. The vocabulary of children’s fiction can be light and playful; and it’s often affectionate and very charming.

Remember there are drawbacks to relying exclusively on novels. Balance your vocabulary acquisition by drawing from lots of different sources. And think about what you’re reading. Just because a book is old, doesn’t mean it’s an accurate source. Look for writers who wrote about their own time, and watch for those veiled metaphors. A simple phase could be a surreptitious stab at the government, or a stealthy dig at the social order.

The tips I gave you last week for building a historical vocabulary collection all apply here. You can access a large body of public domain fiction online, and then use your ereader’s highlight and note functions to make the task easier to manage.

Up Next from Robin … Walking the Tightrope: embodying yesteryear, while embracing today’s reader

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