Cutting Words Without Value

I have to admit that self-restraint around food isn’t one of my strengths. I like food a little too much. I’m working on down-sizing my appetite… and then hopefully my wardrobe.

One of the things I use to say when younger was about “unwanted calories”. If you aren’t going to enjoy eating something (e.g. the flavourless crusts on a pizza) then its “unwanted calories”. Why consume calories when it’s surplus to need and not going to be enjoyable either? It’s smarter on so many levels just to bin it.

There are certain words that have no value, just like unwanted calories. They add nothing to the story and so should be deleted.

One of the tasks I’ve done recently is to review every use of the word ‘that’. It is most often a filler word whose presence can be removed without altering the meaning of the sentence at all. I know I use it unconsciously. When I did my word frequency analysis I had a massive 735 ‘that’ uses.

that
A particularly bad example of THAT shame

My ‘that’ hunt eradicated it down to just 149 instances. A good hunt, indeed.

Thoughts on Cliffhangers

Cliffhanger: A suspenseful situation occurring at the end of a chapter, scene, or episode (source).

For months I’ve been promising a post on cliffhangers. You’ve been waiting, eagerly, like a kitten ready to pounce… and now it has finally come. Did you anticipate it? Was it a good cliffhanger?

I apologise that it’s taken so long, and for the never-ending stream of Dad-jokes which I have floating around in my head. There’ll be more in future posts, undoubtedly (I can’t turn them off).

Logo_of_the_100I wanted to write about cliffhangers after (re)watching The 100 on Netflix. It’s a great dystopian series.

(Side note: I complained a while back about some flaws with The 100. One of the things I’ve come to realise recently is that nothing is perfect. A great TV show that runs for multiple seasons will have bad episodes. The 100 starts out really promising, but takes some mis-steps along the way. Nothing or nobody ever measures up in every aspect (including myself), so we just have to take the good with the bad. And so I’m learning to appreciate the bits that worked well and not be disappointed that it wasn’t perfect).

Background: The 100

The basic premise of The 100 is the remnant of humanity live on a space station called The Ark following a nuclear event on Earth. However, unbeknown to most, The Ark is running out of oxygen. In an attempt to give themselves longer to solve the problem, 100 incarcerated teenagers are sent down to Earth – which may or may not be survivable yet. The 100 is the story of the teenagers surviving Earth, and all it throws at them.

Full of Cliffhangers

(Spoilers). The 100 has episode-after-episode (especially in the first season) where you just have to keep watching. It nails the concept of cliff hangers.

  1. E01: the plucky teenagers cross a river en-route to a needed food supply. They’re happy to be on the planet and enjoying nature. (After all, they’ve only ever known a sterile space station). They cross a river ‘Tarzan-style’, cheering jubilantly that they made it across. There’s love in the air and excitement and then a spear comes hurtling out of the trees and skewers Jasper in the stomach.
  2. E02: The adults aboard The Ark watch as the teenager’s bio-wrist bands indicate they are dying en-mass. Belamy, the bully is exerting his control over the teenagers. In the last seconds of the episode we see the teenagers being watched by a savage (“Grounder”) in the trees.
  3. E03: The protagonist (Clarke) makes up with best friend Wells, who for years she thinks has betrayed her. In reality his lies have been protecting her from the truth. Wells is on guard duty when a young girl sits down next to him. They have a little chat and then Charlotte stabs him in the neck and hums to him as he bleeds-out.
  4. E04: Clarke and her new flame Finn “get together”, just as Finn’s girlfriend, Raven, is coming down from The Ark. It’s going to get pointy in a way that a love-triangle does, with 3 points to stab and 3 edges to cut.
  5. E05: The Ark’s oxygen supply is worse than expected. They plan to kill off more people in a “malfunction”, when the truth comes out. Volunteers step forward to die so that others may live and are suffocated when the oxygen is turned off. Shortly thereafter, they see a signal from the Earth, letting them know that Earth is survivable (and the people died unnecessarily).
  6. E06: Belamy has a fight with his (loved) sister Octavia, saying things we know he doesn’t mean.
  7. E07: Up on The Ark the ruling council announces (to their members) that while there are 2,237 people on The Ark there is only enough drop ships for 700 people.
  8. E08: The teenagers are getting guns to protect themselves from a Grounder attack. Meanwhile on The Ark it’s revealed the new Council member is the one who tried to have the Chancellor (President) killed in E1.
  9. E09: An effort at diplomacy with the Grounders ends in sparking off a war. The teenagers think help is on its way when a drop ship comes down early, until it crashes into the ground (presumably with Clarke’s mum aboard).
  10. E10: The traitor, Murphy, who  they let back into their midst has turned over a new leaf and is helping to heal the sick. Only it’s just a momentary change and he sneakily kills someone in the last seconds of the episode.
  11. E11: Clarke and Finn are captured by Grounders and Monty mysteriously disappears.
  12. E12: The adults aboard The Ark plan to send the satellite down to Earth knowing that 95% of the station won’t survive re-entry.
  13. E13: After winning a big battle with the Grounders, a strange new enemy they’ve only heart of “the Mountain Men” come and abduct all the teenagers. Clarke wakes up locked in a Quarantine Ward, seeing Monty across the hall.

As you can see from this list, almost every episode ends on a cliffhanger, but not all cliffhangers are the same. From this list I can see a few variants:

  • Shock factor – something shocks the audience (this could be a good or bad shock). We’re not expecting Jasper to get speared in episode 1, and it turns the moment of triumph into defeat. And now, having known the danger is “out there” we’re completely shocked when a young girl (one of “their own”) kills one of the strongest teenagers (episode 3). We suddenly realise – again – that there’s more danger than we recognised.
  • Impending danger – could be danger to a character, or danger which threatens the plot (what the character intends to do). The Grounder watching the teenagers from the treeline in episode 2 is menacing. The teenagers are busy partying, not knowing that an enemy is so close by. At this stage we know so little about the Grounders that our lack of knowledge intensifies that fear. When Murphy starts killing sick people we wonder if they’ll discover his duplicity, and who might die first (episode 10).
  • A sense of dread – something bad is about to happen, or has just happened and we wonder what their response is going to be. This can be something that happens in the plot, or with the characters. The love triangle emerging (episode 4) and the “we just killed lots of people needlessly” (episode 5) are both senses of dread.
  • Something amazing – a lot of those above are negative/bad, but we can also be encouraged to keep reading because of something amazing happening. For a bad example, “He picked up a sword, to discover that it was a Sword of Truth”. Now, I have no idea what a Sword of Truth actually is, but I’m sure if I was reading that story I’d be wanting to know.

Notice how the types of cliffhangers are alternated and some are character-based while others are plot-based?

See too how the threat is often escalating (but not always). I agree with the Writing Excuses podcasters that cliffhangers are an ‘occasional device’. If every chapter ends in a cliffhanger it can induce weariness in the reader.

The key point is that all cliffhangers should be executed well. A bad cliffhanger, where you over-build the scenario and then under-deliver is cheating the reader. These should be avoided at all costs. (It would severely aggravate me as a reader… If an author did it to me twice I’d probably put the book down).

 

Based on The 100 I think one of the best places for cliffhangers in a novel is the first few chapters. In doing so, the hook is nicely baited.

Cliffhangers can be internal (in the body of the book) and external (at the end of the book). Great care needs to be taken with external cliffhangers. If you’re using them to bait the reader toward the next book, you need to make sure they won’t have to be waiting too long for you to release the next book.

Got any other types of cliffhangers or examples of good ones to add?

Writing a Synopsis

I’ve written before about the amateur author’s pendulum, and the indecisiveness of which route to choose. The spectrum is vast, with traditional publisher at one end and self-publish, release-for-free at the other end.

I’ve decided that I’m going to submit Vengeance Will Come to a traditional publisher. First and foremost, I want the gatekeeper to say I’m allowed through. I don’t want to self publish and (accidentally) add to the slush pile. I know I’m not experienced enough to judge my own quality objectively.

I also know myself. I don’t want to have to worry about things like cover art, promotion and marketing. (I realise there could be elements of this, but I don’t want to ‘go it alone’. I’d rather leave it to the experts).

So now I’m trying to write my very first synopsis. Trying being the operative word.

Organising Feedback

feedback-1793116_640

I’ve had a few rounds of feedback on Vengeance Will Come and have been mostly diligent in filing responses in a sub folder of the project as soon as I receive it. (If your inbox is anything like mine, things get lost in there like a grain of dirt swept up in a mudslide).

Sadly, that’s about where the organisation of feedback ended. (In my partial defence, I intentionally wasn’t processing the feedback straight away: I wanted a balance of opinions and some time to pass).

Here is what I’m going to do now, and in the future, before starting the revision process.

Compiling the Feedback

Create a Feedback Compilation document, which has the same structure (chapters and scenes etc) as the novel.

Go through each (feedback) document/email:

  • Where it’s a typo, grammar or obvious error (e.g. wrong character name), fix it in the manuscript immediately.
  • Where the feedback is incontestably wrong, ignore it. (If there is any doubt, don’t ignore it).
  • Where the feedback relates to a given chapter/scene place it in that location in the document. If it’s thematic feedback or has broader application than a single section I’ll add it to the top of the document.

    I’ll add three-letter initials of the reviewer in brackets at the end of the comment, just in case I want to know who provided it. Some reviewers opinions should hold more weight than others and it’s always helpful to be able to later clarify comments.

Colour Coding

  • If the tone of the comment is positive, change the font colour to something less stand-out than black. I’m leaving it in the document so I don’t accidentally “edit out” the bits people like. And, inevitably, there’ll be days when I need a motivational boost.
  • Where I disagree with the feedback I’ll add a comment in brackets as to why, and colour the font a grey. (It’s still there, but less important).
  • Where I agree with the comment (or enough reviewers pick up on the same issue) and it’s a major problem, apply bold and red font.

Summarising

  • Once I’ve added all the feedback from all reviews, I’ll group my related dot points (to see the weight of opinions). This might result in grey text I disagree with becoming black text. I might also paraphrase a collection of dot points down into a concise problem statement.
  • If reviewers disagree with each other then I’ll either side with one, or put both opinions in a table with two columns (pros and cons).

After all this work I should have a single document to use as a reference when editing each section of the novel.

If you write, what are your strategies for managing feedback?

It’s Hammer Time

In the beginning of Vengeance Will Come I have a made-up saying, a piece of wisdom:

A bar of steel is of limited use

But if it endures flaming trials

And is pounded upon by adversity

It can be shaped into many powerful things…

forge

Vengeance Will Come has been in the fires too long and I have too many other projects I want to progress. To continue the forge metaphor it’s time that some serious hammering occurs.

To that end I’m suspending all work on any other project until the current revision of Vengeance Will Come is complete. No other writing (excluding blog posts) and no programming, no matter how enticing the idea may be.

Ideally I’d like to finish by the end of July, but I’m not sure that’s realistic (based on past experience). In any case, I’m aiming to finish as soon as humanly possible.

And so, it’s hammer time! (Millennials won’t get the pun).

Quick Update

I have a few things I need to prepare for the coming weekend, so I have to make this quick.

I was in the process of writing a blog post on The Red Pill movie. I’ve done about 50% of it, but I’d rather take the time to formulate it well than put it out quickly. So that might hit the blog next week.

I’ve also made a good start on the next installment of my audience-driven story The Guardian. Remember, I’m looking for your input in directing the story.

I’ve decided to excise out the first few pages of “source material” from Vengeance Will Come. I really like these pages (draft here). The idea was that they set the scene for the series (not just the novel). But I also know there’s a real danger in having material which doesn’t relate to the book (setting promises and expectations, and then not fulfilling them). So I’m taking the pages out and instead turning them into a short story. I’ve started to mull it over in my head, and I’m calling it The Heretic.

halo halo brochureAlso, the other day the beautiful Mrs Ezard and I went out on a date. We thought we’d re-live the memories of visiting the Philippines by getting a halo halo dessert. (It didn’t matter at all to us that it was only mid morning).

Here’s what it looked like in the menu (right).

I don’t really remember what it tasted like in the Philippines except for really yummy. Pieces of jelly, beans, fruit, ice and delicious purple ice cream.

halo halo real

This is what it looked like when we received it. Ignore my smile, I wasn’t really sure what to think at this stage. I was thinking something along the lines of “wish I’d gone somewhere else…”

And I’d have to say, the resemblance to the menu is very lacking. One could say, fairly, incomparable.

I didn’t eat much of mine. No point consuming calories if the taste buds are whingeing.

 

 

halo halo 2

But I was on a mission to find good halo halo for the nephews and nieces so I tried another place a few days later. (The sacrifices I make, honestly 🙂 ).

The results were better (far nicer), but I’m not sure if the price justifies it.

Audience-driven Short Story: Guardian (1)

The Experiment: An Audience-driven Short Story

Do you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure genre? The reader would reach frequent decision points and choose what the point-of-view character did. These decisions altered the story line and possibly the eventual conclusion.

In a similar vein I’m going to try to write an audience-driven story. Periodically (weekly? fortnightly?) I’ll add a slab of text to the story and then present a choice for the readers. Based on votes (or suggestions they propose), I’ll then write the next installment of the story.

Obviously given the timeframe involved and my other writing projects, I can’t promise a highly polished story. (I also reserve the right to ignore suggestions if they’re obviously designed to ruin the story).

This might work out or it might fail, only time will tell. One thing is for sure: audience participation is required.


Guardian (Installment 1)

(Please note: this story is a work of fiction).

I’ve always had exceptional hearing, and ears appropriately sized for the task. I’m not sure if there is a hearing-equivalent of 20/20 vision, but if there is I’d ace it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not super-human, just well above the average. My ears got me into trouble a lot as a kid, with nicknames like Dumbo, Wingnut and Radar.

After I left childhood I thought my ears wouldn’t cause me any more trouble. When I heard the faint cry I should have let it be drowned out by the other ambient street noise, like it was for the dozens of other people around me.

The noise drew me into the alley between the shops. Just a few steps: I’m no fool. I wasn’t going to leave the safety of the road and all its witnesses. It was early afternoon and the alley was well lit, covered only by a few shadows at the back. I heard the cry again. My heart sunk. It was unmistakably a human cry so I couldn’t ignore it. I looked back to the street and the passers-by.

“Did you hear that?” I asked back toward the street. A young woman looked up from her phone. She shook her head but I doubt she even really heard me. Her electronic-possession reasserted itself and her attention returned to the phone as she walked off zombie-like.

There was another cry, a sad whimper. No one else seemed to hear it. Or maybe they just didn’t want to. But I’d heard it and had to investigate. The alley was empty except for two commercial bins on both walls part-way down. The cry must have come from behind a bin. I had no intention of putting myself in danger. Reality, however doesn’t consider intentions.

“Hello,” I called, hoping they’d show themselves, “is anyone down there? Do you need help?”

No movement. Nothing.

I hoped it was an abandoned baby or child and not some thug with an iPhone recording. No sooner had the thought occurred that I felt bad – why would I wish a child abandoned? I patted my pocket, annoyed to remember I’d left my phone at work.

I had to go down there.

I tried to loosen my shoulders and ready myself for anything even as my legs stiffened involuntarily. I tried to walk softly down the alley, one cautious step at a time. I glanced over my shoulder to reassure myself the people were still there, only a dozen or so metres away. If something bad did happen, they’d help me right? That’s what I told myself, but I knew in this day and age it was a 50/50 bet.

I looked around for a weapon, but there was none. My two flailing fists were all I had. They would flail if required…but given I’d never been in a fight, it was doubtful how effectively.

I was near the bins now, hoping that there was no one waiting inside of them ready to spring out on me. I heard the cry again and was relieved to see a child’s auburn-covered head behind the bin.

“Hi,” I said in a gentle tone as I walked around the bin, “what’s wrong?”

“Oh, crap!” I called out in surprise. Lying at the little girl’s feet was a huge African man, slumped against the wall. He was holding a wound in his chest, and there was a pool of blood growing around him. His face was covered in sweat, fixed in a grimace of pain and stubbornness.

“I’ll get help,” I promised.

“No,” the man said in a tired baritone voice, “just look after the girl.”

“Someone call 000, I need an ambulance. A man’s been stabbed,” I yelled at a passer-by. The rude woman pretended not to hear, but her pace increased.

“Look after the g–” he tried to say.

“You look after the girl,” I retorted, “we’ll get you help and you’ll be fine. She’s your daughter,” I said, before realising the only way this Caucasian child belonged to the dark African man was adoption.

“You can’t help me. Medicine won’t help–” the man grunted.

I tried to reassure him, like I’d seen them do in movies. “Don’t be silly, you’re not that far gone–”

“– me. I’m an Angel.”

It took a few seconds for what he’d said to register. And then a few more before I had any idea of how to respond.


What happens next? Post a comment below or send me an email to vote.

guardian-option1


Help over the fenceWant a beta-reader? I’ve been helped in my development process by other beta readers and now it’s my turn to ‘pay it forward’. Each month I’ll read a chapter of someone’s story and comment on it. To be eligible, just comment on one of my posts with “*Review*” in the comment and you’re in the running.