Sunday, July 31, 2011

And The Plot Thickens

I always wanted to say that.

Last time I spelled out my formula for plotting a novel. I don’t think the method is anything special but does rely on one key element: writing the final chapter, the climax to how it ends.   The reason is to prevent wandering.  I’ve read books that just seem to be all over the place until they get to the ending. Let’s face it. It’s like driving in the fog.  As long as you steer in the general direction, you should eventually get there.  Of course that wastes fuel and time and makes trip longer than it should be.

Foreshadow! Never pull a rabbit out of the hat. Leave that to magicians. The best bad example I have seen recently was in the movie RED PLANET.  I won’t tell you all the foreshadow mistakes this movie makes, but let me share one that won’t totally ruin the plot. The astronauts stranded on the planet surface are told about a massive storm coming. Temperatures are in the negative double digits, blinding snow is coming, and the storm is the size of Montana according to the captain on the mother ship still orbiting the planet. Golly! What are they going to do? Luckily one of the astronauts remembers a cave a short distance back. Yipee! They’re saved. Never saw that coming.

What do you do when you paint yourself into a proverbial corner?  Complicate things! Add a new plot element.  Say our super spy is tied up in a burning building left to die.  He’s not Houdini and no way can he escape. What to do? Bam! The side of the building explodes. In walks a hot chick in a tight leather suit who cuts him loose and drags him out. He recalls she was the pretty brunette in the bar earlier that evening that he hit on, but really she was sent by the home office to keep him out of trouble.

And that, by the way, is foreshadowing.

Ron D. Voigts is the author of PENELOPE AND THE BIRTHDAY CURSE, available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Perfectly Planned Plots

Okay, they don’t exist. But I decided to show you my method. If characters are the food you serve your readers, then consider this one way to plan the meal.

·         Get an idea and a character. Remember Old Lady Grayson from a few blogs ago.  She rummages in a dumpster behind Jack’s Steak House and finds more than just dinner.

·         Run with it. Go wild.  Flesh this thing out. The dumpster reeks in the 99 degree afternoon. Somebody plays loud music and a rat scampers out from some garbage. She reaches for a bag of chicken nuggets and finds a cold, limp hand, covered in cooking grease.

·         Now we’re cooking. Keep writing more characters and more stuff happening. She can’t go to the police because she’s wanted for armed robbery twenty years ago, so she heads over to Big Mike, the local drug dealer and tells him. Why? Don’t know yet what their relationship is, but it’s coming.  Mike calls Dirk Dixson, ex-cop and troubleshooter. Dirk arrives with his buddy Weeds. The plot thickens.

·         Keep writing more characters and more stuff. Add some subplots. At some point, you will have an Eureka moment and know where this is all going. You’ll know how it ends.

·         Stop and write the ending.  Doesn’t have to be great, but flesh out what you can. In our story, two bad cops are chasing Dirk through an old warehouse at the water front while Weeds bleeds to death outside. I’m not going to tell you more, but Big Mike may show up and Old Lady Grayson may find out she’s no longer on America’s Most Wanted.

·         Now fill in what comes in between.  This may mean fixing things you’ve already done and taking notes about what comes next.  I always tuck them at the end of the manuscript and erase once I accomplish the task.

Next time: some tips to spice up the plot.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

My First Box of Books

 I feel like a proud papa displaying a picture of his kids. Something about opening the box and seeing them brings home the reality--I am published.  You'll have to excuse me, but this is a great moment.  The last time I saw so many books with the same cover, I was standing in a Barnes and Noble.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Vampire's I Have Known

The show Dark Shadows came on TV around the time I was in high school.  Everyday I’d rush home to catch the next episode and see what was happening in Collinswood and how Barnabus Collins was doing. By college days, I attended more than one Halloween party wearing a black suit, cape and fangs that looked more like the choppers of a werewolf. And there were the Dracula movies with Christopher Lee who even without fangs looked creepy.

Later, I took a writing class and wanted to write something with vampires in it, but the teacher tried to talk me out of it. She said vampires had been done too much. Nothing new could revive the tired concept. Actually I finally wrote the short story under her guidance and it became a shambles.

Anne Rice came along with her vampire tales and proved the writing teacher wrong.   I read The Vampire Lestat first and then Interview with Vampire.  Didn’t care much for Queen of the Damned. But 2 out of 3 is not bad.

With the advent of the Twilight series, vampires are everywhere.  My daughter is a great fan of Edward and recently has gotten me to read Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, which has some vampires in it. Actually I was more interested I the steampunk aspect.

Yesterday, I watched on Netflix Let Me In and found it to be a 5 star movie.  What makes it good is the vampire aspect is not the central theme.  The story is about a lonely boy, Owen, who’s confronted daily by bullies.  His mother’s an alcoholic and his father’s shacked up with a woman named Cindy. New tenants move in next door. In their first meeting, Abby, who looks like a twelve year old girl (more or less), warns him that he doesn’t want to be friends with her. Despite her quirkiness, like not being out in the day time, going barefooted in the snow, Owen accepts Abby for who she is, another lonely soul, trying to get by in life.

Enough of my vampire stories, what’s your take on this biting subject?

Thursday, July 21, 2011


I love self-checkout.  It provides me the opportunity to avoid having to become friends with a checkout clerk or risk having my bread bagged with the can goods and my dozen eggs placed under a frozen capon.  “Good morning, Miss Latisha.  I love that nose ring and your acne is clearing up nicely.”

But problems must be overcome.  The space in self-checkout is a little a larger than a TV tray table, the built in scale is sensitive and the pleasant little voice is sensitive, too.  Here is typical checkout scene with my words in caps and the little voice in italics.

Please scan your first item.
Scan 2 liter bottle of Coca-Cola. Beep! Put it in bag. Scan second bottle. Beep! Put it in the bag. Move bag to scan more stuff.

Please put the item in the bag.

Scan more soda. Beep! Beep! Move the bag to make room for more stuff.
Please put the item in the bag.

Scan bottle of Ragu spaghetti sauce. Beep! Put in bag.

Please remove the last item scanned.

The human assistant at the control console gives me a nod and the problem goes away.
I try to purchase two Asian pears.  This is the lookup item without a barcode function that must be entered by either typing in a four digit code or comparing it to it picture.  The pears have no code number and after going through ten pages with sixty icons each I’m stuck. So, I look to the human assistant, but she's gone helping Latisha on aisle seven.

I wait and lean on the produce scale (not the tray table scale.)

Unknown item on the scale.
The human assistant returns and punches in the code for navel oranges at $1 each and puts them in the bag.

I scan a can of peas, a can of tomatoes and a can of tuna.  The system locks up and displays a message on the screen. Please Wait for Assistance. And yes, the human assistant is again gone, spreading goodwill on some other checkout line.
She finally returns, scans her employee ID card through the card reader and enters a sequence of numbers known only to her and the CIA.  The system returns to normal again.

I touch the checkout icon on the touch screen.
Do you have any coupons?

Tap the NO icon.
Is there anything at the bottom of your cart?

NO icon.
How do you wish to pay?

Do you wish cash back?

 NO icon.
Is $12.83 okay?

It’s fine with me, but now I’m trained to tap the NO icon.
How do you wish to pay?


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Helpful Hints for Serving Characters to Your Guests

Now that I’ve given out my recipe for creating characters, here are a few serving suggestions.

To avoid confusion, keep a list of the characters’ names, alphabetize it and make sure the first letter is different for each one. You don’t want to confuse your readers as they cook along eating up the prose you’ve served.  You wrote Peter loves Mary, but they caught Paul loves Margaret.

Introduce your characters slowly.  You got a cast of thousands, but spare your readers the memory exercise.  Frist scene, do two or three characters. Bring along a character for the next scene and toss in another face or two. By Chapter four you got the entire cast laid out and your reader has a good idea who’s who.  Imagine going to a party and the host introduces you to all fifty guests in fifteen minutes. You don’t remember anyone and end up hanging out all evening at the snack table to avoid embarrassing yourself.

Same logic holds when you finally do get to the point where you’ve got the entire Mormon Tabernacle Choir in it.  Let two or three characters carry scene. If you must let one in, let another drop out.  I was at a luncheon the other day and noticed at our table of six, two people carried the conversation while the rest nodded and fed their faces. Same holds true for fictional characters.

Enough talk about food, I’m head out to the kitchen for a snack. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Secret Sauce to Character Development

Or how not to make your character look like a turkey.

I've read plenty of books on character development. Filling out six page profiles. Answering questionnaires. Writing biographies.  My advice is screw it.  You came into this wanting to be writer, not an HR manager.

Here are my six easy steps.

1. Start writing. If it's a novel, do around 10K words. For a short story, most likely the whole thing. This is not fixed, but you want to be at a point where you know what you want in your characters.

2. Find a key characteristic or two that sets the character apart from the rest. Make sure you have some well-defined, unique traits. Big Mike is mean. Old Lady Grayson pinches pennies.

3. Name them.  Think about it carefully because the name must match the person. Is he Michael or Mike or Big Mike or Mikey? Each one conjures up a different image.

4. How do they look?  No one cares about hair color or the shade of their eyes.  But Old Lady Grayson's hump is getting bigger, or half of Big Mike's left ear was shot off.  Guaranteed no one will forget them.

5. What do your characters sound like? They all talk differently. They will have tag lines.  You have to hear them. "Hey! You wanna settle it out back in the alley?" Bet you know it's not Old Lady Grayson speaking.

6. If you can link them up with someone you know or someone from real life, great! Just be careful of too much coincidence and maybe toss in a disclaimer at the beginning that any resemblance to people living or dead is poorly coincidence.

That's it.  Too simple?  The most memorable characters are the ones that stand off the page.  And don't fret about being too one dimensional. Big Mike may just have a tender moment, and Old Lady Grayson will find some way of giving back.

So what's your secret to writing a slam-bang character?

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Great American Conspiracy

I vowed to dedicate this blog to writing and self-publishing.  So, today I plotted a short story and went to Walmart to do some shopping.  There!  We talked about writing and now onto the shopping conspiracy.

Egg come in three sizes: large, extra large and jumbo at prices that hover around the cost of a gallon of gasoline.  I recall when  they once came in small, medium and large. By today's standards, therefore, a small would be about the size of a pigeon's egg or possibly a quail's.

The shelves are stacked with denim jeans ranging in size from 30 to 36, with an occasional 38.  I am a 42. I admit that I should lose weight, but a quick glance around at my fellow shoppers indicates that I am in a majority when it comes to waist size. So where are my fellow shoppers buying their jeans?

Toilet paper in the Men's room comes in a metal box comparable to a metal vault for protecting valuables and is located at the most awkward place to access. The one I encountered today was two feet off the floor, required groping to find the tissue end and came out looking more a rope of toilet paper.

Ice cream containers are shrinking. No shock there. 2 quarts. 1.75 quarts. 1.5 quarts. Surprisingly the containers' width have not changed so they look the same on the freezer shelf.  The secret is they are getting narrower.  The down side is eventually if they keep shrinking, my ice cream scoop will no longer fit, but on the up side, it's easier to find space for them in my freezer without much rearranging.

Does someone somewhere think they're fooling us?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Character coincidence? I think not!

I was talking to my wife earlier tonight about the Penelope book. Basically I explained how writers draw from their experience, embellishing and elaborating what they know. I gave her few examples. Then she asked me about the character Uncle Elmer. Here is brief description of him from the book.

"Uncle Elmer was her father's brother, but they looked nothing alike. While Father stood erect, Uncle Elmer slouched. Father had hair, Uncle Elmer had a few strands combed over a bald pate. Father's face was bold and sharp, Uncle Elmer's mug was soft and squashed."

When she asked me where he came from I couldn't answer. He just came out of my subconscious I guessed, but I kept thinking I'd met him before. Then she said, "He reminds me of my Uncle Bruno." She was right! All this time I had been writing about her uncle and never realized it. Now a quick point: her uncle was not a gangster as was my character, but otherwise I had sized him up pretty good.

Do you have an Uncle  Bruno in your story?

Monday, July 11, 2011

I'm a Movie Junkie

I admit it.  A writer should read, but give me a movie. 2 hours, 2 -1/2 tops, and I've whizzed through a complete story.  I gained insight into character development.  I get awesome ideas for setting.  And a plot structure can be analyzed.  Oh, yes. One thing more. I have been entertained.

That’s the key to a good movie or a good book.  If the watcher, or reader, doesn’t get drawn in so she cannot walk away, the first test has failed.  I has not been entertaining.  Here’s my most recent movie list.
THE KING’S SPEECH --Awesome movie, great glimpse of history and friendship

SALT -- Entertaining, that says it all

CRAZY HEART -- Complex characters in a doomed romance
THE RITE -- I like Anthony Hopkins

BASIC INSTINCT 2 -- Who-Done-It, I saw the movie and still don’t know

Are you a movie junkie? What’s your top 5 flicks?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Penelope by any other name would still be a Penelope

Are you a Penelope? Do you like your name or wished mom and dad had given you a different handle? Do you call yourself Penny or stick with the extended version? If your middle name were June or Janice or Jessie, you could call yourself PJ.  Can’t think of any other shorter versions of Penelope, can you?

Penelope comes from the Greeks and means weaver.  Something about being Odysseus’ wife and fending off suitors by weaving a tapestry and unraveling it at night while telling these love smitten guys, she needed to finish the blanket before she’d wed again.  Sounds like this chick was not in the husband hunting mode.  Today the name means loyal, capable and clever.

Those adjectives describe my character Penelope.  She’s all of those and more.  She doesn’t mind her name and is proud to be in the ranks of Penelopes. Just don’t call her Penny! Gets her riled.

Last thought. Lots of famous Penelopes out there . Penelope Leach. Penelope Ann Miller. And of course Penelope Cruz.  My friend Rick Bylina (see his guest blog) says Ms Cruz should play the mom when PENELOPE AND THE BIRTHDAY CURSE is made into a move. 

Now, I wonder who should play the part of Penelope in the movie? 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Guest Blogger: Rick Bylina...On Preparing A Turkey For His Debut

(Today’s guest blogger is Rick Bylina, author of ONE PROMISE TOO MANY that will be released this summer. Like myself, Rick is swimming in the waters of self-publishing, learning to navigate. Please welcome Rick.)

I've been thinking about liposuction, Botox injections, getting one of those $500 haircuts, going to a fat farm, breast reduction, going on "America's Biggest Loser," getting laser eye surgery, dying my hair from red to black, cutting off the 40-year-old mustache, bulking up, and slimming down. I doubt
that Miss America pageant contestants have had as many different ideas run through their heads as they prepared to meet their public as I have in preparing for book cover picture. I will not, however, use Vaseline to allow my swimsuit to slide easier across my buttocks. Fortunately, there isn't a
swimsuit competition for authors, and I've never seen one in a swimsuit on the back cover of any novel. Nor, do I want to see most authors in swimsuits. I shudder. So, unless I'm willing to spend several hundred dollars to mislead my public into buying into a false idol with a spiffed up picture, I'm left with me, and a picture that demonstrates my unusual advantage, explaining my unusually fast writing speed.

-Rick Bylina
The only rule:  writers write! Everything else is a guideline.
Tweet at: @rickbylina

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Review of "How to Get a Literary Agent in Two Murders or Less"

 How to Get a Literary Agent in Two Murders or Less is a witty plunge into the world of publishing, romance and mystery. The mismatch of characters work perfectly together and take the reader on a roller coaster ride into the mayhem of murder. The plot moves along with rich prose and snappy dialogue. The storyline clips along at a smooth pace.

In the story, Amanda Anderson, a hopeful writer, packs up her clothes, manuscripts and life and heads off to a writer's conference, hoping to be discovered, not realizing in more ways than she can imagine.  She meets the famous writer Jonny Goodsnuff, crosses the path of some wild step-daughters, makes a few quirky friends and meets a few handsome hunks.  Her life becomes a series of ups and down, with the valleys getting deeper and deeper.  In the end she fights not only for her existence but for the lives of her friends.

I highly recommend Ellie Burmeister's novel How to Get a Literary Agent in Two Murders or Less. The story drew me in, kept me laughing and held my attention, wondering who did it.  This mystery definitely deserves a high shelf in library.