Monday, March 26, 2012

Credibility is everything, even in fiction

Credibility can make or break a story. When a reader comes across an obvious inaccuracy, an inconsistent detail, or an out-of-character action by a main character, they are jolted out of the story.

You might be thinking: but how do I maintain credibility when I'm writing about incredible stuff? Through realistic facts and details, and maintaining consistency.

1. Facts must be true (or explained, if they aren't):

For example, I'm writing an alternate history story of the Indian Wars. Before I did my research, I had the cavalry using muzzle loaders. During the revision-fact-checking process, I discovered that the cavalry should be using Henry repeating rifles. Would most people have noticed the difference? Maybe, maybe not. But it was a factual error that could have killed the story for anyone who has a good knowledge of history. Unless, of course, I've explained why they aren't using the kind of rifles they were supposed to (Aliens came back in time and stole all the people who were inventing more modern rifles--a la The Terminator--and projectile technology was thus set back a hundred years).

2. Details have to be consistent:

If you've created a fantasy world, it can certainly have blue cows. It's your world, it can have what ever you want! But then the cows should always remain blue on that world, and if they change color later, you'll need to explain it (they change colors with the seasons?). And if you call a sword a Tspat on page 12, you can't call it a Zbek on page 425 (without an explanation, anyway);

3. Character behavior has to be realistic and consistent:

Throughout a novel, a character should change, but their behavior should be consistent with wherever they are in their transformation. If your character is going to grow from coward to courageous, they shouldn't be rushing into a burning building while they are still in the coward stage. Also, their behavior should be consistent for their demographic-type.

Number three is best explained using an example from The Walking Dead.

During the finale of The Walking Dead, I found myself yelling at the TV again. No, not "Look out Rick, there's a zombie behind you." I've been yelling, "Damn it, Lori, put a leash on that kid!"

Throughout most of this season, a lot of problems for the characters have involved or been exacerbated by a wandering child name Carl. It adds more conflict for the storyline, but it's also caused a credibility problem:

1. It's the frigging zombie apocalypse. What kind of mother would even let a kid out of their sight? Dad's got an excuse: he's busy saving the world. But mom? I'm sure there's a lot of laundry to do, but make the kid help and keep an eye on his wandering butt.
2. Carl has already been shot once. Sure, he hadn't been wandering alone that time, but still! They are aware that danger exists even when zombies aren't around. Again, what kind of a mom . . . ?
3. They have already lost a child from their group, and she had a good excuse for wandering off (zombies in hot pursuit).

So the character of Lori is a great example of a character acting inconsistently with her type. She's a mom. Mom's are supposed to protect their children. Instead, she lets him wander through the zombie apocalypse. And every time Carl wanders, I get jolted out of the story.

But not being credible can do more than jolt the reader out of the story: it can cause people to make fun of you. Check out these two links:

Rick and Lori have a little chat

10 Reasons Why The Walking Dead Should Just Kill Carl, by Marina Cockenberg

And yes, the #KillCarlAlready hash tag is real, and it gets a lot of use, but that's not the kind of publicity you're looking for.

So remember: even though we are creating incredible worlds, we have to make sure the stories remain credible.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Coming soon: Amazing, Incredible Sea Mongrels

My newest horror short, "Amazing, Incredible Sea Mongrels," will be in the April issue of Penumbra Magazine.

Remember those ads in the back of the comic books? Exploding cigarettes, fake dog poo, amazing sea mongrels? A little fishbowl of brine shrimp seems harmless enough, but sometimes nostalgia can be deadly.

The story was inspired by a news photo of a creepy-crawlie brought to the surface as it clung to a deep-sea submersible. Somehow, my mind jumped to the old ads in the back of the comics and a story was born!

If I had to write my story creation process as a formula it would be:

healthy dose of imagination + dash of paranoia + some outside stimuli (like a photo)

A nice mathematical representation of my story-creation process!

And speaking of story creation, I'm currently in the editing phase on my latest project, an alternate-history horror short . . . with zombies, of course! I absolutely hated history when I was in school, but I love alternate history--and everything's better with zombies!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Misplaced modifiers...and commas...and apostrophes...

I've been reading a lot of self-published e-books lately. They have taught me a lesson for my own writing:

If I ever self-publish, I'm hiring an editor!

It's tough to edit your own writing. No matter how diligent you are, it's almost impossible to catch all your mistakes. That's why it's nice to have a second, third, or thirty-third pair of eyes to look everything over.

I've abandoned some of the self-published e-books I picked up, not because plot was thin or slow, not because the characters were flat, but because they were almost impossible to read due to poor editing. I'd get a few pages in and find myself yelling, "Didn't you bother to edit this at all?"

Of course, some of them probably didn't.

I remember a few years ago when a girl posted this message to a Yahoo writer's group I belonged to:

"Dec 3rd:  Hey! This was my first time trying NaNoWriMo and I won! Yay! Now I need to find out who I send this to so it can get published."

I kid you not. She "wrote a novel" in November and was looking for a publisher the first week in December. All those people that take ten years to write a novel? Pshh! They're just slackers. I can't even imagine what they're wasting all that time doing [tongue firmly in cheek].

However, whether one hires a professional editor or not, the first line of defense is always the author his/herself. It's important for a writer to have at least a basic knowledge of grammar and usage.

I started giving myself a grammar/usage refresher course a few months ago, mostly because of commas (blast you, vile punctuation mark)! I noticed I was starting to sprinkle commas on my pages like a rabbit with a digestive disorder.

I also did it for the ellipses. I literally spent three days trying to find out the ellipses rule for dialogue: if a character's thoughts trail off in a piece of dialogue, is it ellipses only? Ellipses with a period? Ellipses with a space and then a period? Etc., etc., ETC.!!! I tried looking it up in my reference guides, I Googled it, and I went to grammar sites until I wore out my mouse. I found lots of info about ellipses and omitted words, but I couldn't find much on ellipses and dialogue . . . and what little tidbits of info I did find contradicted each other. I even started paging through some books by published authors to find out how they handled ellipses, and, as usual, I couldn't find any examples (I know they are there; I KNOW I've seen Stephen King do the dialogue-trailing-off thing, but I couldn't find it when I needed it).

So, I decided I would pick up a style guide (Chicago Manual, used by the book publishing industry) and some grammar/usage guides and do a little self-study.

It's already helping. I'm already stingier about handing out commas. Of course, reading all these dry textbooks has put me into a comma . . . I mean: coma. Oops.

But even with my refresher course, I plan on having anything I self-publish thoroughly edited by a nice grammar-Nazi. If someone abandons a novel I've written, I don't want it to be because the comma-fairy left muddy footprints all over my prose; I want it to be because the zombies scared them so badly they couldn't keep reading.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Time is the Enemy; I'm Setting Priorities

Writing has been an uphill battle for the last six months or so because life has been chaotic. I've had to squeak in writing time wherever I can, and I've had times when I went a week or two without writing a single word.

In late summer, we found out my mother's cancer had reoccurred in her chest walls, so she would be facing another round of radiation and radio-sensitizing chemotherapy;
In the fall, my father-in-law had a medical scare (tumors covering his kidneys);
In early winter, my husband had heart problems.

All these things led to worry, over-filled schedules, single parenting while the other spouse took care of their parent or recuperated, tight finances . . . it's not an environment that fosters creativity or allows for a lot of free time (or even time to think, some days).

And now . . .

Well, for now, I'm simplifying my life. You'll notice the Spec-Fic Friday posts are conspicuously absent? I'm budgeting my time, and (for now), Friday's posts are low on the priority list. I'll do them if (when?) I have extra time.

You see, my dog is dying. Right now, she takes high priority in my schedule. I'm still writing, I'm still spending time with family, I'm still working out (so I don't end up with my own health crisis, for the love of Pete) . . . but some of the extra stuff (like two blog posts a week) have to be trimmed out for a while.

I know. You are saying to yourself, "WTF!?! She's cutting stuff out of her schedule to spend more time with her dog???"

One of the things people "in real life" know about me is that I love animals even more than I love zombies, but the relationship between me and my dog goes beyond that. I've always loved almost all animals . . . except dogs. Cats, bunnies, mice, ferrets, horses, etc. But not dogs. I just wasn't a dog person.

Sure, we had family dogs. Hubby was raised very much in the old school, "kids need dogs" way, and he brought that into our family.

To be honest, I hated most of them. There was only one I ever liked, and that was simply because of the depth and breadth that she loved my hubby and my kids. I, on the other hand, was chopped liver. If an attacker broke in and threatened the kids or hubby, I knew she'd die protecting them. If an attacker broke in and threatened me, I knew she'd hustle hubby and the kids to safety and come back for me IF there was time.

When she started to get old and we knew her time was short, I knew that as soon as she passed, hubby would want another dog. And since she was a very, VERY well-behaved dog, I came up with the idea of getting a puppy while she was still alive so she could help train her replacement (I know . . . a little cold and practical, but like I said, I wasn't a dog person).

What I didn't expect was for that puppy to become my best friend. I swear, she can read my mind. I couldn't have built a robot dog as perfectly matched to my personality; Missy is a canine version of everything I need in a best friend. Peas and carrots, that's what we are. Since Missy came along, I can't watch I am Legend without choking up (you know the part I'm talking about). She's the Sam to my Neville.

But now, after only a short seven years together, Missy's dying of a brain tumor.

So . . .
If Missy wants to play Frisbee, I'm playing Frisbee;
If Missy wants to eat cheeseburgers and french fries and cotton candy, then I'm eating cheeseburgers and french fries and cotton candy;
If Missy wants to curl up with me and take a nap, with my arm slung around her neck and her legs thrown over my back, then I'm taking a nap;
If Missy wants to stand outside and marvel at snowflakes the size of pennies fluttering down silently around us in the hush of a winter afternoon, then I'm marveling.

Every moment we have left together, we are making it count.