I love reading books. Since June 17,1959 I've been writing books, writing articles about books, writing articles about how to write books...writing more....and sometimes illustrating the covers of several of my books.
Shallow, cardboard characters driven by unbelievable plots are gone. What sells currently in fiction is depth of character's personalities, commitment, and plots about making ancient roots contemporary. Mainstream novels and thrillers are in. For more information, you can browse my paperback novel, Proper Parenting in Ancient Rome: A Time-Travel Novel of Love as Growth of Consciousness and Peace in the Home.
The goal of today's manuscript doctor in fiction writing is to help writers avoid pitfalls that blindside your story's protagonist and could derail your manuscript. Instead of presenting your story's characters with shallow, stick-figure personalities, develop depth.
Start by slowly revealing growth, step-by-step. First your protagonist transcends past mistakes, bad decisions, and immature choices. Then he or she forgives and moves on to share confidence with others. Editors want to hear resilient voices rising in fiction dialog. Ethnography is in with mainstream fiction.
Here are the steps to take. Your main character, called the protagonist in your story, novel, or drama, gains depth through self-scrutiny. Editors need a system by which to judge your salable fiction. That system depends on the measured range of change of your main characters.
They derive that system from the simplest words describing your character's behavior found right in front of you, in your dictionary and thesaurus.
Divide your short story into three parts. Instead of calling those parts the beginning, middle, and end as you learned in literature classes, call your three parts foresight, insight, and hindsight.
You show growth by taking a proverb and/or a quotation containing universal values and flesh it out-grow it like you grow crystals in a chemistry set. As you stretch out your proverb, fleshing it out as dialog and description, you will have set up the first part of your story, the beginning, or more precisely the foresight stage. It's about knowing growth will occur and having to make a choice about which path to take. You'll find plenty of proverbs in the Bible, in a published book of proverbs, or in a book of famous quotations from history.
The middle of your story is the insight stage. Ordinary people, including peers, colleagues, and neighbors making general conversation across lawns are responsible for words describing behavior, emotions, and personality traits. Those descriptions and observations end up in novels and thesauri.
Authors look at descriptions of behaviors or emotions, attitudes, and moods in dictionaries or thesauri. When you're looking for just the right word the dictionary is the prime source of definitions of personality preferences.
Then you look at proverbs to flesh out into a story focusing on the behavior traits of the specific personality type you want to target. That's one way you develop depth in a character in a work of fiction.
The other way is through inspiration and observation of real people in your environment that you fictionalize using as much accurate historical backgrounds as you can to make your fiction believable. If your fiction is believable it will hold attention better, even in a fantasy novel set in the far future or past. An example is "Star Wars" or "Valley of the Horses."
If your main character had one lesson to learn in life, what would it be? Your characters should reveal their personality traits through their behavior and actions. Let the character's personality unfold by example. Use simple words for dialog--words found in most dictionaries.
The gestures, patterns, and actions define behavior more than the words. Emotion is shown by tag lines. These lines reveal the character's attitude when any words are spoken. Tag lines prevent miscommunication. You can say, "He took a sudden interest in his shoes." But if you say, "He's shy." The word 'shy' is too abstract to define the behavior. You need to show what shyness looks like in one sentence. It's your pitch for your character in one line of action that presents the big picture of the protagonist's personality traits.
Your plot can be summed up in a proverb. Pick a proverb that is close to the theme or plot of your story. Then expand the proverb with dialog and actions. Describe surroundings.
Use action verbs, and adjectives for character, personality, attitude, and mood. Narrow your descriptive, behavioral "tag words" and tag lines to fourteen opposite concepts: feet on the ground or head in the clouds; sentimental or rational; traditional or change-oriented; decisive or explorative; impatient or patient; investigative or trusting; loner or outgoing.
Use action verbs to describe behavior or production, words such as designed, wrote, played, worked, or shopped.
For inspiration with action verbs, you might like to browse my book on action verbs for communicators titled, 801 Action Verbs for Communicators: Position Yourself First with Action Verbs for Journalists, Speakers, Educators, Students, Resume-Writers, Editors, ISBN : 0595319114. Before you write fiction, you need to define the behavior and personality of each main character, especially your protagonist and antagonist.
Those vernacular words from around the world end up in dictionaries and thesaurus, often translated into English language dictionaries, and most often focusing on a variety of personality aspects. These definitions help me design tests. Use the vernacular to get the big picture of your protagonist's and antagonist's personalities. They should be opposite in personality and equal in strength.
Don't take away their choices.
From the dictionary, make a list of personality traits and businesses that reflect the personalities of their owners. To get a handle on your main character's personality, break down conversation to the simplest parts of speech. Use descriptive words to describe the decisions your characters make.
Even water cooler gossip is a good source of listening to descriptive words that describe behavior or a company's mission. Describe personality traits by painting visual portraits with the simplest possible of definitions of behavior described by specific words. Listen to the emphasis people put on certain words. Does your character say one word marvelously or timorously?
What words are in your thesaurus describing a personality trait, style, attribute, mood, texture, or preference? How do dictionaries describe one aspect of personality, behavior, preference, or attitude? Is it based on observation by average people making casual conversation?
The more words you find in a dictionary describing how people talk or act or present their attitudes, the more important in that society a particular aspect of character is to the specific society and language. If you have writer's block, look at synonyms and antonyms and match them to your favorite proverb. Can they describe an anecdote?
Start your story with a 1,500 word vignette or anecdote and keep expanding the action as the characters' personalities drive the action forward and expand the events and their response to the events. Do they act or react to events or other people they meet or observe? Dictionaries contain the simplest definitions of human behavior described by people gossiping.
Simplicity in a novel, drama, or story means the story plot and actions of the main characters give you all the answers you were looking for in your life in exotic places, but found it close by. Your novel sells when it poses the least financial risk to the publisher.
Don't make up characters and sub-plots that are too complex for the average reader to understand and get the big picture with one reading. Emphasize simplicity.
Simplicity in a novel usually means the protagonist gets to stand on his or her two feet and put bread on the table because of commitment to family, faith, or friends. The salable novel or story has a moral point containing universal values that it is only right to pull your own weight and care for others, repair the world, and give charity while making your village or homestead a kinder and gentler place.
They key world in salable novel is "simplicity." Your story shows individual differences. But your main character is the backbone of the story. Characters should drive the plot. The plot doesn't drive the characters.
Emphasize commitment to responsibility. Give your protagonist social smarts at least by the end of the book. Any growth or change should reflect by the end of the story a rise in your main character's emotional quotient which is social maturity and responsibility.
Does your protagonist have empathy and compassion for others? Readers want to identify with an average person who also is a hero at least on the inside.
Fiction needs redemptive value to a universal audience. That's the most important point. Show step-by-step how your main character does the best he or she can do under the circumstances, with what he or she has. Show how your primary character grows enough to trust in his or her self-insight.
Use frequent dialog peppered between descriptions where the dialog is followed by action that shows each obstacle your character needs to overcome in a reduced amount of time. A salable novel is simple and cinematic, but not so cinematic to look like you couldn't sell your movie script and turned it into a novel by adding descriptions between the lines of dialog.
Don't make it so obvious that a script reader could spot the technique. That's where the use of proverbs enters. Use the proverb in a one liner in plain language. Then flesh out the proverb into action.
Don't let blind spots derail your writing career or your protagonist's goal of growth and a measurable range of change by the end of the story. The idea of measuring the range of change has been taught in numerous scriptwriting classes during the last decade.
Fiction competes with the entertainment industry. It's show business. But fiction also is used to gain insight. What acquisition editors look for is how believable your story is.
Publishers want to see how your writing reveals blind spots in an intense environment.
Fiction is purchased to help readers make sense of ourselves. In a thriller, the characters juggle conflicts. Your main character is being pressed and pressured in a tightening vice. He or she is caught between the push from regimented working life with its priorities-- and the pull from family responsibilities. Put your characters in this stew. Then pressure the protagonists with reduced time in which to make a great decision without taking away their choices.
The goal within each of your chapters in a mainstream novel is to highlight the important blind spots that exist within the core or personality of your protagonist and antagonist. One example would be overlooking important details under the pressures of reduced time when making decisions.
The measurable result is that the act of overlooking some important detail derails the protagonist's career early on. This could be your opening chapter. A salable short story nowadays offers a rich portrait of how a character stands up under stress, deals with conflicts, makes connections, communicates, solves problems, gets measurable results, and lives happily ever after. (Or at least the reader is left to believe there can be a sequel.)
The editor, publisher, or agent looking at your manuscript is really looking for a reliable system built into your story or novel to validate concepts of what sold well in the past-a best seller. Remember that your book is salable only so much as it poses the least financial risk to the publisher. Avoid tautology when writing dialog. The kiss of death is to have the characters speak about the same idea using different words throughout the manuscript.
The editor is looking for a tangible product rather than an intangible idea to sell to readers. Your characters must show confidence and have their own voices of resilience. Usually if you write one novel and sell it to a publisher, you get a contract to write two to four more to make it a trilogy or a series of five novels . The publisher wants to see endurance in you and in each of your characters if you are assigned a contract to write three to five more novels.
Editors want to see how each character makes sense of his or her world in your fiction. How reliable are you to write a series of novels or stories on the same theme, perhaps using the same characters? How reliable are the characters in your fiction to come up with a series of stories or novels using the same characters set in the same era with different plots?
What's selling now in mainstream fiction?
This year and last popular is the paranormal novel. Growing in popularity are sagas and novels of deep ancestry. Because of the human genome project and the popularity of DNA-driven genealogy, novels set against a background of phylogeography and exploration are becoming popular, as in the mainstream novel with a hint of romantic suspense and the time countdown pacing of a thriller titled, The DNA Detectives: Working Against Time.
You might wish to look at the new tools that complement the evidence of the past in a novel set in contemporary times. Novels and tales about how we decipher the details carried in our genes open literary doors. Combine fiction with science written simply as a gripping story.
How to Write a Chapter Outline and Your Plan for a Historical Novel
Historical novels have a beginning, middle, and end like all stories and dramas. They also need a platform-visible expertise. But how the beginning, middle, and end are divided up and equally balanced in the planning stage may determine whether your novel will be salable to most mainstream publishers.
There's a precise but hidden formula for planning, organizing, and writing salable historical novels. The formula applies only if you're writing for most mainstream publishers of popular historical fiction. Publishers can change and vary their requirements. So check with them before you write anything. You can find a list of publishers of historical fiction in most listings of writers' markets either online or in book and magazine listings.
Begin with your public or university librarian to make a list of 50 publishers of historical fiction that you will query. When you get a go-ahead to send your manuscript or an outline and sample chapters from the publisher, here's how to start your plan before your even begin to write your fiction proposal. Many publishers do not require an agent. If you contact those requiring an agent, you can send the fiction proposal, three sample chapters, and an outline of your plan.
To begin actually writing an historical novel, begin first with the dialog as if you were writing a radio or stage play. Instead of writing in camera angles or lighting or sound effects, you'll fill in your description. Use dialog as the framework or skeleton of your historical novel.
Then build your action scenes around the dialogue with description and tag lines. You use tag lines to describe body gestures, emotional mood, and behavior. Tag lines are used in novels and stories to let the reader know the character's attitude and tone of voice.
For example, you can say he sniffed the roast, but you won't know what he thought of the roast unless you add a tag line in your dialogue such as, "Joe sashayed into the restaurant at closing time, sniffed the roast plangently, and wailed a mournful sound of delight like the breaking of waves." Now you know how he felt as he smelled the food in the restaurant.
Genres of Historical Fiction
The six genres within historical fiction divide into social history, exploration-adventure, biography, intrigue-suspense, sagas, and historical romance. Children's, women's, specific age group appeal novels including young adult's historical fiction also fall into these six genres, including family sagas spanning generations. In young adult fiction, the word length usually runs about 40,000 words. The appropriate page count of the usual adult historical fiction tome may run 75,000 to 100,000 words. Young adult family sagas are shorter in word length, about half the size of adult historical family or adventure sagas.
Biographical fiction runs from 50,000 to 70,000 words. And historical suspense, thrillers, or mystery tomes run about 60,000 words. Historical sagas set in ancient or medieval times can run 100,000 to 120,000 words, depending upon what word count the publisher prefers and can afford to publish. Historical fantasy is another category that falls under the fantasy fiction genre rather than historical fiction which usually is based on social history.
Dividing the Twenty-Four Chapters of a Historical Novel into Push and Pull of Conflict
Historical novels are divided into 12 chapters of dialog and description that push the plot forward and 12 chapters of dialog and description that pull the tension and conflict backwards. The even-numbered chapters create more problems to solve and additional growth and change for your main characters.
Even-numbered chapters show results that can be measured in each character's inner growth, reflection, emotions, dialog, behavior, frame of mind, mood, attitude, tag lines, and arc of change. Odd-numbered chapters are devoted to descriptions of locations, dates and times, geography, folklore, customs, habits, ethnology, nuances, settings, ceremonies, adventure, explorations, coming of age rituals, travel, descriptions of village life, cooking, costumes, warfare, military and social history backgrounds. For every action in a historical novel, there's an equal and opposite reaction.
The Twelve Even-Numbered Chapters
Divide your historical novel into 24 chapters. Number those chapters on your outline and plan. Next separate 12 even-numbered chapters from the 12 odd-numbered. On the even numbered chapters write your character's dialog showing the rise of dramatic tension, the conflict, the push-and pull of any relationships or romance. I learned this suggestion from a speaker many years ago at a writer's conference but never found out the source where she got it from or whether it was her original technique. But I certainly have tried it in my fiction writing with my longer suspense-adventure novels.
Your characters in a historical novel need to solve a problem and show the reader the results, the range of change, and their inner growth. What protagonists think of themselves in their social history context are shown in the even chapters. How they act toward others showing how they have grown by the midpoint of your story and finally by the ending chapter belongs in the 12 even-numbered chapters.
Write your character's dialog within the even-numbered chapters showing descriptions, locations, settings, scenes, action, adventure, and exotic descriptions of ceremonies, rituals, and significant life story highlights or turning points and events that animate your writing-make the writing come alive with sparkle, charisma, and the dash of adventure.
The Twelve Odd-Numbered Chapters
If you're writing an historical thriller, the odd-numbered pages get the physical action such as the ticking clock or count down to the high point of your novel. In historical mysteries, thrillers, and intrigue, the ticking clock is more like a ticking bomb.
Time evaporates at a faster and faster rate the farther you read into the book. The pace speeds up dramatically using more conflict and action where the characters need speedier reaction times with each advancing chapter as you head toward the middle point of your story.
Let the characters drive your plot forward. That's how you illustrate the illusion of the count-down and create the push and pull tension in a historical novel.
It's the same technique used in a thriller, without the historical attributes, settings, and costume drama or historical dialects and props, such as a setting at Versailles in the 18th century. Historical novels portray character-driven plots.
Begin Your First Chapter by Writing the Dialog
Your first chapter-chapter one-is an odd-numbered chapter. Here's the chapter where you put your setting, props, and descriptions. You're staring at a blank page. What do you write as your first sentence? Ask yourself what is your main character's payoff or reward in the book?
Is his or her reward to understand and control nature in order to become rich and powerful, run away from unbearable duty, get recognition, be remembered, and make an impact, or be loved and also be the center of attention?
You can break down your protagonist's goal or life purpose into four categories: control, duty, attention, and impact. To avoid writer's block on that blank first page, you write 90 seconds of dialog. Read it in 90 seconds aloud to a digital recorder. Play it back. How smooth does it sound to your ears?
Do real people talk that way? Is your setting and dialog believable? After the first line of dialog, put in some of your background settings, dates, geography, action, and other props belonging in the odd-numbered chapters. Start a conversation between two characters. Then have them answer the questions or pose a new question by the end of the first page. Don't put everything on the first page.
Introduce your novel a little at a time to readers. Don't give the whole story away in the first chapter. In your outline, put in chapter summaries and headlines, not the whole story. Put your plan down after the first chapter.
Never start a historical novel with people in transit. Begin when they arrive at their new destination or write a historical novel that takes place entirely on the ship and end it when they step off the plank at their destination.
After you have your first page of dialogue written, insert in between the dialog the descriptions of geography, location, dates, foods, costumes, room descriptions, and anything else you will be putting into your odd chapters, usually falling on the right side of the book pages.
That's where the right eye travels first in a right-handed person. Then you write the first chapter as if it were act one of a 24-minute play, but don't put in any stage directions or sound effects. In fact, each of your chapters can total 24 pages. You're aiming for balance. Beware of short and long chapters in an historical novel or any story or drama.
Keep in mind attention span.
The average attention span of a reader is seven minutes, same as the attention span for viewing video. That's why commercials are inserted at every 10 minute break. The human brain needs a pause every 90 seconds to recharge. Knowing those elements of time, keep your scene segments changing every seven minutes and pausing for a change every 90 seconds of average reading time. Usually it takes a minute to read one page.
Your entire book would be 24 chapters. So keep the number 24 in mind as your yardstick. The pages don't have to be exact, of course, but you need to balance your chapters so that one chapter is not much longer than any other.
Instead, you describe in animated language, the geographic setting and the century or date. Animated language is written by using action verbs-designed, wrote, built, cured, vaccinated, or fired or ....as in "The charivari and consonance of healing frequencies fired from the klaxon's usual noise."
Animate historical writing by avoiding tautology which means: don't repeat the same ideas using different words. How many words a publisher wants varies with each publisher. It costs less to publish a 50,000 word book than a book twice that size. Historical young adult novels run about 40,000 words. Historical novels can be family sagas that read as if they were talking maps and family atlases.
Begin your planning stage of your outline by first compiling your plot and the names of your character, dates, customs, ethnography, social history, biography, and folklore in a computer file folder. Keep at least two backup copies on CDs and also printed out on paper in case your computer crashes or your files are lost.
Buy a 3-ring loose leaf notebook for your paper copies. In the binder place all materials related to your book in progress. When the book is published, you'll need a second loose leaf notebook binder to keep track of publicity, press releases, reviews, contracts, and correspondence from your publisher and from the media. Place those little one-inch binder insert covers or tabs to label each chapter of your book.
Don't leave your book on the screen. Print out each chapter to edit and revise in the loose leaf note book. Put the book's title on the spine. Put into your note book plastic inserts.
Attach a tab to label your notes on research for historical accuracy. Put another tab for your synopsis, plan, outline, summarized chapters with chapter headings, and other notes. In another loose leaf notebook after the book is published, do the same type of labeling with plastic inserts and tabs for your editing, contracts, reviews, promotions, publicity press interviews, spinoff articles, history fact-checking, and royalty notices.
Keep your two notebooks in a metal filing cabinet, and keep copies of the same in your computer. One format will back up the other format. If your computer fails, you have everything printed out on paper and two or three CD copies of everything in a fire-proof metal filing cabinet or box. When your editor calls, you can find anything in moments if you label your chapters and other materials and keep them close by.
After your book is published your second notebook will track royalties, reviews, the book cover design information or ideas, editing/revisions, query letters, and research of your potential market of readers or age groups and ethnic associations interested in the historical novel.
Historical novels are about looking for answers to solve problems and get results in exotic places, but finding simple answers were right under your fingers. You want to emphasize universal values such as commitment to family and friends, caring for one another, repairing social ills and sickness, earning a living and becoming independent, supporting your children and keeping the family together against all odds, or finding freedom, faith and values, in the virtues of finding and being accepted a new home land.
Another genre in historical fiction is the family saga. The saga may be fictionalized but it reads like biography. Fictional sagas use action verbs in the dialogue. They read almost like a drama. And the action verbs animate the writing. The opposite of animated writing is flat writing, where passive verbs weaken the story. Historical novels become weaker when the plot drives the characters.
The characters should drive the plot faster and faster to a conclusion where problems are solved or conflicts resolved. You have closure at the end for the characters. Or they transcend past mistakes and rise above them. The last chapter gives the characters a type of choice and balance they did not have at the beginning of the book. The characters grow.
They change with the times and inspire the reader. Or they are heroes because of sticking to their purpose and commitment
The protagonists don't abandon their family or friends. But if they make mistakes, they find closure in rising above the mistakes by seeing more possibilities in the simple answers instead of the complex ones. Simplicity of answers close by is the formula for the historical novel that emphasizes growth and change for the better.
Before you write your plan, make a map or family atlas of your characters and summarize their problems and personalities in two paragraphs. Draw them on a map and point to how they relate to or interact with other characters and how they influence the other characters and the results. Read the book title, Silk Stockings Glimpses of 1904 Broadway, or A 19th Century Immigrant's Love Story. It shows how a love story intertwines with a historical novel that can be both a social history, romance novel, and historical novel or family saga rolled into one published book.
Write Two Scenes for Each Chapter
Your first chapter will consist of two scenes. Write those two scenes before sending them out to a publisher in an outline which usually asks for three sample chapters and an outline summary of one chapter (summarized by two paragraphs) for each of the 24 chapters of your book. Almost all mainstream novels consist of two scenes per chapter. Take apart any mainstream novel, and you'll see those two distinctive scenes in each chapter.
Within each chapter you'll have one scene of interaction between two characters or a character and his or her family and one action scene. So keep this formula in mind: one relationship scene and one action scene. It has been said by published authors in the past decade and repeated at talks and seminars where published authors speak to other authors repeating this formula.
When you first plan your historical novel, separate the relationship side from the action side. First summarize the relationship side and then do the same for the action side. Then bring both together in one chapter. In every relationship scene and in every action scene, you will have your characters interacting together.
You need to make a laundry list in your plan of what happens specifically on the relationship side. Then in your odd-numbered chapters, you will fill in the plot side, the mystery side, the action side, the geography, costume, food, ethnography, travel and ballroom or battlefield side.
What you don't want to do is have all even-numbered chapters where characters do nothing but talk or all odd-numbered chapters where characters don't speak to each other and just travel the roads or sail the seas or fight the wars. No, that's just the way you outline your plan, your skeleton. Now you bring the relationship scenes together and the action scenes together and put them interplaying in each chapter. At this point, you'll start writing your book. In the actual book, the reader will not see a difference between the odd and even chapters.
It's in your planning stage that you separate each set of 12 chapters totaling 24 chapters. So when you finally bring the chapters together to weave them slowly, what you have left is an historical mainstream novel with "two scenes per chapter, one relationship scene and one action scene," as it has been said by numerous published authors speaking at writer's seminars or meetings.
The quote I heard most often from popular published novelists emphasized that "Your protagonists interact together in the relationship and action scenes." What you do plan for in your historical mainstream novel is writing 24 chapters.
Your first step is to write up a plan that shows chapter by chapter exactly what is happening, changing, and moving the plot forward on the relationship side and on the plot or action side. Then you have to balance relationship and dialogue against plot or action. When the two sides are in balance as if on a seesaw, you have a salable historical mainstream novel.
In your plan, you'd have two columns, one for scenes with relationships showing communication, connection, and interaction using dialog. And in your other column, you'd describe your plot using scenes depicting action and adventure.
This is the best way to organize your novel before you sit down to write. It's set up so you can get a handle on what you're doing and find any scene or chapter quickly to do fact checking with actual historical events.
When you've picked apart your book's main points, results, and are able to show how the characters solved problems leading to growth and change, commitment, closure, or transcending past choices and taking alternative paths, you have arrived at a point in organization where every turning point or significant event and relationship or social history highlight is labeled and filed. Now that you have organized the details, it's time to flesh out your story.
Historical Novels Spring from Proverbs
Where do you get your storyline? You begin with a proverb related to the history your depicting. Look at a book of proverbs. Choose one. Flesh out the proverb into a story. Take a course in storytelling or read a book on how to be a storyteller.
Note most fairy tales and historical stories are built around proverbs with ageless, universal values and truths or are related to a culture's folklore and history. You can also use a proverb from the Bible or from any other similar book of any religion. Use an indigenous culture's proverbs or those from ancient cultures or hidden histories. You can write a historical novel about military dog, cat, or horse heroes.
Your story line can come out of a proverb or familiar quotation based on still older proverbs of any culture. If you need a plot, a proverb is the first place to look for inspiration or a start. Many novelists use proverbs as inspiration to write one-sentence pitch lines for their novels.
Before you write anything, summarize the pitch line of your book in one sentence. Pretend you were selling your novel to a movie producer. Pitch the book in ten seconds or less using one sentence. Here's one example used many times in lectures by scriptwriting course professors, "Star Trek is Wagon Train in outer space." Perhaps your historical novel resembles various popular cultures placed in a new context.