Elements of Fiction: Tone

Friday, October 29

Photo by Nicolas Marino

Tone is the overall mood of your story. Moods can change from scene to scene, but the tone lasts through the whole book.
Take, for example, the insanely popular book Twilight. Even though there’s a spattering of action-packed scenes, the majority are romance. The tone is romantic rather than supernatural.

Picture yourself holding the published, hardbound copy of your book, with your name across the bottom.
What is the overall tone? If a prospective reader glanced at it, what would they assume?

Now flip the book over.
What do the critics say about it? Do they proclaim it as an insightful classic or a heart-pounding action ride?

Open up your book. Go to the appendix where there’s an interview with the author (you!). One of the questions you were asked was, “Why did you write this book?”
How did you respond?

Step 1: Tone
Decide what you want the tone of your story to be. It is going to be light-hearted, thought-provoking, dark, or romantic?
This will provide the basis for everything you right. If you’re attempting to write a light-hearted picture book, it most likely will not include the death of a friend.
Everything you write will orbit around this theme. Do not be afraid to change it if you need to. Nothing is set in stone.

Step 2: Direction
Make up critic reviews for your published book. They must be good. You are, after all, writing the ideal reviews of your perfected final draft.
This exercise let’s you know what you want your book to end up like. It’s easier to get somewhere if you know where you’re going.

Step 3: Purpose
Why did you write your book?
Think carefully on this one.
Did you write it to entertain? Inform? Warn?
While it’s good know where you’re going, it’s just as necessary to know the reason behind the journey.

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Showing not Telling: Infodumps

Tuesday, October 26

At one point or another, you have to explain some aspects of your book. Even if the character knows exactly what’s going on, the reader might not. Put simply, an infodump is a large chunk of necessary information that bores the reader to death. I don’t know about you, but when I come across blocky paragraphs describing the scenery, my eyes tend to skim.
So how do we present crucial information by showing instead of telling?

Dialogue
One of the best ways to present facts is through characters talking to each other. But even this can be botched if the dialogue if nothing more than an infodump with quotations. Let’s compare;

Infodump
The alchemist selected a jar, filled to the brim with mercury. Mercury is a silver metal with a high density. It’s a liquid at room temperature, but exists in the solid cinnabar. Cinnabar is a powdery, red mineral that’s extremely poisonous when inhaled. Mercury was once thought to cause longevity. It is toxic and has been known to cause insanity. It was this material that the alchemist chose to work with.

Infodump with Quotations
The alchemist selected a jar, filled to the brim with mercury. He turned to his apprentice and explained, “This is mercury. Mercury is a silver metal with a high density. It’s a liquid at room temperature, but exists in the solid cinnabar. Cinnabar is a powdery, red mineral that’s extremely poisonous when inhaled. It is toxic and has been known to cause insanity.”

Face it; the second’s not much better. If you choose to do dialogue, make it a conversation;

Conversation
The alchemist selected a jar, filled to the brim with a silvery liquid. The apprentice craned his neck to see. “What’s that?”
The alchemist grunted and held the jar out for the apprentice’s inspection. “This, boy, is mercury.”
“And, uh, what exactly is it for?”
“Some believe it has the power to make you immortal.”
The apprentice’s eyes widened.
“Of course,” snapped the alchemist. “That’s utter rubbish. Far too many emperors have died because of that supposition. Everlasting life indeed. Mercury will kill you, boy. If it doesn’t drive you insane first.”
The apprentice looked warily as the sloshing metal. “Right. Well then, is there anything else we can use for the recipe…a substitute maybe?”
The alchemist laughed. “Closest thing you’ll get is cinnabar. But that’s got mercury in it anyway. Highly toxic. Take a whiff of that stuff and you’re a goner."

Thoughts
This only works if you’re using first person or third person omniscience POV. A character’s thoughts can be a powerful tool.

Before:
The day was bitterly cold. A crisp wind blew garbage across the street. Everyone was inside, enjoying the warmth of a fire. The entire sky was coated in white snow-clouds and it was only a matter of time before a blizzard hit. Even the queen’s palace was suffering from the icy weather, with servants scraping away at the frost-coated windows so the queen could enjoy looking outside.

After:
I marched down the slushy street, my woolen cloak wrapped tightly against the crisp winter wind. I was the only one outside. Every other sane person was indoors, tucked in a quilt by a blazing fire. But not me, I had a job to do. I groaned inwardly and kicked at a pile of frozen garbage. Blast this weather. I glanced up at the leaden sky blanketed with snow clouds. We’d have a blizzard before the month was out, for sure.
Another gust of wind sent me hurrying down the road again. I passed the queen’s palace and snickered at the poor, frozen guard on duty. The Queen didn’t much care about other people’s discomfort, evident by the army of servants scraping frost off the palace’s two-hundred-and-ten windows. Poor suckers. What was even the point of it? So that the queen could look outside and see the empty street?

Actions
The way characters behave can strengthen both Dialogue and Thoughts, and make a strong support on its own.

The alchemist selected a jar, filled to the brim with a silvery liquid. The apprentice craned his neck to see. [This reveals that the apprentice is curious and new to the alchemy experience] “What’s that?”
The alchemist grunted [Not the friendliest guy] and held the jar out for the apprentice’s inspection. “This, boy, is mercury.”
“And, uh, what exactly is it for?”
“Some believe it has the power to make you immortal.”
The apprentice’s eyes widened. [He’s na├»ve to believe such a myth]
“Of course,” snapped the alchemist. “That’s utter rubbish. Far too many emperors have died because of that supposition. Everlasting life indeed. Mercury will kill you, boy. If it doesn’t drive you insane first.”
The apprentice looked warily as the sloshing metal. [Now he’s nervous] “Right. Well then, is there anything else we can use for the recipe…a substitute maybe?”
The alchemist laughed. [He’s got a strange sense of humor] “Closest thing you’ll get is cinnabar. But that’s got mercury in it anyway. Highly toxic. Take a whiff of that stuff and you’re a goner.”

The apprentice’s reactions give us a clear definition of who he is without having to say, “The new apprentice didn’t know anything about alchemy and was incredibly gullible.”

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Guest Post: Janice Hardy on "Trail Blazing"

Friday, October 22

We’ve all read stories where clues were so seamlessly dropped in along the way that until the big secret was revealed, we never even realized they were there. But when we finally did, all the pieces of the story fell into place and we were awed by the skill in which that bread trail had been left. Those writers made it look easy, as if they knew from page one what clue went where and how it would all come together in the end.
I’m sure there are bound to be a few writers out that who really can write that way, but for most of us, those clues are either planned ahead of time, inserted after the fact, or happy accidents. Sometimes, (heck, probably most times) a combination of all three.

Planning the Trail
Some clues we know about in the planning stage of the novel. Those details that came to us as we were brainstorming and writing our outlines or making our notes. Important clues we work hard to build a scene around. Often these are the things our protag’s will discover down the line in some fashion and a critical plot twist may even hinge on them. They’re important, which is why we know about them from the start.

Stumbling Upon the Trail
Then there are those details that just kinda happen, and it isn’t until after that we realize that throwaway detail could be so much more. A bit of backstory or internalization that suddenly has greater meaning, an off-hand setting element that becomes the perfect hiding place for a long lost secret. The types of details that lurk in our brains and leak onto the page, and somehow, always seems to be better than the stuff we actively think up.

Marking the Trail
Last, there are those details that we go back and add in once we’ve figure out how the story unfolds. The purposeful red herrings, the hidden clues, the telling off-hand remark. Each detail is inserted at just the right spot so the reader can follow that trail, even if they don’t realize they’re following it.

Keeping the Trail Clean
No matter what type of writer you are (outliner or pantser), odds are you’re going to go back at some point and edit. Doing an edit pass for clues, hints, and foreshadowing isn’t a bad idea, especially if you’re not one of those mystery writers who think of these things naturally. (I think mystery writers are born with this skill) If you’re not sure where to leave those bread crumbs, try asking…

When do I want the reader to start suspecting things?
Sometimes you’ll want a surprise, other times you’ll want the tension of trying to figure it out to help pull your story along.

When does my protagonist start to figure it out?
Readers often spot things long before characters, but if it’s too obvious, then your character might look dumb if they haven’t figured it out yet. Make sure you have a good balance between reader hints and character hints. If your protag needs to know something by page 45, leave enough clues before then so the realization feels plausible.

Are there any slow/weak spots that could use some freshening up?
Weak spots in need of help could be opportunities to create a scene that links back or foreshadows another. Would adding in a layer of mystery help?

Do the characters encounter anything thematically or metaphorically linked to the thing?
You know how someone can say something and make you think of something different? Your brain picks up on it because there’s some link between the two things. You can do the same thing with your characters. Something they’ve heard or experienced might be the perfect trigger for a memory or realization in a later scene. Or, you can go back and add something that can make this happen.

Trails are made by folks wandering back and forth over them, so it makes sense that a good plot trail might take looking at from both ends of your novel. Knowing where a plot or subplot ends up makes it a lot easier to figure out where it starts. The more you wander that trail, the more you learn about it and the more you can share with those starting down it for the first time.


About Blue Fire

Part fugitive, part hero, fifteen-year-old Nya is barely staying ahead of the Duke of Baseer’s trackers. Wanted for a crime she didn’t mean to commit, she risks capture to protect every Taker she can find, determined to prevent the Duke from using them in his fiendish experiments. But resolve isn’t enough to protect any of them, and Nya soon realizes that the only way to keep them all out of the Duke’s clutches is to flee Geveg. Unfortunately, the Duke’s best tracker has other ideas.
Nya finds herself trapped in the last place she ever wanted to be, forced to trust the last people she ever thought she could. More is at stake than just the people of Geveg, and the closer she gets to uncovering the Duke’s plan, the more she discovers how critical she is to his victory. To save Geveg, she just might have to save Baseer—if she doesn’t destroy it first.

Buy it here.

About Janice Hardy
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy THE HEALING WARS, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices.
Her books include THE SHIFTER, and BLUE FIRE from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel.

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How to Write Magic

Tuesday, October 19


Magic will make or break your book. There is no in-between. How you handle magic can mean the difference between an epic and just-another-fantasy-book.

Know Your Limits
Magic must have limits. Your characters can’t snap their fingers and have everything they want appear from thin air.
The other day I was critiquing a friend’s rough draft. A battle occurs between the magical bad guys and the relatively unarmed good guys. The bad guys were hurling everything they had; sending shockwaves through people, shaking the ground, uprooting slabs of cobblestone street and flinging it through the air, ect. Then, out of the blue, one of them turns a good guy into dust.
What?
If the antagonists had that power all along, why didn’t they use it? Turning your enemy into a pile of dust sounds a tad more effective than a shockwave.
Decide where your book’s magic is limited. J. K. Rowling created several rules for her own writing, such as “magic cannot bring dead people back to life” and “whatever you conjure out of thin air won’t last”.

Counteract
“But for heaven’s sake − you’re wizards! You can do magic! Surely you can sort out − well − anything!”
“…The trouble is, the other side can do magic too...”
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Where there is light, there is darkness. Your protag can’t be wandering around with invincible magical powers.
Either the villain has magic too, or the protag’s magic comes at a price. Or both.

Supernatural Villain
If you’ve got a magical antagonist on your hands, you’ll probably end up writing an epic final battle. The battle should never be won because of magic. It’s not about who’s got the stronger firepower, it’s about good triumphing over evil. The main character should win because of a clever plan or an oversight on the villain’s part.

Supernatural Problems
Nothing gets handed to your character with no strings attached, least of all magic. Your character should make mistakes and possibly get hurt because of it.
Take the classic example of Frodo and the ring of power. It’s not just a cool ring that can make you invisible, it’s an evil artifact that slowly poisons and manipulates you.
If your character has a power, it doesn’t have to kill them. But it should weaken them or occasionally backfire.


Believable Magic
I think I’ve mentioned this before, but your magic must be believable. If a modern day kid starts seeing fairies, he’s gonna think that he’s gone crazy. Normal people wouldn’t think, “I can see fairies! Magic is so cool!”
In Alice in Wonderland, Alice thinks the whole thing’s a dream from start to finish, which is exactly what a sane person would think.

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Writing Contest: The Winner!

Tuesday, October 12

"Exit Scene" by spyroteknik
The winner of the "Exit Scene" writing contest is...

#2 by Dawn Stone!
Congratulations to and a big 'thank you' to the participants and voters!

The brightness frightened him. James covered his eyes, protecting them from the radiating sunlight that peered through the large window overlooking the city. He had made it. James was a survivor. With a quick glance, he could make out figures that seem to be a daughter, grasping onto her father, looking at the same beautiful city everyone had grown to love. Nothing much has changed, James thought. Half the population was dead, missing, gone, but James survived. He took steps toward the railing, filled with curiosity. The sky, still ashy disappointed James. He had assumed everything would be completely different. He had been unconscious for some time, and he was still unsure of the date. He approached a hooded figure, who was closest to him.
“Uh,” James wasn’t sure what to ask or even if this stranger was the person who could answer all his questions. “Why are we here?” He finally asked.
“No one knows why we’re here.” The stranger replied, and continued on their way. Where was his family? His baby, Jessica, or his wife. He shuddered at the thought, that they may not have survived, but all he knew was that despite the other survivors, he was still so alone.
James wandered throughout what reminded him of the viewing deck of the Empire State building. Impossible, he thought. Manhattan had already been wiped out. Everyone there, had been so easily killed, he recollected of the news report he had seen…a while ago.
“Excuse me—” James tried. “Miss—” Another try. “Can you—” Countless attempts began to frustrate him. Everyone seemed to preoccupied to help, or to care.
“Someone help me find my family!” He finally screamed. This caught the attention of many, who of which quickly turned to gaze at this maniac. Who dared to yell here? It was forbidden.
“Hey, you.”
James spun around to find a female, about his age, staring back at him.
“Miss, can you he—”
“Shh. Did you just wake up?” She interrupted. He didn’t know what she meant, but he took a wild guess and nodded. “How’d you get here? You should be in room 313 then.”
“I’m looking for my family!” He pleaded. “Please, help me find them. My daughter, she must be so scared.” The woman didn’t reply. She merely grabbed onto his arm, and lead him to room 313. “What are you doing?! I’m looking for my family!” James resisted, but this woman was much stronger than him. It was almost like she wasn’t human.
“You need to be quiet! You’ll get me in trouble too,” She insisted.
“In trouble? By who?”
“Look, you just woke up, but just do what I say,” She ordered.
They finally reached room 313. There wasn’t anything special about it. Just a room, with lots of empty chairs. The woman left him there, to sit in one of the hundred empty seats in the room. James sat there waiting, more irritated than ever.
“Welcome,” He heard as the lights turned down. “To your new home.”

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Writing Contest: Voting

Friday, October 8

Vote in the comments for your favorite submission.
A huge thanks to everyone who participated!

"Exit Scene" by Spyroteknik

#1

Night-Walker
While the rest of the earth sleeps, I am awake. I see things no one else can; beautiful things, wonderful things… but the vision comes at a price.
Insomnia. It’s a harmless enough word, not one you would think twice about if you read it or heard it. But it is the word that holds my existence in its hands. Insomnia – my gift and my curse. While we live in this world, visions of heaven come at the price of moments in hell.
Do you not understand? Follow me tonight and perhaps you will. I want you to know my mind, see what I see. For my end is coming, drawing nearer and nearer like the advance of dawn. Before it comes, I want to be ready. I want to know that someone else understands what I’ve been through, and what I see. So come with me, please.
Yes? Good. The clock is chiming midnight now. The light is all but gone, lingering only in the pinpoints of the stars that show through the smog. Come, let us go. Walk with me out onto the terrace and I will explain.
Ah, the air is cooler out here and the sounds of the metropolis louder. The noise drives many away, but I love it. When all is dark and the only sound you hear in the house is the even breathing of lucky sleepers, the traffic noise is the thing that reminds you that there are other people still awake and alive in the world.
It started when I was young and my nightmares would keep me awake at night. I would crawl into bed with my parents in those days, but as I grew older my pride won out over my fear and I huddled alone in my own bed, fighting back my imagination.
I’ve discovered a cure of sorts now. Pacing the terrace at night helps me stay sane through the long hours of darkness. And it allows me to see the first glimmers of light that let me go back to bed. Have you never realized how long night is? Right now in the autumn it lasts for nine hours! Have you ever spent nine hours pacing? Not until tonight? Well, how does it feel? It is lonely, is it not? Terribly lonely.
Having someone else with me eases the passage of time. It holds the nightmares at bay and there will be no glimpse of hell tonight. But look! The light is growing, slowly taking over the darkness. Every time I see the sun rise it catches my breath away. My vision is coming, in all its beauty. Wait for it… now! Can you see?
The city is bathed in liquid gold, the Midas’s touch of dawn. See the birds waking! This is glory; this is light; this is hope. Every skyscraper gleams with the sunlight on glass, every street shines with the reflection of the dew on its pavement. You’re turning away from the railing, leaving. Don’t go yet! See the sun rising between the buildings?
This is the one consolation of the insomniac. I have suffered through the torments of utter aloneness, pacing awake at night. But I am recompensed by seeing the majesty of dawn every morning. Who else begins their day with glimpses of heaven, but me?
In my curse, I find a blessing.

#2

The brightness frightened him. James covered his eyes, protecting them from the radiating sunlight that peered through the large window overlooking the city. He had made it. James was a survivor. With a quick glance, he could make out figures that seem to be a daughter, grasping onto her father, looking at the same beautiful city everyone had grown to love. Nothing much has changed, James thought. Half the population was dead, missing, gone, but James survived. He took steps toward the railing, filled with curiosity. The sky, still ashy disappointed James. He had assumed everything would be completely different. He had been unconscious for some time, and he was still unsure of the date. He approached a hooded figure, who was closest to him.
“Uh,” James wasn’t sure what to ask or even if this stranger was the person who could answer all his questions. “Why are we here?” He finally asked.
“No one knows why we’re here.” The stranger replied, and continued on their way. Where was his family? His baby, Jessica, or his wife. He shuddered at the thought, that they may not have survived, but all he knew was that despite the other survivors, he was still so alone.
James wandered throughout what reminded him of the viewing deck of the Empire State building. Impossible, he thought. Manhattan had already been wiped out. Everyone there, had been so easily killed, he recollected of the news report he had seen…a while ago.
“Excuse me—” James tried. “Miss—” Another try. “Can you—” Countless attempts began to frustrate him. Everyone seemed to preoccupied to help, or to care.
“Someone help me find my family!” He finally screamed. This caught the attention of many, who of which quickly turned to gaze at this maniac. Who dared to yell here? It was forbidden.
“Hey, you.”
James spun around to find a female, about his age staring back at him.
“Miss, can you he—”
“Shh. Did you just wake up?” She interrupted. He didn’t know what she meant, but he took a wild guess and nodded. “How’d you get here? You should be in room 313 then.”
“I’m looking for my family!” He pleaded. “Please, help me find them. My daughter, she must be so scared.” The woman didn’t reply. She merely grabbed onto his arm, and lead him to room 313. “What are you doing?! I’m looking for my family!” James resisted, but this woman was much stronger than him. It was almost like she wasn’t human.
“You need to be quiet! You’ll get me in trouble too,” She insisted.
“In trouble? By who?”
“Look, you just woke up, but just do what I say,” She ordered.
They finally reached room 313. There wasn’t anything special about it. Just a room, with lots of empty chairs. The woman left him there, to sit in one of the hundred empty seats in the room. James sat there waiting, more irritated than ever.
“Welcome,” He heard as the lights turned down. “To your new home.”

#3

The sun was setting, turning the storm clouds into colors of gold and breaking it's anger.
It had drawn him to the window and now he stared silently through the pane. Though he tried,
he couldn't capture the feeling it gave him
"What a beautiful sunset," he thought.
Others too had been brought to the window, caught by it's spell.
Birds seemed to come out of the sun's golden ball. They caught the winds draft and followed it wherever it chose to take them, to a destination known by none but their creator.
His eyes glanced downward for a moment and found the floor dreamily mirroring the scene above.
He felt a sense of childhood wonder.
"Though the times are ever changing
and the ground I walk on shakes,
I know these gifts my creator makes
for the delight of his creation," thought he in peace.

#4

Mr. Riley walked into his office feeling tired and alone. He had been a business man, and at work he had thought that he had always been an expert at talking about the things that needed to be talked about in a businessman’s job, but he had obviously been wrong. He had no wife, and therefore no children. He had friends, but none that truly interested him. He was growing old and tired of the world, and slowly but surely he was realizing the fact. He was realizing that there were hundreds of fine men waiting in line for his job, and the fact that his work really no longer needed him made him sad. He was also realizing that he tended to shut inside himself, and so his friends didn’t really need him either. He wanted to make a difference to someone, or something. He wanted to do something or say something that would make someone need him, or want him. Perhaps his friends did need him, even if his work didn’t, but didn’t know that they needed him because of his naturally quiet personality . Perhaps if he stated his opinions more than he would make more of a difference. Somehow he doubted it. Perhaps someone did enjoy his company but he didn’t know it. He doubted that even more. Mr. Riley looked out of the giant glass wall, and watched the sunset fall behind the looming city of New York. It was a bittersweet thing to see. It made the world look as shadowy and gloomy and lonely as he felt, and he wondered if maybe the rest of the people in the world sometimes felt this way. That made him feel good. But that made him think of the people he knew in particular. He thought of all his business partners at his retirement party. He could imagine them talking and laughing, not caring that he had left the party early. He thought of all his collage friends, who didn’t need him then and who, even though he hadn’t changed much over the years, would not notice him on the streets. He could almost see the family he could have had. A beautiful wife, beautiful children, and a beautiful home that he could come home to after work, along with a freshly prepared meal. But he didn’t have any of it. He tried to convince himself that he mattered, but he felt like no-one would notice if he disappeared off the face of the earth. He started to pack up his work things and he knew that this was the last time he would ever be in this office. He glanced up out the window again. The sun had left the darkness to rule the city, and Mr. Riley felt like it ruled him too.

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Last day to Submit

Thursday, October 7

Tomorrow at 7:00 pm, the writing contest will end.
This gives you 24 hours to send in your submission to writersnse@gmail.com or to post it as a comment.

A huge thanks to everyone who's participated for their creative stories and enthusiasm.

It's not too late! You can find the guidelines here.
By 7:30 tomorrow, submissions will be open for voting.

So show us what your made of!

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Writing Contest: "Exit Scene"

Friday, October 1

"Exit Scene" by spyroteknick

Here it is, the writing contest that so many of you voted "yes" for.
Here's how it works:

1. Write what comes to your mind when you look at the above picture. It could be the beginning of a story, a description of the setting, anything.

2. A maximum of 500 words. You won't be disqualified for writing more or less than that, but please keep in mind that you're not trying to write a novel.

3. Post your writing as a comment or e-mail it to me at writersnse@gmail.com. Whichever you're more comfortable with.

4. Submissions will be accepted until October 8th. (That gives you one week.)

5. Out of the top five, you guys will get to vote for your favorite!

Have fun!

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