novels

Starving Review: An Emerging Threat (The Seeker’s Burden Book 1) by Mark Lein

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An Emerging Threat by Mark E. Lein (Amazon)

Have you ever sat down to a meal and really wanted to like it?  The smell from the kitchen was wonderful, the place settings are nice, and the food itself is presented beautifully, but when you start to take a bite of that juicy turkey, it tastes like dried-out shreds?  Sure, it’s edible still, but … yuck.

That’s what happened to me when I read An Emerging Threat.  I really wanted to like it.  It is a fantasy novel (love those!) that was supposed to have some steampunk elements (love steampunk!) and the author had, from my talks with him was obviously an intelligent and thoughtful individual (smart authors write great books, yeah?).  Well …

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Into the Action: How detailed should an action sequence be?

I write a lot of action scenes.  Consider that, no matter the potential depth for narrative and character development, the genres I write in also demand a lot of action and direct conflict.  One series of books is set in the superhero genre, a classification that can have entire comic book issues devoted to an extended action sequence, and the other is grounded in professional wrestling, a sport entirely about ‘let’s you and him fight!’.  Certainly, I try to twist those genres and interject plenty of discussion, introspection, and character-building moments, but who am I to deny the fans of the genres I write in one of the things they expect?  After four novels of action scenes, I think I’m starting to get a handle on it enough to talk about it in a more analytical sense.  Today’s musings are part of that analysis.  Specifically, what I want to talk about today is just how much detail and length should a writer devote to the action sequences in his book.

 

I think the first thing to note is that action isn’t always a direct physical conflict (though it often is).  Moments of intense conflict where not a single punch is thrown can be a fulfilling form of action in and of itself, be it an emotion-laden argument between two lovers or a seemingly polite duel of wits between two enemies fought over a pleasant meal.  Though much of my focus in this post is about physical action, you can transpose some of these ideas to other forms of action with minimal adjustments.

 

With that established, when contemplating how to approach an action scene, an author should consider how important this scene is to the overall plot.  Is there any critical narrative or character impact in the scene or is it simply a minor plot point?  The more important the scene is, the more length and detail should be devoted to it.  While this seems really obvious, the fact is that it is easy to get carried away.  Writing action scenes can be fun, after all, and it’s easy to invest yourself too much into lovingly detailing out every minor scrap you can find.  Doing that, though, just bloats your scenes and bores the reader.  Action has to lead to consequence or it’s wasted pages and the depth of that consequence should equal the length of the scene.

 

If you follow the traditional curve of a strong initial hook, then rising action to climax, the curve alone can provide a barometer of how deep you should make each sequence.  The detail and strength of an action sequence should pretty closely map it’s position on the curve.  Feel free to start an action novel with a bang, using a strongly written action sequence to start the book, then ramp down, using gradually swelling bits of action to lead to a showstopping climax.  Again, this seems pretty logical, but if an author doesn’t properly structure the story, they can wind up fatiguing the reader with out-of-place intense sequences, leading them to just be, well, tired and burned-out by the actual climax.  Left with a feeling of ‘what could possibly top that’, their suspension of disbelief can break and they may not buy into the importance of the true climax of the book.

 

If these main points seem to be saying the same thing in different ways, they are to a degree.  The main rule of thumb should always be ‘importance = intensity’.  No matter the type of conflict, the intensity of the action should never overstep the scene’s importance.  Never use the genre as an excuse to overstuff your works with excess scenes and wordy baggage.  This applies as much to a mystery or a disaster yarn as much as to a martial arts action novel.  In a mystery, for instance, don’t waste excessive pages on the questioning of a minor witness that adds little to the unravelling or obfuscation of the ultimate mystery.  That’s a waste of action as much as a two-chapter fight scene with a shoplifter in a superhero book.

 

How do you approach action in your own works?  Do you see the action inherent in conflict that isn’t purely physical?  Do you treat that conflict in a similar way as physical ones or do you approach them on a different level?  Start the conversation in the comment section!

Back to Writing: Event-driven plots vs. Character-driven plots

So, today, I’m beginning the outlining work on my next book as I wait for beta readers and editors to do their thing.  That being the case, plot is on my mind and it made me start thinking about the nature of plots in general.  Now, my musings are nowhere near comprehensive but, at least in the context of what I’m now working on, I pondered two different methods of plotting: event-driven versus character-driven.

The meanings of the terms are pretty straight-forward, if you’re not already familiar with them.  Event-driven plots are plots where the conflict is caused by specific events which occur outside of the actions of the characters.  A novel written around a natural disaster would be a perfect example.  Character-driven plots are plots where the actions of the characters generate the conflicts that move the story along.  A heist novel would be a great example of this.  Both types of plots have valid uses, so it comes down to deciding which is best for the story you want to tell.

At first blush, event-driven plots seem to showcase the central event as the ‘main character’.  This is true in some cases; there are books and films where something as esoteric as a deadly virus can have a fully realized character arc.  It can also be used to shine a light on variances at human character as a wide slice of character types react and change because of the event.  A series of plot-driving events could also be used as part of a character-driven plot to provide catalysts for character action that then spin off into a completely character-driven plot.

What’s important to realize is that event-driven plots aren’t event-driven if the ‘events’ in question are caused by the actions of another character (at least a character that is part of the novel’s cast).  A childhood murder (to steal a Batman moment) could be considered an ‘event’ if the murderer is not part of the plot from that point on, but if the murderer and his actions have a hand in the larger plot, then it could be simply another character-driven plot point.  Is it really important to the writing process to know the difference between these two approaches to plot?

I think so.  It mainly shows up in the style of the writing.  Event-driven writing, by it’s nature, introduces a certain immutability about the events that drive the plot.  The characters mold around the events instead of directly influencing them.  Again, this is great depending on the type of novel you are writing, but it can be horrible for other works.  The problem comes in when a writer intends to write, let’s say, a character-driven piece but then has every motivating event that occurs be an immutable thing that doesn’t derive from any character’s action.  Often times, this is simply a matter of clunky plotting: a certain character’s actions are treated as immutable events that never alter from the actions or reactions of other character’s.  In essence, those actions become ‘acts of God’ and there suddenly is not interplay between those actions and the reactions of the rest of the cast.  In a character-driven piece, this is suicide.

I suppose the ultimate point I’m making is that I’ve learned to try to be careful when plotting and writing a piece to keep in mind what you are trying to do and where you want the focus to lie.  It’s easy to make a few slips that turn the focus of something away from the intended target.  What do you think?  Do you consider how you plot something to be important in the execution of a piece?  Do you prefer to write based around events or around characters?  Let me know!

P.S. I’m always open for more beta readers.  If you want to get first crack at all of my current and future books, this is your chance!  Who can argue with free books, right?

Daily Musings: The importance of outlining

If you wind up deciding to ever write a full length novel or other long piece of literature, you may be tempted to ‘wing it’, to undertake the task with only a basic idea of story and characters in your head.  After all, it can work well for short, unconnected subjects.  Why not take those same spontaneous story-writing skills and upscale them to a larger piece?

While that may sound doable, in truth, it’s a recipe for failure.  I don’t want to seem like I am totally trashing the usefulness of the ability to spontaneously write creative fiction.  It’s an important skill and very useful in writing larger works.  However, you cannot rely on it to write a coherent 60, 000 word plus novel.  Continuity, coherence, and minor details start to get lost as you string each chapter along like another short story instead of weaving it into a single tapestry of words.

At the same time, too much structure and planning can be just as catastrophic.  Characters, events, and personalities can and must be dynamic to be believable.  It is quite possible to be following a well-laid out, logical plan for your plot and suddenly hit a point where something no longer clicks properly because of how your writing for a particular character or event has evolved *as you have written it*.  This isn’t a bad thing; this is a good thing.  It is using that spontaneous writing skill to keep a story fresh, dynamic, and realistic.

How do you achieve a middle ground?  Every writer has differing methods, but one thing I have seen as a commonality among most long-subject authors is an outline approach.  Loosely outlining a structure of events and characters in chapter order is a good idea.  You have important things laid out in an order that fits the flow of your story.  As each section of the outline is semi-independent, it can be easy to move sections of the outline around in the story to better fit the flow you discover while you write.  As you haven’t devoted endless hours to minutae, it is also far more painless to delete or radically change sections of the outline.  In essence, it provides structure, but not too much structure.  It’s that ‘just right’ porridge for long-subject writers.

This is obviously based on my opinion and personal experience.  What do you think?  Do you use similar techniques when you write or is there other advice you would give struggling authors?