Marcy’s Blog

Using a Montage to Handle Time in Fiction

Image Credit: Zoli Plosz/freeimages.com

Image Credit: Zoli Plosz/freeimages.com

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to my mini-series on handling time in our fiction. Today I want to talk about what I call the montage.

If you watch movies, you’ve likely seen a montage. It’s a quick collection of images used to compress time or information. In other words, it’s a pacing tool.

And a montage can help us handle the passage of time in our fiction. What I mean by that will make more sense when I show you how they’re used, so let’s dive in.

Montages for Compression of Time

As an editor, I often have a discussion with writers over “empty” scenes—scenes without enough happening in them to justify their existence or where the character’s goal isn’t exciting in and of itself. They make the story feel slow, but the writer will argue that the scenes are important because they need to show time passing. What they often need instead of all those extraneous scenes is a time-compression montage.

In movies, time compression montages are used when it’s important to know that something is happening—for example, a character is learning a new skill—but it’s not important enough or interesting enough to spend a long time showing it happening.

In other words, the fact that this time passed or that this skill was gained is more important than the details of what happened during that passed time or skill acquisition.

I’ll give you a quick example of how a time-compression montage might look on the page.

Let’s say we have a woman in the 1800s awaiting a letter from her husband, who has gone ahead of her across the continent to set up a home for them and was supposed to send for her once he arrived.

Each day I walked to the post office to check our box. Each day the clerk came back empty-handed. At first it was, “Is there something special coming, dear?” and then “Are you sure he has the right address?” and finally “Letters get lost all the time. I wouldn’t worry.” By the time winter set in, she didn’t say anything at all. When I asked if I had any mail, she simply shook her head. She wouldn’t look me in the eyes.

In the movie Notting Hill, when Hugh Grant’s character is walking through the market and the seasons change around him, that’s a time-compression montage. A Knight’s Tale (starring Heath Ledger) used multiple montages in this way. The novel version of Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding uses at least one montage. If you watch for them from now on, you’ll see how frequently time-compression montages show up in fiction, on both screen and page, across all genres.

Montages for Backstory

I could write a whole series about backstory (and I might eventually). The biggest danger of backstory is that we insert it in such a way that it stops the present-day action dead. (A close second is adding unnecessary backstory, even in small bites.)

I could name on one hand the number of times I’ve come across a flashback (a piece of backstory turned into its own scene) that was essential enough to justify its existence and worked well. Very rarely is a scene-length flashback the best way to handle backstory. That’s not to say that the backstory itself isn’t essential—sometimes it can be—but we need to handle it properly.

There are many ways to do that. One particularly effective method for emotionally charged bits of backstory is to use a backstory montage.

The best way I can explain how this works is to point you to the movie K-Pax. Near the end, the psychiatrist, Mark Powell, has gone back to the home of Robert Porter, the man he believes is Prot (a patient who claims he’s an alien). As the sheriff tells the story of the rape and murder of Porter’s wife and daughter by an ex-con, we see these flashes of images of what happened.

We can use the same method in our stories when we want to share backstory or have our character relive a particularly traumatic event in the past, but we also want to keep the present day story moving.

Share a present day event, then a flash of images or sounds or smells. A present day event, and then a flash of the memories it triggers. It works like a chain of links as the character struggles to face the past without losing touch on what’s happening in the present. The montage flashes should work in sequential order to tell their own mini-story alternating with the present-day story of the character.

Montages for Altered States of Mind

Sometimes we run into a spot where our character is very sick, drugged, having a mental break, or is in an otherwise altered state of mind. For example, when Katniss has been stung by the tracker jackets in The Hunger Games and she’s hallucinating, stumbling through the forest.

These are moments when we need to cover what could be a large area of time in a fast, interesting way. We also need to be able to do it in an authentic way that feels like we’re still inside the viewpoint character.

Let me show you how this might look.

Angie struggled to stay awake—some part of her brain screamed at her that she should after a head injury—but her whole body felt strange. Achy and heavy and hot. Black dots swam in her vision and the world was upside down. No, the world was right side up. The car was upside down. Windshield smashed and glass all over the floor-ceiling.

Her eyes slid shut. Flew open.

Sirens. Red and blue and white flashes of light. A voice saying “on three.”

Daggers of pain plunged into her whole body and blackness swallowed her again.

White walls in a moving room. Someone taking her pulse. An IV line dangling from her arm.

Beeping machines. A mask over her face. The stench of skunk.

She fought her way back to consciousness. The room smelled of antiseptic and sweat, and she brushed her fingers over a thin, rough blanket. This wasn’t her house and it wasn’t her bed. The crash. Someone had t-boned her on the way home from work, right? She couldn’t quite pull all the pieces from her memory, but how else would she have gotten here.

The curtain around her bed pulled back, and a woman in smiley face scrubs leaned over her. “Nice to see you awake again. On a scale of 1-10, how would you say the pain is today?”

Angie has been drifting in and out of awareness for nearly a week by the time she finally comes fully awake.

While we have the option of skipping over times like this, a montage can show the passage of time in a natural and interesting way.

Have you ever tried to write a montage? Or would you like to share an example of a montage from a book or movie that you felt worked particularly well?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Point of View in Fiction is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Unbelievable Real Life: Caves Under Our Cities

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Recently I’ve been researching what life is like in the oceans (I’m thinking about writing a book involving an underwater society), and I stumbled across this video. I wanted to share it because of the spectacular images the speaker shares. And listen carefully near the end of the video where she talks about what she’s dived under. Some of the caves she’s mapped run under populated areas. It reminded me about how little we really know about our world.

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Managing the Passage of Time in Fiction

Image Credit: Toni Mihailov/www.freeimages.com

Image Credit: Toni Mihailov/www.freeimages.com

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

We’re almost constantly aware of the passage of time in our daily lives. We check our watches, set alarms, mark important dates on our calendars. We live by the change in daylight and the change in seasons.

The passage of time will be equally important to our characters…and to our readers. Readers can find it confusing or disconnecting if they don’t know when something is taking place or how long a time has passed.

Part of what makes our story feel real to them is the natural passage of time.

Unfortunately, how to deal with the passage of time is something that’s not as commonly taught. That means many of us don’t know how to deal with it correctly (or at all).

Lines like “the next morning” or “a week later” can feel clunky. As readers, we know they’re inserted by the author. They break the fictional dream because they feel like they’re coming from an outside source.

Or often we’ll write an entire story without a hint of when it’s taking place. Winter or summer? The 1950s or the 1990s?

So how can we deal with the passage of time more naturally—in a way that feels like we’re still living it with our characters?

Today I’m going to start a short series on dealing with time in our fiction. This week I’m going to look at ways we can establish the “time” of our story using subtle cues.

When our book opens, when we start a new chapter or scene, or whenever there’s a major change, we need to establish the time.

Establishing a Specific Time

You can establish a specific time internally or externally.

Establishing a specific time externally is usually done in thrillers where there’s a clock ticking down to a tragic event and every minute counts. The author opens each scene/chapter with the date and time.

E.g. 8:00 pm, Friday

Kassandra Lamb did this in her thriller Fatal Forty-Eight. We find out early in the story how long the serial killer keeps his victims alive, and seeing that clock counting down at the start of every new segment really added to the tension.

Externally establishing time doesn’t work for most stories, though, so if we need to establish a specific time, we have to do it internally, through the characters.

Have your viewpoint character look at a clock or their watch. This is the simplest method. To make this believable, give them a reason for doing so. Maybe they know they’re running late. Maybe they have a deadline to hit. Maybe they have an important meeting.  

Use dialogue. We have to be careful that we don’t fall into As-You-Know-Bob dialogue with this technique. As-You-Know-Bob dialogue is where a character says something they wouldn’t normally say. It’s dialogue that’s for the reader’s benefit rather than dialogue that’s from one character to another. Like with looking at a clock, make sure your speaking character has a strong and natural reason for mentioning the time. Would you include the time if you spoke this dialogue?

Establishing a General Time

Often we don’t need an exact minute or hour. Often all we need is an approximate time to show the days moving forward.

Use the sun or moon’s position. This is the simplest way to keep time moving forward. If in the previous scene our character was in a dark alley, looking for a place to hide from her stalker, and we open this scene with the sun making the broken glass seem almost pretty with the way it glitters, we’ll know time has passed. It was night. Now it’s morning.

Reference a commonly known time of day. As long as your story is set on Earth, you can also establish a general time using an event like breakfast or lunch (or happy hour or siesta). If the diner on the corner is filling up with lunch customers, giving your character a chance to vanish into the crowd, that sets the time and keeps the story moving forward.

Compare this day to the previous day. In the opening to this post, I mentioned that saying something like “the next morning” can feel awkward and intrusive. There are more natural ways we can handle this. A good one is to show what’s changed between this day and the previous one.

Yesterday’s sunshine had vanished and rain splattered her face, promising she wouldn’t be able to sleep out in the open again tonight. It was find shelter or perish.

We know it’s the next day, but it feels more natural because it feels like the character is thinking about the difference. It gives them a reason to note the change in days.

The important thing to remember with these cues is that they still need to fit naturally within the story. We shouldn’t stop the story in its tracks just to describe the time.

Establishing a Season of the Year or an Era in History

These time cues are the easiest to establish but nonetheless important.

Seasons all have built in cues for us to use. Christmas carols on the radio mean it’s before Christmas. Dead trees by the curb on garbage day means it’s after Christmas. The leaves change in fall. Stores bursting with heart-shaped boxes of chocolates mean Valentine’s Day is coming. We don’t have to hit the reader over the head to convey the season. A passing mention of seasonal items can subtly do the job for us.

Technology and clothing can help identify the era in history. If our character isn’t talking on a cell phone, we know the story isn’t set in modern day. A woman who struggles to breathe because she had her corset laced too tight or a man who is arrested for buying illegal booze gives the reader a general idea of the era. It usually won’t pin down a year (unless you include a radio broadcast about the death of President Kennedy for example), but it will help establish the right era for the setting.

Do you struggle with including enough time cues in your writing? Would you like to share another natural way to include a mention of the time?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Point of View in Fiction is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Unbelievable Real Life: Underwater Art Museum

Image Credit: Alex Furr/www.freeimages.com

Image Credit: Alex Furr/www.freeimages.com

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I’ve been to museums across the world, from Australia, to Europe, to Canada and the United States. I’ve never been to a museum under water. Until I saw this video, I didn’t even know something like this existed.

When I watched this video, full of fantastic images of how submerged sculptures are changed as the ocean reclaimed them, a few thoughts crossed my mind. I’ll let you watch first before I share my reactions.

My first thought was “how does someone come up with an idea like this?” It seems like a melding of creativity and a desire to change the world. Part of deCaires mission is to bring attention to the danger our oceans are in. Art is for entertainment, but art can also send a message. I believe it can change hearts and minds in a way that non-fiction never can. That’s a part of why I write fiction.

My second thought, I’ll admit, was much less deep. The sculptures were both beautiful and grotesque. I started to wonder what it would have been like if we’d found these sculptures, not knowing who put them there or why. What would we have concluded about the culture and people behind them? What would we decide about how they’d come to be there?

Perhaps there’s a story idea in there somewhere :)

What did you think when you watched this video?

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The Biggest Mistake Made By Self-Published Authors

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I’m going to be a tease today. I’m over at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University for my regular monthly guest post, but I’m not going to tell you more about the topic than this–I’m sharing what I think is a fatal mistake made my self-published authors. And it’s probably not what you’d expect.

Please join me at Fiction University to find out more!

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Point of View in Fiction is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Will Humanity One Day Live on Mars?

Image Attribution: By NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image Attribution: By NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

The next milestone in space exploration seems to be putting people on Mars.

NASA has mentioned plans to place human beings on Mars sometime in the 2030s. Non-profits like the Netherlands-based Mars One Project and private businesses like Elon Musk’s SpaceX intend to do it sooner than that.

While there are many scientific reasons for wanting to explore Mars, the reason for Mars exploration that earns the most press seems to be colonization. Many people see Mars as a backup planet to our own.

I’m a science fiction and fantasy girl. In theory, I love the idea of venturing out into the universe.

But I also have some questions about the feasibility and practicality of something like colonizing Mars.

Our planet is more hospitable than Mars, and yet look at the large portions of it that aren’t lived in because they’re not friendly to human life. Our vast stretches of desert. Mountain peaks. The depths of the ocean. Antarctica.

In an interview with The Telegraph, award-winning science writer Stephen Petranek responded to similar objections with this: “I suspect Antarctica’s a pretty good analogy of how we can build habitats in a hostile environment. The food’s pretty good, there’s a lot of entertainment, people have a lot of camaraderie. There are now several year-long stations at the South Pole. The French have one and they have fabulous food.”

While that sounds fantastic, I do think he’s overlooked a few key points.

No one lives permanently in Antarctica. The stations are there year-round; the people cycle in and out. There is no indigenous population.

It doesn’t have an infrastructure. While the science stations there do have hydroponics bays to grow some fruits and vegetables, most of the food still needs to be shipped in frozen, including all meat products. Clothing, medical supplies, and all the other non-edible necessities of life are brought in. They’re not produced there.

To put it another way, life in Antarctica is possible because it takes place on a planet that already provides for people’s needs. Life there isn’t sustainable in and of itself, cut off from the outside world.

It’s also on a planet with oxygen. In a region with plenty of available water (albeit frozen water). And where temperatures are concerned, Antarctica is actually a little bit warmer.

I’m by no means an expert on space travel. I’m not a scientist. I’m not an astronomer. I’m not a biologist. And I’m not saying it will never happen. Technology has changed so much in the past 150 years that only a fool would say that technology won’t continue to advance further in the next 150.

But I wonder. I wonder if we’re searching for answers off-planet when maybe we should be searching for more ways to save this one. Because the more we look at the universe, the clearer it becomes how unique and special Earth really is.

What do you think? Am I wrong? Will future generations colonize Mars? Would the time and resources being spent on reaching Mars be better spent on finding solutions here on Earth?

(I welcome disagreement and discussion on this blog as long as it is polite and well-reasoned. Open discussions help us all grow. Name calling and assertions without logical arguments to back them up serve no one. If you want to engage in those, you’ll need to find another place to do it :) )

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6 Qualities of Bad Writing

Bad WritingBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Whenever a book becomes wildly successful (or even moderately successful), a funny thing seems to happen. Among all the people who love it, another segment of the population rises up who hate the book.

Now, some of this could be sour grapes, spouted by people who’ve wanted to write a bestseller and have failed. Some of it could be folks who like to disagree because they don’t want to be a part of any crowd or a part of any popular movement. They value being contrary.

But I have to believe that, equally as often, some of the people who claim to hate a popular book really do hate it. They really believe the writing is terrible. They really believe the story is boring or “nothing new and special.” They really couldn’t stand spending that many pages with the main character.

What started me thinking about this was watching the final Hunger Games movie with my husband. We’ve both read the books. I’d been anticipating this movie since last year. But when I asked my husband if he was excited about seeing the movie, he said, “Meh, it’s really more your thing.”

I valued the series enough to buy it in paperback. He thought the books were merely okay. He won’t ever read them again.

I couldn’t stand the Twilight series, but I have friends who loved the books.

So I have to ask, what makes something a good book or a bad book? What qualifies as good writing and what qualifies as bad writing?

These six qualities of bad writing can ruin a book. (My theory on why they don’t always do so is coming up afterward.)

Bad Writing Quality #1 – Flawed Writing on a Sentence Level

I’m not talking about the occasional typo here. I don’t even mean the occasional poorly written or wordy sentence.

By flawed writing, I mean regular use of awkward, overly wordy, or confusing sentences or sentence constructions. I also mean grammar or punctuation that’s bad enough to cause the reader comprehension trouble. Flagrant overuse of figures of speech fall into this category as well.

Flawed writing on a sentence level ruins a book because it makes the book difficult for most people to read. You’re not able to lose sight of the words on the page.

Bad Writing Quality #2 – A Slow Plot

A slow plot can be caused by a lack of stakes (which I’ll talk about in a second), but it can also be caused by subplots that never connect to the main plot, a character who thinks more than acts, or too much chronicling of daily life.

Any type of rabbit trail can slow the plot. So if we have an “exciting” chase scene in our book that doesn’t connect to the main plot, it will still make the book feel slow.

A slow plot leads to readers feeling like the book was boring—in other words, a bad book.

Bad Writing Quality #3 – Low Stakes

Another element that can lead to a boring book is low stakes.

Many writers misunderstand low vs. high stakes. Every book needs high stakes, regardless of genre. High stakes aren’t simply a threat on the character’s life.

Let me explain.

James Scott Bell has famously written that the stakes should always be death. That can easily be misunderstood. Death can be emotional or professional as well as physical. It can be the death of a dream. The risk of losing anything your main character cares deeply and passionately about qualifies as death stakes. A part of them will die if they lose this thing.

When we’re considering stakes, giving our character higher stakes is only part of it. We also need to explain why our character wants it so much. When the reader understands the why, they’ll be more invested in the story.

Bad Writing Quality #4 – A Predictable Plot

You might have noticed a pattern already—many people will define boring writing as bad writing. A predictable plot, without interesting twists or an escalation of events, will quickly lose the reader’s interest.

Another way of looking at this is the lack of a fascinating premise. If we’re telling the reader a story they’ve heard a hundred times, they’re not going to want to hear it again. The way around this is to take a tried-and-true premise and put a spin on it or to write the story that you could never find and desperately wanted to read.

Bad Writing Quality #5 – Flat Characters

Our characters don’t necessary have to be likeable in order for people to love our books, but they do need to be compelling in some way. Maybe that is a character who’s likeable. Maybe it’s a character who is interesting because they’re in a strange profession (that you leverage in your book) or who has fascinating quirks or an unusual skill. Maybe it’s a character your readers can relate to on an emotional level or who faces struggles similar to the ones your readers face.

Here’s the thing—a story about Bob the Plumber, going about a day that’s like anyone else’s day, isn’t interesting, especially if Bob is your average person with no unique qualities.

If Bob the Plumber wanted to be a detective, though, and has exceptional deductive skills that allow him to spot and solve crimes, you have a story.

Or if Bob the Plumber is a devoted single dad trying to help his daughter prepare for the Olympic trials while also running his business (which was always his dream), then you have a story.

Make your character special in some way. Make your readers want to spend 10 or more hours with them.

Bad Writing Quality #6 – No Emotional Resonance

This is a tricky one, but try a little exercise. Think about two books. One book you read once but won’t ever read again, even though you didn’t hate it the first time. The other book you read over and over again.

Oftentimes, the difference between the two is emotional resonance. Emotional resonance can hide under the alternate name of “well-executed theme.”

How did Harry Potter reach so many people? One of the reasons was that Harry’s deep need was one almost everyone could relate to. The stories and characters transcended the details of the magical world to tell a story of a boy who longed for a family that loved him, who just wanted to feel at home somewhere, who struggled to figure out the line between right and wrong, and who learned that some things are worth fighting and dying for.

In other words, the struggles of Harry, despite their magical trappings, spoke directly to many people’s hearts.

Then Why Do Some Books With One (or More!) Of These Flaws Still Succeed?

I have a theory about why some books with one or two of these bad qualities still become bestsellers.

Reading is subjective. Look at that list and rank those qualities from least important to most important for your reading enjoyment. If you compared your list to a friend’s list, they would probably rank those items differently.

So when we read a book, if that book fails miserably at one of our most important criteria for reading enjoyment, we’ll hate it. But that same book might beautifully execute the element that tops our friend’s list, and so they love it.

Wait!

This doesn’t mean I’m saying that as writers we shouldn’t try to do all these things well. We should. We should try to write the best book we can possibly write.

But we also need to understand where our strengths and weaknesses lie and be prepared for bad reviews. No book is ever perfect. No book will appeal to absolutely everyone. And books we think are crap will often become someone else’s favorite read.

What’s most important to you, as a reader, from the list? Do you think my theory is right or a load of hog-wash? :)

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Point of View in Fiction is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Image Credit: Daino_16/www.freeimages.com

Cover Design on a Budget

Image Credit: Pawel Kryj/www.freeimages.com

Image Credit: Pawel Kryj/www.freeimages.com

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

A while back I wrote a post on How to Save Money on Editing Your Book. Since I’ve been covering How to Find and Select a Cover Designer and 7 Tips to Make the Most of Working with a Cover Designer, I wanted to make sure I also talked about cover design on a budget before I ended my mini-series on cover design.

One of the biggest challenges we face as indie authors is financing our books, especially when we’re starting out. Yet we’re told not to scrimp on editing and cover design (which is excellent advice).

If we’re working on a shoestring and can’t skim much money from the family budget, what do we do?

Please join me at Fiction University for the rest of this post on cover design on a budget. (And I apologize for the delay in letting you all know about the existence of this post. I got it to Janice before my December crumbled around me, but I didn’t have a chance to schedule an announcement here.)

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Point of View in Fiction is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Be the Hero of Your Own Life Story

Image Credit: Ben Smith/www.freeimages.com

Image Credit: Ben Smith/www.freeimages.com

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Those of you who regularly read my blog might have noticed that I disappeared for over a month. That’s because 2015 went out worse than it came in. After driving to the hospital every day for a week to be with my husband, and another week full of follow-up appointments, I was easy-pickings for a Goliath of a cold/flu bug.

I ended 2015 tired—the deep kind of tired that settles into your bones and your soul because it’s only partly physical and mostly emotional.

Since the start of 2015 my family has faced a car accident (the repercussions of which we’re still dealing with nearly a year later), a fractured pelvis, a sinus infection made worse by a previously unknown allergy to the prescribed antibiotic, pneumonia, sick pets, mental illness, and a stroke.

And that’s not even all of it. That’s the abbreviated version.

Boy do I wish I was joking. When I write it out that way, it sounds more like a poor man’s version of Downton Abbey than someone’s actual life. But it is my life.

Although I managed to maintain my regular editing schedule in 2015 and even taught a few classes in the latter half of the year, I only published two books of the five I’d scheduled and my blogging and social media interaction suffered greatly. As in, Facebook and Twitter died on the vine, my blog and newsletter are on life support, and we won’t talk about my email inbox.

All I could think when I sat down to decide on goals and plans for 2016 was “I hope 2016 is better than 2015.”

Unfortunately, the things that knocked me down were also things that were outside of my control. I can’t guarantee this year will be any better or any easier. All I have control over is my reaction to what comes.

So I decided that since my life has gained a frightening resemblance to fiction, I’d figure out how to become the hero of my story. What do I know about writing a good story that can help me weather this weird stage of life?

Heroes Need Allies

Want a slow, boring book? Let your hero spend unhealthy amounts of time alone, thinking. It’s not any smarter to do in life either. The more time we spend alone in our own heads, the more opportunities we give unhealthy thought patterns to grow.

Allies give us someone to discuss our options with. They provide fresh perspectives that we might not have thought of on our own. We grow our view of the world when they disagree with us.

But allies provide more benefits than simply keeping us from becoming the scary person who talks to themselves all the time.

Our allies—our friends—are the ones who watch our backs. Who hold our hands when we’re scared. Who tell us they believe in us, they’re proud of us. Who have skills that make up for our weaknesses. Who say, “I can’t fix this for you, but I can make sure you don’t have to go through it alone.”

And, in return, we have to be their ally when they need it.

No one can do it all alone.

The Cavalry Isn’t Coming

When life goes sideways, it’s easy to wish for someone or something to rescue us. We dream about winning the lottery. We wish for miracle cures. We fantasize that someone will come in and make the best possible decisions for us and take care of all the problems we’d rather not face.

But books where the cavalry sweeps in at the end and solves all the hero’s problems are unsatisfying and unrealistic. The truth is that in life we have a better chance of getting cancer than we do of winning the lottery.

The cavalry isn’t coming.

No one can fix our problems for us, not even our allies. They can help us, but we have to be willing to help ourselves too.

A hero isn’t going to ride in on a white horse to save us because we are the hero. Or, at least, we have the potential to be.

Unless we want our life story to be a tragedy, we have to make choices and act. We have to pull it together and find strength we never knew we had. We have to take responsibility for our lives and for fighting to make them what we want them to be. We have to be brave enough to find joy in the small things even when we’re broken and bleeding and terrified.

We have to keep the faith, keep hoping, and never give up. Ever. It’s the only way we’ll have a chance to win.

Crises Force Growth

Change is hard. The old ways and old patterns are easier and feel safer. Often it takes struggles to bring us to the point where we’re willing and able to change. The hallmark of a satisfying, memorable story is a hero who learns and changes for the better because of the challenges they face.

We could be the anti-hero with the negative character arc, but is that really the way you want your story to end? It’s not what I want for mine.

I want to come out better than I went in. Stronger. Wiser. Kinder. Braver.

I never want to stop growing as a person.

So that’s how I’m heading in to 2016.

How was your 2015? Feel free to share the good and the bad. Have you set goals for the new year?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Point of View in Fiction is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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My Favorite Science Fiction Book of 2015

If you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you know I don’t tend to “endorse” books very often. I see so many books, both through my work as an editor and through my own personal reading, that it takes something special to be good enough for me to talk about it. But as you might have guessed from the title of this post, today I am going to tell you about one of my favorite books from this year. I’m also going to share a guest post from the author where he tells a bit more about his inspiration for the story. 

(Disclaimer: I worked as the developmental editor on this book. This didn’t sway my recommendation, and even though I worked on it, I’ll be buying a copy now that it’s available for sale because I want to have this book to read again.)

I’m predisposed to like a book where people are fighting against long odds to save humanity. The high pressure, ticking clock, and gutsy underdog elements of those types of stories have always drawn me in. The Farthest City has all that, but I also invested immediately in the character of Sheemi. Her grief and her struggle to figure out what kind of person she wanted to be made her real to me.  

Dan Swenson also has a beautiful writing voice and an uncanny ability with chapter endings. He ends each chapter in such a way that you can’t bear to not turn to the next chapter. The situations all the characters face are full of devastating choices and discoveries.

It was the kind of science fiction story that felt believable without bogging down in a lot of dry technical information.

And so now, without further delay, I’ll turn this blog over to Dan to tell you more about The Farthest City.

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The Farthest City by Dan SwensonIn the far future, intelligent machines resurrected the human race then disappeared. Now humanity wages a losing war against the alien Hexi.

One soldier, Sergeant Sheemi Tanamal, experiencing unbearable loss, possessed by her anger, wants as much revenge as she can get before she dies in battle. An unexpected mission changes everything.

Citizen Kellen Beaudin, is a shy, sensitive artist with a different, but equally troubling past. Kellen’s origin is deeply intertwined with the machines, although he doesn’t understand how or why. He learns who he really is when his machine obsession takes him on an incredible journey.

Neither Kellen or Sheemi will ever be the same.

Sound interesting? I hope so!

I wrote The Farthest City over a four year period, including a critiquing process with folks at Critters.org, and ending with an intensive editing phase (developmental editor: Marcy Kennedy, copy editor: Chris Saylor). The result is, I hope, a compelling story with some thought provoking aspects and characters readers can root for.

I conceived the idea for The Farthest City by using the trusty “what if?” process. I often use that prompt to brainstorm story ideas. In this case, I was mulling over the trope of machines becoming sentient followed by a machine uprising. That theme has been repeated in books and film: I, Robot, the Terminator, the Matrix, and Battlestar Galactica to name a few. In these stories, machines represent our collective nightmare, a fear reinforced by technological and scientific authorities such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking.

Put simply, the machines get smart and kill us. Usually. But what if they saved us instead? The setting of The Farthest City is based on this unique premise: humanity destroyed itself in a third world war. Our species was resurrected by intelligent machines who raised a new generation of humans from frozen embryos using artificial wombs. Then the machines (“chines” in the book) depart into space, ceding Earth back to us. When aliens invade threatening a second human extinction, we need the machines’ help once again.

I also explore the concept of what machines might be like if they did become sentient in the future (don’t worry- I don’t think it will happen anytime soon). The challenge was how to make the machines as different and non-human as they would probably be, while still making them relatable as characters that can interact with humans in meaningful ways. Would they merge into a single near-omniscient, soulless entity, or develop as individuals with personalities, goals, and ideals?

I chose the latter concept, and from there, more questions arose. How would they live—in virtual worlds or using interchangeable bodies in the real world? How would they evolve? How would they live differently from biological beings? What would their vehicles and buildings look like? Would they even need buildings? Would they form friendships? Become depressed? All these questions are developed further in the book and lead to some interesting story developments I hope will entertain readers as much as they fascinated me.

Bio: Daniel P. Swenson lives in southern California with his wife, two children and two furry aliens with claws and whiskers. He does most of his writing on the train or in other odd, in-between moments. Comments and questions are welcome. He can be reached at danielpswenson@gmail.com.

Grab a copy of The Farthest City on Amazon!

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