Marcy Kennedy

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? Deep Point of View 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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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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Selecting POV Characters and 7 Tips to Make the Most of Working with a Cover Designer

Last month, I talked about how to find the right cover designer for our project. Unfortunately, once we’ve selected our cover designer, it doesn’t mean everything will move forward smoothly or well, even if our cover designer is both talented and professional.

Why? Well, a business relationship is still a relationship. That means a large part of the success of the relationship depends on communication. We need to clearly communicate our needs and desires to our cover designer.

So this month I’m sharing my top seven tips for making the most of working with a cover designer.

I hope you’ll join me at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University for my 7 Tips to Make the Most of Working with a Cover Designer.

If you’re not in need of a cover designer at present, I also had another post up this week at Writer’s Helping Writers about how to decide how many point-of-view characters our book needs.

And remember, if you have a question you’d like me to answer or a specific topic you want me to cover, contact me. I’m keeping a file on questions to answer here on the blog in the coming 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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How to Hunt Down Sneaky Point-of-View Errors

Sneaky POV ErrorsBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

One of my favorite writing craft topics is point of view because, when we master point of view, it solves so many other writing problems. Properly executing point of view immediately strengthens our writing, makes it more immersive, and gives lightbulb moments for many other writing elements. (If you want to know about other benefits of a consistent point of view, you might want to take a look at my post on 7 Reasons Understanding Point of View Is Essential to Writing Great Fiction.)   

So I was very excited when Jami Gold asked if I’d write a post for her about clues for catching out-of-POV phrases. These POV errors happen any time we’re in a limited point of view—where we’re supposed to stay inside one viewpoint character at a time—and we write something that our viewpoint character couldn’t know, wouldn’t have experienced, or wouldn’t be thinking about. Out-of-POV phrases are sneaky POV errors. They’re less obvious than something like head-hopping, but they’re more damaging to our writing.

Please join me over at Jami Gold’s blog where I’m giving practical tips for hunting down and eliminating sneaky out-of-POV phrases.

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: Gregory Hoyl Jr./freeimages.com

How to Find and Select a Cover Designer

FreeImages.com/Bill Davenport

FreeImages.com/Bill Davenport

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Making sure my books had covers that would attract readers rather than turn them away has been one of the scariest parts of independent publishing for me. Readers do judge books by their covers. An ugly or unprofessional cover can make a reader pass on our book regardless of how great our content is.

Most of us are writers, not artists or graphic designers. We can’t design our own covers. (Or, at least, most of us shouldn’t.)So how do we find a cover designer who can create the perfect cover for our books—one that’s visually appealing and also accurately represents the content inside?

Well, that’s the topic of my most recent guest post over at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University. I hope you’ll join me for How to Find and Select a Cover Designer.

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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The Inevitable Truth of Life–Things Go Wrong

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

How do you face the difficult times in life?

Over the weekend, my husband and I went to see The Martian, and this is the question I walked away with.

In The Martian, Mark Watney is part of the team of astronauts who went on a Mars mission. Due to a storm, they had to leave the surface of Mars before their allotted time was over. During preparation for lift off, Watney was injured and lost in the storm. The team thought he was dead and had to launch without him–leaving him stranded on Mars, a planet where nothing grows, with no breathable atmosphere, and extreme weather conditions.

I don’t want to spoil too many of the story details for you, but Watney doggedly manages to survive on Mars until he’s able to be rescued, years later.

Once back on earth, Watney becomes an instructor, teaching astronaut candidates. In his first class, he tells them the one inevitable truth of space travel.

At some point, everything will go wrong.

That’s not an if. It’s a when. And when everything goes wrong, there’s really only one thing you can do if you want to survive.

You have to focus on one problem at a time.

The movie was talking about space and what you face there, but it’s also the one inevitable truth about life.

At some point in your life, everything will go wrong. Horribly, heart-breakingly, hope-crushingly wrong.

And there’s only one thing you can do if you want to survive. You focus on one problem at a time.

The big picture—that’s going to be more than we can handle when life blows up in our face. Because if we look at the big picture, it’ll seem impossible to overcome. We’ll feel too weak, too unprepared, too alone. Too everything.

But one problem at a time…well, we can find the strength for that one small thing. Just that thing. Only that thing.

And then the next one.

And the next one.

And one day, we’ll look up, and we’ll have made it out the other side. We’ll have survived.

And if we’re really brave, one day we’ll do what Mark Watney did. We’ll take what we’ve learned and use it to help teach others how to survive. Because at some point in their lives, everything will go wrong.

And what will matter most if they want to survive is knowing how to face it without giving up.

Have you faced a time in your life when everything seemed to go wrong? What helped you through?

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March to a Bestseller 3 – Great Writing Resources

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

March to a Bestseller III

I’m honored to once again be participating in the semi-annual March to a Bestseller event run by Bryan Cohen. I love this event because it brings writers a bunch of high-quality books about writing and publishing for an affordable price (99 cents each).

And to make it even better, on the day of the sale, the authors involved staff the Facebook group for giveaways and Q&As. If you have a writing-related question, this is the place to bring it. I’ll be manning the “table” from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm Eastern.

Here are the books involved this time!

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Point of View in Fiction is now available from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Apple iBooks. (You also might want to check out Grammar for Fiction Writers or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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7 Reasons Understanding Point of View is Essential to Writing Great Fiction

Point of View in FictionBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

When we talk about point of view, we basically mean the perspective from which the story is told. Who are we listening to when we read the story? Whose head are we in? Whose eyes are we watching the story through?

Point of view isn’t merely another writing craft technique. Point of view is the foundation upon which great fiction rests.

Why do I say point of view is so essential to writing a good book?

Reason #1 – Well executed point of view allows the reader to experience (and participate in) a situation that they could never have been part of, or might never want to be part of, in real life. Consistent and skilled use of POV not only allows us to live vicariously, but also gives us the opportunity to examine ourselves and think about whether we would have made the same choices as the characters. In other words, we become participants in two senses of the word. It engages our emotions and our minds.

Reason #2 – Well executed point of view builds subtext, as we’re able to contrast what’s happening around the character with what they think about it. We can sort through the difference between reality and perception, the difference between the objective and subjective.

Reason #3 – Well executed point of view sets each character apart, as we see how they uniquely interpret the world around them. Put another way, point of view is the tool we use to create three-dimensional characters. When we don’t understand point of view and when we don’t execute it correctly, we’re very likely to end up with flat, uninteresting characters. Beyond this, as novelists and short story writers, we have an advantage in that we can give our audience that filtered perspective. They can’t receive that from television or movies or plays.

Reason #4 – Well executed point of view controls the flow of information to either create suspense or forward the plot. As authors, how we choose to handle POV determines what we must and can’t show to the reader. As readers, it creates the page-turning excitement as we discover things along with the POV character.

Reason #5 – Well executed point of view encourages showing rather than telling. “Showing” in fiction rather than “telling” is one of the most common pieces of writing advice and also one that a majority of writers struggle to execute. Understanding and writing from a close point of view makes this concept easier because we’re experiencing the story through the eyes of a particular character.

Reason #6 – Well executed point of view helps us decide what description belongs in the story. Many writers buy into the fallacy that description slows a story down. Description doesn’t slow a story down—bad description or description placed where it doesn’t belong slows a story down. When we write with a clear point of view, we’ll know what details are important to include and when is the appropriate time to include them.

Reason #7 – Well executed point of view shows us when to include backstory and when to explain details about our world and setting or about the way something works. How much or how little to explain these elements to readers becomes a stumbling block for many writers. When we have a clear POV, we’ll know to include it only when the POV character would naturally be thinking about it or noticing it.

Point of View in Fiction: A Busy Writer’s Guide Is Now Available!

In Point of View in Fiction: A Busy Writer’s Guide, you’ll learn

  • the strengths and weaknesses of the four different points of view you can choose for your story (first person, second person, limited third person, and omniscient),
  • how to select the right point of view for your story,
  • how to maintain a consistent point of view throughout your story,
  • practical techniques for identifying and fixing head-hopping and other point-of-view errors,
  • the criteria to consider when choosing the viewpoint character for each individual scene or chapter,
  • and much more!

Each book in the Busy Writer’s Guide series is intended to give you enough theory so that you can understand why things work and why they don’t, but also enough examples to see how that theory looks in practice. In addition, they provide tips and exercises to help you take it to the pages of your own story, with an editor’s-eye view. Most importantly, they cut the fluff so that you have more time to write and to live your life.

You can grab a copy of Point of View in Fiction from Amazon, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. It’s also available in print.

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Top 10 Dialogue Mistakes that Kill Your Story

Top 10 Dialogue Mistakes that Kill Your StoryBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Awkward or boring dialogue can make readers cringe and toss our books aside to find something better.

A few months ago, I wrote a post called 10 Writing Mistakes that Kill Your First Chapter. Because of how much everyone liked that post, I decided to do a follow up. So today I’m sharing the top 10 dialogue mistakes that kill your story (in no particular order).

#1 – Too Much Direct Address

Direct address is where we call a person by their name or title (e.g., Mother, Doc).

“Bob, would you pass the peas?”
“Of course, Mary.” He turned to look at Frank. “Frank, I heard you got a new job.”
“Yes, Bob. I’m liking it a lot.”

Almost no one talks this way, and the people who do are considered strange. You can use a name or title once in a while in your dialogue, but make sure you’re doing it strategically (for example, people will often use names during an argument).

#2 – Allowing a Character to Speak Uninterrupted for Paragraphs (or Pages!)

How much do you enjoy being around a person who talks for five or ten or fifteen minutes (or more) without letting anyone else get a word in? Probably not that much.

Since this is a short list, I’ll give you just four reasons why allowing a character to talk uninterrupted is a problem. The first is that the reader usually ends up feeling preached to. The second is that you lose all sense of setting. The third is that it stops the action dead. The forth is that it can hurt the likeability and believability of your windbag character.

Even if your character is giving a speech of some kind, you need to interrupt them with body language, actions by other characters, or internal dialogue from the point-of-view character.

#3 – Dialogue That’s Too Formal

This could be someone who uses multisyllabic words when a simple word will do, it could be a character who always uses perfect grammar or doesn’t use contractions, or it could be a character who always speaks in complete sentences and never uses a sentence fragment.

You might have a good reason for wanting to do one of these things, but most readers will find it awkward. We don’t talk this way in real life, and the rare people who do are considered stuck up.

#4 – Dialogue That Repeats What’s Also in Action or Internal Dialogue

This is also known as redundancy. It can happen on a small scale.

He shook his head. “No.”

Or it can also happen big-picture. If, for example, we’re going to have a character cracking a safe, we don’t need to have them explain the whole process to another character before it happens. That makes it boring for the reader to then have to sit through the description of our character actually cracking the safe (even if something goes wrong).

#5 – Creative Dialogue Tags

A creative dialogue tag looks like this:

“I’m going to kill you,” she hissed.

When you have a character hiss, growl, beg, demand, or (insert another descriptor here) their sentence, you’re violating the show, don’t tell principle. It’s usually a sign of weak dialogue. And if they’re used indiscriminately, they can give your writing a cartoonish feel.

They’re also impossible. Go ahead—try to hiss or growl an entire sentence. Or try to laugh or snarl an entire sentence.

#6 – Not Making It Clear Who’s Speaking

Do not make your reader guess who’s speaking or count back through your lines of dialogue to figure out who said what.

If we have more than three lines of unattributed dialogue in a row (dialogue without a tag like said or an action beat), we can risk the reader losing track of who’s speaking. If we have a scene with multiple speakers, we need to be certain it’s clear who each line of dialogue belongs to. An unattributed line of dialogue could belong to anyone present.

But the sneakiest of all is when we write about two characters in the same paragraph and then tack on a line of dialogue at the end.

Ellen waved her arm above her head, and Frank sprinted towards her. “I’ve missed you.”

Who said “I’ve missed you”? It could be Frank or it could be Ellen, and the reader has no way to tell which one it really is.

#7 – Too Much Filler Dialogue

We don’t need to hear our characters say hello, ask each other how they’ve been, and all the other small talk we make on a daily basis because it’s the polite thing to do. Those don’t forward the story, and they’re boring to read.

We also shouldn’t fill our dialogue with a lot of umms, ers, and ahs. Every word needs to count.

#8 – As-You-Know-Bob Dialogue

As-You-Know-Bob dialogue is when one character tells another character something they already know. It’s done purely for the reader’s benefit (because we’re trying to give the reader some information we think they need to know), and it’s unnatural.

If it’s common knowledge, it won’t come up in conversation, and real people won’t say something that isn’t relevant to the conversation.

#9 – Dialogue That Sounds the Same No Matter Who’s Speaking

If you’ve been told your characters seem flat, sometimes the problem isn’t that you haven’t fully developed your characters. Sometimes it’s the way you’re writing their dialogue. They might all sound like you or like each other.

#10 – Dialogue That Requires a Rosetta Stone to Decode

“S’pose we must be resigned; but oh Lord! how ken I? If I know’d anything whar you’s goin’, or how they’d sarve you! Missis says she’ll try and ’deem ye, in a year or two; but Lor! nobody never comes up that goes down thar! They kills ’em! I’ve hearn ’em tell how dey works ’em up on dem ar plantations.” (From Chapter 10 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe)

Dialect written out phonetically like this is a bad idea for many reasons. It’s frustrating to your reader. You don’t want anyone to have to work that hard just to understand what your characters are saying. It pulls them out of the fictional dream. Beyond this, dialect used in this way sounds forced and can even border on demeaning to whatever group you’re trying to imitate.

Do you have any other common dialogue problems you’d like to add to the list? Which of these causes you the most headaches in your own writing? Or when you’re reading?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide. (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue, Description, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Image Credit: FreeImages.com/Samuel Alves Rosa