Rating: 5/5 stars

Several hundred years in the future mankind is exploring the galaxy. Somehow (not quite explained) the Old Man's WarColonial Defense Force (CDF) has acquired alien technology that puts them light years ahead of any country, government, or private corporation on Earth. They leverage their technology to keep the governments of Earth afraid of them. At 75 years of age, people may enlist in the CDF to fight interstellar wars. The enlistees have no knowledge of how they’ll fight a war at their advanced age or any idea of the CDF’s tactics. They are left in the dark, taking a leap of faith and signing their lives away because the only thing left for them to do on Earth is die. Our protagonist, John Perry, after his wife’s death, enlists in the CDF at 75 years old.
I rarely give five star rating’s out but this book was awesome. It covered the span of warfare, of friendship and camaraderie, the thrills of victory, the agony and loss of defeat, the tragedy of losing friends and loved ones in battle, the memories of a life now untouchable to those in the war, the ethical and moral ambiguity of the CDF and how they operate, and the possibility of achieving humanity in the face of death.

I don’t typically have such an immediate connection to characters but I truly liked John Perry. I felt his heartache when his friends died, and, without giving away any spoilers, my heart jumped in my throat towards the end. I said to myself, “I will never forgive Scalzi if he does what I think he’s going to do.”

Scalzi’s execution of the narrative was perfect. Scenery was vivid and yet concise. Complex theories involving space travel and quantum mechanics was explained simply, and the relationships between Scalzi’s characters was truly remarkable given it was only 320 pages.

If you’re not looking for a war book but a book on how people cope with the atrocities of war and find sanity in an insane world, this book is for you.

Rating: 4/5 starsThe Warded Man

Overall, this book wasn’t bad at all. At times I really liked the characters, other times, I didn’t. Pacing of the book was good; however, I did find some grammatical errors and typos in my edition. Brett wasn’t writing in third person omnipresent so he shouldn’t have switched points of view in the middle of a section and I noticed a few times he did, which are errors.

The premise was solid. Mankind was plagued by fear from the last demon war. The great Warders (people who drew magic wards to fend off the demons and protect themselves) of old are all but a lost breed who vanished from the world 300 years ago. Now, contemporary Warders remain who know very little of the ancient magic.

I wasn’t thrilled with the execution of this book. The book is 430 pages long and spans 10 years. This is difficult to do for anyone, let alone a novice writer.

As an author, I’m interested in the development and psychology of the characters.

Arlen, who I really enjoyed reading, became the Warded Man about 100 pages shy of the end. What I thought was poorly done by Brett was that we see Arlen at the end of his rope, stranded to die and left alone with demons. Then, Brett switches to his other characters, Leesha and Rojer. The next time we see Arlen, it is four years later and he has become the Warded Man. The Warded Man’s personality is completely different than of his younger self, Arlen. He has matured, lost a lot of his humanity, and become a fighting demon machine (which means cool battle scenes but no more character development). As an author, I’m more interested in the character development than the battle scenes. I want to know what happened in those four years where we can see Arlen’s de-evolution and his gradual shift in mind-set to become the Warded Man. The abrupt shift left a bad taste in my mouth. It would have been far more interesting if Brett had made Arlen fully transform into the Warded Man at the climactic battle at the end, instead of 100 pages beforehand.

Because of the poor execution, the characterization and development of the characters suffered.

In addition, Brett spent a good 50-100 pages developing the character of Rojer, who was completely useless. Unless Rojer has something awesome coming up for him in book 2, I found his sections boring and very uninteresting. He used Rojer as a plot device to have the Warded Man save Leesha. Understandable, Brett didn’t need to develop his character so lamely if all he was going to be used for was a “save the cat” moment for the Warded Man.

Leesha, however, was one of the more interesting characters, probably more so than Arlen. I believe this was due to Brett spending far more time with Leesha in development before she got to her major plot point about ¾ through the book, moving from her farm village to the city. We had a chance to know her more intimately because of that. Where Arlen was single-minded and driven, Leesha was open to new possibilities and open-minded.

Brett did a great job creating the world of the Warded Man. He gave accurate descriptions of scenery and imagery that I wasn’t left struggling to find a picture in my mind. He was clever in his use of curses, often having characters say, “Night, woman!” or “To the Coreling with you” or “Corespawn”. While these things are little turns of phrases, it helps to flesh out the world – after all, a character who doesn’t have a “hell” but calls it the “Core” would never say “hell” in the book. Sometimes it’s the little things that count.

Now to some general things I wasn’t thrilled about. There were too many references to a gender biased world where women were only good for sex and bearing children. Which I’m not necessarily opposed too, after all, this is how our world work for a good number of centuries before we wised up, however, I thought Brett’s execution was over-the-top with seemingly an un-ending amount of references to women having babies. Almost quite literally, every conversation between two females had to do with giving birth and boys looking at their “paps” (which word choice I found quite unappealing and infantile).

I thought his diction when referring to body parts was juvenile, particularly adults referring to their parents as “Da” and “Ma”.

Overall, solid book and with a better execution of the plot and characterization, could have been great.

The Dig

Rating: 3/5

The Dig is actually two stories in one. It starts off with a mysterious find in Kenya, a piece of clothing unlike any ever found before. Enter Matthew Turner, an arrogant, selfish, twenty something with the power to “read” emotional imprints left on objects. Because of his power, he has an out-of-body experience that allows him to live as the person who had the emotional tie to the object.

The plot starts with young Mr. Turner being bribed into helping on a museum’s excavation for the artifact in Kenya.

Because Turner’s power to read emotional imprints he’s kind of a germaphobe but not really (because he’s not afraid of germs, he’s afraid of touching things). So he wears gloves and covers his whole body so he doesn’t touch any “used” surface. For example, Matt Turner wouldn’t enter a vehicle without covering himself that was previously used by another person. Because of his power, he struck it rich when he helped someone locate a lost treasure. Being a millionaire now, Turner bought a Porche. He took his gloves off when he got in the car after the salesman told him it was “new”. However, there was a logical flaw in that nothing in this world is really “new”. A “new” car on a parking lot isn’t new. The metal ore was dug up out of the ground, transported to a processing facility, bought and sold on the markets, finding its way to a manufacturing shop where they molded the ore into a car door, sent to the assembly line, compiled with other auto parts, shipped to a distribution facility, shipped to the showcase floor. So I couldn’t understand how he considered this “new” even though it had probably been touched by thousands of people, yet he couldn’t shake someone’s hand without a glove. Siemsen tries to explain this away by saying that the object in question has to have a deep emotional impact. Even so, it’s not a prefect explanation to explain the logical loophole. However, I’m sport for a good story and know you can’t plug every single plot flaw, so I went with it.

Once Turner has been sufficiently bribed into going to Kenya to authenticate the age of the artifact discovered is where we get into the story within the story.

The narrative flips back and forth between present day (Turner and the team of researchers)and 150 million years ago with the people who made the artifact.

Additionally, the book is written in third person omnipresent, like mine. Which means you can be in multiple characters heads pretty much at any given moment. This, combined with the flipping back and forth between time periods, may give some readers pause.

In general, the story was good, well thought out and well executed. Although I had no love for the protagonist (Turner), I didn’t think Siemsen’s villain (Reese) was a particular good antagonist either.

At the end of the day, it was an entertaining light read. It didn’t have much suspense or drama (though it tried), but also wasn’t a heavy, intellectual read making you contemplate the history of evolution. Not a bad way to spend a rainy afternoon if you have a few hours to kill.

When you’re writing a book, you have to determine how the protagonist’s and antagonists will interact with each other. The Emerald Tablet has two antagonists. One starts out antagonistic, the other transforms into an antagonist. The first is driven by justice. The second is driven by ego and a feeling of self-worth. During the study of alchemy and hermetic law, the Egyptian mythology teaches us that there is no good and evil. Everything is just action and reaction. Everything is one and the same with varying degrees. This principle can be difficult to grasp when it comes to good and evil but I want you to take it to heart because when you create your antagonist, you’ll need to remember it. David Prowse said, “Nobody forgets the villain.”

So how do you create a memorable, believable, and relatable antagonist that people will love to hate?

1. This one is the most important rule. Your book doesn’t have a villain. Get the whole notion of hero/villain out of your mind. There are only protagonists and antagonists. Going back to what we said about the study of alchemy, everything is one and the same. Everything is action and reaction. Your so called “villain” doesn’t think he’s a bad guy. He believes he’s perfectly rationale, logical, and justified in his actions. He’s the hero of his own story – so in a way, you’re not writing about a good guy and a bad guy, you’re writing about two good guys with opposite points of view and opposite wants. Example: In the Emerald Tablet, Ankar doesn’t believe the murdering of thousands of people is evil because he believes they wronged him and is seeking justice. He sees himself as fighting for equality and justice. He uses his rationalizations of justice and equality to substantiate his murders. But he thinks he’s the good guy.

2. Know your antagonist’s why. Every character in your book has to have a why. If they don’t, get them out of your book. But the antagonist can’t have a vague “I want to conquer the world” why. Start with something small and relatable and then build it up. Example: From Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, Javert, a police officer, hunts down Jean Valjean, who is an escaped convict. In the Emerald Tablet, Ankar’s why is that he was exiled from his home-land and seeks justice for those crimes.

3. You must know as much about your antagonist as your protagonist. And you must feel as passionately about him/her as you do your protagonist or else it will show in your writing. This means you have to create as much of a backstory about your antagonist as you do your protagonist. Even if your story is not written from the antagonist’s point of view, as an exercise, write at least 5 chapters from the antagonist’s point of view. It will get you into their head like nothing else.

4. No person is completely evil or good. We are all a combination of both. Antagonists can do very sincere and thoughtful things and protagonists can act totally irrational and make mistakes. Example: Roy Batty in the movie Blade Runner. He is a bad guy – murders people, tortures, but is also incredibly intelligent and self-reflective – even philosophical. We feel sympathy for Batty in the end. “All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain. Time… to die.” Roy Batty. In the Emerald Tablet, both antagonists are capable of great passion and love, even fighting to save another character’s life. That’s not an action of an all-bad person.

5. You don’t have to create a big hulky, muscle-bound, or scarred man/woman as the antagonist. Sometimes the best villains don’t look mean or ugly or scary. My personal favorite example of this is Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. She is a small pudgy woman who wears excessive make-up, smiles all the time, speaks in an upbeat chipper voice, and wears an egregious amount of pink. And despite all of this she is a minion for the Dark Lord, Voldemort. She’s great because she’s relatable. You don’t have to look scary to be scary.

6. Bad guys generally start out with good intentions. Think about the Nazgul in Lord of the Rings. They were kings who wanted to use the power of the rings for good. But as they say, power corrupts.

7. Never create an antagonist who wants power just for the sake of power. That is not a redeeming quality and will garner no sympathy from your readership.

8. Never create an antagonist that poses no credible threat to your protagonist. Which means your protagonist can’t be so super awesome that he/she has no vulnerabilities. Expand your mind on this one. It doesn’t always have to be muscle vs. muscle. Lex Luther may not be able to fly, or have super strength and speed, but he’s smart as a whip and has enormous amounts of money, which gives him unlimited resources. In this way, he is every bit the equal to Superman which makes their cat and mouse worth it.

9. In total opposition to tip 8, don’t make the antagonist so powerful he can’t be stopped. Notice that I’m not saying the good guy has to win. I’m just saying that the good guy has to have a believable chance at winning.

10. The antagonist is the mover and shaker of your story. Without the antagonist messing things up, the protagonist would be home with the lady-friend (or guy-friend) and having a “movie night.” As Mr. Incredible said in the movie, The Incredibles: “No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid; I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for… for ten minutes!” See? Give your protagonist something to do.

11. Your antagonist must have his/her own story arc. All characters start in one place and end up in another. They grow, they learn, and they adapt. Your antagonist has to do the same thing. He/she cannot be stagnating. That’s boring. Nobody likes boring. Make him/her evolve.

12. Want to blow your reader’s mind? The antagonist doesn’t have to be a “bad” guy. Think about that. Remember Javert from Les Miserables? He is a police officer just doing his job, catching the criminal, yet he is the antagonist of the story. Nothing he does is inherently mean or evil – it’s just that we feel far more sympathy to Jean Valjean, the criminal protagonist, than the police officer. Role reversal at its finest. That’s great writing.

13. But don’t forget the prodigious “kick the cat” moment. You’ve spent all this time building a relatable sympathetic antagonist but every once in a while you have to remind readers that he is the antagonist. This has been coined by Blake Snyder as the “kick the cat” moment (just as the protagonist has a “save the cat” moment). Have him do something naughty.

14. In that spirit – let the antagonist win. It’s no fun if the antagonist keeps losing – where’s the challenge? In Star Wars, Darth Vader destroys Alderaan. Hannibal Lecter escapes. The Joker murders Robin (Jason Todd) in the Batman comics. Give him a few victories.

15. And finally, if you’re going with whole “redemption” route. Keep in mind that once your antagonist redeems himself/herself and thus becomes “good” again, your story is over. So save it as the last scene or the next to last scene. Three scenes before the end of Star Wars Episode VI, Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader turns and kills the Emperor to save his son, Luke Skywalker. Redemption always comes at the very end. There shouldn’t be a whole lot of story left if you get there.

So these are just a few tips I have learned along the way while I was writing a book. Hopefully you learned something.

After reading other people’s reviews, comments, and criticisms of the movie Zero Dark Thirty, I decided to see it for myself. What I found was a brutal and realistic depiction of what the CIA analysts had to go through to complete the Bin Laden mission. Although I thought the movie stayed pretty clear of politics (like the decision to cross into Pakistan territory without letting the Pakistani government know beforehand that we were going to conduct a raid into their country or the moral and ethical issues surrounding Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, and the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques”), it was still political in many other ways (i.e. it does imply that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” lead to information that eventually helped complete the UBL mission). The movie opened with a scene depicting water-boarding of a prisoner. How’s that for brutal and realistic?

But seeing the movie made me think about the Emerald Tablet and writing a book. Although the Emerald Tablet and the mythology of alchemy and Thoth are spiritual in nature, it doesn’t mean my book series can be no less realistic. After all, I am a human writing about an alien world. And that’s what readers want. We want human stories in fantastic worlds that expand our imagination.

I often get asked the question, is my book YA (Young Adult)? Well, yes and no. YA, according to Wikipedia (therefore it must be right) YA is defined as ages 12 to 18. Let’s be honest. There is a huge difference in the appropriateness of what an 18 year old would read compared to a 12 year old. An 18 year old in our society can join the military, get a gun, and be ordered to kill people. 12 year olds can’t. So to lump those two ages into one gigantic “YA” category is absurd. That’s why I say the Emerald Tablet (and the rest of the series) is for people who are about 15 years old or older. Ideally, I wrote it for adults. I meant it to be a realistic exposition on good vs. evil. Not just the spiritual war of the alchemy in the series, but an ethical and moral one too. I wanted to say let’s be honest about war but set it in a science-fiction/fantasy world that is based on faith and spirituality. So yes, there’s violence in the book because violence is a very real part of our world. There’s sex in the book because it is a very real part of our existence. And there’s brutality in the series because our world can be brutal.

But don’t take this the wrong way, I don’t mean to say that every book in the world needs to have violence, sex, and brutality in order to feel “real”. Far from it. But having those things in the book might cause the readers to be more introspective as to what they’re willing to do in a life or death situation. As one of my reviewers on Amazon recently said, His [Leoros] life there collides and intersects with the lives of all he meets, some destined for greatness, some for infamy and treachery. Sometimes the lines are blurred between perceived good and evil. One things for sure, the story Never Let’s Up!”

That’s the point isn’t it? That’s what life is all about. No one person is all good or all evil. There are shades of grey (but there aren’t 50 Shades). We all do things we regret. We all do morally questionable activities at some point in our lives. The point is to have that discussion within yourself and find your moral center. I’d like to think the Emerald Tablet does that – especially with kids who are 15+. They are young, impressionable, and just discovering themselves in a world that’s full of opposites. They will be exposed to images of war that are horrific and brutal and will also see it at a younger age than every other generation before them because of technology. Yet they also find that our world can be extremely compassionate and loving, filled with people sacrificing their lives and freedoms so others may have theirs.

The Emerald Tablet is not just a spiritual journey through alchemy. It will always be about the moral and ethical decisions that shape who we are as we grow up. But this is what you should focus on when writing a book, the journeys of the characters.

I really want to talk about fear when you’re writing a book. It is such a monumental subject that it clouds almost everything we do in our lives. I know you’ve heard me discuss the stigma of paid reviews and the fallacy of back-scratching before through my guest blog posts on Review-Worm.com (http://review-worm.com/blog/), but I was trying desperately to come up with a reason why these biases are ingrained in our psyche as authors and writers. I’d like to think I’ve discovered it. We’re afraid.

The indie author community is mad and angry. We were rejected by a (or all) Big 6 Publishing house but we say, “To hell with them.”

We’ve got something to say and the world needs to read about it. So we self-publish and/or vanity publish our work. We know we don’t have the financing and capital of an author with the Big 6 so indie authors are competing among themselves. We are rivals, though we smile and join our “indie author communities” and try to support each other. At the end of the day, statistically, we won’t sell near as much as James Patterson. We fight for every e-book sale we get.

This is why indie authors hate paid review services. Because they think that another indie author will pay for a lot of positive reviews and get more sales than they do. It’s not really about ethics or morals. It’s about ego and money.

This brings me to the root of it. Fear. Authors are artists just like musicians or actors. We put our heart and soul into the performance of our work. We put it out into the public for their praise and criticism, for their love and their hate. And it’s soul crushing to get negative reviews.

Our whole world is seen through the eyes of fear and weakness. From our earliest ages, we are told not to touch the hot stove, we are told you can’t fly, we are told you can’t go to college or graduate school, we are told you can’t write a book or be an actor, we are told you can’t follow your passions and your dreams. This is all fear and it makes you weak if you believe it. You are not wrong to want to write, play, sing, dance, or whatever your passion is. You are not wrong to want to live your dreams. For every person who has told you no, tell yourself yes.

Life is truly very simple. Someone asked me how I wrote a book. I told her the steps.

Step 1: Turn on your computer.

Step 2: Open up your word processing software.

Step 3: Type and do not stop.

So then she said, “Yes, obviously but how do I keep doing that?”

I looked at her and said: “Step 4: Repeat steps 1 through 3 every day.”

Then she launched into a diatribe of excuses: busy schedule, work, laundry, kids, soccer practice, husband, family obligations, blah blah blah. It’s all an excuse. It’s all fear. If she wanted to write should write. No “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts.” End of story.

I told her the steps to do so but she has come from such a background of people saying “no” to her that she can’t see that most things in life are far simpler than we’re lead to believe.

Fear puts us in a position of weakness. It takes away our power. It says we are in the wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. Do not let fear stop you from writing a book. You are not wrong to want to live your dream and explore your passion. In fact, it could be the first thing you’ve done “right” your whole life.

There are several keys to writing a book. Some I’ve covered, some I haven’t. Some are easy, some aren’t. But one of the most overlooked areas of writing fiction is research. Most writers don’t think of themselves as “researchers”. They just want to tell the best story they can. That’s admirable, but I believe that to make a story convincing it has to be realistic. To be realistic, it has to be researched. Most research is simple, straightforward, and can be found through a Google search in less than ten to twenty minutes. If a book is not properly researched it takes me out of the action as a reader. Here are some things that I’ve found in other people’s books which a simple internet search could have avoided.

A man hears a shot from a gun then sees the victim fall. If properly researched, the author should have known most modern day ammunition travels twice the speed of sound so the action would have happened in reverse. The man would have fallen and then the witness would have heard the gunshot.

If you’re writing about the military or soldiers, do not confuse military ranks. The US Army has no rank called “Admiral” and the Navy does not have “Generals.” It’s a five minute Google search to figure this one out.

If you’re writing any type of historical fiction, you better do some serious research. Don’t say George Washington pulled out his iPhone to Google Map the road to Trenton if cell phones didn’t exist in the 1700’s!

If you’re doing any type of setting or environment work. Guess what? You should be researching that area. Don’t tell me about the earthquakes in Florida because Florida doesn’t have earthquakes, they have hurricanes. You should know the weather patterns of your environment, the produce, the politics, the immigration, you should know everything.

Don’t write a book about robots and androids without researching cybernetics! Readers are smart, we’ll know.

If you’re writing about flying, know many Gs a trained person can pull before passing out or suffering serious harm. If you’re doing aerial battles, know weapon systems, fuel consumption, etc…

If you’re writing suspense/murder mystery then you should know a lot about police procedures and the legal system. Don’t tell me the CSI guys do the interviews like on one show I know but they don’t in real life.

Don’t tell me your horse galloped 200 miles in a day. Your horse would be dead.

If you’re writing a sci-fi novel about time travel, you better damn well research quantum physics and current time travel theories because it can get very confusing.

These are just some examples. But I want to stress balance. A writer can spend quite literally years in research. There comes a point, however, when “research” becomes an exercise in procrastination of writing. If you’re writing a western, you should know that the gunslinger was using a Colt Paterson pocket model 1837 five shot revolver with a .28 caliber percussion and 1.75” barrel length. But, as a reader, I don’t care. You can just say “Colt .45 revolver” and leave it at that. I’ll know what you mean.

Research tells me you cared as an author. You cared enough about your work to take the time to research its authenticity and accuracy. Don’t be a lazy writer.

I believe in a one to one ratio. For every hour of writing, you probably needed to do an hour of research. Since the Emerald Tablet is based in Greek and Egyptian mythology and culture, I read over 20 non-fiction history books and spent countless hours trying to capture the feel of these ancient societies. Even so, it was easy for me to say “I need to do more research”. Even today, as I begin writing book 3, I’m still researching.  Don’t go overboard but make it realistic and believable for your readers when you’re writing a book. They’ll appreciate it and get lost in the story.

When I was a kid, my favorite question was “Why?” Everything my parents said to me I would respond with “Why?” until they got so fed up they ended up saying something like “because I said so” or “that’s the way it is.”

What I’ve found, though, is as we get older, we accept things the way they are and stop asking why.

Knowing why you are doing something is important. I offer you two view-points of writing a book.

“I don’t know much about creative writing programs. But they’re not telling the truth if they don’t teach, one, that writing is hard work, and, two, that you have to give up a great deal of life, your personal life, to be a writer.” – Doris Lessing

“I’ve never worked a day in my life. I’ve never worked a day in my life. The joy of writing has propelled me from day to day and year to year. I want you to envy me, my joy. Get out of here tonight and say: ‘Am I being joyful?’ And if you’ve got a writer’s block, you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else. You picked the wrong subject.” — Ray Bradbury at The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea, 2001

I agree with both of these quotes, even though, on the surface, they are contradictory. Writing is hard “work” in that it takes up most of your time and, as Doris Lessing said, you will sacrifice much of your personal life for your dream. By the same token, writing should not be a “job”. You should write because you love your characters and story. If you can’t find that passion, then maybe, as Mr. Bradbury suggested, you’re writing about the wrong subject.

Newsflash, writing a book takes a lot of discipline. As I said in my “Schedule of a Working Writer” post, if you don’t have the willpower and discipline to write for 2-3 hours after you’ve done your day job – maybe you shouldn’t be a writer.

To accomplish anything you must have a clear understanding of WHY you are doing it. If you don’t know your why, you’ll end up wasting a lot of time, getting frustrated, and most likely, quitting.

So ask yourself:

Why do you want to write? 

A crazy thing happened today. Review-Worm.com posted a question on Twitter: Is it better to write in the simple past tense or the more trendy present tense? What are your thoughts?”

Had you asked me this question two years ago, I would have answered without hesitation—present (as evidenced by my first book: the Legends of Amun Ra series, The Emerald Tablet, is written in present tense.)

Why? Because I like the way it sounds. Something about “he runs” rather than “he ran” sounds more immediate, more vibrant to me. Maybe I’m weird, but to me the present tense makes the action real.

If you ask me that question now, I would say simple past is the way to go. Why the change you ask? Simple, I say, because it’s less confusing and obtrusive to the reader when you do a tense shift. Watch and learn kids.

“Mary sees the picture on the nightstand. It reminds her of her mother, full of hope and life. When Mary was twelve, she saw her mother get hit by a car. She screamed a dreadful shriek. Mary almost fainted…”

See what happened there? We went from the present tense “Mary sees” and “it reminds” to the simple past “was twelve she saw” and “she screamed.” You noticed the tense shift didn’t you?

Now watch what happens when we go from simple past to past perfect. (If you don’t know what past perfect tense is, it is when something occurred before another action in the past. It can also show that something happened before a specific time in the past.

Example:

“Mary saw the picture on the nightstand. It reminded her of her mother, full of hope and life. When Mary was twelve, she had seen her mother get hit by a car. She had screamed a dreadful shriek. Mary had almost fainted…”

See that? The difference and tense shift was so subtle you may not have noticed, especially if you didn’t know the rules of grammar.

So why will everything I write be written in simple past? Simple, I say, because I don’t want ignorant people coming up to me and saying my tenses are wrong when I go from present to simple past. It’s a simple thing really, if you know the rules of grammar.

P.S.  I do want to stress that writing in either present or simple past is perfectly fine and correct. Doing a tense shift from present to simple past is the same thing as going from simple past to past perfect. Great literature has been and will continue to be written in both tenses. But when you’re writing a book, you need to decide which one up front.

When I first started writing a book I had no idea what I was doing. I am still a newbie author, but have learned so much in the past year that I am not the same writer I was when I first set out on this journey. I was overzealous, completely unprepared for the raw amount of man- hours writing a novel takes, and totally in over my head.

I had this great idea for a book. I wrote a synopsis of the story, which took up about 5 paragraphs. But when it came to writing more than the outline, I was stumped. Staring at the blank page can be beyond intimidating.

What follows is the story of my evolution as a writer. It’s not the “right” way to write. It’s not the “wrong” way to write. I’m not an English teacher (and don’t want to be). I just hope you can learn something from my mistakes. Some of these stages will demand further explanation, and I will provide it in subsequent blog posts. This post will be a little longer than my average posts because I use examples (about 1,000 words).

Stage One – A Complex Outline

My solution for tackling the blank page was this: I would write a complex outline. Get basic the action done then fill in the details later:

Mary wakes up. She puts on clothes, goes outside, and cuts the lawn.

This turned out to be a huge mistake. After about two chapters of this crap I gave up, realizing I would end up writing the book about 5 times. So stage one was over real fast. First, it reads like an outline – very factual and completely boring in every possible way. If you’re where I was, I beg you not to do this. Just skip this stage completely. You won’t think you can. You might resist this advice at first, fearing that you might be paralyzed by the challenge, but you’d be surprised.

Stage Two – The Bland Details

Okay, so we know that a complex outline doesn’t work. What next? Start filling in the details. Easier said than done, right? I didn’t have a picture in my head at that early stage in my evolution. I didn’t know what my world looked like (and wouldn’t for some time). But I started writing anyway:

Mary wakes up tired. She struggles to get out of bed while she walks to her boring dresser and pulls out her overalls. Her movements are slow as if she was born tired. Mary puts on her work books and walks out her front door. She gets her lawnmower, pulls the string, and the engine turns on. She cuts the grass of her front yard.

Certainly better than stage one. Now we have a better idea of what’s going on, a little more detail. But we’re not there yet. We need more. As many of my test readers said: “I still don’t have a picture in my mind.”

Stage Three – Write a Picture

How do you write a picture if you don’t have one to work off of? My answer is fake it till you make it. Yes, you read me correctly. Fake it. My book was set in a futuristic world, so I started Googling concept or futuristic architecture, and I scrolled through thousands of pictures. I found ones I liked, ones I didn’t, and made a hodge-podge collage of those images at first (until my own vision took over).

Mary pulls off the cotton bed sheets that are stuck to her body from a night of sweating. The straw inside her mattress plucked at her all night, making for an uncomfortable evening. She gets up and trudges over to her dresser. Each step is painful. Her feet have been conditioned to withstand the divots, splinters, and spikes in the wooden floorboards. She lights a candle on her mantle, illuminating a framed picture of her mother.

Stage Four – Using the 5 Senses

If you didn’t know this already and are trying to be an author writing about humans, or most animals for that matter, we have five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Use all of them. It not only gives your characters depth, it completes the picture. For example, I will add sound and smell to the paragraph above:

Mary pulls off the cotton bed sheets that are stuck to her body from a night of sweating. The straw inside her mattress plucked at her all night, making for an uncomfortable evening. She gets up and trudges over to her dresser. Each step is painful. Her feet have been conditioned to waistband the divots, splinters, and spikes in the wooden floorboards. She lights a candle on her mantle, illuminating a framed picture of her mother. The room fills with the familiar smell of burning wax as she pulls open a drawer. A rooster calls out the arrival of the sun, calling Mary to her morning duties.

Stage Five – Adding Backstory

Every fiction book has backstory. I can’t recall one off the top of my head that doesn’t. No character is just “born” in your world (unless you’re actually writing about a child). Things happened to them in the past that made the character who he/she is in your book. Backstory gives your character depth, emotions, and history. It makes them relatable. I will spend a whole post on backstory, but here’s an easy example of how you can weave it into your story without being obtrusive:

Mary pulls off the cotton bed sheets that are stuck to her body from a night of sweating. The straw inside her mattress plucked at her all night, making for an uncomfortable evening. She gets up and trudges over to her dresser. Each step is painful. Her feet have been conditioned to waistband the divots, splinters, and spikes in the wooden floorboards. She lights a candle on her mantle, illuminating a framed picture of her mother. She doesn’t like to look at the picture, but she does out of habit, every morning. It wasn’t long ago that her mother was doing the household chores….blah blah blah you get the idea. The room fills with the familiar smell of burning wax as she pulls open a drawer. A rooster calls out the arrival of the sun, calling Mary to her morning duties. The first chore on her list is mowing the lawn.

Stage Six – Embellishing.

Take all that we did and make it better by a hundred fold by adding more details. You don’t have to go overboard in this (like say one author I read who spent 3 pages talking about a character scooping mash potatoes onto his plate – 3 pages for mash potatoes!)

The room is cold and dark. The wooden floorboards and lack of insulation suck the early morning heat out of the room. Her candle burned out long ago, the smell of wax still hangs in the air. Yet the warm cotton blanket surrounds her, enveloping Mary in a cocoon of protection from the duties of the coming day.

Straw bites into her back with sharp jabs of pointed barbs like wires. She twists, trying to find a comfortable position. The sheets swish under her movements.

The red orange glow of the morning sun creeps through her window, coupled with the rooster’s natural alarm, it announces the waiting day.

So there you go. Those were the six stages of writing that I passed through on my way to writing a book. You can see how the writing improves with each stage. This can only be accomplished by actually sitting down and doing the writing. It takes lots and lots of practice. It took me almost 200,000 words before I figured this stuff out. I hope it won’t take you as long if you can learn anything from this post.