Watch Out for Exclamation Points!

Filmmakers have certain advantages over novel writers. They get to use musical scores to help build the tension. We’ve seen it dozens of times. The unsuspecting protagonist goes into the seemingly deserted mansion, unaware that the villain is lurking inside. As he or she gets closer, the music builds to a crescendo. “Dum dum-ta-dum–BOOM.” The bad guy leaps out of nowhere, confronting the protagonist, who either has to fight or run for dear life.

Unfortunately, novel writers don’t have the luxury of having background music. We have to come up with alternative ways to build the tension. This may create the temptation to use exclamation points. After all, putting a plain old period after, he leaped out of the closet at Joe, looks kind of boring on the printed page. Therefore, he leaped out of the closet at Joe!!, would look a whole lot better. Right?

Well, not necessarily.

What an exclamation point actually means

An exclamation point in the narrative means you’re shouting at your readers, which they may find annoying. A better way to build the tension would be to use more effective verbs and modifiers.

For example, instead of saying, he heard the footsteps and waited until the time was right. Then he leaped out of the closet at of Joe, try using, He heard Joe’s footsteps coming closer. He held his breath, not wanting to give himself away. The footsteps grew louder. He could make out the dark shadow of a human form as it entered the room. He stood by, unable to move. The footsteps thumped louder as they came closer. Beads of sweat popped out across his forehead. It was time. He leaped out of the closet at Joe.

By using effective verbs and modifiers in your narrative to build the tension exclamation points becomes unnecessary. Bottom line. Never use exclamation points in the narrative.

But what about the dialog?

An exclamation point in the dialog indicates that someone is shouting. People shout when they are excited, unexpectedly surprised, under stress, or angry. Therefore, exclamation points should be rarely used in dialog, and only when absolutely necessary.

For example, someone might shout, Look out! if they see someone else is about to step into the street, unaware that a bus is barreling toward them. This sets the stage for a number of outcomes. The first character pulls the second character back onto the sidewalk in the nick of time. The person stepping into the street sees the bus coming and takes evasive action. The second character looks back and replies, “What?” Or the second character ignores the warning and ends up being hit by the bus. Whatever option you take, no further exclamation points are necessary. The crisis has passed. Any further exclamation points would be redundant

I think of exclamation points as hot chili peppers. A little bit goes a long way.

Gayle Martin

Keeping Readers Engaged

© Can Stock Photo/ sjenner13

We’ve all experienced it. We start reading a novel that got off to a great start. Then we lost interest. My mother was one of those readers who would plow through to end, no matter what. Even if the book was genuinely awful. Me, not so much. Life is too short to waste on a poorly written story.

Keeping readers engaged can be a challenge. Even the best conceived story ideas are useless if your novel becomes slow and boring.

Pacing is an important part of good storytelling. However, excessive back stories, boring or redundant dialog, and trivial details can slow your pace to a crawl. Once the reader loses interest, you’re done. A bored reader will toss your book aside and never come back. So, how do you keep the middle of your story interesting? Here are a few suggestions.

Backstories should only be revealed on a need to know basis

I only include those backstories which are relevant and move the story forward. Then I typically reveal them through dialog. The rest of my backstory remains in my notes.

If it’s been said once it may not need to be repeated

Your character has told another character that his mother died in a car crash. He doesn’t need to repeat himself. If it comes up again, consider using it in the narrative. For example, “as she hit the accelerator, he reminded her about his mother.” Inserting redundant dialog would have ruined a fast-paced narrative. But what if he needs to tell his story to a different character? Consider adding a spin. His mother was driving drunk.

Fine details aren’t always useful information

Readers don’t care if your character is wearing a blue dress or a green dress, or if it has buttons or pockets. Detailed descriptions are only necessary when they enhance the story. For example, “She would wear her royal blue dress with the lace trim. It would be perfect for showing off the diamond pendant Jake had given her.” Boom. That’s all the reader needs to know. Leave the rest of the details to their imagination, and move on.

I think of each chapter as an episode to move the plot forward. It should reveal a character’s motives, or emotions, or something we didn’t know before. If a scene, or even an entire chapter, doesn’t enhance the overall story I’ll delete it. Each chapter, and scene, needs a purpose. If it doesn’t, then it’s nothing more than filler material which will bore the reader, and the last thing you want is for the reader to toss your book aside and leave a bad review.

Gayle Martin

Creating the Perfect Storm

© Can Stock Photo/ rozum

An essential element of writing fiction is to create an intense climax. It’s the “OMG!” moment readers expect, and like any other part of fiction writing, creating a page turning, believable climax takes some skill.

Set the stage properly

Introduce the conflict early in your story, and start out small. I write contemporary romance, ( as Marina Martindale), so my conflicts begin as seemingly everyday occurrences. Someone meets a stranger who seems familiar, but they can’t place them. Someone has fallen on hard times and has to do a job they don’t want to do. Someone stumbles across something which looks incriminating about someone they know. From there you add more tension and conflict and build your story.

How to Create the Perfect Storm

As you build up the tension there will come a point when it needs to be released. This is where the real fun begins. The following is my formula, and I find it works well.

  • I begin by putting my protagonist(s) in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I don’t make it obvious. My locations have included a courthouse in the middle of a busy workday. A resort hotel on a busy night. A character’s backyard on a beautiful fall day. Wherever it is, I make it the last place where the characters would expect something to go wrong.
  • I try to involve as many cast members as I can. The more people on the scene when it all hits the fan, the more potential for things to happen. Most importantly, I make sure everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong.
  • Miscommunication adds to the drama. Phone batteries go dead, urgent messages aren’t delivered, rumors get started and misunderstandings abound. Someone will inevitably get the wrong information and draw the wrong conclusion.
  • I break up the action as much as I can. If more than one character is involved, I’ll end one scene with a cliffhanger, such as a character waiting for help to arrive, and jump over to another character and draw them in. Or I may go to a character who doesn’t know anything is wrong, and they’re not knowing adds to the overall tension. Breaking up the action while everything falls to pieces creates more suspense and keeps the reader engaged.
  • Timing is everything. I don’t want my climax to end too quickly, nor do I want it to drag on too long. Each story I write is different, so I rely on my own intuition. Typically, my big climax scenes go for two to three chapters. It all depends on how complex the scene is, and how many characters are involved.

So there you have it. The more things go wrong, the more suspenseful, and dramatic, your climax will be, and the more it will engage your reader.

Gayle Martin

 

You Only Have Ten Seconds

So you’d better make them count
© Can Stock Photo/ stillfx

You have about ten seconds to capture a reader’s interest. Ten seconds. So my advice is to make them count. People have short attention spans, and social media is making them even shorter. This means you, the novel writer, had better grab their attention fast. If you don’t hook them within those first few seconds, they are far more likely to toss your book aside.

I think of my opening sentences as, “Lights, camera, action!” I always start with an action narrative. Nothing overly dramatic, such as explosions going off, but with something interesting enough to intrigue the reader so he or she will want to learn more. So, how do I do this? I write an opening sentence that creates tension, and I’ll use the first sentences from some of my Marina Martindale novels as examples.

Strong opening sentences

Rosemary McGee had the next traffic light perfectly timed until a car from the other lane suddenly cut in front of her minivan.

Well, I’m sure that got your attention. What happened next? Did she have a accident? You’ll have to read more to find out.

My openings aren’t always this dramatic, but even if the opening subject matter is more mundane, I can still create tension in my first line.

Emily St. Claire reached for another tissue to dab the sweat off her forehead and grab her water bottle, but the once-cold liquid had turned lukewarm.

Well, that certainly feels uncomfortable. So where is Emily? And why is it so hot? Again, you have to keep reading to find out more.

Opening lines and your characters

No doubt you’ve noticed I’ve included a character’s name in these opening lines, and you certainly want to start introducing your characters as soon as possible. However, you don’t necessarily have to include them in the opening sentences, nor does the opening line have to be about a lead character. Rosemary was actually a supporting character. My lead character is introduced a few sentences later when Rosemary asks her if she’s okay. Emily, on the other hand, is the lead character. My stories are all different, so my openings are different as well.

A descriptive opening line

Some authors like to begin their stories with a descriptive narrative of where the story takes place. However, you still need to create some tension. An opening paragraph that’s nothing more than a flowery, detailed description of the scenery without any action or tension is less likely to capture the reader’s attention. So unless something really interesting happens within the next paragraph or two there’s a good chance the reader will set the book aside. My advice is to end that fluffy narrative with something to suggest things aren’t quite as peachy as they appear. Here is a descriptive opening from another Marina Martindale novel.

The moonlight reflected off the snow-covered mountains, creating a dreamy, picturesque landscape, which could easily hide a deadly hazard.

Yikes! So what kind of hazard could be hiding there? Again, you have to read more.

Remember, when writing fiction, the conflict drives the plot, so you want to create as much tension as you can. The sooner you start creating the tension, the quicker you’ll draw your reader in.

Gayle Martin, aka Marina Martindale

Naming Names

A banner saying, Your Name Here."
© Can Stock Photo / MSPhotographics

Creating appropriate names for your characters is essential when writing fiction. However, it isn’t always easy. I put a lot of thought into each character’s name. Their age, background, occupation, and their roll in the story all play a part in determining the character’s name.

Choosing with the right surname

I don’t use the surnames Smith, Jones or Johnson for any of my lead characters. Those names are so common they’re almost a cliche. I prefer using other surnames, such as Palmer, Campbell, Bennett, and Walsh. All are common names, but not overly common. 

Sometimes I get stuck, so I keep an old white pages phone book by my desk. When all else fails, I’ll open it to a random page and skim through the listings until something pops out at me. Other times I’ll think back to kids I went to school with, or I’ll hear an interesting sounding name on the news. That’s another way to come up with a surname. We live in a diverse society, so some of my characters will have ethnic names. If it’s a common surname, such as Sanchez, I’ll use it. If I’m not sure, I’ll do an online search. The possibilities are endless.

Finding the right first name

First names are a lot of fun. I think we all have favorite first names. I personally like the names Cynthia, Victoria, Christopher and Jeremy. My first Marina Martindale contemporary romance novel, The Reunion, included two supporting characters named Cynthia and Jeremy. However, I’m still waiting for the right story ideas for Victoria and Christopher. My contemporary romance novels are much like the soap operas I watched years ago, so I sometimes give my characters the same first name as a favorite soap opera character.

I also invested in a baby name book. It contains hundreds, if not thousands of names, including many different ethnic names. It’s a handy tool which I often use.

Naming fictional businesses and places

Naming a fictitious business or location is just as important as naming your characters. Again, you want reasonably common names. I come from a family of entrepreneurs, so I’ll often create mom and pop businesses in my stories. Oftentimes I’ll include a common surname, such as O’Malley’s Grill, only this time I’ll also do an online search to make sure there is no business with the same name in the city or town where my story is set. If there is, I’ll have to come up with a different name. The same rule applies for naming fictitious businesses such as newspapers or ad agencies.

And finally, a disclaimer

With over three hundred million people living in the United States, and billions more on the planet, it really doesn’t matter how you create your character’s names. There will be real people out there with the same names. This is why you need to include a disclaimer in the front matter of your book. Make sure you clearly state that your story is a work of fiction, and that any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Gayle Martin

How to Skillfully Use Flashbacks in Your Novels

A section of a clock placed in front of a starry sky.
© Can Stock Photo / Nikki24

Readers give us great feedback. Nearly all of the reader reviews for my debut Marina Martindale contemporary romance novel, The Reunion, commented on how well the flashback scenes were done.

If used properly, flashbacks can greatly enhance the story. They’re a terrific tool for telling the backstory. Poorly done, however, and they can become a distraction or even a hindrance. They block your story flow and annoy the reader.

How and when to use flashbacks 

Use flashbacks sparinglyThe Reunion has fifty chapters, but only four include flashbacks. The story is set in the present time. Therefore, I didn’t want to spend too much time with the flashbacks.

  • Your flashbacks should be relevant. The Reunion is about two lovers having a second chance many years later. The flashbacks were a tool to allow the reader to see the characters meet for the first time and get a general feel for their earlier relationship. However, I didn’t include their original break up as a flashback. It’s told in the dialogue. Dialogue, by the way, is another great tool for telling the backstory.
  • Watch where you place a flashback. Never drop a flashback in the middle of a scene, especially if it’s cliffhanger. This will greatly upset your reader. I lead up to the flashback at the ending of a present day chapter. This prepares the reader for the flashback in the next chapter.
How to place a flashback

This flashback from The Reunion includes the ending paragraphs from Chapter One, with the last paragraph setting up the scene. The flashback begins with Chapter Two.

* * *

Gillian looked a good ten years younger than her actual age. Despite all the time that had passed, she still looked much the same. About the only noticeable difference between then and now was that her long blonde hair was now a shoulder-length pageboy. As she reminisced about the past her mind suddenly filled with a whirlwind of images of all they had shared, the good times as well as the bad. It was like watching a movie, but the scenes were spliced together out of sequence.

“Calm down, Gillian,” she told her reflection. “You’ve got to pull yourself together.” As she took a few more deep breaths the events of one particular day began playing back in her mind with crystal clarity. It was the day she first laid eyes on Ian Palmer.

TWO

Gillian jammed her paintbrush into her palette and glanced at the clock. It was almost four twenty-five. Class would be over at four-thirty.

“Damn it,” she said under her breath as she tried to work more white paint into the canvas. This particular painting simply wasn’t coming together, and the more she worked with it the worse it became. It happened to every artist from time to time, but it was never good when it happened in a university art class the day before the project was due, and the painting in question would count toward the final grade.

In conclusion

As you can see, I’ve set the reader up for the flashback by referencing about how the events of one particular day played back in the character’s mind. The reader is well prepared, and expects, the next chapter to be a flashback.

And finally, I only used flashbacks in The Reunion. I’ve not included them in any of my later Matina Martindale contemporary romances. They were only used in The Reunion because of the long interval of time between two characters’ interactions.

Use flashbacks sparingly, and then only use them when they are absolutely necessary to enhance the plotline.

Gayle Martin, aka Marina Martindale

The Best Search Engines for Novel Writers

Writing fiction isn’t about making things up as we go along. Good fiction writers know their craft. They can easily spend as much time researching their subject matter as they do writing about it. And that can be problematic.

Novel writers may have to research the strangest things. For example, some of my Marina Martindale novels revolve around crime. When it comes to creating a good conflict, few subjects work better. Crime plotlines aren’t limited to mysteries. They work well in other genres too. I write contemporary romance, so having a character become a crime victim, or be accused of a crime he or she didn’t commit, works well for me.

Let’s use my contemporary romance novel, The Deception, as an example. I wanted my story to be believable. This is where research comes in. However, doing a Google search on how many years my antagonist could get for attempted capital murder could potentially raise some red flags. Google records your IP address and your searches. Google also tracks you around the web. And while police officers would probably enjoy a good read as much as anyone else, we don’t anyone getting the wrong idea. After all, that unexpected knock at the door could really ruin your day. This is why we need to do our searches anonymously.

StartPage and DuckDuckGo

There are two search engines which you can use for anonymous web searches. Startpage, and DuckDuckGo. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Startpage works with Google, but doesn’t record your IP address. You also have the option of visiting websites anonymously. Sometimes it works and other times it doesn’t as not all websites allow anonymous viewing. Nonetheless, it’s a nice option to have. 

Unfortunately, Startpage also has a distinct disadvantage. It only works with Google, and Google has become way too creepy. They’ve been very outspoken in their commitment to weed out websites with points of view they disagree with, which troubles me in many ways. However, I’m going to limit my comments and simply state that as writers, we can, and should, be able to see ALL points of view on a given subject. We’re writers. We can think for ourselves.

Thankfully, there is another anonymous search engine out there. DuckDuckGo. Unlike Startpage, it’s not married to Google. However, it too has also a disadvantage. It doesn’t allow you the option of visiting a website anonymously.

So there you have it. Neither search engine stores your information, nor do they track you. If you’re a writer, I highly recommend using either, or both. 

Gayle Martin

Good vs Bad Villains

 
© Can Stock Photo / hjalmeida

Writing fiction is a lot of fun, and I have the best job in the world. I get to play a grown-up version of Let’s Pretend, and make money doing it. This includes creating a bunch of imaginary friends, otherwise known as characters. Some are good. They’re the protagonists. Others not so much. They’re the antagonists.

Fiction plot lines, regardless of genre, are conflict driven, and the antagonist creates the conflict. He is she is there to block whatever goal the protagonist is trying to achieve. Oftentimes antagonists are also villains. The more devious the villain, the more drama and intensity to the story.

Real life, however, isn’t always so black and white. People can and do make poor choices, and some learn from their mistakes. In fiction, they would be redeemable characters. Hal, an antagonist in my Marina Martindale novel, The Journey, isn’t malicious at all. He simply wants something he can’t have, and he’s standing in the way.  Josh, in The Letter, is a con artist. He’s working a Ponzi scheme with two unseen characters. However, as the character took shape I noticed he had some redeeming qualities. This made him likable, so I made him into a redeemable villain who does the right thing in the end.

Most of my villains, however, are unrepentant. Some, like Maggie in The Deception, remain defiant to the very end. Most however, are like Craig in The Stalker. They become their own undoing, and for them it never ends well. They’re unredeemable characters, and readers expect them to have their comeuppance. After all, karma is a bitch. Not only in fiction, but in real life as well.


Gayle Martin

Let’s Just Say No to Sensitivity Readers

and Other Forms of Censorship

© Can Stock Photo / alexandrum

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about a disturbing new trend, particularly in traditional publishing. The use of so-called, “sensitivity readers” to censor the author’s work. Their job is to ferret out any so-called trigger words from the authors’ manuscripts.

Here in the United States, our constitution guarantees our right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. This would include artistic expression. Our constitution was never intended to protect anyone from being offended. In fact, it’s opposite. It insures our freedom to debate opposing points of view.

What is and isn’t offensive is oftentimes subjective. Let’s say, for example, that I write a scene in my book where two of my characters enjoy a burger together. If a vegan reads this, he or she might be offended. A chef, however, can read the very same scene and be inspired to create a gourmet burger for two.

I’m a woman who writes romance novels. Therefore, I include male characters in my books. I also write in the third person narrative. This means some of my chapters will be written from a male character’s point of view, even though I’ve never been a man. I’m not trying to make a political statement. I’m simply trying to tell a good story. However, to the so-called, “sensitivity expert,” I could be “stereotyping” men. And because I’m allegedly stereotyping men, I’m no longer allowed to write anything from a male point of view. This tramples on my right to freely express myself as an artist

Sensitivity is the new, politically correct word for CENSORSHIP. As a writer and and artist, censorship goes against everything I believe in. Well guess what? I’m a U.S. citizen, and I have a Constitutional right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Therefore, I will continue to write the stories I wish to write, and if the sensitivity thought police don’t like it then they can go straight to Hell. 

Gayle Martin

The Problem with First Person Narratives

Graphic by Gayle Martin.

As fiction writers, we have two ways to present our story; as a first or a third person narrative. This time, however, I’m going to speak as a fiction reader, and not an author.

As a reader, I simply hate the first person narrative. To me, it’s the narcissistic narrative. It’s all, me, me, me, I, I, I, me, me, me, I, I, I. It gets really old, really quick. However, I still get it. The author wants me to have a more intimate relationship with the lead character. The problem for me is that I want to know what other characters, particularly the antagonists, are up to.

I love reading fiction written in the third person narrative. When I read a novel I’m essentially watching a movie in my head. I want to see the bad guys cooking up their evil schemes. I want to be with them when they do their dastardly deeds. I want to experience the moment of shock and surprise when the protagonist gets caught their trap. Likewise, I want to experience the protagonist’s feeling of triumph when the bad guys get their comeuppance. I also want to see the antagonist’s moment of regret. This is why, as a reader, I only read third person narratives. I get to see multiple points of view, and I get to see scene changes with different characters, just like they do in the movies.

I realize this is my own personal take. Other readers may like the first person narrative. To each their own. However, I prefer to write my own stories the same way I prefer to read them. This is why I only write in a third person narrative.

Gayle Martin