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Infrequently Asked Questions

Writers spend a lot of time talking to themselves.

Portrait of author David Michael Williams

“Are you ready for the interview, David?” “Yes, David, I am.” | Photo by Jaime Lynn Hunt

We invent conversations between imaginary people, imagine a series of actions, and then transcribe what happens in our mind to the page. The hope, of course, is that one day there will be readers to hear that proverbial tree falling in the woods.

In addition to millions of words of fiction, I have written hundreds of pages while planning and plotting my novels. When I go back and read through those notes, I come off like a crazy person, sharing ideas and options with no one but myself.

And yet I felt even more like a lunatic when composing the author Q&A for my online press kit.

The goal of the Q&A is to provide reporters with an easily digestible document for learning more about me as an author as well as my books. In the exercise, I play both the role of interviewer and interviewee, asking myself questions to which I already know the answers.

In the spirit of embracing the insanity, I’m going to share the dialogue (or is it a monologue?) below. Maybe someday I’ll have partaken in enough interviews to compose a true FAQ, but in the meantime, please enjoy my Infrequently Asked Questions:

What are The Renegade Chronicles about?

On the surface, The Renegade Chronicles is about a civil war in the magical, medieval world of Altaerra. The most powerful peace treaty in history is on the verge of collapse, and a certain band of rebels has made it their mission to learn who is really pulling the Alliance of Nations’ strings—and why.

The series is firmly entrenched in the sword-and-sorcery fantasy genre, though there are elements of mystery, suspense, and even comedy. While the world of Altaerra is populated with mythical creatures like elves and ogres, the series focuses primarily on humans caught up in political intrigue and matters of life and death.

In a nutshell, The Renegade Chronicles is about war, unexpected alliances, magical swords, unholy crusaders, redemption, and hope.

Whom are The Renegade Chronicles about?

The series features a wide array of characters, including thieves, knights, pirates, wizards, and assassins. Everyone has his or her own agenda, and most people believe they fight for “the side of right.” But a major theme woven throughout the series is that the truth tends to fall somewhere between black and white.

The main characters are the Renegades, a ragtag band of rebels brought together by a twist of fate, including Klye, a former thief and self-proclaimed leader; Ragellan, a disgraced Knight of Superius, and his protégé Horcalus; Othello, a taciturn forester; Plake, a former rancher who thinks with his fists; Scout, an explorer who knows the island better than most; the pirate king Pistol and his loyal first mate, Crooker; Arthur, a young runaway; and Lilac, a mysterious woman with an enchanted blade.

You can learn more about them here: david-michael-williams.com/renegade-chronicles/meet-the-renegades/.

Who is your favorite character?

That’s like asking me who my favorite child is!

I suppose I have many favorites. Klye Tristan, the Renegade Leader, is probably the easiest for me to write; I’ve known him the longest. Characters like Scout and Noel are gems because they provide comedic relief. I have a lot of respect for Horcalus and Stannel Bismarc, both men of principle. And as obnoxious as Plake can be, he’s undeniably a catalyst when it comes to the plot. Zusha is a lot of fun, too, because of her unique perspective.

What is the setting for The Renegade Chronicles?

The story takes place in the fantastical world of Altaerra, which is home to many different peoples, including humans, dwarves, elves, ogres and a few other traditional fantasy races. And there are a few species that are unique to Altaerra alone, such as the dreaded midge.

Readers of The Renegade Chronicles will traverse the breadth of the island of Capricon, which is populated primarily by humans and defended by the Knights of Superius. The island is home to temples, castles, foreboding mountains, abandoned settlements, and no shortage of secrets.

You can see the map of Capricon here: david-michael-williams.com/renegade-chronicles/capricon/.

Who will enjoy The Renegade Chronicles?

Fans of fantasy fiction who like fast-paced, action-packed plots, a robust cast of characters, and plenty of plot twists will appreciate The Renegade Chronicles. The focus is on the individual adventurers, most of them humans, and while the series borrows from established fantasy tropes, folks who have never read fantasy books before should be able to grasp and enjoy these stories.

The Renegade Chronicles would be a good stepping stone for teens who grew up on Harry Potter and are looking for a series that features more mature characters. They’re ready for something with a little more grit—but not something as brutal as George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Having said that, I also believe adults of all ages can appreciate these adventures.

What makes The Renegade Chronicles unique?

I’ll be the first to admit that the series is something of a throwback to the sword-and-sorcery stories I grew up with. It’s not as arch and grueling as Tolkien, and it’s certainly more lighthearted than the gritty urban fantasy that has gained popularity in recent years.

I published The Renegade Chronicles for people, like me, who want a healthy balance of high-stakes danger and good, old-fashioned fun.

What are The Renegade Chronicles “rated”?

If this were a movie, I’d say a hard PG or a soft PG-13. There is mild language and a few sexual innuendos. There’s also violence, and characters do die occasionally. But blood and gore are not the focus.

Where can someone buy The Renegade Chronicles?

All three paperbacks are available at Amazon.com. The e-book editions—including a three-in-one collection with a bonus appendix detailing the people, places and particularities of Altaerra—are exclusively available at the Kindle Store.

You can find a series of direct links here: david-michael-williams.com/renegade-chronicles.

How long did it take you to write the books?

The first book, Rebels and Fools, took the longest. I wrote the first draft while attending college and rewrote the entire manuscript my senior year. Volumes 2 and 3 took a year apiece to write (two drafts each).

When I came back to the manuscripts in late 2015, I dedicated a month to each one, refining them and making substantial edits.

What do the titles mean?

Don’t get me started on how difficult it is to come up with compelling novel titles!

All three titles hint at the duality of the characters. For example, Rebels and Fools—does that mean the enemies of the rebels are the fools, or are the rebels themselves fools? The same goes for Heroes and Liars and Martyrs and Monsters. The ambiguity is intentional and, in fact, integral.

Why do fantasy series always seem to be trilogies?

That’s an arcane secret…kind of like why every potion requires “eye of newt.” In all seriousness, I don’t think I set out to write three books specifically. I always knew where Volume 1 would end, and after I finished Volume 2, I realized it would take only one more installment to complete the main story arc.

But it’s altogether possible additional volumes could be published somewhere down the road. The Renegades have many adventures ahead of them.

Why did you decide to publish all three at once?

We live in an age of instant gratification. I know I hate waiting for a writer to finish the next installment in a series. Since I already had written all three novels, it didn’t make sense to stagger the releases of Volumes 2 and 3. If someone enjoyed Rebels and Fools, I didn’t want anything getting in the way of their buying Heroes and Liars and Martyrs and Monsters immediately.

It’s a similar philosophy to Netflix series in which an entire season is released all at once. People like to “binge watch,” so why not “binge read”? The Renegade Chronicles is like House of Cards—only with magical swords.

Why did you decide to publish The Renegade Chronicles yourself?

I wrote three complete manuscripts before searching for an agent to represent the series or a publisher to buy it. And, frankly, no one was interested. To be fair, the first book was bloated—175,000 words is too long for an unknown author’s first book—and all three books needed copious edits. The decade in between finishing the third book and revisiting the series provided me with the skills and the objectivity to go back and fix the manuscripts.

The bottom line is I had faith in the stories and the writing, and I wanted others to be able to enjoy them. Creating my own independent publishing company, One Million Words, was a means to that end.

Why did you name your publishing company One Million Words?

A good friend of mine once told me that anything an author writes before one million words are just “finger exercises.” It’s a derivative of a familiar adage that proclaims a writer must put in a ton of practice before he or she will be any good. After he told me that, I did a word count and was pleased to report back that I had, in fact, already written one million words of fiction.

There are also roughly one million words in the English language. Plus I thought “One Million Words” had a nice ring to it. I had been using that phrase for my blog and social media accounts for years, so when it came time to create my own imprint, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate name.

Where did you find inspiration for this series?

I’ve been a fan of fantasy since before I even knew what fantasy was. Books, movies, television, video games—I always gravitated toward medieval settings and magical adventures. I wholeheartedly fell in love with the DragonLance books when I was in high school, and I was a big fan of the Final Fantasy video game series before that. I wanted to create a rich world of my own, a mystical playground for the characters that popped into my head.

Who are your favorite authors?

Some of my favorite fantasy authors are Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, not only because of their contributions to the DragonLance saga, but also for the Death Gate Cycle; R.A. Salvatore, primarily for his DemonWars series; Neil Gaiman; George R.R. Martin; and, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien, the grandfather of the fantasy genre.

Beyond fantasy, I’m a big fan of William Faulkner, and one of my favorite novels of all time is Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

What was the biggest challenge in publishing The Renegade Chronicles?

When you are preparing to publish three novels in two formats (print and digital), there are a lot of moving parts. On top of that, I held myself to a very aggressive timeline. When things are running that tight, even a minor setback can impact a lot of other tasks.

To tell the truth, I think my greatest challenge still lies ahead: marketing the series and reaching new customers.

Will there be any future books in The Renegade Chronicles?

I’d love to write more stories about Klye Tristan and the gang. I have plenty of additional plots already mapped out, so jumping back into Altaerra wouldn’t be difficult. I’ve written a complete draft of a novel starring a young wizardess who will eventually cross paths with the characters from The Renegade Chronicles. The epilogue of Martyrs and Monsters hints at that storyline.

By and large, sales of the first three volumes will determine whether I can afford to return to this world.

What is your next project?

I’m stepping away from Altaerra for at least a little while. I’m in the middle of writing a science fiction series called The Soul Sleep Cycle. While my agent looks for a buyer for the first two books in that series (If Souls Can Sleep and If Sin Dwells Deep), I’ll be working on the third novel, If Dreams Can Die.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Oh, I have lots of advice—mostly lessons I’ve learned along the way. I include writing tips on my website, david-michael-williams.com.

What I will say is I’m glad print-on-demand publishing was not available when I was in my early twenties. Self-publishing almost makes it too easy to put one’s work out there, and I’ve seen plenty of examples of dabblers and amateurs publishing before they are ready.

I fear that I would have been among them; if I had published The Renegade Chronicles before 2016, they would have been an inferior product. My advice to young writers is to wait until you’re prepared to treat your fiction as a business before considering self-publishing.

What are your long-term goals?

First and foremost, I want to continue to publish my novels, whether through a traditional publishing house or through One Million Words. I have a lot of ideas, so here’s to hoping I find readers who appreciate my stories and will support my dream of getting paid to do what I love.

In addition to novels, I’d love to write for a video game or a graphic novel. My wife says I should produce a pun-a-day calendar. At this point, I’m keeping everything on the table.

Any other questions for the author? Shoot them my way in the comments section!

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‘Who is your book about?’

Even though “What’s your book about?” is the most difficult question for an author, a few others can be tricky as well.

Noel from The Renegade Chronicles

An early sample of “fan art,” courtesy of Stephanie Williams (née Steinmetz). Who is Noel? Well, he’s a midge. What’s a midge? You’ll just have to read The Renegade Chronicles to find out!

When I try to answer “Who is your book about?” I struggle because I have a lot of characters. With my soon-to-be published (read: almost published) fantasy series, I have a core group of companions who encounter quite a few allies and adversaries during their travels.

And a handful of other people steal the stage from time to time…

But while the trilogy covers a lot of ground (and a lot of lives), at the core of The Renegade Chronicles are the Renegades themselves — specifically, a ragtag band of rebels who have seen the sinister side of a seemingly benevolent peace treaty and decide to fight back.

Here’s a quick (and arguably superficial) summary of the stars of Rebels and Fools:

  • Klye — A former thief and self-proclaimed Renegade Leader, Klye Tristan doesn’t believe in the gods, but he’ll need a miracle to complete his mission.
  • Ragellan — A disgraced Knight of Superius, Chester Ragellan joins the Renegades to learn who framed him and why.
  • Horcalus — A fugitive from the Knighthood, Dominic Horcalus faithfully follows his mentor, Ragellan, though he hates conspiring with the rebels.
  • Othello — A forester accustomed to solitude, Othello Balsa says little but perceives much; his senses are as sharp as one of his green-fletched arrows.
  • Plake — A reckless rancher who constantly questions authority—especially Klye’s—Plake Nelway possesses an unquenchable thirst for excitement and ale.
  • Scout — An explorer at heart, Solomon “Scout” Aegis knows more about the island of Capricon than anyone…if he is to be believed.
  • Pistol — A pirate king who carved his way to the top, Pistol owes the Renegades a debt, but not even he knows how far that loyalty stretches.
  • Crooker — A lifelong buccaneer, Crooker is content to let others do the planning, but he won’t think twice about killing those who threaten his friends.
  • Arthur — A young runaway, Arthur Bismarc wants only to forget his past crimes but ends up committing new ones after getting caught up with the Renegades.
  • Lilac — A warrior woman with a clandestine agenda, Lilac Zephyr wields an enchanted blade that can effortlessly cut through stone, steel, and bone.

Before they can hope to stand up against their enemies—which include a paranoid governor, overzealous knights, several assassins, and a powerful spell-caster who believes the gods sent him to end the war—the Renegades will have to learn to trust one another.

Or die trying.

The Renegade Chronicles will be available in paperback and digital editions on March 31, 2016.

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Should you care if readers care about your characters?

Once upon a time, I described my fiction as character-oriented.

I’d bandy about that phrase in conversations with friends (or anyone, really) who asked about my writing. I used it in query letters to agents and editors while precociously comparing my early sword-and-sorcery fiction to the works of Margaret Weis, R.A. Salvatore, and other authors of books with dragons on the cover.

“Character-oriented” just seemed to be the logical expression for my work because, at the root of it all, I loved creating characters. Back when I was I writing medieval fantasy—and attending to the world building that went with it—I created countless characters to fill roles from lowly peasant to powerful tyrant across a centuries-long timeline. (Though there weren’t any invincible protagonists, I’m happy to report.)

It was an easy exercise:

Step 1: pick a name.

Step 2: pick a personality.

I spent more than a little time creating character profiles so that the people who populate my stories transcended a mere two dimensions. Because I wanted my readers to understand the characters and to see them as clearly as I did.

I also wanted readers to care about them.

In fact, I’m confident I said this very line at writing workshops in college: “If I don’t care about your characters, I won’t care what happens to them.”

These days, I don’t know if would use “character-oriented” to describe my fiction. I look back at The Renegade Chronicles and some of my other early work, and it’s clear there was a lot of focus on the different personalities. Perhaps that’s inevitable when you write about a motley group of freedom fighters thrown together by fate and forced to get along…or die trying.

But once I turned the page from straightforward sword-and-sorcery fantasy to something more nuanced, I find most of my ideas start with “What if…?” and not “Who is…?” Inklings of the story—the plot, that is—tend to come first, though the types of people who will weather these scenarios come in at a close second.

Apathy is the enemy of every writer.

Apathy is the enemy of every writer.

The more I think about it, the more a term like “character-oriented” seems superfluous. Characters are but one element of a story. Like setting and plot, they are essential ingredients of a story. But are they any more important than the rest? Shouldn’t a story be character-oriented, plot-oriented, setting-oriented, and so forth?

More to the point, can a reader care what happens in a story if he or she doesn’t care about the characters?

The question haunts me because I’ve been accused of creating unlikable characters. Vincent, the protagonist of If Souls Can Sleep, isn’t the nicest guy. He has a lot of problems. He treats people poorly. And the fact that something supernatural seems to be happening to him does nothing to make him a better-adjusted citizen, particularly in the short term.

Whenever a beta reader would remark how they just can’t bring themselves to like Vincent, I’d argue (if only to myself) that it doesn’t matter. My goal was to make him realistic, and, realistically, people can be jerks.

Yet I also wanted him to be relatable and maybe even sympathetic.

While it wasn’t important for Vincent to be likable, it was arguably important for people not to dislike him so much that they dismissed his fate. Apathy is the enemy of every writer. So I suppose I had a decision to make: either make Vincent utterly unlikable so that my reader roots against him or take steps to make him more likable so that they could root for him.

I confess that I did soften him up a big in the rewrite, and reducing the intensity of his bad behavior not only made him more sympathetic, but also refined his character arc. Maybe he isn’t the most likable guy, but he has enough qualities now to make the reader care what happens to him.

A similar criticism arose for the protagonist of my short story “Going Viral.” A friend and fellow writer commented, “…I didn’t feel one bit connected to Sam by the end.” Also: “As a character, I found Sam neither relatable nor empathetic…the first syllable of ‘character’ is ‘care.’”

Come to think of it, I made Quentin E. Donovan (the Quentin E. Donovan), the “star” of another short story intentionally unlikable…

But in the case of Sam and “Going Viral,” I’m willing to chalk up Sam’s shortcomings to the fact that I struggle with short fiction. I also agree with my friend when he acknowledges that character development is even more challenging within the confines of short fiction.

It raises an important question: if the rest of the story is successful, does it matter whether the reader gives a damn about Sam?

A storyteller’s only job is to con the reader into turning one more page. We can’t directly control how anyone feels about anything, though, yes, a fair amount of manipulation comes with the territory. Writers have a handful of devices at their disposal to capture and keep a reader’s attention.

I already mentioned plot, setting, and, of course, characters. We also have themes, backstory, subplots, tropes that comes with various and sundry genres, tension, pacing—in short, anything and everything that could possibly compel a reader to travel from front cover to final page.

One could argue whether or not characters are the most important aspect of a story, but few would content that it’s OK to skimp on character development. If a writer neglects the work that enables the average reader to form a connection with the protagonist in particular, the rest of the literary elements are going to have to work that much harder to hook and hold the reader.

So how exactly can an author make his characters “connectable”?

  • Make us like her.
  • Make us hate her…or love to hate her.
  • Make us pity him. (A creative writing professor once told me you can instantly make readers pity characters by putting them in denial.)
  • Make us root for him because he’s an underdog.
  • Make her relatable…just like somebody we could meet on the street.
  • Make her utterly exceptional…someone we could never meet in our real lives.
  • Make him have big problems.
  • Make him have depth.

For more advice, there’s a nice, in-depth look at how to make readers care about your characters at novel-writing-help.com. And here’s five more tips at writersrelief.com.

Now it warrants mentioning that not every character will resonate with every reader. We all have different preferences and unique backgrounds. You can’t please all of the people any of the time, but as a writer, you should aim to please as many as possible.

And even if characters on the whole aren’t your strength, just make sure they aren’t a weakness.

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The problem with invincible protagonists

I must have killed hundreds of people over the years.

Since I’m a writer of sword-and-sorcery fantasy, death come with the territory. That’s probably true for any genre that requires the choreography of combat. And when it comes to world building and mapping out a timeline that covers centuries, the beginning and end of a lifespan can occur in a single sentence.

Angel tombstone

If your character’s death didn’t significantly impact your plot or elicit an emotion from the reader, you might have done it wrong. | Image source: morgueFile.com

Some of these folks—from kings to commoners—died of natural causes. But many of my murders were quite violent, depicted in gory detail on the battlefield or in the shadows. One can hardly write about a war without tallying up the corresponding casualties. While some of that body count can be attributed to unnamed warriors, a fair number of major and minor characters have met their demise by my hand.

One of the first main characters I killed off occurs midway through my first novel (The Road to Faith). In truth, that knight’s unceremonious decapitation brought tears to my eyes as his comrades—and I—reacted to the tragedy. It wasn’t personal, you see. The story simply demanded it.

If the best characters take on a life of their own, then their deaths must be dished out judiciously.

That notion occurred to me recently while reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, which boasts a relatively high death toll. Major and minor characters alike fall in the three installments, but it wasn’t until the loss of a key player in the final book that my mind wandered through the pros and cons of killing off a main character—not to mention the courage it takes to pull the trigger.

It’s a topic I’ve pondered since before becoming a writer, back when I played the role of reader only and was at the mercy of other authors’ decisions when it came to the survival of the people populating their stories. Whether a character lives or dies is one of the most important decisions a writer can make. (It takes the adage “Kill your darlings” to a whole new level.)

Death tends to make a statement.

A certain self-indulgent character’s sacrifice in A Tale of Two Cities comes to mind. Heck, many classic children’s stories are none too subtle with the theme of life and loss. I’m looking at you, Charlotte’s Web and Where the Red Fern Grows.

Yes, death is a powerful tool in an author’s arsenal. And it can be abused. A friend of mine once remarked that when George R. R. Martin wants to inject tension into his A Song of Ice and Fire series, he kills off a character. I suspect that that’s an oversimplification, but none can argue that the fantasist is far from timid when it comes to the mortality of major characters, including chief protagonists.

In my opinion, those deaths don’t come off as wanton. True, not every one of them accomplishes a vital plot point (many do, however). And even if one of the first significant deaths in A Game of Thrones is steeped in shock value, it doesn’t come off as gimmicky. In fact, the deaths in Martin’s series seem not only realistic and warranted, but also necessary, which brings me to my next point:

The absence of death also makes a statement.

Nothing saps the tension from a story quicker than the realization that the main characters are invincible. No matter what sticky situation a protagonist finds herself, you just know she will escape unscathed. Granted, “life-or-death” aren’t the only stakes in the game, but I, for one, can’t abide a battle where the victor is guaranteed.

Perhaps the “unkillable” protagonist is a symptom of today’s writers’ (and readers’) appetite for sagas that go on forever. These never-ending series seemingly can’t commit to the loss of key characters or any ending whatsoever.

See also: Dissecting the difficulties to writing a sequel.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to fantasy and science fiction; Alex Cross and Stephanie Plum aren’t going anywhere soon. For that matter, Robert Langdon might be the most resilient mortal ever to solve a mystery.

Speaking of mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried to weasel his way out of a never-ending series by killing off Sherlock Holmes. Outrage from his fans (and undoubtedly his editor) forced Doyle to rescind the expiration of that most-famous detective. This example seems to suggest most readers don’t want to see a main character die, least of all in an unsatisfying way.

Which means that when an author decides to slay a character that readers have come to appreciate, admire, or even abhor—and, above all, come to think of as an actual person—he has the responsibility to make it meaningful.

Plot twists have their place, but key deaths should make a big splash, not cause a momentary ripple. Story arc aside, a character’s death can be a profound milestone in her development—a final, important act that epitomizes how far she has come from the start. Or how far she has fallen.

If the best characters stand up and cast a shadow, then snuffing out their light must serve a greater purpose.

Naturally, there’s no formula to determine how long a character should live or whether his final moments should be detailed in the pages of a book at all. As with every aspect of this craft, a writer must stay true to the story, whatever that story happens to be.

Slashing copious throats for the sake of bloodshed alone only serves to dilute the effect. Likewise, pulling punches out of cowardice could sterilize an otherwise honest account of the human condition.

But certainly, anyone who is brave enough to write about life must also embrace the subject of death.

Readers and writers: Do you disagree? Should main characters be invincible? Please comment below!

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When it comes to dialogue, don’t trust the word on the street

One of my earliest college writing assignments involved a little espionage.

Having spent plenty of time playacting the part of spy in my youth and, in later years, transplanting such imaginative adventures to written page, I eagerly embraced the challenge my professor put forth.

A mysterious-looking man in a trench coat and fedora...the Dialogue SpyMy mission: to choose a random conversation between two people, eavesdrop and write down every word.

Later that day, I lingered in a classroom building’s lounge where fellow students were wont to while away time between classes, catching up on reading assignments, cramming before quizzes, or just chatting with classmates.

Today, I couldn’t tell you much about my marks other than the fact that they were young women.  I recall even less about subject of their conversation.  Their gossip meant very little to me because I knew nothing about them or the people they discussed.  Nevertheless, I surreptitiously jotted down every word.

Every false start.  Every verbal crutch.  Every grammatical violation.

When reviewing my transcripts later, I came to a few conclusions. For one thing, most people are far from eloquent.  When engaged in casual conversation, we interrupt one another.  We even interrupt ourselves.  Occasionally, we use the wrong words.  And if counted how many “ums,” “ahs,” and “actuallys” sprinkled throughout our speech, we’d be amazed.

In other words, if a writer were to accurately capture human communication and translate it to the written word, he/she would end up with a string of fragments and incomplete thoughts through which a reader would inevitably struggle.  Most of the time, the result would be an incoherent mess.

Which, of course, was the point of my top-secret assignment.

This lesson was reinforced in later years when I worked as a reporter.  Oh sure, some people are capable of providing the perfect quote, a sequence of phrases that succinctly sums up their perspective on a given topic.  But most of us use far more words than we need to.  We ramble.  We utter copious pronouns because, in the context of an interview, the reporter understands what is meant by “he,” “she,” and “it.”

Yet when the reporter goes back to his/her desk to rearrange the interviewee’s answers and evaluate which quote belongs where in the article, it becomes obvious that there is often a chasm between what people mean to say and what they actually say.  It’s truly a treasure when a reporter gets that perfect, impactful quote.  More often than not, however, the phrases and clauses between quotation marks remain rough-edged, unrefined.

When I made the switch from journalism to public relations, writing press releases allowed me to do something I never dared to do as a reporter: I reworked spokespeople’s quotes.  Quite often, I was encouraged to create such quotes from scratch and later run them past my “sources,” who might add a thought here or make a word swap there.  But the finished result was almost always a clear, coherent (if, at times, clearly artificial) collection of clauses that efficiently and effectively communicated the point.

Unlike how people actually speak…

In fiction, nothing takes a reader out of story quicker than stilted, sterile, and/or sloppy dialogue.  The good news is that you have full control over the words that come out of your characters’ mouths.  Here are some tips for how to handle the infuriating idiosyncrasies of human speech and deliver effective dialogue:

1. Shorten, streamline, then slash some more

Even though people in real life prattle on and on, a writer must be mindful of his or her “word economy.”  That doesn’t mean every sentence has to be reduced to a simple, subject-predicate construction, but short and snappy does wonders for pacing.  A reader’s attention has to be earned, and once you lost it, you might not reclaim it.

Consider each situation.  If two characters are passing each other in the hall at work, they wouldn’t likely engage in a twenty-minute conversation.  But if they’re unwinding at the local waterhole after hours—while imbibed a few alcoholic beverages—then a few run-on sentences might be just what the doctor ordered.

A common error I’ve encountered in rough drafts are conversations that simply go on too long.  Not only do the characters say in three sentences what they could have said in one, but also the subject itself circles back on itself again and again.  The chances of this happening increase dramatically if these artificial people are having an argument.  Real-life bickering is repetitive, but no reader wants to endure page after page of repetitive back-and-forth.

When in doubt, err on the side of fewer words.

2. Intersperse action

Dialogue can be like swarm of locusts, hungrily devouring a scene or even an entire chapter.  That might not be the worst thing in the world, just as long as it doesn’t leave the rest of the narrative desolate and devoid of life.

When a writer really gets into a verbal exchange between two (or more) captivating characters, it’s easy to lose track of everything else.  However, if the result is several consecutive pages of pure quotations, you end up with what I like to call Voices in a Vacuum.

Readers want to experience the story through as many senses as possible.  If a long conversation is needed, remember to plant some action in between speech tags so that the reader has something to” look at.”  And don’t forget the setting.  Where are these people?  Have they really been sitting perfectly still on a couch this whole time?  Is the rest of reality on pause while they bear their souls to one another?  Not likely.

Unadulterated dialogue appeals to just one of the five senses: hearing.  And when we speak in real life, our mannerisms convey meaning as well.  Indeed, body language often says more than our mouths!

Sometimes it can be difficult to silence loquacious characters, but unless their words are moving the story forward in a significant way, get ready to press the backspace key.

3. Replace action

Bad dialogue bogs down the pace; good dialogue encourages momentum.

In an effort to smooth out transitions between straightforward action and dialogue (because dialogue actually is a kind of action), it can be helpful to replace an ordinary description of motion with a voiced reference to an action.

Take this (admittedly ridiculous) excerpt for example:

Professor Improbable laughed wildly.  “With a few minor adjustments, the Chrono Cruiser will finally be ready for its maiden voyage!”

He turned to his slump-shouldered assistant, Rogi, and asked, “Bring me the thermal calibrator at once.”

Rogi reached for one of the many tools scattered on the table and handed a gadget to the scientist, who curtly informed him that he asked for a thermal calibrator, not an infrared coupler.

Rogi tried again and, luckily, got it right.

“Thank you, Rogi.  I don’t know what I’d have done without you these past five years…”

Here’s an alternate approach:

 “Mwahahaha!  With a few minor adjustments, the Chrono Cruiser will finally be ready for its maiden voyage!”  Professor Improbable turned to his slump-shouldered assistant.  “Rogi, bring me the thermal calibrator at once.  No, no, no!  That’s the infrared coupler.  Ah, yes, that’s the one.  Thank you.  I don’t know what I’d have done without you these past five years…”

The action is implied in the dialogue, and Professor Improbable—whom we suspect always monopolizes the conversation—can recap his master plan without needless interruptions.  Just make sure you don’t waste the reader’s time by having the dialogue and the narration convey redundant information.

4. Develop voice

Dialogue is perhaps the most intuitive element through which one can execute characterization.  A person’s vocabulary and delivery say an awful lot about him or her.  Casual chats, heart-to-hearts, quarrels, exchanges with random strangers—all of these present opportunities to add dimension to a character.

The goal is to give each character an individual voice, a strong voice that will inform the reader who is speaking even before they get to speech tag (e.g., “said Professor Improbable”).  Consider your character’s culture, education level, disposition, etc. when determining which words ought to come out of his or her mouth.

Just don’t get carried away.  Even if Rogi ends up having a speech impediment, a reader isn’t going to w-w-w-w-want to h-h-h-h-h-have t-t-t-t-t-t-to n-n-n-n-n-n-n-navigate a-a-a-around too m-m-m-m-m-many v-v-v-v-v-v-v-visual h-h-h-h-h-hurdles.  The same goes for representing accents.  Put in an affectation here and a native word there.  Please don’t pump each paragraph full of apostrophes to imply clipped sounds or otherwise butcher perfectly good words.  Subtlety is key.

Dialogue should round out your characters, but rarely can talk-heavy scenes exist solely for character development.  Every word needs to move the story forward, including quotes.

5. Read it out loud

The best way to gauge whether your dialogue rings true is to read it out loud.  Better yet, have someone else read it to you.  Listen for tongue-twisting syntax and garbled semantics.  Listen for flow.  Are the transitions logical?

Listen for sentences that are just too tidy.  Unless your protagonist is a grammar teacher, he or she is going to end a sentence with a preposition now and then.  For that matter, the rules of proper grammar don’t apply within quotation marks.  Awkward, unconventional sentence structure in dialogue won’t reflect poorly on you as a writer (if the rest of your sentences are grammatically sound), though it will send a message about the character in question.

Every good spy knows the best lies contain at least an ounce of truth.  The trick with dialogue, as with any aspect of fiction, is making something artificial come off as natural.  To become adept at writing dialogue, listen to how the people around you really talk and then make it better.

But not too perfect.

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What would J.R.R. Tolkien do?

The Hobbit movie poster featuring a stern-faced warrior-like Bilbo Baggins

This movie poster features a Bilbo Baggins looking far tougher than I ever pictured him in the book.

While watching the new Hobbit movie, I couldn’t help but wonder what the grandfather of the fantasy genre would think of the adaptation of his 1937 novel.

What would he think of the special effects that made the exotic environs of Middle-earth leap off the 3D screen?  What would he make of the big stars impersonating the now-classic characters Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Grey, and Lady Galadriel?

Would he be honored by the new life Hollywood has breathed into his mystical world, or would he be put off by the overwrought choreography of each brutal battle scene, the bastardization of his epic through streamlined storylines and themes, and the oh-so-frequent slow-motion “hero shots” requisite of every 21st century action movie?

The quandary of characters outliving their creators reared its ugly head again this week when, after more than twenty years since the release of book one, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga came to a conclusion with a book that bears an additional author’s name.  In this instance, the late Mr. Jordan had tasked his wife to find someone to finish his fifteen-book series, knowing his end was near.  Brandon Sanderson answered the call.

If fans had to choose between a newcomer’s finishing the work and not getting an ending at all, I’m fairly certain they’d opt for the former.

It reminds me of how, after the accident that nearly claimed Stephen King’s life, he jumped back into his off-and-on Dark Tower series, vowing to complete it before the Reaper took another swipe at him.  If King had been killed by that car back in 1999, readers would never know the fate of Roland and his ka-tet.

What about good ol’ J.R.R.?  When movie-makers come a-calling, authors typically don’t retain a lot of creative control.  Then again, J.K. Rowling made the Harry Potter movies the way she wanted, so perhaps, had he still been alive, the first high fantasist wouldn’t have completely cut the cord either.

But would Mr. Tolkien have been onboard with the film’s beefed-up rivalry between Thorin and the Pale Orc?

Of course, we’ll never know the answer.  One could argue that it doesn’t really matter because tough decisions have to be made when translating a novel (or series) into one or more movies.  Also, films often reach a broader audience.  Maybe these compromises are a necessary evil so that the story—in some form or another—goes farther.  And just maybe a person will be so impressed by the film, he or she will seek out the source material.

Which means the ends justify the means.

Movie adaptations aside, any ending is better than no ending, so hopefully those authors who write grand epics (a.k.a. the never-ending story) have a Plan B.  I’m looking at you, George R.R. Martin…

Personally, I can’t decide whether I’d want another novelist, screenwriter, or otherwise artist usurping my characters—even if I’m not around to experience the fallout…not to mention any financial gain.

What do you think?  Do characters naturally transcend their creators?  Is it an honor to see one’s heroes and villains taking on life beyond an author’s control?  Or is it just another money grab?

Please comment below!

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Storytelling can take many forms

Some of the characters I’ve enjoyed writing about the most are an inch and a half tall.

I’m not referring to pixies, although my early fantasy fiction did contain a few fairies.  No, the vast majority of my swords-and-sorcery characters were human beings, but before they came to be names on a page, they took the form of small plastic figurines.

Once upon a time, I told my stories using LEGO minifigures (or “minifigs” for short).  While I did try to type a few chapters about some futuristic superheroes and their foes that started out as drawings and, later, LEGO minifigs, I eventually made the transition to LEGO’s medieval-themed toys.  And the idea of writing anything down went the way of the catapult.

As my collection of castles, knights, and wizards grew, so did the cast of my myriad storylines.

What started as a village, a fortress, and two larger castles in my childhood bedroom became the root of a world-building exercise that spanned years.  Somewhere along the line, I began recording the episodic adventures of my diminutive warriors in a notebook.  Those archives served as the backbone of future novels: The Renegade Chronicles.

While I outgrew the practice of playacting my plots (mostly because I didn’t have the time to stage battles and dialogue and then later record them as text), I have so many fond memories of those early quests.  And when I think of those characters, the minifig version of this swordfighter or that magus still comes to mind.

In the spirit of nostalgia and to indulge in the same playful, lighthearted attitude that first fueled my storytelling, I decided to take some of the characters from my most recent novel and recreate them as minifigs.

Without further ado—and just for fun—meet the LEGO incarnations of the folks from If Souls Can Sleep:

LEGO minifigure of Vincent Cruz

Vincent Cruz might be losing it.  Between a recurring dream of the day his daughter Clementine drowned and a narcoleptic-like condition that sends his mind into a bizarre world, his grip on reality is tenuous at best.

LEGO minifigure of Clementine Cruz

Clementine was dead to begin with.  Here she is with her stuffed duck, Webster.

LEGO mifigure of Jerry Weis

Jerry Weis is Vincent’s roommate.  He sometimes gets the munchies, which accounts for the pizza.  That item in his other hand could be a goblet…or a different item made of glass.

LEGO minifigure of Leah Chedid

Leah Chedid is a sleep doctor.  On the left, we see her in her business garb.  On the right, she’s sporting a much shorter haircut (a funny story, that).  Her cat’s name is Emira.

LEGO minifigure of Milton Baerwald

Milton Baerwald is a man on the run.  He can’t remember why or from whom, but it has something to do with the government and the end of the world as we know it.  Godspeed!

LEGO minifigure of D.J.

D.J., a young man in a black hoodie, likes to ride the city bus.  He may or may not be following Milton.  The nonsense he spouts could unlock Milton’s memories.  Oh yeah, and he’s packing heat.

LEGO minifigure of Odin

Milton’s fractured memory flashes the image of a guy in a white lab coat, whom he thinks of as Odin.  Sometimes he is holding a syringe; other times, a sword.

LEGO minifigure of Heimdall

Here’s Heimdall dressed like a “Matrix reject.”  He pays Vincent an unexpected visit.  You’ll have to read the book to find out why.

LEGO minifigure of Syn

Sharp-tongued Syn wields twin daggers.  She hangs out with Heimdall and Odin—an odd trio to be sure.

LEGO minifigure of Valenthor

This is Valenthor, a clichéd warrior from a clichéd fantasy land.  His life is somehow tied to Vincent’s.  He too has lost a daughter.

LEGO minifigures of Destiny

Destiny first appears to Valenthor in a dark “Grim Reaper-like” cloak.  Turns out she’s a beautiful elf maiden and the impetus for a perilous journey.

LEGO minifigure of Locke

The masked traveler Locke joins Valenthor and Destiny on their quest, but his motivations are as dubious as the magic he weaves.  (Scoff.)

LEGO minifigure of Sir Angus

Sir Angus’s path intertwines with Valenthor’s.  But is he friend or foe?

LEGO minifigure of a mysterious Asian child

This small Asian child makes a small cameo in If Souls Can Sleep but plays a pivotal role in The Souls Sleep Cycle.  His/her identity remains a secret until Book 3.

Thanks for indulging me.  Fortunately, I’m a better writer than photographer!

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