Author Archives: E. C. Ambrose

: E. C. Ambrose wrote Elisha Barber and the rest of "The Dark Apostle" historical fantasy series from DAW books. Published works include "The Romance of Ruins" in Clarkesworld, and "Custom of the Sea," winner of the Tenebris Press Flash Fiction Contest 2012. In addition to writing, the author works as an adventure guide. Past occupations include founding a wholesale business, selecting stamps for a philatelic company, selling equestrian equipment, and portraying the Easter Bunny on weekends. The author blogs about the intersections between history and fantasy at ecambrose.wordpress.com and can also be found at www.theDarkApostle.com or on twitter @ecambrose.

Magic, Intrigue, Medieval Surgery: Elisha Mancer Book Launch Day!

Yes, I’m excited today because book 4 in my Dark Apostle Series comes out this very day.  What do you mean, you’re not that excited? Oh, right, you probably haven’t read book one.  So rather than harp on about a new book that is best read after the first three, how about I post the opening of Elisha Barber, the book that started it all?

Elisha stands over an array of medieval medical instruments–the barber is in! visit my website for a scroll-over image with descriptions of each tool

Here you go:

“You sent her to the hospital?” Elisha whirled to face his brother, the razor still in his fist. “My God, man, what were you thinking?”

“The midwife couldn’t help her, Elisha, and she’s in such awful pain, for the babe won’t come,” Nathaniel stammered, his pale hands clenched together. He ducked in the low door of the draper’s quarters, his fair hair brushing the carved oak of the lintel.  “The neighbors carried her over while I came here.”

“But the hospital? That place is deadly.” Elisha set his razor again at his customer’s chin, deftly shearing a narrow stretch of the full, and now unfashionable, beard. “What did she say?

“Not so fast, if you don’t mind. I care to keep my chin today, Barber,” the draper snapped.

“Helena?” Nathaniel asked, his face a mask of anguish and confusion.

“No, you fool, the midwife!” Elisha slapped the razor through the water basin and plied it again, forcing himself to slow down. Last thing he needed was to carve the ear off the master of the drapers’ guild.

Sagging, his brother balanced himself against the wall, scrubbing at his sweaty face. “The babe’s turned, and wedged somehow. She thought the physicians—”

At the mention of physicians, Elisha froze. The draper glowered up at him from his best leather chair, but his brother’s wife lay in the hospital, contracting God-knew-what illness added to her condition. For a moment, his conflicting duties trapped him—but Helena needed him, if it weren’t already too late. The draper could abide. Flinging down his razor, Elisha roughly dried his hands on his britches. “The physicians never enter the hospital if they can advise from afar. Nobody who can afford their services goes to hospital.” He popped open the window frame nearest and flung out the dirty water.

The draper rubbed a hand across his chin and jerked it back with a cry of dismay. “You’ve not finished the job, Barber. I’ve still got half a beard!”

“Then you owe me half my fee,” Elisha told him. He snatched his towel from the man’s neck and spun on his heel, basin tucked under his arm. The razor he folded with a snap and gripped until his fingers hurt. “Why did you not come for me sooner?” he asked, dropping his voice to a murmur.

Instantly, Nathaniel straightened, taking advantage of his superior height. “I think you know why.”

For a moment, their eyes met, and Nathaniel swallowed but gave no ground to his elder brother. Elisha had caused the breach that lay between them. He had apologized, but Nathaniel’s presence here was as close as he would come to forgiveness.

 

Want to read more?  Here’s a link to the first three chapters of Elisha Barber!  Available wherever books are sold.  When you love it, you’ll know there are three more volumes ready and waiting. . . and one final book forthcoming to complete the series.    Thanks for reading!

How to Begin: Five Ways to Start your Next Story

Happy New Year!  I hope you have fired up your New Year’s Resolutions, and harnessed them to some goals (remember: the difference between a dream and a goal is a plan).  If you’re hanging out with us, I’m guessing some of your goals have to do with writing.  Since this is the first Novelocity of the New Year, I’d like to help you get started.

goethe-quote

Often times, people get hung up right at the beginning of a new piece.  We know that, if we want to lure readers in and sell the work, the opening has to be fantastic.  This is true.  But when you first put keyboard to monitor, it doesn’t have to be brilliant–it just has to get done.  So, here are five ways to get in there and get writing!

  1. The opening doesn’t have to be perfect for you to keep writing. The ending of the story will suggest what the perfect beginning is.  Don’t get hung up on crafting a hook before you reach the end.  That’s what revision is for.

 

  1. Begin the story as close as possible to the moment when all Hell breaks loose: when the character or world faces the problem that starts the plot.

 

  1. Many authors begin with a lot of back story, character or setting description, or other elements the author needs, but the reader doesn’t. When does the *plot* begin?  Trim as much as possible before that.

 

  1. Can’t find your way in? Write 5 different ways to open the story:  character, conflict, setting or world-building, a different point of view, an image that evokes the dominant emotion or theme.  Dash them off quickly, with just a couple of sentences each, then see which one gets you excited to keep going.

 

5.  Overwhelmed by a big project or a fresh start?  Try setting a timer for 15 minutes, or a word goal of 100 words.  You can write 100 words. . .try it every day, you might soon be writing a thousand!

Wishing you a creative and successful new year!

7 Gifts From the Writer’s Heart

gift‘Tis the season during which many lists of gift ideas appear, including, quite frequently, lists of gifts for writers.  But the trouble is often not what we wish to receive, but things we might be able to give–unique items we can offer because we are writers.  Best of all, especially for those of us ‘starving writers’ out there, most of these are absolutely free.  Here are a few ideas:

  1.  Dedicate a book to them.  This is a one-of-a-kind, and you can personalize it to show how much they mean to you.  Each book may have many acknowledgments (another option), but only a single dedication.  Even if it takes a while for the book to appear in print, the recipient will be honored.
  2. Tuckerization.  Named for Wilson Tucker, a science fiction author and editor who often used the names of his friends for minor characters, Tuckerization is a popular charity auction item, and it could make a cool gift. Maybe you can offer the recipient just a walk-on part, or give them two or three choices for a character named for them.  Strangely, for you mystery writers out there, people often love to see themselves as the body.  Go figure!
  3. Pre-release copy of a book or story–they will be the first person to read the work.  You could have it bound at a local copy shop, print the story as a chapbook, or offer a group of poems.
  4.  Write their own story or poem.  This one is especially fun for parents or children.  The work can suit their personality and interests, and can be truly exclusive.  However, it does take more time.
  5.  So instead, you could get a nice piece of hand-made paper or high-end stationery, and hand-write a passage from your work. This could be a favorite work of yours or a piece your recipient loves, or it might be a passage inspired by them or by something you share–a favorite place, a powerful memory.  Frame it. If your handwriting isn’t the best (as is often the case with those of us who write too much or too quickly) you could include a typed translation. Sign and date the piece.
  6. For the high school or college graduate, or anyone in transition, offer to brainstorm entrance essay ideas, edit a piece of theirs, or proof-read resumes and cover letters.  An extra set of experienced eyeballs could help them get just where they want to go.
  7.  And finally, for your writing buddy–or your buddy who wished they could be–offer the gift of your time as an accountability partner.  Commit to a daily or weekly word count, or to a brainstorming session, or a weekly Skype call where you write together for an hour.  What better way to show you care than to support another’s dream?

Hitting the List: Learning from the Bestsellers

What does it take to reach the best-sellers list?  Like many writers, I’ve asked this question (and been asked in turn), and heard all kinds of theories, often presented as hard facts.  The answer is (as it so often is), it depends.  So here are some approaches to the bestsellers that may be of use.

  1.  There are a number of lists, and they are compiled in different ways. The New York Times list is still the gold-standard, and is broken out by fiction and non-fiction, and sometimes available in other categories.  It is a measurement of sales at about 3000 stores, now augmented for e-books with electronic sales as well.  But Amazon has their own lists, which can be shaved down into hundreds of narrow categories, meaning lots more bestsellers.  The USA Today list includes fiction and non-fiction together.
  2. The NYT list for fiction has about 780 slots per year.  Of those, only about 100 are up for grabs–the rest are pretty much locked up by the big names, and publishers will try to avoid launching certain kinds of books into the shadow of a big author’s release month.  Trad authors generally release a book a year, and the book will come out in the same month every year (the first Tuesday of the month).  This makes your odds of hitting the NYT list about 2 in 10,000–but that’s still better than your chance of being struck by lightning!
  3. All of the best-seller lists are a measure of sales velocity:  how many books sell in a short period of time.  So many books on the list are actually being out-sold (albeit very slowly) by other titles which are bought in smaller quantity, but on a more regular basis.  As an author doing self-promotion, you want to drive the most sales during the first week the book is out in order to achieve strong sales velocity.  (this is also what encourages Amazon to promote your book more to readers because it’s a primary metric they track)
  4. For the Publishers’ Weekly list, about 8 to 14% of the slots in any given year are debut authors.  Most authors in fact don’t hit the list with their first novel, but with a later one, generally in the same series or genre. Once one of the books in a series hits the list, it often brings the other ones along for the ride.
  5. According to the Stanford Business Institute, the first time an author hits the NYT list, their sales improve by 57%.

There have been some great works that analyze what makes the list and why.  The recent book, The Bestseller Code, discusses a computer algorithm that analyzed thousands of books, some from the list and some not and came up with some very interesting results about what the bestsellers have in common, and what sets them apart from the non-bestsellers.  Hit Lit takes a more longitudinal approach, developing a list of themes and ideas that appear in the bestselling novel of each decade for about the last one hundred years.

Aiming for the list?  Good luck–and hopefully I’ll join you up there!

5 Things Writers can Learn from the Presidential Campaign

A campaign postcard for McKinley and Roosevelt for the election of 1900

A campaign postcard for McKinley and Roosevelt for the election of 1900

1. Dialog is key.  A scene is so much more engaging when two people are in it. Especially if those two people each have their own agenda, and each is trying hard to advance it.  Pay attention to body language, setting, their reactions to each other and reactions from those around them.  Also, dialog is a great way to build tension on a variety of levels.  A debate is a heck-of-a-lot more entertaining than a stump speech.

2.  Focus on your tribe.  It’s been said that all you need to be a successful author is a small, dedicated audience who want everything you write.  These are the folks who are going to share your work around, who will be eager to read the next thing, to cheer you on, even when things look rough.

3.  Nail the details.  Maybe you’re writing fantasy or science fiction or something nobody’s ever seen before.  Doesn’t matter. If you get down the details of place, time, character, they will create the image you need to build in the reader’s mind.  If you are working from any factual basis, like historical fiction or contemporary, getting the details wrong will blow the reader’s trust.  Make a few mistakes about the wrong things, and they’ll never let you forget it.

4.  Engage with your big ideas.  What is it you really want to say?  Are you saying it?  Are you working to your fullest to make the strongest work you can?

5.  Polls are important–but polls don’t know everything.  Yep, you’ve got to submit. You’ve got to get the work out there to be read, and sometimes it won’t stick.  The editor rejects it, the readers give it low reviews (or worse, no reviews), it comes out the same day as something else that distracts the world from your great work.  Take what you can from these experiences, but maintain faith that your work is worthy and that, even if you didn’t win today, if you keep working, you’ll get a chance to rise again.

Recipe Fiction: Let’s Fire the Formula

In another of my writing circles, once again the dreaded specter of “formula fiction” has been conjured.  The idea is that many genres–at least in commercial fiction, and (so the rumor goes) especially romance and fantasy (the target tends to move to a different genre based on whichever you are writing in)–are dominated by a formula which is required in order to sell.  And if a book sells well, that is usually taken as evidence that it was, indeed, written to formula.  It’s a tautology, but one you’ll often find repeated, whether in a derisive review or grumbled by less successful peers in the same genre. Of course that work succeeded–the author just relied on the formula!

Some people outside the genres will even sniff that the publishers demand the said formula, and that it’s laid out by page count:  kiss on page three, quest engagement in chapter two, or what have you.

First of all, if the publishers are requiring certain page counts and formulas, they haven’t informed the authors, much less provided us with a template for stamping out successful novels.  But wait, points out the nay-sayer, so many books in X genre are so similar!  That’s clear evidence that authors are just filling in the blanks.  Or is it?

I think part of the problem lies in the origins of this term “formula.”  Formula is associated with science, more precisely, with chemistry.  The idea is that you take certain items in very specific ratios, blended according to strict guidelines, and you will achieve a very specific result.  One third adventure, one third sexual tension, one third Strunk and White, voila! a bestseller.  Boy, if I could buy that formula, I’d use it.  The trouble is, it doesn’t exist.

In fiction, what we have are not formulas–rigid lists of pure chemicals to be compounded by following strict rules–what we have are recipes.  A recipe gives you a list of ingredients and the steps to follow–isn’t that the same as the dreaded formula?  Here’s the thing, recipes vary.  The same recipe produced by different cooks gets a different result because the cook knows they can add a little more spice, or bake for less time and create their own variation on what their diners enjoy.

Like cooks, authors have an audience to please.  Sure, we want to pursue our own artistic goals for our careers and for any given work, but writing is a collaboration between the author and the reader, who will receive and interpret the result.  Readers can be grouped in many different ways.  Some love fantasy no matter what, and some prefer contemporary or epic fantasy, fantasy about women or about dragons.

There are certain elements of story-telling that are more likely to appeal to a wider audience.  Adventure, love, character growth, a moment when much can be won or lost, the moment when a character is redeemed and the audience cheers.  That’s not a formula–it’s a list of ingredients, and each cook, each writer, can play with them to create their individual work.  A quick google search shows me 3.8 million recipes for chocolate cake, 3.8 million variations, some subtle and some vast, all resulting in a dessert that some people felt was tasty and worth sharing.  There are at least 3.8 million recipes for a fantasy novel as well.  Beginning with a basic set of ingredients, and an image of that desired result, the author creates their own recipe.

Rather than dismissing the work of an author or a complete genre as driven by formula, let’s think of them as being guided by a recipe–and if one author’s chocolate cake doesn’t please, there’s probably another one that will.  Or maybe you’re looking for lemon cake, or custard tart, or. . . okay, now I’m just making myself hungry.

The same basic ingredients combine to create a thousand different experiences–as if by magic.

 

Ten Tiny Tips to Improve your Fiction

      1. Suddenly, the author removed all occurrences of the word “suddenly.” Why?  Because once you have said it, nothing sudden can happen—the reader already knows it’s coming.

 

      2. “Well,” the author ejaculated, “I think fancy dialog tags are cool!” Er. . .dialog tags are meant to indicate who is speaking, and not to call attention to themselves.  “Said” and “asked” disappear into the text for a smoother read.  I’ll let you get away with a few words per manuscript that express something otherwise non-obvious about how the quote is being said, like “whisper” or “murmur.”  Otherwise, use action tags that show us the character as they speak.

 

      3. Eliminate words that slow the text. Like helping verbs, “seems,” “very,” “really,” and anything “beginning to” or “starting to.”  These rarely add anything to our experience of the scene.

 

      4. Use strong action verbs. Usually, we just say avoid be-verbs, which is still good advice. But what we mean is, look for a verb with a clear, direct impression for the reader of what’s actually happening.

 

      5. Don’t jump POV for no reason, especially to say things like “she never noticed the shadow in the corner of the room.” If she didn’t notice it, who did?  Every time this happens, the reader gets tugged in the wrong direction—away from the character.

 

      6. Begin as close as possible to the moment when all Hell breaks out. This goes for books, stories, scenes, chapters. Readers don’t need nearly as much scene-setting as we often think—and many of them have little patience for it.

 

      7. When you’re in a deep POV, you don’t need phrases like “she felt,” “they saw,” “we heard,” “he thought,” “I knew.” We are already inside the character’s head, this stuff just gets in the way (see point 3).

 

      8. Don’t dismember your characters.  “Her eyes flew around the room.”  Doesn’t that dry them out?  “He lifted up his hoary head.”  (and threw it across the clearing. . .)

 

      9. “Lay” is a transitive verb which requires an object: The hen lay an egg. It laid one yesterday, it has laid one every day this week.  “Lie” is an in-transitive verb:  I lie on the grass.  I lay there yesterday.  I have lain there every day this week.  Yeah, I know, the past tense forms look alike.  You’ll figure it out.

 

        10. And perhaps this is just for the fantasy writers. . . a rider, literal or metaphorical, takes up the reins. A member of the royal family reigns.  No, it’s not just for fantasy– I’ve seen this confused in a few non-fiction articles lately.

Pacing the Novel, Part IV: Building Intensity

Thanks for joining the final installment of my series on pacing the novel.  This column focuses on Intensity:  the weight given to any specific moment in the book.  If all moments have a similar intensity, the pacing feels off.  It might feel too slow if the character getting out of bed, falling in love, driving to school, and slaying a demon are all given a high degree of intensity.  Getting out of bed and commuting are not interesting–they deserve less of our attention (unless she slays a demon with her commuter vehicle) compared to the more significant moments.  On the other hand, it can feel too fast if the demon-slaying is summarized just as swiftly as that car ride.

As you consider where to focus your Intensity in the story, ask, what are the key moments in the story?  For each character?  For the external plot?  Give these the most weight.  They will be moments of personal conflict or drama.  It might be a big fight–it might also be the emotional impact of a significant decision or action.  Think of intensity as the pause at the top of the roller coaster hill. Everything seems more acute–action may be suspended because the reader wants to really experience this key moment, in all of its detail. These are the moments so powerful, so rich, that we want them to last.

In order to showcase those significant moments, cut or summarize smaller moments to decrease their intensity.  Often, authors spend their descriptive and symbolic power on minor actions, irrelevant details or character interactions that don’t turn out to be important.  Readers are aware of this stuff, and, the more time you spend on something in the text, the more important they assume it to be.

So how do we create that intensity?  Use vivid details to focus the attention of the characters and the reader into the scene.  Bring on the sensory input.  Let us taste the blood in the air, sense the fear that rushes the character’s body, or feel the pure delight of the moment their eyes meet.   Even in a battle scene where you want the action to move quickly, you’ll want to bring out a few details that ground the reader in the scene, like those martial arts films where the characters are briefly frozen in time and you can see their potential energy just before it explodes into action.

This is also a great time to pull out your literary training:  symbols, images, themes.  Choose which details, senses and feelings to focus on based on what will resonate for the character and for the plot.

Focus on character.  Give us something more, something deeper about the character and their relationships and reactions.  Significant moments need to have an impact within the book in order to affect the reader–but be careful about going overboard with character emotions.  A character who seems emotionally overwrought can easily distance your readers. Instead, aim for a restraint in the language of emotion, while instead revealing the character’s state of mind through their actions, reactions and dialog.  In particular, don’t try to create intensity simply by adding lots of direct thoughts and inner monologue.  This can make a character seem self-absorbed rather than sympathetic.

Think about the Emma Thompson character in “Sense and Sensibility.”  She seems very reserved, almost cold throughout, but we get hints of the depth of her true feelings, and when she finally cries at the end, the moment has a huge impact.

To increase intensity, dramatize the stakes:  show us why we should care, give us characters worth rooting for, and a relationship to invest in. Why is he right for her?  Why is she right for him?  Use moments where you reveal character depth to draw the reader in even further.

The taste for the balance between movement and intensity changes over time—also varies by genre and by subgenre.  Thrillers tend to be highly scene-focused, with a minimum of sequels where the character process what happens–they will build intensity around moments of discovery or action rather than those of recovery or re-action.  Romance is often the opposite.  Romances are highly sequel-focused, showing character by allowing the protagonists more time to process what just happened and worry about what might happen next.  They build intensity around moments of emotional significance, even if the external action is relatively minor–the touch of a hand could be a key moment in the relationship.

Finally, there are mechanical issues of managing the pace.   Short sentences are often used to convey action and a high level of movement in the work, but long, flowing passages can also carry the reader swiftly through.  Whether you are building intensity or movement, avoid be-verbs or helping verbs that can suck the life out of a scene. Instead, focus on active verbs and specific, concrete nouns that will take the reader on exactly the ride you have in mind–and reveal the richness of your narrative at the same time.

Happy plotting!

Pacing the Novel, Part III: Plotting for Pace

Movement (the rate at which the plot unfolds for the reader) is one of the two key aspects I introduced in part one of this series.  In this article, we’ll look a little deeper at how to get the plot in motion and maintain a fast pace.

the rollercoaster, an oft-applied metaphor for the fast-paced novel

the rollercoaster, an oft-applied metaphor for the fast-paced novel

One of the keys to pacing is the plot turn, a moment when the plot changes direction.  Plot turns come in many varieties:  action, discovery, revelation, dialog, reversal.  The most exciting books use all of these types of plot turns to keep the pace high.  So one turn might involve a physical fight that the protagonist loses, then they might find a clue in an ancient manuscript, then have a conversation with someone that heightens the tension between characters and shows that the character lied in an earlier dialog. . .and so on.

The greater the variety of turns you use, the more interesting the plot tends to be.  Books that rely too heavily on one type of turn tend to get predictable.  Oh–this is the part where the detective asks more questions and gets more answers.  Or worse:  this is the part where the character suddenly puts together two pieces of information for a surprising revelation!  Again.  And again.

Take note:  it isn’t a plot turn if the new element *does not* change the trajectory of the plot.  So if the character gets new information, but continues to do and believe exactly the same thing, it’s not a turn.  If the character loses that fight, and it does not change their relationships, force a change in tactics, or escalate the conflict, it’s not a turn.  If you read a book where many things seem to happen, but none of them seem to be important, it may be because the events are not changing the plot or the characters.

The interval between plot turns determines the pace of movement in the book.  Some authors are very deliberate about how they manage plot turns in relation to page count to create a page turner–one suspense author recommends a turn every three pages, for instance. If you have too many turns in a quick succession, it can create a whiplash effect where the character, and thus the reader, can’t absorb the information.   This can be a very useful tool for analyzing plot and pacing. Take a look at your scene or chapter breakdown:  where can you identify plot turns?  How far apart are they, and is that rate of movement appropriate for the story you want to tell?

The other big reason that stuff happening doesn’t add up to a great read or a fast pace is that plot is more than just a series of events—the events must be connected.  They must form part of a pattern the reader is invested in and interested in uncovering.  The most infamous example of this is the difference between:

“The king died and then the queen died.”  Things happened.  They are big, important things–and nobody cares.

“The king died and then the queen died for love.”  The same things happen, but now there is a connection between them, a very human connection that raises the reader’s investment.

If the reader can’t see the connections between the events, the pace of your story will feel slow or jerky.  The first, most important question the writer needs to address about any story is “So What?”  The king died, so what?  Why should the reader care about that event? Revealing or suggesting connections between events (often relating to motivations for characters) takes a bunch of events and transforms them into a compelling narrative.

Here are a few specific things you can do to help increase the movement of your narrative:

During your synopsis, pay attention to the verbs—the strength of verbs often shows the rate of movement.  If your verbs are all state-of-being verbs (is, seems, looks) that’s a red flag that the plot isn’t moving–and more to the point, that your characters aren’t moving it–creating the links between events that will drive the story forward.

Another way to increase movement is to create a sense of urgency:  a ticking clock that establishes a timeline; a crucible, a forced relationship like a cruise ship, a pair of handcuffs, or a tense marriage that keeps the characters close and creating friction; increase tension on all levels—whenever possible raise the stakes instead of lowering them.  You can raise the stakes by involving more people (increasing the scale of the conflict) or by making the conflict more personal.

Finally, make sure the timeline for both protagonists and antagonists keep moving.  The antagonist is not just waiting around for your character to go to school to make their next move, but is, in fact, working toward their own goals with equal (or greater–remember, we want to escalate the conflict) determination.

In the final installment of this series, we’ll turn toward the other pillar of pace:  Intensity.  Because even the fastest, best roller coasters have that concentrated moment at the top of the hill where the reader hangs, breathless, before the next plunge.

Pacing the Novel, part II: The Five Building Blocks of Pace

Last month, I introduced the ideas of Movement and Intensity as the two key aspects of pacing.  Now, we get to break down how these aspects are created on the page.

avignon 151

There are five basic types of prose you’ll use to build your scenes, and each one has different properties in creating the pace of your book.  I have listed them here in order of slowest to fastest movement.

  1. exposition and inner monologue

2. description

3. dialog

4. action

5. summary

1. Exposition and Inner Monologue

First of all, why lump these two things together?  Exposition basically means explaining something to the reader.  Inner monologue *explains* what your character is thinking or feeling.  Exposition usually includes backstory, history of the world, explaining how things work, why they work or what they mean (along with many other things).  Exposition and Inner Monologue are a step outside the story completely.  They stop movement in its tracks.  Nothing happens during these types of prose.  This is why you will be told to avoid info-dumps and other large chunks of exposition.  But in small doses, you’ll probably need them.  How can you express character thoughts and feelings without inner monologue?  Lots of ways–most of which are much more engaging than just reading about someone thinking.

the first way is. . .

2.  Description

Like exposition, Description stops the movement dead.  But in this case, it does so by engaging more deeply with the world–the setting, characters and situation–of the narrative.  Description is critical for  number of narrative purposes (revealing your world, engaging the reader’s senses, developing theme, planting clues–jeez–maybe I should just write a blog about that all by itself).  One of the most critical things your description can do is to reveal your character’s mood and attitude, ie, to show how they are feeling and what they are thinking about without you needing to explain it.

“A knife lay on the counter, long, clean, sharp:  the most beautiful thing in the room.  Just the thing for slicing open a ripe fig, or a bare arm. . .”

Description is one of your most powerful tools for building Intensity.

3.  Dialog

Dialog reads in real-time.  It is as if the reader is sitting in the back of the room, eavesdropping on a conversation.  This is why bad dialog is so very deadly to prose.  Imagine being stuck in the most boring committee meeting ever, without being able to leave, speakers droning on about things you don’t care about, sharing information in dull and direct ways, asking or answering questions that are purely factual with no sense of personality, power dynamics or conflict.  Dialog can be a fantastic tool for creating tension, revealing character, and propelling the plot. Use it wisely.  It can be a tool of either Movement or Intensity, and ideally, is used to support both.

4.  Action

Action is when things are happening on the page.  It is rarely a simple matter of lots of specific verbs and short sentences, although those are important for building Movement.  BUT!!  the right kind of action–clear, specific, character-driven, will propel your book at a nice clip with a high movement ration.  And the wrong kind of action–fuzzy, minor, external to your characters–will tend to slow things down abruptly.

“He walked across the room toward the door. He reached out for the doorknob, and grasped it.  He turned the doorknob and opened the door, then walked through it, closing the door when he got outside.”

Booo-ring.  If all you need is for this guy to leave the room, then just do it.  “He walked across the room and out the door.”  Done.

In fact, including minor actions can be a way to create Intensity.  You can use minor action in dialog tags to reveal character’s thoughts and feelings and to show their relationship to each other.  You can use minor actions in a critical scene to create suspense about the major action or revelation about to happen.  If the act of getting to and opening the door is, itself, important, then breaking down the action into smaller bites can bring the reader deeper into the moment.

“She crept toward the door, extended her hand slowly for the knob, but held back.  She caught her breath, her lip pinched between her teeth, and extended her hand a little further. . .”

You’ll notice I also used much stronger verbs for this, and worked to invest the character’s attitude about what she’s doing.  You can also incorporate description into passage of action in order to increase their impact on the reader.

5.  Summary

For key moments in the book, you’ll want to use dialog, description, and action to create strong scenes.  But for transitions or less important passages, you don’t need to linger.  While description can pause a moment indefinitely, and dialog can move it in real time, summary can make hours, months or years pass in a heartbeat.

“Two weeks later, tired and hungry, they arrived at the castle.”

If the journey is important, give it a scene.  If the only important thing is where they went and how long it took to get there, summary can do the job.  The caveat here is  that, if the passage of time is important, you’ll need to make sure the reader grasps how long has passed, otherwise summary can make time pass so quickly that the reader thinks only a moment has passed between the last scene and this one.  Look for other markers to indicate the length of time.  (think of sensory details like the length of someone’s hair or beard, visual or auditory cues to the change of seasons, etc.)

Next up:  Plotting to manage pace!