Convince your reader to take a leap of faith (instead of a flying leap)

image By Ned Hickson

Writing must ring true with readers for them to become emotionally invested. This is particularly important when it comes to fiction, where you are often asking readers to suspend their disbelief and buy into something — such as an eccentric character, over-the-top situation or random reference to the new iPad6® in hopes of getting a free one — that requires a leap of faith. In this case, your reader is making a “leap” over reality because they have faith that you, the writer, will keep them safely suspended until they land safely on the last page. Assuming, of course, your book doesn’t end with, “…Then there was a massive explosion and everybody died, including the basket of puppies.”

As with taking any kind of leap, you must first gain momentum through a series of confident and quickening footfalls along a solid foundation. This applies to your writing as much as it does, hypothetically speaking, to clearing the front fence of your home in order to beat your son to the restroom after a long car ride. Without the right amount of momentum, your reader could end up — again, hypothetically speaking — doing the splits on a picket fence.

The most effective way for a writer to build a reader’s momentum toward a solid jumping-off point is through writing that resonates with an underlying honesty. This doesn’t mean confessing how you re-named areas of Mrs. Flunkem’s 7th-grade world map with parts of the reproductive system. Although changing “Panama Canal” to “Fallopian Tube” is worth mentioning, hypothetically speaking of course. No, when it comes to honesty in fiction writing I’m referring to what I like to call the “Double-D” approach, and not for reasons you might think. In this case we’re referring to “dialogue” and “description” that ring true enough to establish believability — and lay the foundation of confidence your reader will need when asked to make that leap with you. This applies equally to completely fictional characters, real people written within a fictional context (such as my “interviews” with Kevin Spacey and Clay Aiken), and the persona we project on our blogs and social media sites.

Dialogue is used to convey many things, from mood to information, plot points to character profiles. Because writing dialogue is complex and deserves its own post, today I’m focusing specifically on ways to make your dialogue — whether character driven or as author narrative — ring true and build trust with your reader. In a later post, we’ll talk about the difference between “telling and showing,” avoiding too many “he said, she said” references and the common mistake of nonsensical “action” dialogue (“Then I’m LEAVING!” he yelled, slamming the door on her still-parted lips poised in reply…)

*rubs lips*

Also, for purposes of this post, the subject of “description” will be limited to building believability in your character by effectively describing their actions. We’ll save descriptive passages like “The sun was setting in the canyon like a giant navel orange into God’s fruit bowl…” for another time.

Dialogue: It’s one of the fastest ways to earn — or lose — a reader’s trust. Whether it’s your voice as a blogger or words spoken by someone in a story, you are essentially having a conversation with your reader asking them to “believe.” And just like that guy at your office who is always talking about his nights of crazy sex when, in fact, you took your kids to the dollar theater Friday night and saw him sitting alone watching “Frozen,” you know he’s full of Whoppers. The same goes for your readers.

Unless they’re too busy singing “Let It Go.”

Assuming they aren’t, possibly because they have been shot, here are three tips to writing dialogue readers can believe in:

1) When writing narrative dialogue, don’t allow yourself to fall into “lecture” mode. We don’t like it from our parents, teachers, bosses, ex-wives, etc., and readers don’t either. Always keep your reader in mind. Pause every few paragraphs or minutes, depending on how fast you type (total elapsed time for this paragraph: three days) and ask yourself, “If I was having this conversation on the street with a stranger, what would they be thinking right now? Would they have questions? What feedback would they have? If someone drove by on a motor scooter, would they yank them off and steal the scooter just to get away?” You are building a relationship with your reader and, as with any good relationship, the other person needs to feel acknowledged. You can do this many ways, including throwing a question directly into your narrative.

See what I mean?

It’s a way to break out of the lecture mode and invite them into the conversation. Another approach is specifically stating the question they might have…

I know what you’re thinking: Is he always this verbose, or is it the coffee?

Narrative “dialogue” should be just that: Narrative that makes your reader feel included or acknowledged in the conversation, which builds trust.

2) Dialogue from a real person within a fictional context is simultaneously easy and extremely difficult. I say this because, on one hand, you have the nuances of their dialogue pattern already established in television and magazine interviews; it’s simply a matter of studying the way they speak and incorporating it into the dialogue you are creating for them. On the other hand, if you get it wrong, every reader will know it immediately.

I’m not buying it. Angelina Jolie would never refer to her children as “My little sucklings.”

In this case, you have to think of your dialogue as a caricature, making sure to include specific details of the person’s speech pattern — choice of words, cadence, vocabulary — that are recognizable as theirs. Just like how a caricature artists relies on key physical traits that distinguishes one individual from another, you must do the same when sketching out dialogue representing a famous person. Even if you don’t regularly “interview” famous people like I do (at least until there’s an injunction), it’s a great writing exercise that forces you to analyze all the nuances of dialogue.

Or as Angelina Jolie would say, “Go ahead — Make my day.”

3) Writing character dialogue that rings true and earns a reader’s trust really comes down to one basic principle: Consistency. I purposely placed this after “famous person dialogue” because many of the same rules apply. Though you’re writing about a fictional person, readers will recognize when you’re not being “true” to the character. When we meet new people, we instinctively study them to determine how far the relationship will extend. Acquaintance? Confidante? If there are inconsistencies in their behavior, such as explaining how they own a Porsche dealership yet leave the bar driving a 1987 Ford Fiesta, we tend to question their honesty. The same goes for character dialogue. Readers study it and quickly form an opinion. If the character’s vocabulary isn’t consistent, or they speak in bullet points one minute then in long Shakespearian soliloquies the next, you’ll lose your reader’s trust.

‘Tis truth I speak.

So take time to determine the nuances of your character’s speech pattern in the same way you would with their physical appearance and backstory. Or backside. Or whatever.

This is officially the longest post of my life. If you’ve made it this far, I thank you for taking this leap of faith with me. If you didn’t make it this far, then I can call you a big jerk and you’ll never know.

Next week, we’ll continue with “Description,” and tips on how it can enhance dialogue and build trust with your readers that will make them want to take a leap of faith — instead of a flying leap.

imageNed Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

Every writer needs perseverance. And maybe an angry monkey

image By Ned Hickson

Since mid August, I’ve been working on a project collecting the last two years of my “Nickel’s Worth on Writing” posts into an eBook that is part writing tips, part writer’s survival guide. What some of you may not know is that I have the technological IQ of a chimp.

Ok, ALL of you knew that — and you’re probably right: I shouldn’t assume all chimpanzees are incapable of creating an eBook.

Regardless, the process has reminded me of how important perseverance is as a writer and how, as writers, having a chimpanzee capable of tearing apart a laptop with its bare hands could be really therapeutic.

I’ve come to see my eBook-creating experience as a smaller version of the trials and tribulations every writer goes through in the quest for publication (Except hopefully with less cursing.) Every writer begins with a manuscript: Pages with thousands of words, each specifically chosen through a painstaking process aimed at creating imagery, setting a mood and conveying information methodically doled out to establish the perfect pace. Does it make you any less a writer if it doesn’t get published?

Of course not.

That’s like saying you aren’t a singer if you only reach for those high notes while in the shower. It doesn’t matter what you do to hit those high notes, and I’m pretty sure the rest of would rather not know. The important thing is that you don’t need a recording contract to be someone who sings, any more than you need a published book to consider yourself a writer. If you spend time on a regular basis writing your thoughts down while searching for just the right words — whether in the form of a novel or personal observations — you’re a writer.

It’s that simple.

Although if you spend hours in the shower reaching for those high notes, it starts to get complicated.

That said, it’s the hope of every writer to share their words with others. While blogging has streamlined this process and allowed more people than ever to make their words accessible to the world, the printed word — virtually in an eBook or physically on actual paper — still holds a special significance. Admittedly, seeing the title of my first book in the Dewey Decimal System at the library was a thrill. It didn’t matter that I’d probably never be able to find it again by actually using the Dewey Decimal System, or that my identifier on the spine of the book is “HICKS” in all-caps.

Apparently, there are a lot of HICKS around here.

Apparently, there are a lot of HICKS around here.

To become an overnight sensation has taken me 15 years.

And counting, actually.

That’s because, aside from you and readers of my newspaper column, I remain virtually unknown in most parts of the world and to a select group of state law enforcement agencies (which I’d like to keep that way, thanks.)

Did having a book published make me more of a writer? Did it open the door to fame? Fortune? A table at Waffle House without a reservation? Yes! But only to that last one. Although I’m pretty sure you only need a reservation there if you ask for gluten free waffles or meatless sausage. Then there is a three-hour wait.

My point is, published or unpublished, overnight success or one-night wonder (I’d rather not get into that), a writer writes because it is part of who they are. It’s as second nature and as necessary as breathing and eating, although I should warn you that inhaling while eating a powdered donut can be dangerous. Did the fact that I once dropped face-first onto a table at Big Dog Donuts while choking on powdered sugar keep my from having another donut? No way. That’s because as writers we persevere. We brush off the proverbial powdered sugar dust and take another bite.

So as I keep cursing at diligently working on the eBook collection of my Nickel’s Worth on Writing, rest assured I will — like all of you — rely on my perseverance as a writer until it is complete.

Unless a monkey eats my donut.

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Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

Keeping your story focused is a lot like taking an eye exam

image By Ned Hickson

Each week, Marcia graciously allows me to share some of the the writing wisdom gained from 16 years as a newspaper columnist — knowledge which, until now, was only available by reading the yellow Post-It on my desk. And while all of you are certainly welcome to visit my desk at any time, I think we know that isn’t very practical. Especially since most of you probably couldn’t read my handwriting. In fact, I have a hard time reading my own writing. For example, today’s tip was almost about how finding your story’s focus is a lot like taking a colorectal exam. How I got “colorectal” from “eye” tells you just how bad my handwriting truly is.

Because I’m sure none of us wants to delve any deeper into this than we already have, I suggest we get to this week’s writing tip. Agreed? Yep, just as I figured; everyone except for the proctologist in the back row.

As for the rest of us, let’s talk about how the same steps taken in an eye exam can also help bring your writing into focus.

Ummmm… You three? we’re over here.

After this blog post, I want the three of you of you to promise me you will go directly to the nearest optometrist for an actual eye exam. You know who you are. If you aren’t sure, reach straight ahead. Feel that? It’s a microwave, not a computer monitor. I only point this out because, aside from the fact that I care, trying to shove a microwavable burrito into your monitor could be frustrating and potentially dangerous.

At this point I think it’s safe to assume some of you have probably forgotten why you’re here. I know I have. Ironically, this is the same feeling a writer gets when they realize they have lost focus with their story — or in some cases even a blog post. That’s when it’s time to stop and regain focus by giving yourself a simple, three-step “eye exam” in order maintain your story’s true vision.

Step one: Test your visual acuity.
We’re all familiar with the Snellen chart, which is the chart you stand 20 feet from while trying to decipher a series of letters which, as they get smaller, begin to resemble the ingredients listed on a bag of Cheetos. The objective is to determine how far a person can get from a particular point before losing focus. The same goes for writers. In the same way a person may not realize how bad their vision has become until they are using a urinal that’s actually a display refrigerator on the main floor at Sears, writers can slowly lose their story’s focus until it has become blurred by extemporaneous passages of description, too many characters, sub plots or dialogue that doesn’t advance the story.

How can you test to make sure your story’s vision is still clear?

Stand 20 feet away from your monitor. If you can still read it without squinting so hard it appears you’re having a stroke, forget writing and become a sharpshooter. In leu of that, follow the “20/20” rule of writing: If after reading every 20th paragraph in your story (or in the case of a short story, every 20th sentence) you still have a clear idea of what’s happening, who the central characters are and the major plot points, you’re writing’s vision is “normal.” If after several of these 20/20 paragraphs you begin to lose focus, stop and go back to where you lost sight; chances are your story began to blur somewhere between the first line and those Cheetos ingredients.

Step two: Test your peripheral vision. This is the part of the exam where your optometrist tells you to keep looking ahead while he moves an object from behind you toward the front of your head, at which point you’re supposed to acknowledge when you see it in your peripheral vision. Keep in mind that this is also when your optometrist stands behind you and makes faces or plays air guitar without you knowing it. Regardless, having good peripheral vision is important for writers, too. Your “writing peripherals” are those things that run parallel to the main action and include expendable characters, foreshadowing and some unanticipated secondary themes that develop through character interaction and plot development. This is all good stuff because, if done well, can add a sense of immediacy, spontaneity and unpredictability that keep readers invested in the story.

However, just like that optometrist playing air guitar behind your back, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s going on if you don’t keep your peripherals in check. In optometry, the ideal measurement is at least 70 degrees of vision in the horizontal meridian. From a writing standpoint, this means the peripheral elements of your story shouldn’t account for more than about 30 percent of your story development. Put another way: If you’ve written 70 pages and more than 30 of them revolve around the actions of secondary characters, themes or developments not directly related to your main characters, they are just playing air guitar. It’s time to re-evaluate the focus of your story, and whether the secondary characters/themes are becoming blurred with the main plot and characters.

Step three: Check for depth perception. Optometrists often check for this by tossing something at the patient, such as a Nerf ball, to determine binocular (two-eye) vision, which allows us to see in three dimensions. As a kid, I thought I had monocular vision because of how horrible I was at dodgeball. After a visit to my optometrist I was relieved to find out I was just really uncoordinated. In terms of writing, a 3D world is also important, although not having it won’t lead to bruising. Unfortunately, unlike the previous steps, there is no real “formula” to determine if you have created a three-dimensional world in your writing; you either do or you don’t. What I can tell you as that, as writers, we tend to fill in the blanks ourselves and, as a result, it’s easy to envision more on the page than is actually there.

So how can you see if your writing vision has depth? Take a chapter and eliminate all the dialogue. Then read it or, better yet, read it to someone. The objective has nothing to do with plot or character, it’s about whether or not your descriptive vision has made it onto the page. When you’re done, have the person describe what they saw. If it resembles what you envisioned, chances are you’re writing in three dimensions. If they can’t describe things clearly, then throw something at them. Ha! Just kidding! Get your optometrist to do it.

Then go figure out how to make your vision clear…

imageNed Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

Don’t worry: I’m not shirtless on my book cover

image By Ned Hickson
We’ve all heard the adage about not judging a book by it’s cover. And while that’s a terrific sentiment when it comes to people, let’s be honest in admitting the cover of a book is the first thing we judge. There’s a reason the heroine on a romance novel looks like a hair products model and not someone from an anti-drug campaign. Taking it a step further, from a woman’s perspective, would you want to thumb through the latest issue of Playgirl if Pee Wee Herman was on the cover?

OK, fine. Two of you would. Obviously, choosing a book is the least of your problems.

However, after conducting a random poll of 10 women in our office, they unanimously agreed, given a choice, they would rather see ME than Pee Wee Herman — which doesn’t really say as much about my masculinity as it does about our need for better vision coverage. Regardless, I will claim that as a victory.

Getting back to book covers… I was going to be on one last October. I’d like to tell you it was on a Harlequin Romance novel because they said they were looking for the next Fabio, “except without all the rugged good looks and muscles that distract from a book’s title. If less is more, Ned Hickson gives us more than we imagined possible.”

That’s what I’d like to tell you. But the fact is it’s MY book and, because it’s humorous, the publisher felt my face would be the perfect selling point. For obvious reasons, I was concerned that my anti-Fabio-ness would indeed prove so compelling that no one would notice the title. Or the book, for that matter. Kind of like those really funny commercials during the Super Bowl that no one remembers what was being advertised.

“I saw a book with this guy on the cover. MAN did he look funny!”
“That sounds great! What was the book?”
“Wa-huh…?”

Because of this, I think we can all agree deciding on a book cover design is one of the most crucial decisions you’ll make as an author, right along with your book’s title, what photo to use for the author bio, and whether to wear socks with your Penny Loafers during book readings. (For the record, as an Oregonian, I wear hiking boots 90 percent of the time. The rest of the time I am sleeping. However, I keep my hiking boots next to the bed just in case I sleepwalk.)

Obviously, the objective of any book cover is to catch the eye and distinguish itself from the hundreds of titles on the same shelf or eBook scroll bar. In the end, it really comes down to two main decisions:

Font
Graphic/image

While there are literally a bazillion different kids of fonts out there (seriously, I counted them), they boil down to six main categories. The basic rules with fonts are 1) never use more than one font from the same category, and 2) always use two different fonts on your cover. This will ensure clear distinction between the title and the author’s name or tag line. Using three different font styles begins to look confusing. Especially when translated into Chinese; particularly if you don’t read Chinese.

Choose fonts that capture the feel of your book but that also compliment each other by distinguishing themselves from each other. In short, when picking font styles, you’re looking for the Kim Kardashian and Kanye West of the font world.

Next comes deciding between an illustration or photo image for your book cover. Again, it really depends on the feel or “mood” you are trying to evoke. Romance covers tend to look dreamy with handwritten-type fonts from the Script and Old Style families. Images are generally graphic illustrations that leave something to the imagination of the reader. Young adult designs are edgier, with stark color contrasts and crisp font styles from the Decorative or Modern families. The main focus of YA covers leans toward a strong female image. This is opposed to Romance covers, which almost always feature a muscular, shirtless male looking as though he just found a woman while making the bed.

In my case, I have decided against going shirtless on the cover. Nor was I going be holding a woman wrapped in any kind of lacy robe or bed sheet. Given that the title is Humor At the Speed of Life, we originally decided to go with a photo, taken at a local speedway, where I was poised to race a pair of dragsters with my mini van. Probably while pushing it. That pretty much sums up the top speed of my life.

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Would that be eye-catching enough? Would it stand out from the other books out there? I can’t say for sure because we changed the cover to this:

image

Why?

Because we eventually decided the kid with the goofy expression was not only more eye catching than me, but is probably going to grow up to be better looking. It’s actually a photo I took several years ago of my son’s friend while they were at the carnival. That’s the back of my son’s head in the foreground. He gets asked for autographs all the time now from people standing behind him in line. Another reason we went with that cover design is because it’s the same image that’s on my blog header, which hopefully readers would recognize if they saw it in a store, online or passing by their prison cell on a library cart. We also changed the font a bit to make it more clean, as well as changed the color scheme to match those in the photo.

The end result is a more vibrant, clean cover with an image that never fails to make people chuckle or even laugh out loud. Not that my being shirtless wouldn’t have the same effect.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see if I can get Fabio to help push start my van…

imageNed Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.