Thursday, October 20, 2011

Back Story and Flawed Characters

Think this guys has some character flaws?

He dated enough to quell most rumors he was gay. Sex was okay but too messy, too intimate. And sex usually took place in the bedroom, where shoes are kept. Daniel had eighty-two pairs, a fact he preferred to keep private. He was sure that once a woman learned he had a thing for shoes she would leave and tell him to never call again. Few people saw the inside of his apartment and no one, ever, went into his bedroom.
All-in-all, Daniel Lawless was an odd man with strange passions, but not so strange that he couldn’t fit in. He discovered he could have his shoes and his music so long as he enjoyed them quietly. He was content and prepared, if necessary, to live out his life alone.
He was not, however, prepared in any way for the horror that was descending upon him and the people he had sworn to serve and protect. Modesto needed a Dirty Harry, a man of action who carried a big gun he wasn’t afraid to use, but what they got instead was Daniel Lawless, a man who carried a small gun he preferred not to use, a man who liked shoes.

When I completed CANALS, it weighed in at a hefty 200,000 words; a bit much. It was the first novel I’d completed and I thought I was the new Stephen King.

In CANALS, I did something authors are strongly advised not to do: I dumped all of my main character’s, Daniel Lawless, back story into one chapter; an “info dump,” they call it. When editing, I chopped a lot of the back story out, but left it together. I split the back story up in my second book, THE MIGHTY T. I think the story flows better that way because when you give back story, you’re interrupting the plot and you want to keep that to a minimum.

What is back story? It’s when an author explains what happened before the timeline of the book. It’s usually used to explain why someone is the way they are, why they’re motivated to do whatever they’re doing in the book.

In CANALS, Lawless is a cop who’s always mindful of what’s happening to his shoes. He kicks a dirt clod in frustration, and immediately regrets doing it because it left a mark on the leather. When he’s finally alone at the scene, he pulls a small shoeshine kit out from under the front seat of his cruiser and makes a quick repair, buffing the mark out. That behavior is a bit odd, don’t you think? I do.

Characters with quirks, or flaws, are more interesting than characters who’re perfect, or think they’re perfect. Which reminds me of a story . . .

When growing up, my older brother (and my only brother) appointed himself the family narc. I’m fifty-four now so I’ve forgotten most of the times he ratted me out, but two memories remain.

When I was about five, our family had a burn barrel for trash; we burned all our paper trash on designated burn days. I was a budding arsonist then and had been warned that if I was caught near a fire again I’d get a whooping. Some time later, on a burn day, I noticed the fire was going to go out before all the trash was burned, so, to help the family, I stirred the fire with a stick so all the paper would get consumed. I was just trying to help, right?

My brother saw me and said, “You’re not supposed to play with fire. I’m telling.” Rat! I’d hoped my mom would do the whooping because her whoopings barely hurt, but no such luck. Shortly before my dad got home, I hid in the back of the closest, which was a mistake as it made him madder to have to hunt me down and pull me out.

(Mind you, if we kids were whooped, it was always on the bottom. His paddle of choice was a foot-long ruler from New Zealand, made of ridiculously hard wood apparently only found in that country. I wanted to throw it in the burn barrel . . .)

Flash forward to age twelve-ish. I had a Daisy BB gun I used to keep the bird population in the neighborhood in check. I was told to stop shooting birds, but how could I? I was sure they were plotting to take over the block by pecking out our eyes. My brother saw me shoot a bird and ratted me out. I was relieved of my BB gun.

My friends and I used to call him “Mr. Righteous,” because he thought he was the conscious of the family. We mostly disliked him. He’s a great guy now, though. A really great guy. Go figure.

When writing Lawless’s character, I wanted the reader to think he had no chance against the monster. He’d always avoided conflict when he could; he wasn’t a womanizer, at all; he liked shoes; he drank wine instead of beer and hard liquor—he wasn’t a macho cop. And here comes this monster, an unstoppable killing machine. An impossible setup.

Modesto needed a Dirty Harry, but what they got instead was Daniel Lawless, a guy who liked shoes. Can he rise to the occasion? You’ll have to read CANALS to find out.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Formatting For ebooks and Print - Part 2: Em and En Dash

Last week I discussed the proper use of the ellipsis here. Today I’d like to tackle the correct use of the em and en dash. (By “correct use” I mean correct as I see it currently used in the fiction I’ve been reading lately and how I currently use it.)

The em dash looks like this:  

It’s created on a Windows machine by holding down the Alt key while typing 0 1 5 1 on the numeric keypad.

The en dash looks like this:  

It’s created on a Windows machine by holding down the Alt key while typing 0 1 5 0 on the numeric keypad. You’ll notice it’s shorter than the em dash, as the lowercase letter “n” is more narrow than the lowercase letter “m.”

The en dash is typically used when writing out ranges, like this:
The odds for my horse winning the race are ten–to–one. 
I don’t see the en dash used very often in fiction.

The em dash is typically used to point out a break of thought, like this:
A third ghost looked like the man on the Quaker Oats box. He appeared four weeks ago and was now making daily appearances, but so far had been mute. He would speak one day—they all eventually talked—and then there would be no shutting him up.
There is typically no space before or after the em dash, either in print books or ebooks. I have found exceptions, though, a few ebooks. A space was placed before and after the em dash. This made short justified lines look better on the ereader screen but had little effect on long lines and no effect on ragged-right lines.

What do I mean by long and short justified lines? Because ereaders don’t hyphenate lines, when justifying lines with large words, especially on a small ereader screen, large spaces are inserted between words. This is necessary to ensure that the end of the last word on the line is flush on the right. If there’s an em dash on the line, it will appear jammed together with the words before and after it. If you place a space before and after the em dash, the ereader will add space between the words and the em dash and the line will appear more pleasant to the eye.

Your choice. I like the appearance of the extra space far better on small readers like the iPhone. It makes little difference on my iPad, though. What devices do you think your readers will use most to read your books?

An em dash is also used when a speaker has been interrupted, like this:
She checked her watch: no time for a latte, and ran into someone. Knocked hard, she grabbed a parking meter and prevented a nasty fall, said, “I’m sorry, I guess I wasn’t looking at where I—”
The wall to her left puffed; shards of brick bit into her arm. Her face exploded.
This woman was interrupted by a bullet. Normally the interruption comes when another character butts in.

When used to point out a break in thought, the em dash can be overused, so apply it judiciously.

By comparison, the regular hyphen looks like this:  -

Here they are, from small to large: hyphen, en dash, em dash:  -   –   —