Back Story – When do you use it? How much should you use? Is it necessary?

Here is an oldie but goodie that I thought I would re-post with some updates:


My blog this week expands on a concept that appeared as a tip in an earlier blog. That tip focused on removing writing that was unnecessary. When I completed my first book, I tried to make sure that all of my characters were fully developed. I created biographies for each of them using templates that I found on the Internet. These templates included sections for physical attributes, motivations, character traits, family background and other biographical details.

In my Frank Rozzani Detective Series, the main character has events in his back story that motivate who he is in the present time. These events pushed him into his career as a private detective and forced him to relocate. My first draft of the book had two full chapters devoted to Frank’s back story. I thought that readers would want all of this rich detail about his former life in Syracuse, NY along with his family history and the tragic events that brought him to the present day in the story. I incorporated this as a flashback. I was excited about it and sent it off to my editor.

When I received my editor’s comments, she slashed nearly all of the flashback chapters from the book. She said that it was all unnecessary and that I should be more stingy with the back story and spread it out throughout this book and the ones that would follow. It was a blow to my ego at first, but in hindsight, she was absolutely right.

After this eureka moment, I started looking at the way other writers used back story in their work. Some of them, like John D. MacDonald and Elmore Leonard use back story very sparingly and only reveal details when they are relevant to the current story. Others like Dean Koontz and, in some instances, Stephen King, use back story to develop their characters into living and breathing people full of complexity. I wanted to land somewhere in the middle and I think, with my first book, and to a greater degree, my second book, I have succeeded somewhat.

Have I mastered the use of back story? Absolutely not. I don’t think, as writers, we ever truly perfect any aspect of our writing. I thought, however, that I would post some tips that I use and that might help you as you look for balance in sharing character background information in your work.

flashback

1) Use the flash back technique sparingly: Unless you are writing a book about time travel, you can really confuse your reader by jumping back and forth in your book. If your reader starts to wonder where and when the story is taking place, you might lose them. If you must use flash back, consider doing it in short doses, such as in a character’s dream. If you have to devote a chapter to it, be certain that the details are relevant to the story.

conversation

2) Consider giving past information as part of a conversation: This technique might involve a character telling their story to another character as part of a conversation. You want to avoid long monologues by your main character. You should try to make the reveal of the back story more of an interactive scene between the characters.

background

3) Incorporate portions of background details as a summary: Many authors use this technique to indicate what has happened in the past. They will reveal details in the character’s background with single sentences.  Here is an example:

“As an attorney, John vigorously went after cigarette manufacturers. He wanted nothing more than to be victorious in cases against them while securing high punitive damages for his clients. This passion was fueled by the deaths of both of his parents from lung cancer.”

believe4) Make the back story believable and realistic: As an author, you should think out the main points of your main characters’  back story. Don’t invent events just to suit your story. The back story should be grounded in some type of reality. You can’t have your character defeat their enemy with a complex form of martial arts if studying the techniques do not make sense in the characters background. Maybe he or she was in special forces or spent time in Asia.

need-to-know-gif

5) Create a situation where the information needs to be known: In my first book, Frankly Speaking, the main character is single and is being pursued by a beautiful, successful woman. Despite her obvious hints, he resists her. When things finally come to a head, he reveals the details of his wife’s murder to her and explains his reluctance to get into a new relationship. This is a case where the reader was aware of some of the details, but other characters were not.

I hope that these tips about back story were helpful to you. I learn more about the different methods to reveal character background details as I read more and apply the techniques that I’ve learned to my own writing. Those things that motivate your characters might be the things that keep your readers interested, especially if you have multiple works that feature the same cast of characters.

 

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Writing Your First Book – Where Do You Start?

Every time I attend an author event, there is always the attempt to separate authors into the two camps of those who meticulously outline and those that write completely by the seat-of-the-pants, affectionately known as ‘pantsers’.

I sat and listened to the virtues of these two camps and decided that I am firmly planted in a third camp. I don’t outline every chapter, but I do like a road map. I consider my method more visual and less rigid than outlining, but, to continue the road map analogy, I don’t like to just get in the car and go in whatever direction the road takes me.

I do let my characters and their personalities drive within the conscripts of my loose road map, but I don’t confine them to one road. If they want to take the scenic route, I’m open to that.

So, how does this process work, I’ll try to lay it out for you the best that I can. I’m gearing this toward the writing of fiction. Non-fiction, in my opinion, works a bit differently.

Step 1 – Come Up With an Idea

Sounds easy, right. It’s not really. A good story has to have a great beginning. In this world of instant gratification and short attention spans, you’ve got to grab your reader from the beginning. I think we’d all agree that you need a good ending. Nothing is more of a letdown than investing your time in a book only to have an ending that disappoints. (Have you read The Firm).

The thing that writers struggle with the most is the middle (often called ‘the muddle’). If your book meanders off into dark corners and doesn’t recover well, you’ll lose your readers.

Make sure your idea is strong and has a strong second act.

Step 2 – The Mind Map

The mind map is a technique I’ve used in my consulting career to storyboard presentations, but it translates well to writing. It is a visual representation of your book that starts with the book title in a cloud in the middle of the picture and connected rectangles surrounding it. Each rectangle represents an idea which could be a chapter. I use one or two sentences in each rectangle to represent the main idea of the chapter. Here is a mind map that I used for my second book, Let Me Be Frank.

Mind Map - Frank 2

When I created this mind map, I left the chapter numbers off so that I would have the latitude to re-order them if needed. This mind map allows me to move into the next phase of building the novel seamlessly.

Step 3 – Set Up Your Tool of Choice

My tool of choice for writing is Scrivener. It’s an industry-standard tool and has some built in utilities that are very useful. The thing I like about it is that it emulates the old corkboard and index card method of writing about as closely as an electronic word processing tool can.

When I open up a new project in Scivener, I go right to the corkboard view and lay out my chapters just as they are in my mind map. Here is what it looks like from the same book.

cork

You’ll notice that none of my chapters have numbers. Scrivener will automatically number them based on the order that I put them in on the cork board. In this view, you can drag and drop to your hear’s content.

I usually set up my entire book before I write. Then I can drill down into the next step.

Step 4 – Set Up Scenes Within Uour Chapters

Just like the chapter view, Scrivener gives me a scene view. As I write each chapter, I set up scenes within it. The scenes usually correspond with a change in the setting. They can be long or short. A chapter can contain a single scene or many. In my view, each chapter is a self contained story, or episode, within the book. A corkboard view for a single chapter is shown below.

cork2

I don’t want this post to be a commercial for Scrivener, but it’s the tool I use and if you’re wanting something that organizes your writing better than just a straight word processor, it’s worth checking out. Like the full book view, you can rearrange the cards on the corkboard to change the order of scenes.

Step 5 – Other Visualization Methods

As I complete each chapter in the book, I like to use other tools to see if I’m on track. One tool that I have talked about in the past that is a popular social media trending tool is generating a word cloud. Word clouds count how many times a word is used in a certain context and generates a graphic with the most used words in a larger size, more prominent color, or both. I did this with one of my detective books and was pleased with the result shown below:

Frank 2 - Chapter 2

In another example, I wrote a short story about a boy named Desmond that sells his soul to an evil character named Lou to become a great jazz pianist. The result is below:

Des Cloud

There are several free Internet tools that will do this.

As for the steps that are left, they include things like:

  • Finish writing your book
  • Enlist the help of an editor
  • Fix the things the editor finds
  • Design a cover
  • Market it
  • Sell it
  • Spend your riches

Of course, I will expand on many of these in future posts. Also, I have a book with many of these tips spelled out in more detail that is available on Amazon that you can get by clicking the cover below.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00054]

I look forward to hearing from fellow authors on the steps you use. Please comment as you see fit.

Advance Reader Copies – Are They Worth it?

In January I released my 6th book. As I look back over the activities that I’ve used to promote my books it is like going from the Stone Age to the Industrial Revolution. I’m not quite to the point where I can just write. Actually, I’m pretty far from that. As I’ve built up a modest reader base, however, I’ve been able to employ some more advanced promotional techniques.

Issuing advance read copies is one of those techniques that I employed with my last two books. For the book, Frank IncensedI only issued a few. It was partly to get reaction from readers and secondarily to get reviews on launch day. I tried to give the readers enough time so that they could read the book and review it on Amazon, Goodreads, and any other outlet on the day the book was released.

I definitely saw some bump in sales and ranking due to this. For my latest book, Blood Orange, I was much more aggressive in seeking out advance readers. I issued 30 copies to the members of my street team (more on that in a subsequent post) and approximately another 80 copies to people that I sought out through my mailing list. That’s about a 15% hit rate. That resulted in about 15 reviews on Amazon the day that the book was released. Could this have been better? Of course. I was hoping for about 25-30 reviews. This book, however, had extenuating circumstances, but more on that later.

First, what is an advance reader and how does this group differ from beta readers?

Advance readers get the book when it is finished and ready to be published. It is the final edited copy. No changes will be made based on their feedback unless some big, ugly, hairy error is found.

Using advance readers is a coordinated effort. It takes a bit of organization, but you can use technology to help you. Free technology. The first thing I did was compile a list of those that volunteered to be advance readers. The best took I have found to do this is MailChimp. You can import a spreadsheet with your contact list. You can also, for a minimal monthly cost, add automation to the mix. This allowed me to send a reminder to my advance readers a week before the book was released, the day before, and the day after reminding them to review the book. All of this happened while I was happily Internet and eMail free on a cruise ship. The whole MailChimp process is a series of blog posts on its own. Look for that in the future.

There downsides to using advance readers. Of course. That’s why I’ve compiled another handy dandy pros and cons list so you can decide for yourself.

Pros

  • Releasing your book with reviews in place on day one helps your ranking on Amazon
  • You build further rapport with your readers and they enjoy being part of the process
  • Your book appears mature upon release. A lack of reviews makes readers nervous about spending money on your work
  • You get honest feedback from your readers that help you improve quality

Cons

  • Like with beta readers, you are forfeit sales to those that are advanced readers (or do you). I’ve had a number of advance readers purchase the book anyway
  • As with beta readers, you are putting your work at risk. This is true, but it’s at risk even after it’s released as an eBook on Amazon. Most readers tend to be honest.
  • You risk receiving bad reviews. Ouch. If that happens, It probably would have happened anyway, but by giving your book away, you probably increase the odds. You can combat this, of course, by picking your potential audience carefully. The worst review I ever received was my one and only two star review on Amazon. It was one simple word, boring. I was devastated, but when I dug a bit further, I found that the only other reviews this reader had done was for gardening books. And they were just as enlightening. My point is, if you write erotic romance, don’t send your advance reader copies to people who like Christian oriented books.

Advance readers can be useful. Even though the results were not what I hoped for on Blood OrangeI will be using this technique for my next book. The reason it wasn’t as successful for Blood Orangewas the timing. The book was set to release on November 13, 2015. I timed it to be ready for huge Black Friday promotions and planned a marketing blitz throughout the holiday season. If you remember what happened that night, Paris was attacked by ruthless terrorists. Part of the attack was near a sporting venue. My book centers on just that kind of attack. I immediately pulled back on promoting the book and didn’t bother my advance readers, or anyone else for that matter. I didn’t start actively promoting it until after the first of the year. It was a tough decision, but I still feel good about it and I still think the advance reader process is a good one.

Please, those of you who have different experiences with this or questions for me, please reach out through the comments.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction Part 2 – John D. MacDonald

This post is the second in a series that I’ve been writing about the individuals that I view as the masters in my genre of choice, crime/detective fiction. I am a firm believer that you become better in whatever field you pursue by following those that excelled and paved the way before you.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction

Part 2 – John D. MacDonald

Just the name of his fabled character, Travis McGee, starts your imagination working overtime to picture this man. McGee was the opposite of Sherlock Holmes as described in my earlier post on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was more of a playboy who lived on a houseboat, bedded beautiful women, and took half of the profit from stolen goods that he recovered.

MacDonald himself was a well-educated man a degree from Syracuse University, my hometown, and an Ivy League MBA. He then entered World War II as a first lieutenant in the army.

MacDonald’s literary career started by happenstance. While away in the war, he mailed a short story to his wife who submitted it to Esquire Magazine and it was rejected. She then submitted it to Story Magazine and they accepted it for $25. When MacDonald found out about it upon his return, he spent the next four months cranking out 800,000 words of short stories and losing 20 pounds.

His eventual sale of a story to Dime Magazine was the first of nearly 500 stories to various magazines, some of which would fill an entire issue with only his stories under various names.

MacDonald’s career flourished during the period from 1953 to 1964 during which he almost single-handedly crafted the hard-boiled detective genre.  His signature character, Travis McGee, made his debut in 1964 in the novel The Deep Blue Goodbye. This swaggering Florida figure who lived on a houseboat named the Busted Flush was the prototype for many private eyes that came after him like Jim Rockford, Thomas Magnum, and others.

MacDonald wrote 21 McGee stories over the next 21 years with every title containing a color within it.  Like Sherlock Holmes, McGee had an educated sidekick on some of his books named Meyer who was an economist and Ph.D. Most of the McGee stories took place in Florida.

MacDonald’s most famous film adaptation was from the Novel, The Executioners, which became the movie, Cape Fear which premiered in 1962 and was remade in 1991.

As I look at my own work, I see some unintended similarities. I have written private eye novels that take place in Florida. My detective lives in a trailer instead of a houseboat. He also has an educated attorney as a sidekick. I say that these similarities are unintended as I read my first John D. MacDonald book after I wrote my first novel. I must have had this blueprint internalized before I began my writing from adaptations of MacDonald’s model.

I have read many of Mr. MacDonald’s books since the first. You can see his prowess as a writer grow continuously throughout his works. I can now claim him as a role model due to the quality and prolific nature of his work.

Indie Authors – What is your toughest challenge? Part I of an ongoing series

As an author, there are significant challenges. Finding original ideas and turning them into something interesting is a significant challenge. If you are a traditionally published author, you have to not only find an idea that interests you, but it has to interest your publisher as something marketable and viable so that they can make money. You also have to please your agent so that they will push your work on a publisher.

As an independent author, coming up with ideas, in my opinion, is the smallest hurdle to be faced. Because we are independent, we are free to publish whatever interests us and then take that work directly to the readers. One thing that indie authors discover quickly through social media, there are niche reader markets for just about every genre you can think of. If you like to right paranormal zombie western romance erotica, there will be a group that will read it.

My own genre, private investigator mysteries, seems to appeal to readers of a certain ‘seasoned’ age. That’s fine with me. I will join that demographic in the next ten years or so and these retiring baby boomers have time to read and money to buy books.

I deviated from this genre for my terrorism thriller, Blood Orange, and found that, indeed, the demographics of the readers that favored this book changed. This is something that, as an independent author, I believe you can get away with by searching out the appropriate niche for your writing.

After landing on what genre you want to write in, there are many other challenges that the independent author faces. Becoming known is a significant challenge. When I first started out, I put my first book on Amazon and hoped for the best. My friends and family bought some and posted some reviews.

At this early stage, I got some help from a self-proclaimed expert promoter of independent authors. I did get some traction from some of the things that this person helped me with. Interviews and reviews appeared on various blogs. I was interviewed on a podcast, and slowly but surely, my exposure grew a bit.

I soon found that the techniques that this person was using to help me gain exposure were easily achievable on my own. I gradually started to take these things on and found that my reader base continued to grow steadily.

Getting good, constructive reviews on Amazon and other platforms is a great start. It can be a slow process, however, building up a collection of reviews. One technique that helps is offering your book for free over a weekend. During my first giveaway, I had over 1,000 copies of my first book downloaded and I saw the reviews begin to grow. With the reviews came additional readers.

I want to make this blog post the first in a series that deals with the challenges that we face as indie authors. What I need are your ideas and feedback regarding the challenges that you’ve faced. One thing I learned early on is that I am not competing with my fellow indie authors. We are all in this together and can learn from each other.

So, let’s help each other. Let’s share challenges and ideas so we can grow as a community.

I look forward to your comments and feedback.

 

Top 10 Tips For Formatting Your Book – Saving Trees/Bytes vs. Making it Look Good

This blog is a continuation of my crusade to help my fellow independently published authors improve the quality of their work, but most of the tips here apply to the formatting of any book. I’m speaking of the formatting of books for the consumption of readers, not formatting your manuscript to send off to an agent or publisher.  There are a whole other set of rules for that exercise.

I’ve put together a list of ten tips that you should consider when putting your book together. They are not in any priority order, but together, they can make your work stand out from the millions of others that are available through your favorite sales channel.

1. Put Some Thought Into Your Cover

I have to admit, this was something I didn’t waste a lot of time on when I published my first book, Frankly Speaking. I just went ahead and used the Kindle cover creator and cranked out a generic cover. I’m not proud, but I’ll share with you what the original cover looked like:

FS Book Cover

Not too exciting is it? More importantly, what does it tell you about the story? Not much. If it wasn’t for the tag line, I don’t think anyone would even know it was a detective novel. It looks like it may be a book of poetry or something about the ocean.

Luckily, I came to my senses. In order to grab the reader’s attention as they peruse the Amazon Kindle store or the Barnes and Noble site, you need to have a compelling book cover. It should tell a bit of the story. Now, Frankly Speaking is about a crime involving a kidnapped girl and the search for her location. There is also the overarching evil from the main character’s past due to his run-in with the mob. Here is the cover as it exists today:

Newcover - Small

This cover tells a story. The young girl is represented by, well, the young girl in the photo. The evil presence in the main characters life is represented by the shadow of the ominous figure on the left side. The color scheme pushers toward a blue tint.

Because this book is a series, I wanted the subsequent covers to have some continuity and also tell a story. My covers for Let Me Be Frank and Frank Incensed achieve (I hope) that goal. In addition, I tried to establish a color scheme for each so they are unified but stand alone. Here are those covers:

LMBF FI Covers

These covers tell the story but also establish their own cover scheme. The shadowed figure and the font are carried through each cover.

So, now you’re probably thinking these covers were expensive and out of your budget as an indie author. That is where sites like fiverr.com come in. There are freelance sites where graphic designers from all over the world will make high-quality covers for your. Because I wanted my covers for both paperback and kindle use, which adds a back cover I paid about $20 each for these covers. I believe that they have more than paid for themselves.

2. Establish your Brand

I know that this one sounds very “marketing-like” and you may hate that. You need, however, to establish your brand. Now what does this mean? Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean. This does not mean locking yourself into one genre. Plenty of authors, even traditionally published ones, jump to different genres in the attempt to find new readers. What this does mean establishing your author persona as an entity. You can choose to crank out books and put them on Amazon or Smashwords and hope for the best, or you can build a brand by creating a newsletter/mailing list, a blog, a web site, and be active in writing and reader groups on social media. I have done this and have seen some success, even in my reviews. I have gained readers who have said they received my newsletter because they signed up for one of my non-book giveaways and they liked the cover of my book and decided to give one a try. Some of these readers have become the most loyal because I didn’t establish the relationship by beating them over the head with my book when I first made contact. These other things may not be fun and you may be a purist and not want to bother with them, but take a look at your book sales and see how that strategy is working for you.

3. Font – Don’t Make Me Get My Reading Glasses

As I get older, my eyesight is starting to deteriorate to the point where I got my first bi-focal  lenses about two years ago. That’s one of the reasons that I like my Kindle. I can blow up the font to ridiculous sizes and put the glasses aside. I don’t, however, recommend making your font ridiculously large, but you should consider an 11 or 12 point font in either Arial or Times Roman when you format your book. If you make your font any smaller, you may save paper for your print book, but you may also lose readers like me with old man eyesight.

4. Spacing – Make it Readable

This topic has a lot of varied opinions, but I will give you some key rules that I follow. My books follow the rule of inserting a blank line between each paragraph and between a paragraph of narrative and a block of dialog. Additionally, I like to use proportional spacing. What this does is line the right side of your writing up along an imaginary straight line by spacing the words on each line proportionally. This eliminates the jagged edges within a paragraph. The last thing is to consider 1.5 spaces between each line instead of single-line spacing. I have two examples below, kind of a before and after, of each technique:

Option 1: Spacing rules not applied

ex1

Option 2: Spacing rules applied

ex2

You may not agree with the formatting differences, but it’s all a matter of preference. I find option two more aesthetically pleasing and easier to read.

5. Chapter Length

Some very famous traditionally-published authors use a common-sense technique that I like to use as well, keeping chapters short. Harlan Coben and James Patterson are both known for this. As someone who reads when I go to bed, I get annoyed by long and ponderous chapters that keep me from going to sleep. I hate stopping in the middle of a chapter, but sometimes I have to. If it’s a good book with short chapters, I will try to squeeze in one or two more. The short chapter length keeps me turning the pages.  I usually try to keep the chapters at 1-2,000 words.

6. eBook vs. Print – They Are Not The Same!

Although Amazon and other platforms make it very easy to set up eBook and Print Book formats, these two media types are not the same and your formatting should differ. This starts with the table of contents (to be talked about later). An eBook does not need page numbers in the TOC. It does, however, need hyperlinks. When I’m flying to some destination for my day job and we hit rough air and I touch some forbidden spot on my Kindle screen, I have booted myself out of books or have jumped to locations unknown. If I haven’t synced my book in a while, it can sometimes be difficult to remember where I left off. With hyperlinks, I can at least jump to the right chapter and not get too frustrated. For print books, page numbers are necessary in the TOC and in the book itself. I will talk about these elements in another tip, but you should at least recognize what is necessary in a print book that is not essential in an eBook.

7. Front Matter – Yes it Matters

Front matter is that stuff at the beginning of the book like a title page, dedication, acknowledgements, copyright notice, disclaimer, and a table of contents. To make your book look like a real big-boy or big-girl book, you should be including these things. Some of them are also essential to protect yourself and your book. Let’s start with the title page and what should be on it. I’m including an example for you to refer to:

Title Page Example

ex3

This title page contains the title (duh) the copyright notice, and the disclaimer. These last two elements are essential to protect your book from piracy and to protect you from being sued. You’ll also notice that the front matter is numbered with lower case Roman numerals in the print version of a book.

The dedication, acknowledgments, and table of contents also appear in this front-matter section and should have the same page numbering scheme. You shouldn’t start normal numbering until the first page of the actual book.

Something that I also do in my front- matter that you’ll see in a lot of books is the addition of reviews of either the current book or other books by the author. You can do this if you have enough reviews to fill a page or two.

8. Table of Contents, Page Numbers, Page Header

The table of contents should go in the front-matter. If you are using Word, the automatically generated TOC will work for both eBooks and print. You just have to suppress including the page numbers for the eBook TOC. For page numbers, they should be placed in the center at the bottom of each page in the footnote area. For a page header, I like to put it in the heading area, right-justified, and in the format Author’s Last Name/Title. An example of these elements is shown below:

ex4

9. Preview Chapters

Another technique that I borrow from traditionally published authors is the use of preview chapters. This is especially effective in a series of books. You can keep the reader’s interest up by putting the first chapter of your next book at the end of the current book. You may be thinking, “I haven’t written the next book yet, dummy.” And this may be true. As the release of your next book gets close, however, you can certainly change your existing book to have this preview chapter at the end. Your existing readers can usually re-download the eBook for free and your new readers will find it there and snap up your new book. I usually announce that I’m doing this and have gotten good traction, even from those that have already read the current book.

10. Write a Good Synopsis

A good 2-3 paragraph synopsis is something you can use over an over again. Most importantly, you can put it on the back over of your print book. If someone picks up a copy of your book, the natural tendency (after they marvel at your great cover) is to turn the book over and read the synopsis. You can also use it as the description of your book on your favorite eBook platform and as your “elevator speech” when someone asks you about your book in the hallway or…elevator. The synopsis should tell the reader enough of the story to entice them, but not give away key details or the ending. Think of movie trailers and television show teasers when you build your synopsis.

I hope these tips have helped you. This is a beefier blog than I usually put out each week, but it’s an important topic. As always, your comments and feedback are welcome.

About Don Massenzio

Don Massenzio was born in Syracuse, New York, to first generation Italian American parents. He is an avid reader. Some of his favorite authors include Harlan Coben, David Morrell, Stephen King, and Hugh Howey. His favorite book of all time is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Don began writing as a way to combat the long hours of travel and numerous hotel stays that are part of the ‘glamorous’ world of corporate travel. He uses writing as a therapeutic outlet. He recently took the jump to sharing his work with others.

His first published long work is the novel, Frankly Speaking. It is the first of what will be a series of books focused on the character, Frank Rozzani, a Florida private detective. The book is a throwback to the days of pulp detective novels with a tip of the hat to Jim Rockford from 70’s television and The Rockford Files.

The second Frank Rozzani detective novel, Let Me Be Frank is now available. His third book in the Frank Rozzani series, Frank Incensed, is available for pre-order and will be released on April 24, 2015

Prior to finishing his books, his published work was comprised of short stories that will be merged into a collection in the near future.

Find out more about Don at his web site:

www.donmassenzio.com

Visualizing Your Writing – A Different Way to Analyze What You’ve Written

This week’s blog is a little bit different. I have been posting blogs that focus on mechanical aspects of writing and on other aspects of the independent publishing industry. This week, I wanted to let you in on one of the more abstract aspects of the tools that I use for my writing.

I have always been more of a visual person than someone who learns from the written word. Strange for a writer, but it makes sense to me. When I write, I see the worlds of my characters in my mind. I also see and hear my characters as I write dialog for them. Now, before you think I’m crazy, it’s a technique that works for me and there are times when paragraphs and even chapters appear that I have written on some kind of autopilot. Of course, there are other times when the words are more forced because I want to get a certain amount done. Those sections are never as good and are frequently reworked.

In past blogs, I have introduced you to the mind map and the character map. These are tools that I rely upon heavily.

Here is a quick review just in case you missed those blogs.

Mind Map

A mind map is a technique where you have a central idea (such as a book) and have several ideas connected to it (chapters). Once you have these connected ideas in place, you can start to refine them and move them around to establish their order. Here is a mind map that I did for my book, Let Me Be Frank – Frank Rozzani Detective Series Book 2:

Mind Map - Frank 2

As you can see, when I established the book, I didn’t have a title yet, but the chapters ended up staying fairly true to the final book. Of course, like with any of these techniques, you can deviate at any time if it makes sense to do so based on where your characters are headed or how they develop.

Character Map

I also introduced the concept of the character map. This graphical representation of the relationship among the main characters helps to establish who is related to whom and how they interact. It is very similar to a family tree.  An example, also from Let Me Be Frank, is shown below:

character map

This image shows the relationships within the Indigeaux family. The character with a red “X” is a murder victim. It also shows the Doucet and Monreaux families and how some of the key characters are related. This is useful when I sometimes forget names or relationships when the dialog or narrative is flying into the story.

Now that I’ve recapped these two techniques, I want to introduce a new one that I’ve just started using. It is the “Word Cloud” technique. Word clouds are becoming very popular as a way to show survey and poll results. You’ve probably seen them on TV or on the Internet.

The example shown below is a word cloud generated by the website http://www.tagul.com. This site has a very easy to use word cloud generator that is highly configurable. The example shown comes from a poll where people in California were asked to supply the first word they thought of when describing their state:

California-State

In a word cloud, the largest word in terms of font size is the one that was mentioned most frequently. Tagul actually gives you a count of how many times each word was mentioned. Not surprisingly, the number one word in this word cloud was California. You can see by quick review what the most popular words were in the survey. This particular word cloud has a couple of nice features. First, it is shaped like the state of California. Tagul and other services let you pick the shape of your cloud. Also, the color of the words helps some of the words stand out and can be tied to a legend.

So, you might be wondering, what does this tool, mostly used for surveys, have to do with writing. I asked myself the same question and then I thought I would try some experimentation. I started with a short story.

One of my short stories, Play it again Des, is about a man named Desmond Brown who runs away to New Orleans as a young piano player looking to make the big time. He has some talent, but is not content to pay his dues and put in the time to build up his talent. He meets a strange man, and talented trumpet player, named Lou who offers him what he wants instantly, but with a price.

I took the entire story and used the cut and paste option in Tagul to see what the results would be. I customized the colors a bit and removed words like “the”, “a”, “and”, etc. The results are shown below:

Des CloudAs you can see, the word cloud almost tells the story in the synopsis. The words in red are the ones that were repeated over 50 times. Desmond and Hobo are two of the main characters in the story. They both “play” the piano. Words in dark blue were mentioned between 30 and 49 times. Piano jumps out. Lou, the man who gives Desmond his instant dream, emerges. It’s interesting that the word “Want” pops out as well. This story is all about “Wants”, but the word “Need” is there also. What was interesting to me is that I saw my story emerge from this graphic.

Another useful purpose of this took is to identify words that you over-use during your writing. If words like “literally” or “exactly” pop up more than a few times in each chapter, you might have a problem with repetitiveness.

I decided to see if this technique works on chapters of longer works. You remember my Mind Map that I mentioned earlier? I wanted to see how the mind map boxes matched up with the chapters. Here is an example from Let Me Be Frank.

Frank 2 - Chapter 2This word cloud is from Chapter 2 where Frank Rozzani, the main character, finds out about the case from a police detective, Anita, and enlists the help of his friend Jonesy. You can see that the words “Frank”, “Case”, “Anita” and “Jonesy” are pretty prominent. Also, a popular character from the book, Frank’s dog Lucy, is strongly represented. Again, for a visual person like myself, this word cloud tells me a story and also tells me that my chapter is emphasizing the words that I want to convey in this section of the book.

I encourage you to try this with your work. The help will be twofold. It will help you eliminate words that might be redundant in your writing. It will also help you to see of your story is conveying the right message in a visual sense.

As always, I welcome your opinions and comments.

About Don Massenzio

Don Massenzio was born in Syracuse, New York, to first generation Italian American parents. He is an avid reader. Some of his favorite authors include Harlan Coben, David Morrell, Stephen King, and Hugh Howey. His favorite book of all time is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Don began writing as a way to combat the long hours of travel and numerous hotel stays that are part of the ‘glamorous’ world of corporate travel. He uses writing as a therapeutic outlet. He recently took the jump to sharing his work with others.

His first published long work is the novel, Frankly Speaking. It is the first of a series of books focused on the character, Frank Rozzani, a Florida private detective. The book is a throwback to the days of pulp detective novels with a tip of the hat to Jim Rockford from 70’s television and The Rockford Files.

The second Frank Rozzani detective novel, Let Me Be Frank is now available. His third book in the Frank Rozzani series, Frank Incensed, will be coming out on April 24, 2015 and is available for pre-order.

He has also published a well-received short story collection that is available on Amazon.com.

Find out more about Don at his web site:

www.donmassenzio.com