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In Medias Res
by Clive on 

You see what I mean, confusing isn't it? And how does one remember which is which?

The real beginning of this blog starts here.

I've just begun this blog with a couple of sentences which should really be placed in the middle of this article. As a result, my opening didn't make a lot of sense to you, did it? Despite that, authors are constantly using this device to try to make the initial snippet of their books more exciting than they would otherwise be.

Capture the eye of the browsing buyer and it does wonders for your sales figures. Fact.

In Medias Res means 'in the middle of things' and, in literary terms, it's the transplanting of a section of text from the middle (where it belongs) to the beginning in order to make the book look particularly exciting/interesting etc.

Yes, in medias res is a proven technique and, yes, it can work. However, it can also backfire on the author. I'd like to look at a few types of case where the use of this device can really fail to deliver.

Long before package holidays, electronic communications and Google Earth came on the scene, the notion of traveling to exotic or mysterious places was a surefire way of getting a reader interested. It was a popular technique in many genres but particularly effective with spy and crime stories. For the reader, this was ‘good stuff’ and the pages of such a book would be as near as they could ever hope to come to visiting such far-off destinations. Nowadays it's 'yeah, been there, done that' so the act of flitting from one location to another just to spice up a book's opening only serves to disorientate.

Another favorite opening involves completely baffling the reader with science (often of a highly spurious nature). Typically, the opening describes a complex process which is well underway in order to grab the reader's attention. This is a popular way of beginning horror stories (everything from traditional Gothic to modern vampire and zombie tales). Unfortunately it can easily become so technical that the only message which is conveyed is that the book’s too hard to follow.

One of my bête noires if ever there was. A number of characters (whom you don't know, of course) are discussing something in a particularly vague manner and, after a few pages, they are suddenly phased out in favor of more unknown characters whom you do get to know. You then follow these new characters until you catch up with the mysterious ones who appeared in the opening scene. This type of start is popular across just about all genres and it's invariably pretty dire to read. Who is this person? Who/what are they talking about? What's going on? Pass me another book ...

I'm well aware that in medias res can work so I'm not knocking it per se, I'm just saying that it's a dangerous weapon to wield so use it wisely.

Think not just of grabbing the reader's attention, but also of keeping it. With Amazon, it's so easy to return Kindle books and, if your opening is confusing or unrepresentative of what follows, you'll find the ratio of these returns to actual ‘bought and kept’ sales rising dangerously. Enough of these and you risk having the book or even your account suspended.

When you're creating the opening, think of the overall reader experience from the first few lines to the end of about chapter 3. A good rule of thumb is to use Amazon's 'Look Within' guide. Everything that you can see constitutes 'the opening' and it has to sell the rest of the book to the reader.

It's two of the big advantages of the electronic publishing age. From the author's point of view, moving great chunks of text around is a simple job. From the reader's point of view, a full refund for a purchase that didn't live up to expectation is just a click away - no shop assistant to convince about a creased cover, no having to remember to take it with you when you go near the bookshop.

So, next time you 'jump into the thick of things', think carefully about what it is you're jumping into and how and where you should jump.

Clive West is an experienced author of novels such as The Road and short stories such as Hobson's Choice as well as being a busy commercial writer.

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Getting the joke - long-running gags
by Clive on 

I'm going to look at how you can use humor for the serious matter of boosting your readership through the best forms of promotion – free advertising and personal recommendation.

Note that to reiterate a point, this is not about writing jokey, slapstick comedy; this is about the insertion of a moment of levity (in one form or another) into otherwise serious prose in order to create drama and effect. One thing that is essential to remember - if you're not to alienate the readers, you mustn't laugh at a real group of people. That would take your humor into the realm of bad taste and offensiveness.

So what can you do?

So that I can illustrate my meaning, I’m going to use popular films as examples. The advantage of doing so (over literature) is that I know the humor is contemporary and it also leaves me free to concentrate on the content rather more than having to wade through a sea of adverbs about how something is being said.

So, what are the sorts of humor that you can use?

The flirty aside
This can be very effective although, in an era of political correctness, the flirting shouldn’t be seen to be threatening or presumptive (and probably other things, too). An example of how effective and memorable this can be is illustrated by the numerous Miss Moneypenny & James Bond interchanges which spanned 21 years from Dr No to A View To A Kill in 1985 when it was deemed that Lois Maxwell's obvious age difference with Timothy Dalton (who took over from Roger Moore at this point) was too implausible.

The whole thing worked well because it was a 'maybe next time we can hook up' type joke. This allowed it to be effectively replayed many times and, to give rise to Moneypenny’s famous retort (but not Lois’ as she’d been retired by then), Someday, you'll have to make good on your innuendos. Bond never does, of course. That’s the point.

The gadget joke

Everyone gets flustered with gadgetry at some point and we all have our nemesis lying out there in the technical world. The machinery doesn't even need to be anything particularly complicated - look at Indiana Jones and the love-hate relationship with his trusty revolver that always gets him out of trouble - well, not always. It might also be worth noting that the snake gag (Jones’ ophiophobia) was not anything like as popular.

The plus side of using gadgets as the butt of your jokes is that they’re by definition inanimate therefore can’t be offended. The downside is that, with some exceptions, they date your books. Accordingly, falling out with a specific model of car or computer is quickly going to put a shelf-life on your stories and may make sequels seem strained.

The memorable phrase

If you can create a popular catchphrase for your lead character, you really are well on the way to setting up a sequel. Deliberately ambiguous comments like "Make him an offer he can't refuse" (The Godfather), "Do you feel lucky? Well, do you?" (Dirty Harry) and "I'll be back" (Terminator) have now gone into the English language and what better form of promotion is there? Can you come up with something of that ilk?

This type of humor lends itself better to action stories where a moment’s levity accentuates the seriousness of the rest of the story (as I discussed in last week’s blog).

The ongoing wisecracking

Probably nobody did this better than Raymond Chandler’s world-weary private eye, Phillip Marlowe, who gets his suspects to talk to him through sheer exasperation with his wise-cracking. Although this device might be a bit ‘wearing’ nowadays, I've seen the same approach used successfully in poker games where one of the players irritates one or more of the others to the point of their making mistakes through loss of concentration.

“She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up” is a good double-entendre one-liner. When Marlowe is asked by a sniffy butler if he was trying to tell him his duties, Marlowe responds, “No, just having fun trying to guess what they are.” Both of these quotes are from ‘The Big Sleep’.

Shared joke

Another way of 'branding' your story and setting it apart from the work of other writers is to dress your lead character in an unusual or otherwise idiosyncratic manner. Probably one of the greatest examples of this was William Link's disheveled detective, Columbo, who used his tramp-like appearance to put the 'bad guy' at much ease. He was so 'obviously' incompetent as an investigator, that villains always ended up incriminating themselves. The audience, of course, know it's just a convenient act and, even if they are struggling a bit with the complexities of the plot, can still laugh along with the seemingly aimless (but really very deliberate) bumblings of Peter Falk.

These are just a few uses of an ongoing gag. There are plenty more but they all serve the same purpose in that they:

  • Introduce a light moment just before you hit home with the real tension

  • Brand your books so that they are uniquely yours

  • Encourage demand for a sequel - we've identified with the character, we love the joke and now we want more

  • Allow the readers to share in a secret joke which helps facilitate their suspension of belief

No matter how serious your novel (or even piece of non-fiction), there is almost always scope for the use of humor.

I'll be back.

Clive West is an experienced author of novels such as The Road and short stories such as Hobson's Choice as well as being a busy commercial writer.

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Get the bad guy right
by Clive on 

 Have I missed a comma out in my title? I think not.


Ask yourself what the following have in common:


  • A fairy tale
  • A romance
  • A horror story
  • A police procedural
  • A Victorian melodrama
  • A children's play
  • A spaghetti western


... and so on.


The answer is that such stories, disparate as they may be in content, style and demographics, will almost certainly possess a truly despicable villain. The only question is whether that villain lives in a house in the forest and gobbles up lost children or whether they've seduced our beautiful and headstrong heroine at the time of her greatest vulnerability.


But what really makes a good villain?


Naturally the specifics relate to the book itself but there are many lessons to be learned from popular culture - not just of our generation but also of our recent ancestors. Look at the logic behind what was possible not so many years ago because, as a species, we haven't significantly changed in the meantime. In bygone days, theatre audiences weren’t able to see much of the stage, by-and-large wouldn't be particularly well educated, and would universally want something that they could let off steam over. To coin a phrase, they wanted someone to boo and the louder the better.


From a modern writer’s perspective, the first decision to be taken is whether to have multiple villains or a single one. If the answer's 'a number' then the next question is from the book's perspective - are you going to see things from the point-of-view of the heroes or the villains? If it's the former then the villains should possess minimal individual characteristics as giving them too much personality will reduce their effectiveness; the reader will begin to identify with them.


If you’re going to write from the point of view of the bad guys then, yes, you do need to develop their characters and this is where you can have some fun. As with the principle of theatre, it's perfectly permissible to go a little bit over the top. The reader isn't likely to want someone who's a 'bit on the bad side' doing things which 'aren't very nice'. They want someone really evil doing mind-bogglingly horrible stuff. NB this doesn't mean a splatter-fest - there needn't be an ounce of gore in the storyline for this criterion to be fully satisfied. Your truly bad guy can be the evil seducer or the wicked witch just as easily as they can be the mad psychopath or the bandito with the bad teeth and an even worse attitude.


With a group of bad guys try hard to think of something which links them. Don't forget that altruism won't figure highly on their agenda so come up with a good reason why they stick together - e.g. through fear, greed, power etc. The higher the level of 'bad-ness', the stronger the glue you're going to need to hold them together so work on this before you start putting 'pen to paper'.


A book without a solitary bad guy is likely to be insipid yet a book without a good guy isn’t of necessity a bad read. This is because we still like to be able to boo our villains – good and loud.


Now, there's a message there somewhere.


Clive West is the author of a collection of short stories (Hobson's Choice) featuring a selection of rogues, as well as a full-length novel called 'The Road' in which the bad guys are just ordinary folks who use their position of power for self-gain and who justify their actions through selectively ignoring the consequences of their action or inaction.

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Excuse me, garcon!
by Clive on 

Ask that in a French café (note the e-acute accent at the end without which the word would be pronounced 'caff') and you're likely to get ignored, 'pahhed' (as only a French waiter can) or (possibly) a bunch of fives in the sneck (a punch in the nose to those unfamiliar with British slang).


Why am I bringing this up? What has a sniffy French waiter got to do with writing?


We're rapidly becoming a multi-lingual society and this is naturally being reflected in the dialogue appearing in novels. Unfortunately the linguistic skills of most authors I've come across in the last few months hasn’t come close to fluency and the interchanges done in Spanish, French, German, Italian etc frequently include quite basic errors. The attitude seems to be that because the mistakes aren't in the English, they don't count – well, they do!


Going back to the title of this article, the grammatically correct French would have been “Excusez-moi, garçon” (note that the c-cedilla indicates an 's' type sound, turning the harsh 'garkon' into the softer 'garsson'). Having said this, you no longer call a waiter 'garçon' (which means 'boy'), you'd be more likely to hold your hand up and say “S'il vous plaît, monsieur” which means (non-sarcastically) “If it pleases you, sir” or “Un moment, monsieur” (One moment, sir).” You get the picture.


In Spanish, the tilde 'ñ' which adds a y-type sound to words like Señor, is often totally ignored. Likewise, German has its Eszett ß (an old form of double-s) and its umlauts that can appear over 'a', 'o' and 'u', changing the sound significantly (written ä, ö, and ü). Italian also has its accents which modify the way a word is pronounced. Not only that, each of these languages has its own colloquialisms and, while the free translation services offered by Google, Babel, Bing etc are improving by leaps and bounds, entrusting your work to a computer is not, and never has been, a good idea.


If you are going to have characters speak in a non-English language, you have 3 choices:


1. Have it all in English and just say that they're speaking in Spanish, French etc.


2. Start off in the other language and gradually phase in English with the emphasis on ‘gradual’ – that doesn’t mean within a sentence.


3. Use the other language in full and only revert to English when you’re providing a translation or where your characters are actually speaking in English.


The last option is heavily problematic in that it may mean big chunks of text are utterly confusing to readers even though you've given a translation alongside. Unless you really know both your market and what you’re doing, it's best to stick with 1 or 2.


Whichever you go for, don't do what I've seen recently. That's where a sentence starts off in one language and then (because the author didn't know how to translate it) gradually drifts into English. Our French waiter isn't going to say:


“Certainement, monsieur. Que désirez-vous? Par exemple, nous avons fish and chips, beefburgers and pizzas on the menu.”


He's either going to do the whole speech in French or (having established your non-Gallic background) in English. He isn't going to switch chevaux in mid-stream.


With the rise in the number of immigrant workers, the improvements to transport and communications, and the comparatively low price of travel, it's quite likely that your novel’s characters are going to encounter some such situation. If you want to get top marks for coping with the interchanges in a manner as befits a professional writer, here's my suggestion.


Firstly, decide how you are going to deal with the language (option 1 or 2 above). If you choose the first option, you don't need to read any further.


Secondly, assuming you aren't going to 'cop out', write the exchanges in English but bookmark them so that you can find them again quickly.


Thirdly, create a single file of all the dialogues and run this through Google's translation device (or whatever program you prefer).


Fourthly, having got a translation, put its checking up for tender on one of the many 'find a freelancer' sites. You'll probably get the whole lot looked over for $25 or less.


Having done this, you know your book is now 'anatomically' correct and that you aren't offering yourself up as troll-bait. Not only that, your completeness will shine through and enhance the professional look of your work.


Right, now where's that waiter? I want a cup of tea.

Clive West is an experienced author of novels such as The Road and short stories such as Hobson's Choice as well as being a busy commercial writer.
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Should you be afraid of ghosts?
by Clive on 

Not that I've ever seen one but my understanding of ghosts is that they haunt people and places, lack any substance and, because of their actions, they can end up costing the haunted party dearly. This definition can easily apply to a typical ghost-writer.

Not that this has to be the case, of course.

What’s prompted me to write this blog post is that I've read a lot over the last month or so about how 'having a ghost-writer' is the way forward for a successful writer. Maybe it is, but I'd just like to temper that with some sobering thoughts of my own which are based on some pretty bitter experiences. It also explains why I don't and won't use such a service but, of course, you must make your own decision on the matter.

The advantage of using a ghost-writer is obvious and we’ve got plenty of ways of describing such a way of earning a living:

  • Sit back and watch the money roll in

  • Easy Street

  • Money for nothing

  • Let someone else do all the work

  • Taking care of business

We've all these expressions for having someone do our grafting for us (and a load more, too) yet it can very easily degenerate into:

  • A can of worms

  • Double-handling

  • Too many cooks

  • More trouble than it’s worth

  • Waste of time

I’ll come back to the rights and wrongs of using ghost-writers in future blogs but I just want to look at one aspect today – the legal side. This is often overlooked when dealing with ghost-writers and there are three basic temptations:

Firstly, there's the 'null' approach which I know an acquaintance of mine follows. It's the vague and rather forlorn hope that the simple act of paying for the services of a ghost-writer guarantees that copyright automatically passes to you.

That may well be the case but it's by no means a 'done deal'. Should it all go horribly wrong and the ghost-writer claim a percentage of your success, your first argument will be (no doubt) “Hey, I've paid you for this”, just like you might go into a shop and purchase some goods or eat a meal in a restaurant. Can you imagine, a week later the chef saying, "Hey, Mac, I made you that lasagna last week. I want it back now."?

This is fine and dandy for goods, but laws concerning subcontracts and the supply of labor are very different. Without a written agreement, it becomes a case (excuse pun) of "What's reasonable?". Not only is this not as clear-cut as might be thought, it's also potentially very expensive to fend off an all-out attack on one’s royalties.

An example of why copyright does not automatically pass to you is the existence of the numerous article depositories which showcase your work in return for back-links, writing business or the sale of the article itself. Obviously they will all have carefully drawn up agreements but, if you don't have anything in place, who's to say that you aren't offering some similar deal?

Of course, there's the other end of the spectrum where you shell out a fortune on a hot-shot lawyer who (no doubt) will draw up a wordy agreement full of legalese double-speak which will thoroughly flummox both you and your ghost-writer. You might even scare them off in the process!

Unfortunately (and as one who's had to fight the subsequent battles), getting a lawyer involved does not guarantee that everything's been taken care of. In my experience, it's commonplace for lawyers to shoe-horn clients into a one-size-fits-all contract which contain a lot of generalizations but bear little relevance to the specific situation. If you subsequently challenge the lawyer, you'll end up being blamed for not having told them something germane which you can't prove otherwise. At this point, you risk being at war with both your ghost-writer and your lawyer - an unenviable situation.

The best way to deal with the issue of ghost-writers laying future claim to your work is to spell out in very clear terms what you are agreeing to. Don't attempt legalese, don't try to be cute, clever or coy, just stick to the specifics. To help you on your way, here's a very rough structure plan for your agreement but you'll need to adapt it to suit.


  • Precisely who you are and precisely who the ghost-writer is.

  • Precisely what they are writing.

  • The payment - how much, what stages and when.

  • That full copyright and the right to withhold the ghost-writer’s name will pass to you on full payment of their fees.

  • What happens if the work is not up to scratch (expand on that if you can).

  • Both date and both sign

By all means THEN take this to a lawyer and ask them to incorporate ALL of your terms into a formal agreement but you quite probably don't need to as long as you've covered the key points.

This is a business arrangement so don't be shy or worry about hurting the feelings of the ghost-writer. Remember, if you've made it into the big league with your sales, you've created an 'it's worth a shot' situation for your ghost-writer to sue you. What have they got to lose? And, if you've nothing in writing, you're fair game for every shyster lawyer who fancies themselves at a spot of contract law.

After all, the whole point of hiring a ghost-writer is that you can exorcise them when they've finished haunting you. That’s the spirit!

Clive West is an experienced author of novels such as The Road and short stories such as Hobson's Choice as well as being a busy commercial writer.

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