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Novel Basics
Character - Someone who shows up in your head, demands your attention, is finicky about what he says, has a past, present and future and for some reason is always having to fight to get what he wants. You probably will, or should, know this person in your head better than your lover. You may not sit down and write about it, but chances are if asked you would know what he last ate for breakfast and how he likes his coffee.

Foil - This can be dramatic or comedic and is essentially a character that brings out the opposite traits in another character. Think the first Jason Bourne movie and Marie. A sweet sensitive woman who has no experience with espionage, and a deadly killer. I loved all three movies but the first was the best and she made that possible.

Dialogue - What your characters say. This should be snappy and should never sound like real life conversation. How we talk as regular people does not carry over into print. Read a book on screenwriting for ideas and make your words pop.

Exposition - It’s basically what it sounds like. You are exposing part of the character, plot or setting. I recommend keeping it short and sweet. But others love a good long description of a forest. Each to their own.

Timing - Different from pacing (See below) this is a subtle aspect to dialogue that can make or break a joke or a piece of drama you want to hit the reader with. It’s more easily understood in terms of movies and plays but it is important in a novel as well. It’s just damn hard to explain.

Pacing - How long it takes your characters to get to certain points in their lives/achievements/goals/etc. This is an extremely important aspect to a good book. If important events happen too early a reader is likely to give up. If it takes too long to get meaty the reader is even more likely going to say, “Forget this, what else is there?”

Plot - For a real true definition look at my article on plots. Otherwise it’s basically the conflict that keeps the story moving. It’s what happens.

Plot-twist - This is when a writer sets you up to expect one thing, then suddenly turns at a right angle and delivers something else. These are key ingredients to a good novel but difficult because you also need foreshadowing (See below) so someone is always going to expect a sudden turn is ahead.

Foreshadowing - A hint of what’s to come. This is a tricky business. It’s necessary to build up to a plot-twist or a change of circumstances. But you don’t want to hit your readers over the head with a hammer while yelling loudly, “I’m going to fire this character two chapters from now”.

Transition - My nemesis. This is what moves you from one scene to the next within a chapter, or lets you skip through time from one chapter to the next. I hate, hate, hate writing these. But they need to be good to keep the action going, so make them interesting.

Scene - Think of a scene in a movie. There now you have it. It’s one section of the story in one place. Characters have a tendency to move around a bit so a scene is what breaks up the action into smaller pieces.

Chapter - The bulk of the book, the mini-stories the book is segmented into with each one building on the last drawing the story arc through it as the tension builds. Deciding what goes into what chapter can be a tricky business and lengths vary by the author. But basically it’s what keeps your story organized.

Manuscript - Why am I including something so basic? Because there are many ways to tell a story such as: novel, novella, short story, poem, screenplay, radio play, regular play... I know I’m forgetting some. Sometimes when writers get together to talk shop they’re not all working in the same field hence referring to a finished work as a manuscript.

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Story Development
Prelude - Often written after the original book has been published, a prelude is the story of the events that lead up to the beginning of the book. These often aren’t as good as the original books because writers forget every book needs a history.

Prologue - Some people abhor these, others find them useful. They are short, sweeping introductions that get some basic facts open and out there so the reader has some context when he begins the book. The first line of a prologue is just as important as the body of the book because readers will skip the whole thing it looks long or boring.

Tension - The emotions you wind up in your reader to make him want to keep reading. Tension is what builds the story to the point of the climax. This is the most important part of the book. Without it the climax doesn’t matter. You need your reader to feel every word until he is desperate to find out how it ends.

Climax - This is everything your book (or even your chapter) is mounting up to. If you are writing a finite series you will have at least one major climax for each book and then you will need one hell of a rush to finish off your work. This can be a sentence or a paragraph but it needs to be as satisfying as the other meaning of the word.

Anti-climax also known as Bathos- Ouch, this is the let down, the best avoided mistake of letting a book build to a high point of tension, and then ending it without a satisfying peak and drop below.

Resolution - The ending. The part of the book that ties up the loose threads and delivers the satisfaction of a story well told. (See denouement below)

Story Arc - This is the overall shape of the story. Imagine a line moving in an upwards direction as the story builds in tension to the climax and resolution. This can refer to a single book, or to a series.

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Special Words
Penultimate - This is it, this is what we have been waiting for. This is the chapter with the final climax in it. This makes or breaks a good book so be ready for an intense build up to that special paragraph that releases all the tension you’ve been creating in your readers.

Denouement - The last chapter, the resolution. The gentle trickle to an end that wraps up the story and reveals the consequences of the previous chapter. Check out the link for pronunciation

Epilogue - An opportunity to make your ending sing or ruin a whole series by being trite, boring, or poorly conceived. An epilogue is a snapshot of what happens to the characters after the denouement to give you an idea of how life turned out. It can be a few months or years down the line. It should be short, it should be good, and if you can’t think of a way to succinctly capture a snippet of their future lives you should leave it out.

Mary Sue - This is what you do not want a character to be. It’s a term used in literary criticism or fan fiction and refers to an idealized character that seems to represent the authors fantasy more than a real person. Symptoms include: no depth, infallibility, entirely lacking in flaws.

Blank Slate - Somewhat the opposite of a Mary Sue, the Blank Slate is a character that is poorly defined by the author and it is usually assumed the author intends it to be a way for the reader to slot himself into that role and enter the fantasy. One book that has come under criticism for this idea is Twilight as it has been argued that Bella is a blank slate. Personally I can’t comment. I’ve never read the books, just the reviews.

Trope- By the dictionary a figurative expression or meaning of a word. But another kind exists in the world of stories, and that is a convention that is so typical, so done it is bordering on cliché. At least that's how I viewed it. You can check out the link to learn all about TV tropes.

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Editing Favourites
Cliché - If I had a dollar for every... oh I can’t even continue they make me cringe like mad. Clichés are lines or story concepts that were probably really original once but have become so overused, so tired, so boring the only thing you can do with them is play with them. I will use them on occasion if I think a saying has fallen out of disuse enough or am twisting one to my wicked desires. Clichés have an advantage and that is “holy crap” everyone knows them. (Which is also the problem.) If you want to play with one and change the wording you can really make a line zing. Otherwise please, please, please with an insulin overload, use them sparingly.

Sentence Structure - “Boo. Hiss.” “You there, in the back, I can hear you!” Like it or not there are some basic rules about how to put a sentence together so other people can understand what the hell you are saying. It’s why word order is so important and provides us with hilarious examples of what not to do such as the headline: "Texas Man accused of shooting deputies in custody." I realize Texas is known for going it’s own way, but placing police officers in the tank doesn’t seem like a sensible idea to me.

Grammar - This is more than just punctation. This is like sentence structure but with words like pronouns, adverbs, past perfect, future and modifiers. This is the nuts and bolts of the language you are using. Language is ever evolving thus so is grammar. But it’s good to know your rules before you break them.

“Tighten this up a bit.” - Okay, technically not a word. But a very important concept. There is using a lot of words to describe a simple thing for a reason (humor, play on words, eloquence), and then there is stuffing too many words into a paragraph. If you are told to, “Tighten this up a bit”, it means the drama, the important part of the story is getting lost because you took too long to get to the point. Or you surrounded the idea with so many extraneous details the reader no longer cares. If you get this feedback it’s time to get ruthless with the delete key.

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The Business
Agent - This person helps sell your work to a publisher for a cut of the royalties you make. If you want to get your book published via the traditional route you don’t really have any other choice but to find one.

Editor - An absolute must. You may get along with this person, you may not. But this is the person who tightens up your work, tells you what comes across and what doesn’t and basically makes the difference between a good book and a masterpiece.

Copy Editor - This is the person who goes over your work and catches spelling errors, missing punctuation and other simple mistakes that make the difference between amateur work and professional work.

Publisher - The traditional powerhouse of the industry. The company that buys your book and gets it into book stores.

Royalties - The meager amount you make from selling a book, your cut of the earning base on how much the book sold for. For traditional publishing it typically starts at 6% or 0.06 times the price of the book. For Amazon’s CreateSpace the percentage is significantly higher but I haven’t bothered to figure it out for anything other than the Kindle edition which is 34% (for self-publishers).

Publicity Agent - A publishing house doesn’t market every book equally so sometimes if you really want your book seen you need to hire one of these to help you get your name recognized and your work sold.

Self Publishing - Basically if you decide to skip the agent->publisher route this is what your other option is. You control everything, but there is a price to pay because you are in charge of the costs normally absorbed by the publisher.

Vanity Publishing - Publishing a book with a company that charges you money up front just so you can see your own book in print. It’s usually considered a slur which is somewhat unfair to DYI artists willing to pay the price. But since there there are alternatives it’s best to avoid being required to cough up before you get what you want.

Independent Artist - The DYI master of the book business. This person is willing to take on all the challenges, find his own cover artist, editor, and copy editor, knows enough about his options to make money and is in charge of his book every step of the way. Currently ones who go the whole distance are rare but this is changing.

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Book Names
Sequel - Hollywood’s way of squeezing the life out of a really good movie and ruining it by producing a second one. You’ve seen it in films. It happens in books. It’s the second book in a series. Or just the second book if there are only two of them.

Trilogy - Hans Solo shot there was no second shot. Star Wars was a trilogy until the Force Awakens came along. A certain three were unnecessary preludes. George Lucas has made a lot of wonderful movies including the original trilogy which by now you may guess simply means three connected stories.

Sextet - What Star Wars was not. Ask anyone my age or older and they will deny the existence of Jar Jar Binks while covering their ears and singing “La La La”. Otherwise known as a six book series that ends on the sixth book. What Star wars will be soon

Series - All bets are off. God knows how many exist and if the same authors are even involved. I started reading Dragonlance as a freshman in high school and I wouldn’t be surprised if writers are still churning out book after book based on the same setting. What The Star Wars Universe is now

Chronicle - The original use refers to it as a factual account of important events. Some author stole it to describe his series (C.S. Lewis) so now it’s both. But if you want to use the word “chronicle” you need to mean business as you would in the next word. ->

Epic - Chances are you know what an epic fail is, or an epic win so you’ve at least got a play on the concept that it’s a big deal. Basically its a long, powerful story of sweeping events that change the face of a nation/planet/etc.

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Types of Writers
Author - Usually a published writer of a fictional novel or short story. This word is up for debate these days because of self-publishing (See above) but in general most writers will agree if you have a finished manuscript you are the author of it.

Screenwriter - Someone who writes screenplays. i.e. movie scripts. They have to follow strict guidelines and a special format. A good screenwriter is hard to find but is a master of the art because he has so little to work with yet can tell so much.

Playwright - A writer of radio or stage plays. They also have a strict format but they are not quite as limited as a screenwriter.

Poet - Um do I really need to answer this? Someone who writes poetry.

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Writing in General
Voice - This is what makes your writing your writing. It’s the unique way you use the language and story ideas to convey what you want. It takes time and practice to find it. Very few people start out with their own particular style right away. But I have seen it happen.

Craft - This is the ultimate summation of everything that goes into writing a good book. Imagine a potter from his early days of lumpy ashtrays to expert works with incredible glazing. Writing is an art and there is a craft that goes along with it. If you are good with the craft you are an expert.

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Everything Else
Formatting - This is extremely important if you are going to submit your work. Each type of written work has a manner in which it must be presented if you want any chance of selling it. Mariner makes software for handling screenplays. And the famous one is Final Draft

“Minute per page rule” - This is for screenwriters and why a screenplay should be no longer than 120 pages. I think you can guess but basically a minute on the screen is a single page of a properly formatted screenplay.

Page Count - Figuring out how many pages your novel is going to be once it is in book form is a total pain in the patootie and actually varies. The general guide seems to be 250 words per page, but this is not always the case as anyone who has ever read a Tad Williams novel can attest to.

Ingénue - A form of blank slate - an innocent or unsophisticated woman. The term is used in plays both for the theatre and the screen.

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That’s all I can think of. Feel free to write to writer.devlin@gmail.com to request additions


Last updated March 18th, 2018

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