Since its Halloween today, I thought it would be a good idea to post a spooky sort of song. Right away, I knew I had to pick a Black Sabbath song. Over 40 years and the title track of the band’s first album is still the scariest metal song out there. Guitar, bass, drums, vocals, lyrics are all unbelievable.

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Over the last several weeks, I've been looking at "What Makes a Great Story?" The first post in this series examined the importance of the first sentence or paragraph. The second post delved into hooking a reader by having a strong first chapter. Last week, in the third installment of the series, I looked into how an author's description defines a story's setting.

Today's post will consider the importance of a story's character(s).

I don’t care how many twists and turns you have in a story or how vivid your description is, without strong characters you’ve got nothing.

All stories are about people, even if you don’t realize it. Ask someone what their favorite movie or book is and I guarantee the character(s) play a large part in their opinion. No one says they like George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series because they like his ability to describe food and clothing. What makes the series so memorable are the characters. And the more relatable your characters, the better story will be.

Oddly enough, a perfect character is the worst thing you can have. Weaknesses, imperfections, quirks, and vices humanize a character and give us someone we can relate to. The reason why everyone cheers for the underdog is because at some point in our lives we’ve felt something similar. We can better understand someone as we watch them cope with problems involving love, family, work, honor, success, failure, past mistakes, future worries, and dragons because we’ve all been there. Well, maybe not the dragons part, but you get the idea.

It’s even possible to watch a despicable person make terrible decisions and still sympathize with them on some level if we understand their motives and feel their pain.

In fact, the more flawed a character is, the more we tend to love them. Staying with the George RR Martin theme from above, Jaime Lannister is a great example of this. Everyone hates the guy in the first couple of books, but then we see the story from his point of view. And we feel the same things that he feels while in some cases, watching him suffer. After some time, he becomes one of the best characters of the series (definitely one of my favorites). The transformation is handled so well that many authors call it “pulling a Jaime Lannister” when they try to duplicate the character’s growth in their own works.

One of the hardest things in storytelling is showing this development in character. The last thing you want your character to do is abruptly change. You can’t have the character pull a 180 from one chapter to the next. That’s not the way life works. Just use your own life as an example. Everyone has gone through pivotal moments that, looking back, helped define the person they are now. How long did it take for those events to fully change who you are? I’m willing to bet months and years (with several setbacks along the way), not hours or days.

A good book will show the character change little by little, evolving their personality from one thing to sometimes something completely different. The best writers out there can do this so deftly that the reader often doesn’t even notice it until they stop and remember where the story started. Writers such as Martin, Cook, Kearney, and Abercrombie are all capable of doing this within the fantasy genre.

Strong characters will help mask a minor plot hole, weak description, or, in some cases, even poor grammar. But a great plot, great description and perfect grammar will do little to strengthen a weak character.

Who is your favorite character and what do you like about him/her?

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Charlie Brown has a special place in my heart. As a matter of fact, “Good grief!" is a phrase I use pretty frequently and I’m sure it has to do with my love of the character from when I was a kid.

The reason why I bring this up is it’s the holiday season and that means that all of those great cartoons I grew up with get their annual showing. The best are around Christmas but there are still plenty of gems at Halloween. Most notable is “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!”

Who’s the Great Pumpkin you ask? Well, let Linus explain it.

Make sure you spend time watching all of the great Halloween cartoons such as these:

…and many more.

But when all is said and done, don’t forget Charlie Brown. He could use a little love.

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Growing up, The Blues Brothers was one of my favorite movies. I’m pretty sure I watched it every time in came on TV (and it was on a lot). Last week while eating dinner with 22-month old son, I pulled out my laptop and started pulling up videos for him to watch. He loved them. It’s pretty awesome watching a toddler not only rock out to the songs of your youth but also beg to watch them again.

The movie is highly quotable and full of memorable moments. However, today is Music Monday so I wanted to highlight the two best musical moments of the film in my opinion. Enjoy!

Minnie the Moocher

Everybody Needs Somebody

Maybe this will help you forget that Blues Brothers 2000 was ever made.

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Today’s blog post is a general update on what I’ve been doing the last few weeks.
  1. Warleader: A Blood and Tears Short Story – The short story went live a little over two weeks ago and since then my focus has been trying to do what I can to get the word out about it. I appreciate all those who have bought the story and especially those who have told others about the work. Word of mouth is always the best form of advertisement!

    I’ve submitted the story to a few review bloggers but unfortunately not many people review short stories (especially fantasy). Thankfully, I’ll have a much wider pool to submit to when Rise and Fall, my novel, goes live later this year.

    In order to generate more interest in Warleader, I’m holding a giveaway at which ends November 1st.  This is a great way to get reviews (often cross-posted on various sites) and expose new people to your work. If you're interested in participating, log on or create an account, click here, then scroll down about halfway and look for Warleader.

  2. Rise and Fall: Book One of the Blood and Tears Trilogy – I received comments back from my editor last Saturday and started work on them this Tuesday. Lots of great points/advice, most of it on the first few chapters of the book. That isn’t surprising since I know I improved as the book progressed.

    My goal is to finish the edits by November 15. That would then give me (really, my wife Leah) about two weeks to format Rise and Fall. Then we’ll both do one last proofread of the text before uploading it. Obviously, things can change at any moment but it’s my goal to have this available by December 1st. Keep your fingers crossed!

  3. Walk Through Fire: A Blood and Tears Novella – This is another prequel story that focuses on Jonrell (one of the main characters from Rise and Fall) and the mercenary outfit he commands. I’ll give more information about the story long before the release date (shooting for April 1, 2012).

    I recently made another pass through the text and cut a little over 4000 words (mostly fluff). Right now it is about 40K words and I expect to reduce it a bit more once Leah does a line edit for me. Then, it will go to my beta-readers around early December. After I incorporate their feedback, I’ll send it off to my editor.

  4. Steel and Sorrow: Book Two of the Blood and Tears Trilogy – I’m about 56K words into the first draft and I expect it to end up around the same size as Rise and Fall (180K or so), give or take a few thousand words.

    My approach to writing this book is different than how I wrote the Rise and Fall. I’ve decided to write one entire storyline first before going back and writing the chapters relating to the second storyline.

    I’m not quite as far along as I would like to be at this point, but there’s only so much time in the day.

    The last thing I did before putting the manuscript aside to edit Rise and Fall was to spend a couple of weeks performing some surgery on what I had already written. There were a couple of problems I knew about and originally planned to fix after the first draft was done, but they were nagging at me too much, so I decided to clean them up now. Before I dive back into writing the first draft again, I’ll probably need to spend a day or two tweaking my outline as I’ve changed a few things I originally planned to do because it just wasn’t working.

    Still, I’m happy with the changes. There is a lot of cool and exciting stuff happening in those early chapters.
Any questions?

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The last two posts in my series entitled "What Makes a Great Story?" were about how an opening sets the tone for the rest of the story and various ways an author can pull the reader in.  You can read the first part HERE and the second part HERE. Today's post moves on to how authors use description to define a story's setting.

Description is one of those areas that few readers or authors can agree on. Some readers like authors who paint a scene using long, detailed descriptions so there aren’t any blanks left to fill in on their own. Authors who excel at this method tend to be those with a natural knack for language in general. As readers, we can sometimes overlook the longwinded nature of this approach because the author's prose is so eloquently put together.

On the other hand, some readers prefer descriptions to be brief and to the point. In this case, the author gives a few general facts about a scene or character’s appearance and trusts the reader's imagination to fill in the rest. This description works great if you’re trying to keep the story moving at a quick pace. The thought behind this method is that if it isn’t important to the story or character, then it’s not important to the reader.

I personally lean more toward the latter camp and prefer short descriptions. That doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally enjoy those longer, more detailed descriptions. However, VERY few authors can truly pull off page after page of descriptive prose without totally losing the reader. And even still, I would argue that their story would be better without it.

The odd thing about the fantasy genre is that for many readers, the world itself is often as much of a character as the people who inhabit it. As a result, certain readers are not only accustomed to lengthy, detailed descriptions, but many expect it.

As an author, I know that I will never be able to fully satisfy both camps. The best thing I can do is write using the method that I most like to read.

This means that most of my descriptions are pretty general with a few details mixed in as needed to make sure the world seems “real” to the reader. Again, that doesn’t mean that I won’t, on occasion, take several paragraphs to describe something if I feel it is important to the story. But it isn’t something I do often.

There are two methods I find most effective when handling description. The first is to start a scene with a paragraph, maybe two, focusing only on the setting. Afterward, move into the story, while reemphasizing those first few points, adding slowly over time to the scene. If I do describe something in detail, I try to ensure that the next time the characters are in that place, I won’t describe it again. A sentence or two at most is all a reader needs to trigger what they’ve previously read. Then, it’s time to move on.

The other method is much harder to do. Basically, a scene is described through dialogue, internal thought or character development. If done correctly, the reader never realizes they are reading a large amount of otherwise boring detail because they are so engrossed in the story.

Below are three examples of description I pulled from books I’ve read. The first is very detailed. The second is detailed, but in more general terms, not focusing on the minutia. The third is given to the reader while developing character and story.

The light grew clearer as they went forward. Suddenly the came out of the trees and found themselves in a wide circular space. There was a sky above them, blue and clear to their surprise, for down under the Forest-roof they had not been able to see the rising morning and the lifting of the mist. The sun was not, however, high enough yet to shine down into the clearing, though its light was on the tree-tops. The leaves were all thicker and greener about the edges of the glade, enclosing it with an almost solid wall. No tree grew there, only rough grass and many tall plants: stalky and faded hemlocks and wood-parsley, fire-weed seeding into fluffy ashes, and rampant nettles and thistles. A dreary place: but it seemed a charming and cheerful garden after the close Forest.
Fellowship of the Ring, J.R. Tolkien

The Monastery grounds were split into training areas, some of stone, some of grass, others of sand or treacherous slime-covered slate. The abbey itself stood at the center of the grounds, a converted keep of gray stone and crenellated battlements. Four walls and a moat surrounded the abbey, the walls a later addition of soft, golden sandstone. By the western wall, sheltered by glass and blooming out of season, were flowers of thirty different shades. All were roses.
Legend, David Gemmell

We used the skulls and poles to mark the bounds of the camp. I had the interior laid out in a checkerboard cross with the center square for the headquarters group, the four squares on its points for four battalions with the squares between as drill grounds. The men grumbled about having to set up for twice their number—especially since certain favored individuals, who had been performing weel, only had to stand around holding poles with skulls atop them.
Dreams of Steel, Glen Cook

So, which approach do you prefer? And why?

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The first song that I can remember obsessing over as a kid was Safety Dance by Men Without Hats (Hey, I was a child of the 80s).

I remember asking my mom to play that song over and over despite never really understanding the words. According to her, I referred to it as the “wigga nuts song.” Thankfully, I have an excuse as the song came out when I was only two.

I don’t know if it’s out of nostalgia or not but I still actually like the song and for some reason it popped into my head as I was deciding what to do for my Music Monday post.

So, for all those that thought I would only be posting Heavy Metal videos, surprise!


I’ve finished up a few books within the past couple of days so rather than designate a blog post to each with detailed reviews, I thought I would combine them into one post and give a quick high level summary of each. Let me know your thoughts if you decide to give them a try.

The Viscount and the Witch by Michael J. Sullivan

I have been meaning to read Michael Sullivan for some time and for one reason or another kept putting it off. This was my first sampling of his work and I enjoyed it a great deal. This short story is a prequel to his series entitled The Riyria Chronicles. It did a great job of setting up the relationship of the main characters while also enticing the reader to discover what would happen next.

The short story also has a free excerpt of the first chapter of Theft of Sword, his first book being re-released through Orbit. It is also really enjoyable. Needless to say, I'm going to have to make time for all of Orbit's re-releases of Sullivan's work.

I hope the series will feature a few more short stories/novellas of the early years similar to this one.

Overall a 9/10

Strange Worlds by Andrew Kincaid

This is the second book by Andrew Kincaid that I’ve read. Like his other book, On Dark Paths, Strange Worlds is a collection of short stories. The feel of this book is different than On Dark Paths but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think as with the first book you can see Andrew’s talent as a storyteller and his ability put down a good idea to paper shine through. However, the biggest complaint I have with this collection is that several of the endings came up short and were not as satisfying as the narrative leading up to that point. Granted, I still think this is a book worth your time and money.

Oddly enough, as with On Dark Paths, my favorite story in each collection was his take on zombies (both original in my opinion).

Overall a 7.5/10

Legend by David Gemmell

Legend is one of those classic books in the fantasy genre that I’ve been hearing about for quite some time and one I’m thankful I finally got around to reading. Actually, I wish I had read this book much sooner.

David Gemmell wrote the kind of book that I love to read. Many of the characters are larger than life but still very relatable. Characters both major and minor are well developed. The plot is engrossing, the description vivid, and the pace never slows down. Best of all, you could almost believe this story really took place in some ancient land long ago.

It’s rare that after only one book I would say that an author is one of my favorites but I actually felt that way halfway through the book. Needless to say, I’ll be picking up more books by Gemmell in the future, specifically moving onto the rest of the books in the Drenai Saga (this was the first book).

If you are still unsure if this is for you then read how one character describes Druss the Legend, an amazing warrior.
When he stares, valleys tremble; where he walks, beasts are silent; when he speaks, mountains tumble; when he fights, armies crumble.
C’mon it doesn’t get much better than that! I hope one day I can write something that cool.

Overall a 10/10