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How to Introduce Backstory Without Boring Readers

I get a lot of questions regarding writing advice. While I’m no expert, I certainly have some opinions that I’m more than happy to share. Recently, I was asked:

“How should I go about adding background information about characters, setting, and whatnot, while making it seamless and natural to the storyline, and engaging for the reader?”

I would advise not to go too crazy in the beginning. In other words, it may be best to keep the backstory to a minimum in the first couple of chapters. Offer as little backstory as necessary, just enough to provide context, but not enough to make it a slog to get through.

Reading an entire novel requires a huge time commitment and a lot of effort, and there are a ton of other forms of entertainment competing for the reader’s precious time. What a lot of readers do is read the first couple of chapters and see if the book is heading in a direction that will entice them to continue reading. If not, they abandon it and pick up something else. So more than any other time, the opening must be awesome, and backstories are generally not awesome, so save it for later, if at all.

buildings

In my book Prodigy, I have an intro, which I was not a fan of, but I just found it to be the best way. I basically set up the entire context of the story in one go. This is the point of an intro so I don’t think the reader minds as much. It’s when you begin your story, introduce your character, and then ‘info dump’ by stating everything about her.

An example of bad background info would be, “Amy sat quietly in class, listening to her teacher drone on. She was reserved ever since the accident last summer, where her and her friends went camping and accidentally killed a guy…” this may be okay, but not in chapter 1.

I consider it bad because upon first mention of Amy, it’s ‘dumping’ the backstory onto the reader. Your reader doesn’t care about Amy yet and at this point has nothing invested in her, so why would they care about her backstory?

If you were to ask me, I’d say have Amy do something interesting, make the reader care about her, and then fill them in on some other details piece by piece – definitely not all at once, and definitely not in the first chapter.

girl reading

You may also do a prologue. In the Art of the Hustle for instance, I have a prologue of the main character when he is rich. He’s being interviewed on some talk show and the interviewer asks him, “How did you become a billionaire, where did it all start?” And then I open with chapter one as this young broke kid finishing high school. I think this was way more compelling because the reader knows he eventually becomes rich, but doesn’t know how. As the story unfolds, the reader is trying to guess how he becomes rich.

Fun fact — the prologue was one of the last things I wrote and I had it as the last chapter of the book. Then I thought, what if I move this piece to the front to let the reader know right off the bat that Trevor is a billionaire and the book will all about how he did it. FYI — I purposely throw in some misdirects to keep the audience guessing.

The Ignorant Character Method

As the story progresses, I try to use dialogue as much as possible to introduce backstory. I call this the ignorant character method whereby one character is ignorant to some crucial piece of information or another character’s backstory, and through a conversation, one character educates the ignorant character as well as the audience.

This seems natural since characters meeting for the first time often don’t know much, if anything, about each other. So naturally they would ask questions that would reveal their backstory. Even then, I wouldn’t get too crazy with it. I may do a bit and then back off out of fear that the reader would get bored.

Batman / Bruce Wayne dead parents

photo credit: Frank Miller

So let’s say you are writing Batman and you open with an epic fight scene (usually a good way to hook the reader). Then you could have Bruce back at the bat cave, looking at a photograph of his dead parents and Alfred come in and say something like, “Today’s the twentieth anniversary of your parents’ death,. You would have made them proud, Bruce…”

In this example, we’ve seamlessly worked it into a piece of dialogue that naturally fits the scene. It seems organic and not shoehorned in.

So to reiterate, my preference is to provide background information sparingly, work it into the story as seamlessly as possible (e.g. through dialogue), and try to avoid ‘info dumping’ at the beginning of the book.

I hope this helps. If you have any other questions, let me know.

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How to Transition Smoothly Between Chapters

How to Transition Smoothly Between Chapters I get a lot of questions regarding writing advice. While I’m no expert, I certainly have some opinions that I’m more than happy to share. Recently, I was asked:

“Are there any ‘good’ ways to have smooth transitions between chapters so that the story flows in an understandable way for the reader?”

First we need to understand that there are two different types of transitions that can occur when a chapter ends:

A.) transitioning from one scene to a completely different scene

B.) transitioning from one scene to a continuation of the same scene, but just in the next chapter

Biker through tunnel

In scenario (a) if there are large gaps of time between the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next, then I usually say something like, “The last 6 months had been rough for Joe. He kept his head down and worked hard…” This is my “establishing shot” so-to-speak. It provides context for the reader and lets them know that the scene has now jumped. The next paragraph after that, I will have Joe doing something and engaging in a new scene.

My book The Art of the Hustle does this quite a bit since I cover 10 years in the book. In one scene, there was so much of a gap (like 4 years), that it was weird to just transition from one chapter to the next so I made a new part. So the book starts out with Part 1 – Chapter 1,2,3,4…. then about halfway, I introduce Part 2 and mention that it has been 4 years later. man walkingIn some cases, it may be more fluid to not have a chapter break, but instead just have a text break. So an example would look like this:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat.

***

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat.

With this technique, you don’t have to be all that smooth since the separator lets the reader know that you’ve transitioned into a different scene. If the gap in time is not that large, say the character is at work in one chapter, and then at home in the next chapter, I may just say “Joe was exhausted. He sat on the couch as he usually did after his shift and watched sports highlights…” hot air balloon at nightScenario (b) — a continuation of the same scene, but just in the next chapter — is much easier. I actually prefer this ‘cliff-hanger’ technique as much as possible to encourage people to continue reading. TV shows often end this way as well. So if a chapter ends like, “Joe turned around and was shocked by who was standing before him.” I’ll end the chapter there so the reader wants to keep reading to find out who was standing behind Joe.

Then, in the next chapter I would begin by saying something like, “Joe couldn’t believe his eyes as he was now staring at a man he long presumed dead…” So basically you just pick up where you left off. In fact, I often write the scene straight through and then later pick some moment which I feel would make a good cliff-hanger and then end my chapter there.

Some writers have an ‘A’ plot and a ‘B’ plot and they stitch it together like a zipper. So in my above example, you would say something like, “Joe turned around and was shocked by who was standing before him.” End chapter. Then the next chapter would be the ‘B’ plot — a completely different scene altogether.

Then once that chapter ends, you pick up where you left off with the ‘A’ plot. I tend not to do this, but it can add more excitement as the reader now has to read an entire chapter just to get back to where they left off in the story.

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Travel Like a Pro

Travel like a pro

I often take for granted how much work is involved in planning a trip. I hear from friends how they saw my pictures from South East Asia or Europe and wish they could do the same. When I ask them why they can’t, their responses can be surprising. Many of them say that it’s too complicated or too expensive, or they’ll come up with some other equally valid reason for not exploring the world. I agree that travelling can be both complicated and expensive, but hopefully reading this post will help. I’ve outlined the process that I go through when booking “complicated” trips.

Let’s begin.

1         Decide where you want to go

When planning a trip, naturally the first thing you want to do is decide where you want to go, which for some is harder than it is for others. I’ll take for granted that you can figure this one out on your own.

With any trip, there are basically two options:

  • Go somewhere new
  • Go somewhere old

For the purpose of this post, I’ll assume you’ve selected to go somewhere new since that is the most complicated of the two choices. Knowing exactly where you want to go is different than just having a general idea of where you want to go. For example, “I want to go to Europe” vs “I want to go to London” — two common statements; two totally different procedures!

2         Figure out dates

Once you’ve decided where you want to go, you have to determine the dates. This actually entails two decisions:

  • When in the calendar year you want to go;
  • And for how long

Booking a trip that is less than one week, and to only one city, is very different than booking a multi-city trip that’s over one week long.

PRO TIP: If you have a bit of flexibility on your dates, sometimes flying one or two days earlier/later can affect the price significantly, and on some sites, you can view the fares of multiple dates at once which is very convenient when you’re looking for a good deal.

3         Look into finances

Deciding where and when is a start, but you have to determine whether you can afford to go. I assume that if you are serious about planning a trip, you have a little money stashed away, otherwise it’s just a sort of wishful thinking exercise. The point is that often we don’t know how far our money will go. Two thousand dollars for instance is enough to travel some places, but not others.

Looking into finances comes into play in three main ways:

  • How much luxury do you want in your trip?
  • What are the exchange rates (i.e. how far will your money go once converted)?
  • How expensive is the country you want to go to?

The biggest expenses are flight and hotel. Certain parts of the world are cheaper to fly to from where you are than others, and this can vary drastically. You can also take advantage of flight deals if you are flexible about dates.

Hotel prices vary a lot. In developing countries for instance, you can get a room for $20/night vs metropolitan cities that could cost $200+/night.

4         Look at weather

Looking at weather sounds pretty straight forward, right? You may want to go somewhere sunny and pack appropriately. Going to Mexico for instance with a luggage full of tank tops and board shorts will not be good if it’s raining the entire time.

However, there is one very important aspect of looking into weather — you want to see what is the best season to go. There are three travel seasons:

  • Low season refers to really miserable weather conditions, few tourists, really cheap, and overall a bad time to visit. Picture Hawaii during monsoon season = not good.
  • Shoulder seasons refer to an off-peak season usually spring and fall when airfares and accommodations tend to be cheaper. It is ideal for when you want to go somewhere and see some things for a relatively low price. As an added benefit, you often experience fewer crowds. The downside is that the weather may not be suitable.
  • Peak seasons are more popular times to go when the weather is nice or when it conforms to common holiday cycles i.e. summer and Christmas. As the laws of supply and demand dictate, when an influx of buyers desire something of a fixed quantity, the price goes up. In other words, what you gain in terms of good weather and time of year, you lose in it being more expensive, having more crowds, and more sold out accommodations and activities.

PRO TIP: If there is a particular natural attraction you want to see (as in, in nature), check when is the best time to see THAT since it could be that it’s in the low season for that region, but that particular attraction looks best then.

My colleague was telling me how when she went to China, she really wanted to see this particular forest that had lots of nice plants. They go all the way to China just for this one thing and when they got there, none of the plants were in bloom! Aside from being really disappointed, they also wasted their precious time and money to visit a place at the wrong time. Don’t let this happen to you!

5         Look at if there are neighbouring cities/countries to visit

If you spend a bunch of your hard-earned money and effort to travel abroad, why not see what else is in the neighbourhood? This also relates to how long you want to spend in one place and also how much time and money you have. Nevertheless, it’s good to optimize your trip.

6         Look at airfare/accommodation deals

When trying to find the best deal on flights, you can use sites like Kayak or Google flights to help track flight prices and alert you when there are sales.

Sometimes you can find airfare + accommodation deals, which can be worthwhile to consider. If you are travelling from Europe within Europe for instance, you can get some great weekend getaways that are flight/train + hotel for cheaper than booking them separately.

Also consider looking for blogs/Facebook groups/etc. that showcase deals from your local airport (i.e. YVR deals).

PRO TIP: If you are thinking of visiting multiple places, then sometimes it’s cheaper to fly to one airport than another from your home. For example, say you want to go to Paris but there’s cheap flights to London, you can fly to London instead and just take a train to Paris.

7         Look for a convenient hotel

If you want to visit several places, plan out a rough itinerary before booking your hotel. See if it’s better to have one hotel as your base and just do a day trip to the other city/country, or is it better to book a new hotel in each city/country.

Use tripadvisor for advice and prices on hotels. However, if you go to a different site directly, the prices are sometimes cheaper.

PRO TIP: If you plan on doing one-way flights to places, switching orders of cities can make a huge difference in flight prices.

8         Look into Visas/shots/customs

Visas:

BEFORE you book your flight, you must ensure you’ll be able to enter the country! Obtaining a visa can be a lengthy process, often more than one month. If you don’t have a visa, you may not be allowed into the country and they will put you on the next flight home – at your expense!

Shots:

If you need shots, you also need to account for adequate time. Be aware that it may take several months for some vaccines to reach their maximum effectiveness, so you may need to have it done at least two months before your trip.

Customs:

As a general practice, it’s always good to know a little about the local customs. You can research online or buy a book that tells you everything travellers need to know. You never want to inadvertently be rude when you visit a particular country. In Buddhist countries, it’s considered rude to point with your feet. In Japanese culture, it’s considered rude to tip your waiter, and stick your chopsticks straight up in your rice. In other places, your clothing may be offensive.

Also, if you could learn a few phrases in the local language, it will go a long way. Phrases such as: ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘where’s the bathroom?’, ‘how much?’, ‘yes/no’, ‘I need help’, etc. are common phrases. A lot of cultures want to see you at least make an effort to speak their language. Once they see this, they are usually a lot more willing to help you out.

9         Look at things to do, including where to eat lunch and dinner

While it’s not necessary to do every bit of research before you book your trip, you should have a general idea of what you want to do. Once you’ve booked your trip, you can delve back into the research.

If you go to a new city, check if there’s a free tour you can join that will give you an intro to the city. If you would rather have a private guide take you around, this can be arranged as well. It costs more, but they can be well worth the money. Guides can often get you better rates, translate for you, negotiate for you, educate you on the sites, find bathrooms when needed… and you will be travelling around in an air-conditioned vehicle all day and don’t have to worry about transit.

Know what you want to do:

If you have an idea of what you would like to do on your trip, then it makes it a little easier to plan. Just figure out where those activities are located, and plan a route that is convenient and efficient.

Don’t know what you want to do:

If you have no idea what activities are available, then you can do some quick research to see what there is to see and do (forums and travel blogs are good for this). Keep in mind where those activities are located since you’ll need to plan a route that is convenient and efficient.

PRO TIP: If you have just a few days in a city, you can google “(#) days in ____ (city you’re visiting)” and see what comes up. There are lots of guides available online and checking out a few of them can give you an idea of what some of the top sights are.

10    Look at transit/transportation

We’re nearing the end of the process!

Renting a car:

If activities, shops, and restaurants are really spread out, and public transit is too complicated or inconvenient, it may be best to rent a car. It’ll cost you more, but then you’ll have a lot more flexibility and convenience, especially in terms of what hotel you want to pick.

Public transit:

If you opt for a cheaper hotel that’s further away from everything, at least ensure there are places nearby to eat, convenience shops, and it’s close to transit with easy/fast connections to the sights you want to see.

PRO TIP:

If a lot of attractions are near the city centre and you can walk to a lot of them, then when you look at the hotel, you have to take into account how much you save from staying further away vs how much more you would spend in transit costs (or parking costs if you’re driving), not to mention your convenience.

11    Book trip

Before you book your trip, you want to go through the following checklist and ensure everything has been thoroughly researched and considered:

  1. Decide where you want to go
  2. Figure out dates
  3. Look into finances
  4. Look at weather
  5. Look at if there are neighbouring cities/countries to visit
  6. Look at airfare/accommodation deals
  7. Look for convenient hotel
  8. Look into Visas/shots/customs
  9. Look at things to do, including restaurants
  10. Look at transit/transportation
  11. Book trip:
    • Flights
    • Hotels
    • Trains

PRO TIP:

You’ve likely done a ton of research by now and have everything finalized. What I like to do is compile all the notes that are relevant to the trip into a brass-fastener folder. You can have everything you need from activities, restaurants, pre-booked tickets, maps, foreign language cheat sheet, copies of passports and credit cards… As you progress through your trip, you can remove (tear out) the pages and discard them, leaving only the pages needed for the remaining days.

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Google Authorship: A Simple Guide to Adding Your Image to Google Search Results

Google Authorship is simply a way to have your image show up in Google search results. Currently, not everyone is doing this, so for those who use it, it makes their page stand out from the rest and increases traffic to your site or blog. This post will give you a simple breakdown of how to set this up without using a lot of confusing technical jargon. There are a few steps, but if you take my hand I’ll walk you through it.

If you set up your Google Authorship correctly, this is what it will look like:

transcendence explained - Google Search - Google Chrome_2014-06-27_07-39-32

Step One: Set up a Personal Google+ Profile

Google+ is Google’s social media platform. If you don’t have a Google+ account, you can easily get one. Just go to plus.google.com and signup.

NOTE: Currently, Google Authorship only works for PERSONAL accounts and not for corporate accounts.

1. For those who have a Google+ account, login or go to your Gmail account. In Gmail, you can link to Google+ by clicking the Google+ icon, which should be located somewhere at the top of the page.

Inbox - Gmail2. In your Google+ account, click “Profile”. The location of this can always change, but currently it’s located in the upper right corner. You will have to click on your image icon to open the menu.

Google+Profile3. After clicking “View Profile” you should see your profile. You then need to click the “About Tab”. From here, you should edit this information to say something relevant about yourself. This will “optimize”, or enhance your profile.

Edward Mullen - Google+ About Tab

4. On the same page in the “About Me” screen, you should be able to see a section that says “Links”. Here is where you need to add your blog or website to the “Contributor to” field.

Google+ Links

Step Two: Add Your Google+ Account to Your Blog or Website

You need to establish a connection between your Google+ account and your blog or website. It is important to add this link on every page you want your picture to show up on. So if you have a blog, it should go on every post.

1. Find your numeric Google+ ID. This can be found by looking at the URL when you’re in your Google+ profile, and copy and pasting it where needed.

Edward Mullen - Google+ ID

2. Take the following code, and paste in your Google+ ID, replacing my number with yours, and replace “Edward Mullen” with whatever message you want it to say. Usually your name is the best, but you could also put “By” – then your name, or “Written by” – then your name.

<a href=”https://plus.google.com/115324952429618849838?rel=author”>Edward Mullen</a>

 rel=author

NOTE: It doesn’t have to be bolded, I just did that to highlight the areas that need to be changed.

3. Once you have the above HTML code with your ID and name, you need to paste it into the HTML section of every page you want your picture to show up. So if you’re writing a WordPress blog, go to the right corner of your post, and click the “Text” tab.

lorem ipsum

NOTE: It doesn’t really matter where you place the HTML code, but usually at the bottom of each post is good as seen above.

Step Three: Test Your Pages

You want to be able to verify you have your Google Authorship set up correctly.

1. Once you’ve pasted the piece of HTML code on every page you want your picture to show up, go to the following link to test your work:

 

http://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/richsnippets

 

Paste in the URL link from your blog or site and click “Preview”. If it has been done correctly, your image should show up.

NOTE: Google will only show your author portrait in search results when they think it will be useful to the user.

structured data testing tool

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Edward Mullen

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Discovering Mystery in the Ancient City of Riga, Latvia

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In March 2014, Sarah and I set off on another adventure – this time to Riga and Jurmala, Latvia. Riga is renowned for many things, but it can now boast the prestigious honour of being labelled one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2014. Needless to say, we were excited to travel to the beautiful and historic city.

We arrived by bus in the evening just as the sun was descending over the horizon. The warm colours of the sky made us forget that it was freezing cold. As we came properly prepared for the weather, we stopped to take a few photos of the red and orange sky before proceeding.

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With our heavy backpacks in tow, we were eager to find our hotel. Sarah had printed a map from the Internet, which proved very quickly to be useless. We remained on the main street, walking along the sidewalk with the water and sunset to our left. Eventually we found a Wellton Hotel (not the one we had booked), and figured we’d ask them for directions to our hotel. As it turned out, we were not very far from our hotel at all. The receptionist assured us we just needed to follow the road for another two blocks and then turn left and we couldn’t miss it. Sure enough, we found our hotel.

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After checking in, we set our bags down and immediately went back out to explore the city. By this time, the sun had completely receded and it was now night time. The starry sky provided the perfect backdrop to the ancient architecture and cobblestone streets. Despite it being below zero, we happily snapped more photos of the rustic buildings.

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The following days and nights were filled with awe-inspiring discovery. At one particular church, we found an odd-looking boulder with a face carved into it. Upon reading the blurb, it turned out to have quite a fascinating story.

It was called The Stone Head of Salaspils. The origin and time of this idol are unknown. The earliest information about it can be traced back to mid-nineteenth century. As the story goes, a farmer from Salaspils discovered the stone idol on his property in 1851. The head went on display at a museum until 1875, where it then disappeared for the next 125 years. It finally resurfaced in the year 2000, when it was found buried in the yard of the church where it now resides. The origins and disappearance still remain a mystery to this day.

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