Friday, July 30, 2010

The Mysterious Beast Called Woman

So you're writing a story. Maybe you're pretty far through it already. There are a few female characters in the periphery, but mostly you write male characters. Later on, you decide the next section needs to be told from the perspective of the Prospective Girlfriend; in horror you realize that you have no idea how to write women. At least, not really.

You see, writing a male character is quite easy; even female authors can quite easily approximate how a man's mind works. Just look at the male characters in something by J.K. Rowling, Harper Lee, Diana Wynn Jones or countless other female authors. The reason it's so easy is because men's minds are simply constructed when compared to the mind of a woman. I'm not trying to make a “men are dumb” or “women are smart” argument; I don't want to seem like a sexist from either side. I'm just trying to make a few observations.

In a work of writing, male minds make a good baseline for how a person thinks, or at least how a person thinks they think. Just imagine a goal, then imagine the path of least resistance to get there. The male mind is this path. If and when women try to achieve the same goal, they might go about it a different way. I find myself thinking of my baby nieces and nephews. Talk about a detailed study in the difference in male and female brains.

Girls are crafty.

Some authors write women as if they're some kind of mythical, rules-of-nature-bending beast. Their characters' minds don't seem to follow any kind of logic, because the male writer doesn't actually know many women. The female characters' actions are erratic. They're either super sexualized, annoyingly macho or disgustingly demure. Either that or the author just writes his version of the Perfect Woman™, which brings its own problems. This is to say nothing of the awful, stilted dialogue.

This isn't to say that male authors can't write women. C.S. Lewis knew what he was doing, and actually made a point of getting into the female mind and poking around a bit, resulting in female characters more believable than girl characters written by actual girls.

There's no magic formula one can use to determine the proper woman. Most of it comes down to experience. If you've known many, many women in your life, you're probably going to have a better understanding of them than a shut-in who plays World of Warcraft all year (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Again, this falls into the Writing What You Know category. More specifically, it falls into a subcategory called Not Writing What You Don't Know. This is INCREDIBLY important when it comes to romance. Good grief, don't write romance if you've never kissed a person before. Please, please spare us. This one particular reason that I can't stand romance novels: They're often written by a person who hasn't done the things they're writing about; they're written by a person who has heavily imagined what it must be like to do those things.

Now, I'm not saying you should stay away from writing women completely. As minor characters they can be good for a laugh (especially when the author knows what they're talking about), or some colorful exposition. In fact, I recommend reading as many books as you can that are written by women. This shouldn't be hard, as there are tons. As you could probably tell, my recommendations are Harry Potter and anything by Diana Wynn Jones. On a side note, if you have something signed by her, I recommend you hang onto it, because I don't think she'll live to see 2011, sadly.

Who knows, you might actually succeed when you try to write women. Remember, though, that just because you happen to be a woman, this doesn't mean that you automatically know how to write them. My, that's weird.

Here's the most important part of this entry. Women are just people. They are not mythical, they are not unknowable. They're just like everyone else, except they're craftier and they smell nicer.

Male writers everywhere, stop writing them like they're a three-headed Hydra!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Rage Writing

Channeling strong emotions into writing has been done since the world began. As you'll discover, channeling rage or sadness into anything creative is rather difficult. When people feel emotionally compromised, usually they'd rather go punch something (or somebody) or drink something strongish. Sitting down at a computer and writing another chapter in Farewell Atlantis seems like the last thing you'd want to do. The hardest part is making yourself sit down do it.

Say you've had an incredibly frustrating day. Lets also say that your solution (or self-imposed therapy) involves some kind of writing, whether it be poetry, fan fiction or something else entirely more violent. If you're trying to write something other people will actually want to read, it's probably best not just to write MURDER MURDER MURDER MURDER MURDER MURDER MURDER MURDER MURDER MURDER MURDER MURDER MURDER MURDER MURDER MURDER MURDER MURDER until your fingers bleed. It certainly feels nice, though. You could also channel your rage/anger/frustration into a violent murder story that involves you killing all of your coworkers, but that's the kind of thing the FBI regards as suspicious.


It's probably best if you try to use your newfound emotional power for good instead of evil. It's kinda like a super power, actually. A super powers that is actually rather common. Your secret power, however, is that you know how to use it.

Assuming you're focusing on a particular person (whom you're angry at) or an emotion (directed at the person you're angry at), that's probably what's going to come out of your writing. It's a little bit like catching lightning in a bottle; if you do it right, it's amazing. If you do it wrong then you'll die (your mileage may vary).

Be prepared to clean up a lot of things. I find that I write more than I need when writing from an emotional place, and so many things end up getting deleted. As always, however, it's better to write too much than too little.

Another benefit of writing angry is that you'll almost never be bored. Everyone has had those days where they sit down at the keyboard and stare at a blank screen (or notebook) and think, “I can't write today.” When you're angry, the reaction is more akin to “LETS WRITE A BATTLE SCENE!” or “AVALANCHE ON A SKI SLOPE!”

If you find that you're still unable to write anything with a semblance of a story, you can at least try to write down character descriptions or story ideas. Sketch the aspects of the person you're mad at with broad character strokes. Maybe you can narrow down the things you're mad at and distill him down to pure evil. Who knows, you might have just made the next Great Villain™.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Apostrophes and Contractions (They go together)

We're back to basics today, dear readers.

It seems that many people, although they're long out of high school or college, have yet to grasp the basic principles of contractions and plurals. I'm not trying to make you feel stupid; in fact, my goal is to make sure you feel smart by the end of this.

What the heck is a contraction? According to my good friend Merriam Webster:

contraction |kənˈtrak sh ən|


the process of shortening a word by combination or elision.

(Elision? What's that word mean? If you haven't already noticed this, then I'm here to tell you now that there will always be words in the English language that you simply won't know. It's been happening to me constantly since I first learned to talk.)

In short, it's when you put two or three words together to make a single easy-to-say word. It's a word-shortcut to save your tongue some waggling. In fact, you probably use them every day without knowing about it. How's that for a thought? There are things in your mouth that you didn't even know about!

Examples of contractions are as follows:

Can not = cannot = can't

Will not = won't

Shall not = shan’t (though this one has fallen out of use)

It is = it's

I already touched on this in my very first blog, but here I'm going to go into further detail.

For now, lets forget about It's because it (apparently) is one of the most confusing words in the English language (right next to “their” “there” and “they're”).

If you're feeling lost in the abstracted nonsense that is grammar rules, you're not alone. Instead of tables and charts, I feel that the strongest teacher is a good example. What follows is a sentence without a contraction followed by a Natural English (as I think of it) example of what an actual person might say.

I do not want to,” said Anakin.

I don't want to,” said Anakin.

(Bonus points if you can find another place for a contraction in this sentence. Hint: It's a combination of the two words “want to.”)

I cannot go with you,” said the girl, “because you are creepy.”

I can't go with you,” said the girl, “because you're creepy.”

All that's happening above is two words are merging together to make another, better word. You might have heard people use the word “ain't.” It wasn't an officially recognized word until a few years ago, when dictionaries everywhere added it, complete with a deliciously complicated definition (Merriam Webster New Oxford American ed.)

ain't |ānt| informal

contraction of

am not; are not; is not : if it ain't broke, don't fix it. [ORIGIN: originally representing London dialect.]

has not; have not : they ain't got nothing to say. [ORIGIN: from dialect hain't.]

But you probably shouldn't use ain't, despite the fact that it's “a word.”

As for apostrophes, the reason get these so confused is because they're not sure if they're using a contraction or a regular word. For instance, “it's” and “its” are endlessly confusing to many people because they look like the same word.

It's ≠ its.

It's” is the combination of the words “it is,” as in “it's time for dinner.”

Meanwhile, “its” is possessive, which means it belongs to the subject in the sentence.

The dog licked its paw.” ≠ “The dog licked it's paw.” You can see that for the second example, what's actually being said is “the dog licked it is paw.” This doesn't make any sense.

Who's ≠ whose “Who's,” again, is a contraction of the two words “who is.” “Who's this?” “Who's there?”

Whose is possessive, rather like “its.” “Whose car is this?” “I found this action figure, but I don't know whose it is.” If you swap one for the other and read it without a contraction, it sounds wrong.

Who's car is this?” = “Who is car is this?” (Hilarious to read, by the way.)

I found this action figure, but I don't know who's it is.” = “I don't know who is it is.”

There's ≠ theirs

There's” means “there is,” as in, “there is a cat on the roof,” which equals “there's a cat on the roof.”

Their's” is, again, possessive. “It's not my car, it's theirs.” ≠ “it's not my car, it's there's.”

Man, I'm actually starting to feel the drag of grammar here. What you should take away from this is that whenever you see an apostrophe, you know that there are two words there. Just split up the words and read the sentence. This makes it incredibly easy to tell which form you're using.

Its time for me to go!

(Wait, should it be “it's” time for me to go?)

(It is time for me to go...)

(Yeah, that's right. I should use it's instead of its.)

It's time for me to go!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Fail Friday

Holy crap, there's no post for Friday! Is the world coming to an end?!

Well, no. But I have two half-written blogs that aren't finished (but will be by Monday), so look lively!


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Fisher Price Piano

When first starting a story it's natural to begin quite small and then slowly let it grow into something bigger. But, when planning stories (a practice which I am pleased to admit I don't practice), occasionally writers can overreach their own abilities.

“But I want to write a four-part quadrilogy about the life and times of my characters, their relationships and the adventures that they, their children and their grandchildren have over several hundred years!”

First of all, there's no such thing as a quadrilogy; it's a word that some movie executives came up with when they put the quite awful Alien 4 on DVD.

Second, I can tell you right now that you're going to have a very difficult time writing a whole four books about one set of characters; granted, I can see the appeal of such an idea, but for someone writing their first or second story this kind of planning is almost completely doomed. There are several reasons why.

You might lose interest before you've finished even one of the books.

You're planning on them being actual books? As in, they're going to be published?

Is your world interesting enough to carry a dozen characters over hundreds of years?

Do you have a reason to have a story stretch over this many books? Are there overarching themes? Villains?

Lets take each bullet point and expand on it, starting from the top.

Lost interest?

This happens to me often. It's never something I do intentionally. Sometimes I'll begin a story, write a few pages, set it down (in my hard drive), and forget about it for a year. Upon returning I realize that the story is either badly written, uninteresting or that it's just not worth finishing. Planning on writing four whole books seems like a long shot, even for me.

Published books?

When you say books, I'm going to assume you mean books. Ignoring the fact that it's astonishingly difficult to get something published, printed and distributed, why does the story need to be told in a book? Until you've proven to other people (and yourself) that you're skilled enough to hold their interest for long periods of time, you're better off sticking with web publishing, or in my case, close-relatives-reading-your-stuff publishing. Take a writing class or two. Get some feedback before you throw yourself on the mercy of an editor. Get some thicker skin before trying to get anything published.

An interesting world? Overarching themes?

Carrying a story over three or four books is a tall order. Unless you're really meticulous and clever, your story will probably work itself out by the end of the first book. This means that it's not really a trilogy (one huge story with three big acts), it's more of a book series (a collection of stories that are related, but not necessarily supported by each other).

If these don't seem very different to you, let me use some real world examples of these kinds of books.

Star Wars (original movies) is a trilogy. When you watch all three, you're getting a much bigger story than any movie would individually give.

Terry Pratchett's Discworld series (books) are part of a series. You don't have to read the books in order, there are often completely different main characters from book to book, and there are so many books that you'd have trouble reading all of them in order. It's not made to be one story, it's a series of loosely-connected plots that take place in the same universe.

But William,” you might say, “Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings trilogy all at once! If he can do it, I can do it too!”

Tolkien actually didn't write a trilogy; he wrote one colossal book. He had to split them up into six (three books with two sub-books in each) when he had them published because there was a shortage of paper after World War II. He didn't wake up one morning, thrust a finger in the air and exclaim “methinks I'll write a trilogy!”

Harry Potter is an anomaly because part of me wants to call it a series and the other a septrilogy. I guess you could read all seven books out of order, but then you'd be missing the complete story. Yes, each book has its own individual stories (which is part of the reason I love them) but the overarching plot (a certain Voldemort problem) really makes think of them as a septrilogy. I guess I answered my own question, and that is that the Harry Potters are more of a trilogy than a series.

So you have to decide for yourself if you want a trilogy or a series. I prefer to write in a series, myself, because it gives you room to make new (better) characters as your writing improves and you get a nice sense of closure between stories. If your universe isn't fleshed out very well, continuing books in a series give you ample opportunities to pile flesh onto your story's skeleton. Plus you can write something unrelated when you finish one without worrying about getting your characters out of a bind.

The first time you sit down at a piano, you're not going to play like Beethoven or Bach. You're probably going to plink around on the keys for a few minutes, get bored and leave. Writing is the same way; you need to practice and you need to be patient. You shouldn't expect amazing awesomeness to flow from you the minute you put a pencil to paper. Although you shouldn't expect awesomeness, you can at least attempt it. Just make sure it's something small enough to finish!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Flat Stanley's Missing Dimension

Few people know how to write characters, especially new ones, so they write what (and usually who) they know: themselves and their friends.

I hate to keep coming back to this, but Steven King's On Writing says it well. He says that you want your characters to talk to and surprise you (paraphrased.)

But how are characters going to talk to you? Aren't you writing them!? You can't surprise yourself for the same reason you can't tickle yourself: because you know it's coming.

The trick to getting out of this trap is to approach your characters differently. Instead of saying, “what would I do in this situation?” you ask, “what would this character do?”

The trick is to make the character contain as little of your own personality as possible. Would you normally high-five someone after thwarting a villain? Make sure you characters don't. Do you hate classical music? Make your character enjoy it. This will stretch your imagination and help you start think like somebody else. This way, when you put your character into an uncomfortable situation, you're already thinking like him and hopefully while you're inside his head, he'll come up with something that you wouldn't.

This is tricky because you might fall into the trap of making your character so far removed from yourself that you no longer have things in common. If this happens then it will be much harder to write. Think of this: You want your character to be your friend, not your enemy.

As for the minor (read: Not main) characters, if everyone's getting along all the time then you've got some more problems. People don't like reading this kind of thing. It gets boring after a while. Conflict breeds interest, as the saying goes. It's very true. Watch any movie or television show and you'll see that the main characters don't always get along. If they do, then they'll at least have rough patches in their relationships. The audience is more interested in seeing how the characters resolve these conflicts. I don't mean to say your characters should be constantly fighting, because that would be just as bad.

This doesn't mean that they're in violent conflict, either; it just means that don't see eye-to-eye in All Things.

“But my characters still seem flat, William,” you might say, “I've followed all of your ridiculous William-Rules and I've come up short yet again! You have failed me, sir!”

Of course your characters are going to be a little flat at first. It's hard to figure out how to make characters interact with each other without seeming like a pained exchange between two sixth-graders. Some authors get it right away and some never get it. Look at the New York Times Bestseller list and I guarantee you'll find some books on there that are actually quite horribly written.

I'm not saying that after your tenth book your characters will magically gain another dimension and jump to life. It doesn't happen this way. Like everything else, it takes loads of practice. If you want to see examples of great characters, I recommend reading the Harry Potters, anything by Diana Wynne Jones, most anything by Eric Nylund, Charles Dickens or Oscar Wilde. If you like television, watch anything created by J.J. Abrams. Alias and Lost are particularly strong in this department, because their characters are constantly in conflict with each other. In J.J.'s Star Trek reboot he took (what many people would call) stuffy, boring and characters and made them amazin'. And that's to say nothing of the phenomenal Fringe.

What's the secret to making characters seem like real people? Their mistakes, overreactions and neuroticism. But what does that mean?

Lets take Spiderman as an example. Unlike other more supermanly heroes, Spidey is almost always being kicked around, berated or otherwise abused. He hardly ever gets what he wants (Mary Jane, a paycheck, the bad guy) and when he does, it usually costs him something else (uncle Ben, a date). He's almost the perfect picture of tragedy, except for the fact that he's so funny and lighthearted. He's constantly cracking jokes and making fun of villains.

You might say that his imperfections make him so fun to read (if you read comics) or watch in the cartoons or the first two Spiderman movies.

If you took him too far in the imperfect hero direction, he'd become Dexter, and many people don't want that.

If he didn't have these weaknesses, he'd just be a guy in a suit saving people (Spidey, not Dexter). Everybody has to have weaknesses, and not just super heroes. These weaknesses make the character better, because them they have the opportunity to improve over the course of the story (or series or movie).

“Okay,” you might be saying, “I've got the formula down:

Weak characters

Personal journey

Exploitable weaknesses

Character growth

Sad but funny

I'm gonna go and write my story, and I'm gonna make a million dollars from it!”

Hold the phone. The formula you've just created could be the same that Woody Allen uses in his “movies.” You can't just go and make all of your characters like this. In fact, maybe you shouldn't follow my advice at all. Certainly not all of it at once.

At this rate your character is gonna be so weak and exploitable that he would no longer be fun to read. What I'm really trying to explain is depth.

With anything, take my advice in moderation. You want your characters to gel with others; to compliment each other's personality. Don't make anybody perfect, unless your goal is to make a person annoyingly heroic.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Favorable Fan Fiction

In a response to Wednesday's post, my sister wrote this: “...fanfiction is a great way to get a person writing, and excited about writing. Eventually they should move on to original stories, and from what I've seen, most of them do.

I mean heck, Naomi Novik of the Temeraire books started out writing Sherlock Holmes fanfiction, and that way she got all the bad kinks out of her writing before she tried something original.

I avoid book fanfiction on principle, though. Videogames ... hey, you're writing a story based on a bunch of moving pictures. There's no writing style to rip off. But fanfiction of books ... there's a writing style to emulate, and nobody can do it well.”

I thought she made an excellent point, so I've decided to write something about the upside of writing this kind of stuff.

If you've read my post on Said and Adverbs then you've heard about my very first experiments with writing, which involved Command and Conquer. I've never really thought of it as fan fiction, but it is. It was good for me for several reasons; as my sister said above, it helps you get all of your bad writing, and hopefully bad habits out of the way. Because I was so young, there were many more terrible things that I had to write before I would even begin to figure out what I was doing (and I'm still learning).

If you were to travel back in time to meet me when I was writing these terrible C&C stories (give or take a few years), you'd also discover that I was writing another series of stories based on something altogether weirder, and that is Legos. Not just any legos, mind you, but the legos from the Lego Adventures playsets. Essentially the whole series was a thinly veiled copy of Indiana Jones, but since Lego didn't get the distribution rights from Paramount until 2008, us kids were stuck with Johnny Thunder. This was fine with me, because I didn't like Indiana Jones as much. I was about 10 at the time. I still remember trying to write the doctor (see: Sean Connery) character with a Scottish accent. I still remember all of the character names, mostly because I had the mini figures and (probably) all of the playsets.

If Lego's goal is to stimulate kids' imagination, they succeeded with me.

My adventures were never as sweeping and grand as I'd like, and usually wound up being unintentional rip-offs of scenes from Indiana Jones (instead of a pit of snakes, I had scorpions).

I don't know where I got the idea to write things in the first place; I wasn't a very good reader at the time, with a slow speed and low comprehension, but I still took it upon myself to enrich the world of literature. The stories were only a dozen pages long, hand-written in the sort of tiny notebook that people keep next to their telephone. But what else was I going to do for the days-long car rides to Oklahoma? (I'll explain more of that in another blog.)

What I learned from this writing was:

Writing takes a long time, and usually what you write seems much shorter than it did when you were writing it

If your character dialogue sounds bad even when you're ten years old, it's probably bad

There's nothing to do in Oklahoma except write stories about your favorite toys, and then reading said stories and longing for said toys

I didn't really get into writing until I read the first few Harry Potters, at which point I decided I rather liked this “reading” thing. That was when I started seriously trying it out.

How is this related to fan fiction?

Instead of making up my own stories, almost everything I wrote was based on whatever I was playing on the computer or on the Sega Genesis, Sega Saturn or Dreamcast.

My older sister wrote tons of stories based on some old Sega Games, which you might remember as Sonic the Hedgehog. I was always fascinated with how she was able to put so much depth into characters who had been created to sell cartridges. She put more thought and love into her characters than Sega ever had, and even more still than those brain-deads who created those awful Sonic cartoons.

I didn't want to write Sonic stories, though. I did the next best thing; Pac-Man.

That's as much information you're getting on the matter.

I also tried to write stories based on a series of children's detective books that I had. They weren't mystery novels; they were novelty “How To Be A Detective” booklets targeted at kids of my age demographic. I don't know why I loved them so much, but I wrote many a story involving the handful of example detectives.

Anyway, my sister built a sort of community with other people who loved Sonic the Hedgehog and wrote stories of their own. One of her writer friends whose name I don't remember sent her a story that she said was Very Good. She sent it to me and I read it. Sure enough, it was Very Good.

Aside from my sister's stories, I didn't know that anyone could write something about something so (seemingly) shallow and bring so much depth to it. His characters were textured, his Sonic was just right and his minor characters struck a balance between being hilarious and tragic. What impressed me was the way he had invented his worlds. Things that not even the Sonic videogames themselves dared attempt: Arachnid cities filled with talking bureaucratic tarantulas, an entire city based around drugging its inhabitants, a city in the sand that didn't seem remotely like Egyptian mythology.

For the record, I dislike reading things on a computer screen, especially in the dark. But I read that whole gosh-darn thing on my flickering CRT monitor, and I loved it.

The point of this entry is this: Fanfiction isn't a bad thing. I know in Wednesday's post I made it sound like it was the Devil's Own but there can be some really great stuff generated by a writer with a deep affection for an existing series. Highlights of good fanfiction are this:

• It takes an established franchise and expands on it without feeling forced or unnatural

With the change of a few character and location names, the story could stand on its own free of copyright claims

• It brings something out of the original work that you wouldn't normally thought about

Thanks Kess!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Fan Fiction Follies

As a new writer, the first thought of some people is that their story is going to be filled with riveting characters, plot twists, amazing and imaginative new things and that everyone will want to read it.

The truth is that the first story is going to be at least a little painful. I can speak from personal experience, because I've written many of awful things.

You don't want to bog yourself down with an overly large world. I think this is why some people are genetically predisposed to writing fan fiction based on their favorite books, movies or games. The logic goes like this:

It's actually quite a lot of work to invent a universe by yourself. It's much nicer if you can take an existing universe and just move in. Like a land squatter. You can even use your own characters.

Imagine that I really liked Harry Potter (which I do). If I liked it enough, and wasn't feeling particularly creative, I could start writing fan fiction inside the Harry Potter universe. I could make my own students attend Hogwarts. I could make up a few additional teachers, and they could have grand wizardly adventures together.

I'm not trying to speak out against fan fiction here, as I've read some (actually quite excellent) stuff by a handful of not-published internet writers.

The problem with most fan faction is almost like my adverb argument: This kind of thing sets you up for bad habits and failure.

In my new Harry Potter story, assuming I'm only the most casual of writers, my characters are probably going to take the form of the existing characters from those books. Lets say I loved Ron and Ginny. They're who my characters would be. All that I have to do is change the names and I'm golden.

My main character is, naturally, going to be either very much like Harry or very much like my own personality. This is called a self-insert or Mary Sue. I make Harry-me (or “Hairme”) talk to my version of Ron and Ginny the same way I would personally talk. Ron and Ginny, in turn, talk to Hairme the same way I would expect my friends to talk to me.


This is a problem. At this point, I'm no longer writing a story; I'm writing what I would like to do in Hogwarts. This is just me hanging out with my friends, but with magic. It's a vacation; a fantasy. It's not what I set out to do. What happened to my compelling characters? What happened to the plot twists and exciting villains?

The problem might be that the basic structure of the story was too close to the original work. Harry's (probably) already done all of the things you set out to do, and worse still, he did it better. Instead of innovating a story, I've only created a bland retelling of it.

To make things more interesting, instead of students at Hogwarts, I could make my characters be muggles outside of Hogwarts who have finally realized something is up. I could bend the lore a little and explain what happened to the Unplottable spell on the school. Or maybe I could tell the story from the perspective of a teacher. Or from someone who actually didn't get into Hogwarts and is forced to find another means of education. Or set the story in one of the other magic schools mentioned in the original books. Durmstrang, anyone?

You don't need to make your characters have the same experience as Harry. In fact, if it were really my story, I'd steer clear of making the characters anything like J.K. Rowling's. The problem I foresee is that Rowling had so many minor characters with so many personalities that it would be hard to invent a new person without them seeming a bit like someone from Potter canon.

These are the sorts of reasons that I always avoid writing fan fiction if given the choice. Not only are you limited to the kinds of stories you can tell (Lord of the Rings fan fiction would certainly fall prey to this), but you're always in danger of retreading old ground. If you make your own universe you're completely free to do whatever you like.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Writing What You Know

There are few things harder than writing something you don't know about. Lets say you've got a brilliant idea for a story involving explorers visiting Antarctica. Assuming you haven't actually been there, I'll bet that it would be challenging for a casual hobby writer to write.

Since I can't suppose how much you know about Antarctica, I'll impose my own knowledge (or lack thereof) for the sake of example.

What do I know about Antarctica, anyway? (Off the top of my head)

It's cold

Nothing can live there

There's an American research station there, which is occupied year-round by only a handful of people.

Polar bears?


It's cold

Before long you can see that my understanding breaks down into things I suppose rather than things I know for certain. This is dangerous because it can lead to bad story telling, even for someone who has mastered their prose and can write amazing characters; as long as they're writing something unfamiliar (and unresearched), the story will never be as strong. Think of how embarrassing it would be for a New York Times bestseller to get something obvious and simple wrong, like adding polar bears to a place that has none. It's happened, and it's hilarious as long as it's not yourself.

What I don't know about Antarctica (off the top of my head)

How to get there (as in, how to charter a plane or boat, who to call, what to say and how long this takes)

What to bring (I'm assuming at least a parka and a change of undies)

Who really runs the thing (I don't know if they're volunteers, military or government employees)

Do penguins and polar bears really live there?

How cold is it exactly?

How long is a typical visit to the Antarctic?

What reason would explorers have to go there?

Apparently the things I don't know outnumber the things I do know. This presents another problem.

At this point I can reassess my situation and make some considerations:

Writing this story seems to be a little bit beyond my current comfort level. I could always research the heck out of Antarctica, but that seems like a lot of work. I think it'll be better if I set the story around, say, a trip to Mount Whitney.

Why Mount Whitney?

Because I've been there. I'll have to do only minimal research, but most of the work is already done. I remember what we ate, what we carried, how we slept (or rather, how we didn't), and how tired I was. There's no effort on my part to fabricate facts or (gasp) research stuff.

This doesn't just apply to locations. Just think of some of your skills and try to apply them to characters. Please don't misunderstand this as an invitation to start throwing self inserts into everything you write. Maybe I should explain some more.

I play piano. Nothing too fancy, but I have an understanding of it, basic though it may be. I know what it feels like to play keys with different amounts of pressure. I know the kinds of weird, abstracty things that go through my head as I'm playing, and I know what it feels like to play for an audience.

This knowledge could be applied to lots of things in a story. Maybe the kinds of things I think about when playing could be used for some kind of computer uplink interface in a sci-fi story, or some brand of magic in fantasy. If you want to go more contemporary and less “out there,” it could be the mind of a crazy person in an asylum. The point is that I don't have to only write stories about people who play piano (which you could also do.) Maybe my story is actually about a mentally insane musical savant whose mind is can interface with an alien computer via musical abstraction. Who knows? I'm really just trying to stay within my level of comfort.

On the other hand, I probably want to steer clear of things I'm unfamiliar with. Like Antarctica, I should avoid things I haven't directly experienced or at least researched to death. Things like:



The death of a close family member

Cancer treatment

Open heart surgery

“But what if I want to write a story about people riding mechanical steampunk dragons who thwart Nazis via sci-fi mind magic? There's no way to research these things!”

First of all, if that's the story you're writing, I'll be the first in line to read it. Second, you most certainly can research some of that stuff.

If you're gonna be writing about riding animals, you could go find a dude ranch (or a friend who owns horses) and see about riding them. I'm not much for riding, but I've at least done it. If I was going to describe riding a horse, I would use the following phrases:

Constantly slipping

Jiggling up and down

Compressed spine

Strong odor

It's not like anything I've ever done, and for someone who's never stood next to a horse, let alone ridden one, it would be quite an experience (because horses are rather giant).

As for mechanical steam-powered animals, you could probably just make up anything you like. Things that have no frame of reference in the real world are just made for writers to create. The real trick is making these implausible things seem plausible, if not completely possible, and that's what I'm trying to get across.

In summary:

If you haven't been camping, don't write about camping.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Importance of Said and Avoiding Adverbs

Said is perhaps the only invisible word in the English language, though some people still feel that it's wrong to use it, almost like they're in danger of overusing it. I'm not sure you can overuse the word said. It's just so darn versatile.

Disclaimer: Today's entry mostly applies to story-writing. I'm not sure of how useful it will be for the following people: Script writers, news reporters, and people who write in the present tense.

What is said, exactly? It's the past tense form of saying, which is the present tense form of will say. If all this talk of tenses is screwing you up, here's a short lesson in what the heck a tense is.

You're a fool,” I said to Johnny. (Past tense.)

You're a fool,” I'm saying to Johnny. (Present tense.)

I'm going to call Johnny a fool. (Future)

Now that we know roughly how Said fits into dialogue, it's time for me to make some general observations.

When I first started writing (somewhere between the age of 7 and 15) I wasn't particularly worried about dialogue. I usually wrote about things I liked or saw in video games. My brother played a game called Command and Conquer, a military strategy game where you order your troops all over the battlefield. I enjoyed watching him play. Naturally, some of that game crept into my (usually awful) stories, despite the fact that I knew nothing of the military. I thought that tanks came from the airport (because that's what they did in C&C!) and that pistols were the weakest weapon in the world.

I'll save the rest of this story for another entry, because right now I feel like I'm doing a better job explaining why not to write things you don't know about. So lets get back to Said.

My paper-thin characters in these loosely-C&C-based stories would talk like this (recreated for teaching purposes. I would be horrified to publish things I wrote when I was 10.) Observe how I avoid the word Said after the first use.

Don't go in there,” said the Mayor.

Why not?” asked the army man angrily, “I have to put bombs in the bad guys' base.”

Because!” Roared the Mayor crossly, slamming his fist down, “it's too dangerous!"

I have to,” argued the army man, slapping the Mayor harshly, “we have to do this and then get back to the airport to get more tanks!”

We don't do a darn thing until I say so!” squawked the Mayor triumphantly. Just then, a flamethrower man came in.

The point is that there is nothing wrong with using Said every time someone speaks. In fact, sometimes you don't even need to attribute the text to anyone because there are only two characters. At some point you can trust the audience to know who's talking. But that's for another lesson, too.

Another thing you might notice is the profuse use of adverbs. I know a few people who will violently disagree with this William-rule, but give me a chance to explain before violently crushing CONTROL+W on your keyboard.

If you're ever read On Writing by Steven King you'll have heard this same rule. In fact, it's where I first heard it. However, he doesn't give much of an explanation as to why you shouldn't use adverbs, he just argues that you shouldn't.

But why would Steven King order me to do something without an explanation?” you might find yourself asking. I must point out that he does illustrate this point in the book via a handful of examples. After reading them it does seem like a world without adverbs is a better one, but I still wasn't exactly sure why.

I thought about it. For three years. During this time, I finished a story I was (slowly) writing, at which point it all became clear:

It all comes to down to Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. In the book they constantly stress how important it is to not waste words. “Why?” you might ask, scratching your head, “it's not like there's a shortage of word-trees.”

STOP RIGHT THERE. If you think there's no reason to conserve word-trees then I will prove my point via a snappy example. One of these sentences wastes many words, the other says the same thing in much less time.


I leaned against the strong trunk slowly. Its unforgiving caress was rough, but not unwelcome. I looked up at the tree and saw a bird's nest stuck in amongst the branches, though it looked as if it might fall. Slowly I unpacked my sandwich, peeled back the plastic and took a bite. I chewed thoughtfully and looked out over the field. Even in the shade it was a hot day. The grassy field was completely yellow.


I sat under a tree and ate a sandwich.

It's obvious which one is which, and clearly I've exaggerated a bit, but the point is that it takes much longer to say the same thing. If you were actually writing this story, you would probably want a third option that falls somewhere between the two extremes.


I leaned against the strong trunk. slowly. Its unforgiving caress was rough, but not unwelcome. I looked up at the tree and saw a bird's nest stuck in amongst the branches, though it looked as if it might fall. Slowly I unpacked my sandwich peeled back the plastic and took a bite. I chewed thoughtfully and looked out over the field. Even in the shade it was a hot day. The grassy field was completely yellow.

Hopefully now you understand why you shouldn't waste words. Now I can talk about adverbs again. The reason I personally don't like adverbs (although I still find myself accidentally using them) it because they are either adding unnecessary weight to a sentence or showing a hole in your writing.

My wife just died,” Thomas said mournfully.

What do you take away from this sentence? Probably that Thomas is quite sad. I would certainly hope so, I heard his wife just died. Do I really need to tell the audience that he sounds mournful?

Ah-HA!” You might be saying, “you can't actually TELL that he's sad if you take away the Mournfully part!”

Perhaps you're right. But you must remember that no story is going to have a single sentence independent of the surrounding text (except maybe in the chapter titles). What we'd actually be looking at is this:

My wife just died,” said Thomas.

There was a pause.

Are you alright?” said Diana, reaching to put a hand on his shoulder. Thomas pulled away from her and walked away.

Hopefully the reader can see that Thomas is sad, without the use of adverbs or a George Lucas-style “I AM ANGRY” or “You're breaking my heart” speech.

I guess what I'm getting at is that if you want to make your characters say something happily or sadly (or even sexily), you need to make them do it in the body of the dialogue. All it takes is practice. You have several tools at your disposal that aren't adverb-shaped. For instance, body language. Other characters to interact with. Strong writing. Good characterization. Again, see the difference:

He's been called back into the service!” Mary said tearfully.

Mary burst into tears. “He's been called back into the service!”

And this time we're gonna kill him,” said Roger intensely.

And this time,” Roger was shaking with rage, “we're gonna kill him.”

I've been watching you while you slept,” said the man creepily.

A man stepped out of the shadows in the corner of the bedroom. “I've been watching you sleep,” he said.

Of course I thought about it,” Wesley said thoughtfully.

Of course I thought about it,” said Wesley, looking thoughtful.

You'll also notice that with all of these examples, I'm only using “said.” Never “roared” or “squeaked” or “bellowed."

Return on for Monday's lesson: Writing What You Know.