Category Archives: Writing Tips

Killing your Characters or Writers are Monsters

Killing your Characters or Writers are Monsters

In the latest novel I’m writing, Reavers of the Tempest (Book Two of the Storm Below), I came to the point where I killed a major character. I was torn up inside. I grieved for this fictitious person even as I wrote the words that condemned the character to death. I felt like a complete monster. I felt real guilt in the moment of writing.

For me, the characters I write are almost real people. I think about them, putting myself into their heads. I have to believe they’re real so I can capture their personalty. My characters are almost my friends, or at least casual co-workers.

And then you come to that point where you kill them. You have to harden your heart. You have to set aside the care you feel for this imaginary character and thrust the dagger into their backs. And then you have to write their deaths. You have to get into their minds and experience the loss and fear all for the service of your story.

Because that’s why you’re killing the character. For the story. After breathing life to this fictitious person, you lead them into circumstances and pull the rug out from under them. They lose all those dreams and hopes, their plans for the future. It all ends abruptly because you have a story to tell.

To be a writer, you have to be a little monstrous. You have to be willing to put your imagination into the darkest parts of life and humanity. As William Faulkner put it, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” You need to be prepared to do what it takes for the service of your story. You can’t flinch. You have to harden your heart and plunge the dagger into your character’s back even if they don’t deserve it.

Even though I felt like a monster for killing my characters, I’m sharpening my knife. The story must be satisfied. I cannot flinch. Without risk and conflict, a story is a limp, boring affair.

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The Colors of Fantasy

For the longest time, the Fantasy genre has been dominated by protagonist that do not represent most of the world’s demographics. Often male, and almost always white. The roots of this are easy to see. The modern Fantasy genre was birthed out of the Epics and Romances of Europe. Fantasy settings were often just Medieval Europe with magic. And when you needed your villains, why, you just looked to the east where the swarthy and exotic races of Fantasy Asia lived.

All writing is influenced by the era it is produced. Once It was perfectly acceptable to have your protagonist be white and your antagonist not-white. Luckily, we do not live in one of those close-minded eras. I grew up believing the color of your skin doesn’t matter. The capacity for heroism dwells in the hearts of all of us, and the siren’s call of evil sings in the depth of all our souls.

So why do you still see Fantasy dominated by White protagonist? Is it because the majority of authors in the field are White? Perhaps it’s because the largest market for English literature is (in no order) USA, Canada, Australia, and the UK? Is it a subconscious act. Do these authors look at the Fantasy stories they were raised on and propagate what they read? Or is it a limitation of imagination that locks them into a Eurpoean-centric fantasy world?

Fantasy is an amazing genre. It doesn’t have to be limited to knights, castles, and wizards. You can set your world in a Victorian era, a bronze-age, a tribal landscape. You can conjure worlds that could never exist in reality, the work on principals of physics or theorems of magic that are impossible in our more mundane universe.

And the races you populate your world in can be just as creative. You don’t have to limit yourself to the constrains of the old. Why couldn’t the courtly intrigue of a seventeenth-century France be populated with Black-skinned aristocrats as they scheme and plot for power? The center of culture and learning could be a society inspired by the Indian subcontinent. And the fierce barbarians pressing at the edges of a might civilization could be White.

Or you can get really creative. Why limit yourself to the races that we have on Earth? Create your own. Take elements from different cultures. Let your imagination populate your world with a diverse mix of fleshed out societies. There are a rainbow of skin-tones, eyes, and hair colors to paint the canvas of your Fantasy world with. So create a world that wholly unlike our own, and share the amazing depths of your imagination with us.

And the most important thing to remember is that any human is clever. Regardless of how technological their society is, how learned their scholars are, how civilized their nation appears, even the most primitive of humans had the intelligence to grasp new concepts, to adapt to new circumstances, to innovate. That’s who we are as a species. So let’s celebrate our diversity in our writing.

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World Building: The Little Details

When you’re writing speculative fiction, you have to create a world. For some that means building on what already exists in our world, but for others (particularity in the Fantasy genre) that means creating your own, unique universe from your imagination.  It can be a daunting task and you can be tempted to take short cuts.

imagesMy beta reader for my WIP, the amazing Valerie Hemlin, gave me a wonderful bit of advice: readers want to “feel, smell, breathe, and taste the world he’s in.”

So what does that mean?  When your characters are having a meal, describe it, put little world-building nuggets into their meal. When they’re riding down a road, describe some wildlife, the landscape,. What colors are the flowers and the trees? What sort of wildlife populates your world? It is mundane or fantastical? Are there unusual sights or smells? Bring to life the world your characters are walking through.

MB_worldbuildingIf you can make it feel as vibrant as our world, your readers will fall in love with it. Half the fun of reading Fantasy, at least to me, is the world building. Worlds that could never exist in our universe can be brought to life by a skilled author.  People read fiction for entertainment, to escape whatever problems they face in their world. So take them to fantastic places, wow them with your creativity. Get them excited and talking about what they read.

Caliborn_worldbuildingSo don’t skip the little stuff. Don’t get too caught up in the grand plot that you’re unfolding. If people don’t care about the world you’re putting at stake, then why are they going to keep on reading? Make it real, make it believable. Let your readers “feel, smell, breathe, and taste” your imaginative universe.

Thanks to Valerie for sparking this blog post. Follow her on twitter @VHemlin, she’s very supportive of authors.

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Writing Tips: Sayings, Expressions, Curses

Sayings, expressions, colloquial phrases, and curses are all a part of a culture’s rich history. They can change from country to country, city to city, and sometimes even between neighborhoods. We use them without thought, peppering them into our speech.

colWhen your writing speculative fiction set in different worlds, whether it’s Fantasy, Alternate History, Sci-Fir or any other genre of fiction where you are creating a brand new world out of whole cloth, then you should consider how the inhabitants of your speculative world speak. How do they curse? How do they insult each other? What terms of endearments do they use? What colloquial phrases color their speech?

The fun of writing speculative fiction is creating new worlds and trying to make them as real to your readers as you can. So writing dialog that feels real, inspired by the tapestry of your world’s history and cultures, can enhance the verisimilitude of your world and help to draw your readers into the fantastical world that you have created.

COLLOQUIALISMSI am writing a Fantasy novel called Above the Storm. It is set in a world of floating islands above an ever churning Storm. The inhabitants travel by sailing ships that soar through the skies and upon flying beasts of burden. Some animals don’t exist in this world. It’s populated more by flying birds and fish, than by more terrestrial mammals. Weather is very important to the inhabitants. Both because a dark storm lurks below the that spawns dangerous Cyclones that ravage their lands, and because sailing is such an integral part of the universe. So the inhabitants use a lot of wind metaphors.

Be creative. Delve into your history. And don’t feel the need to explain your sayings. For instance, if a character, talking about her deceased mother says, “My ma weren’t no golden feather while she lived.” The context can tell a lot about what the character is saying. In the previous line, the character she is talking to mentioned what a terrible mother he had. The reader can infer that “no golden feather” means her mom wasn’t that great of a person either without me explaining the origin of this colloquial expression. Though a careful reader could notice earlier in the book when a story is told about the first Dawn Empress who lived two thousand years ago. She was a Luastria (bird people) and was hatched from a golden egg laid by the primary deity (Riasruo, the sun goddess). She had golden feathers, painted like the sun, and was considered a paragon of virtue.

collCurses and swearing can be even more fun. You might not want to drop a lot of f-bombs and s-words. For some fantasy worlds, they can work (GRR Martin), but if you’re not wanting to have such an R-rating work, you can uses curses and swear words drawn from your world building. Most curses relate to bodily functions, sexual metaphors, blasphemy (twisting something revered), and fears. If your world is populated by an ever turning Storm created by an Evil Goddess called Theisseg, your characters can say words like “Theisseg’s scrawny feathers” or “storming” or “storm-cursed.” Instead of having a character say go F yourself, they can say, “go jump into the Storm.”

Be creative. Have fun with them. Make your world feel alive with a history and culture that didn’t just start when you wrote chapter one. Half the fun of reading speculative fiction in all its fun and myriad forms is for the world building. Entering new worlds that you can get lost in and set your imagination on fire. When your readers fall in love with the world you created, you’ll began to grow the loyal fans that will want to read more about your world.

Author Nathaniel Sean Crawford has added his own ideas and examples of this idea from more popular sources than my writings. Click here to check out his article!

 

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Drawing On Your Own Experiences

When writing, drawing on your own experiences are important. I have been going through my rough draft of Above the Storm, organizing my notes and figuring out what the story needs when I start my rewrites, and I came across the scene where two friends fight and their friendship is ended, and I realized where this scene had come from.

When I was in the seventh grade, I wasn’t very popular. I read a lot and was picked on for being a nerd. Yes, I know, shocking. I had one friend at the time. We had met over the summer between elementary school and Junior High (my school district had K-6 elementary, 7-9 Junior High, and 10-12 High School). His younger brother and my younger brother where in cub scouts together and I was dragged to a meeting. He lived only ten blocks away and we became friends.

Up until the start of my ninth grade, I thought he was my best friend. We hung out must weekends, playing RPGs, D&D, Magic the Gathering, Warhammer. And while I had made other friends by the ninth grade, he was the one I was closest to. And then, out of the blue, he told me that he had never really liked me and he didn’t want to hang out with me anymore.

It was a bitter experience. Two years of friendship turned out to be a lie. After that, I didn’t really see him until my Senior year in High School where we shared a class and pretty much ignored each other. I never knew why he hung out with me so much.

I channeled this relationship into my novel without even realizing it. Writing is such an interesting exercises. You have to reach into your soul, pulling out the pain that’s been heaped on you and putting it down on paper, sharing it for the entire world to read. You dredge events you had hoped to forget, unbottling emotions long buried. I can still feel that hurt, bewildered day.

Experiences shapes you and you can draw on those experiences to shape your characters, to add conflict to their lives. Draw on your life for the colors you use to paint the canvas of your story. So don’t be afraid to dredge the good times and the bad from your life and used them to create something that moves your readers to joy, to sadness, to fear, to anger.

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Self-Editing

Self-Editing

I find self-editing to be very difficult for a number of reasons and it’s taken me a while to develop the discipline to read through my work carefully. But no matter how hard I tried, mistakes kept slipping through, so I decided to do some research on the matter, trying to learn tricks to help me self-edit and produce more professional writing.

The main hurdle to self-editing is the psychological phenomena known as pareidolia. Even if you’ve never heard of pareidolia you are more than aware of it. Our brains are wired to recognize patterns and this causes us to see patterns in meaningless data from seeing shapes in the clouds to seeing the image of the Virgin Mary in a potato chip. Our brains are powerful processors capable of feats of pattern recognition that even the most powerful computers are not capable of, and we do with any effort. This comes with a downside, we see things that aren’t there.

So what does pareidolia have to do with self-editing and why is it the biggest obstacle? It’s simple, our brains are great at finding patterns and filling in the missing data to form the expected shape or most likely shape. Since your brain knows what you wrote and knows what you intended to say, your brain will often see what you think you wrote. This is why homophone mix-ups are hard to catch. You meant to write ‘there’ but instead you wrote ‘their’. Because your brain knows what you intended, you could read it a dozen times and fail to realize you used the wrong word because of pareidolia.

Now that you know about the issue, you’re probably wondering how to combat this phenomena. If you’re an indie author (like me), a student writing a paper, or a professional writing a report or presentation then you know the importance of self-editing and you don’t want to put out an unprofessional product. You need to divorce your words from your writing, putting barriers in place to keep you from seeing your work as a whole and seeing the trees that make up the forest. So here are a few tricks I use that I find are quite helpful:

      1. Word Search: Every word processor software has a find/replace function that you usually can find under the edit menu or using ctrl+f. I have a list of words that I know I mess up on, such as there/their/they’re, were/where/we’re, your/you’re, fill/feel, now/know, new/knew, form/from, who/how, etc. So I search the document and read every instance I wrote the word, making sure I’m using it correctly. This forces me to see what word I wrote in the context I wrote it and catch mistakes. Whenever I’m editing and I find I’ve made the same homophone mistake before, I add it to the list. I usually find one mistake per 1000 words with this method.
      2. Read Backwards: Another way to help combat pareidolia is to read your document backwards. You start at the end of the document and you read it paragraph by paragraph from the end to the beginning. This helps to divorce you from the story’s flow and concentrate on what you actually wrote instead of what your brain thinks you wrote.
      3. Text-to-voice Software: Hearing your work spoken aloud is helpful to spot missing words. Did you forget a the or an? Did you misspell a word that you don’t search for? Did you use the right verb tense? All of these mistakes become very apparent when you hear the text spoken. You can read it aloud, but I prefer to use a text-to-voice software. I use NaturalReader. You can purchase it, but you can also use it for free, though it pops up an annoying ad for the full version every 1500 words or so.

There is another technique that I’ve read but never tried. If you change the font of your text, it changes what your mind expects and helps to spot mistakes. If you wrote your document in Times New Romans, use Courier New on editing.

So I hope this helps with your writing because these techniques made a big difference with my own self-editing and while I still can’t achieve perfection, at least I have achieved professionalism.

Note: I edited this document using my techniques. Find/Replace method discovered an ‘are’ that should have been an ‘our’. Reading backwards found a few grammar errors. Text-to-voice discovered that I forgot to write ‘be’ in the very first sentence as well as five other mistakes (verb tense, wrong word, and missing word).

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What Should You Write?

If you’re one of us, a writer, someone that has that itch to put pencil to paper, ink to parchment, text to screens, you probably wondering what you should write. You see what’s sitting on the bestseller list and go, “Hey, I should write ______. It seems really popular.”

Not so fast!

You can fill in the blank, whether its zombies, vampire romances, YA female protagonist in some dystopian future, or avenging serial killers; right now your local bookstore shelves are full of the same type of books based on whatever was hot the last few years.

Do not write a vampire romance or a zombie story because it’s popular and will sell. Look to your bookshelf. See what you love to read. That’s where you should start. Tell the stories that you care about, and it will show in your writing. Take what you love to read and put your mark on it. Take, absorb it, and write your take on it, put your voice to it. So if your shelf is full of vampire romances or an avenging serial killer thrillers, than go ahead and write about it, because that’s what you are passionate about.

Writing, like all the arts, is grueling. You are in the for the long slog to become even modestly successful, so you might as well enjoy what your writing, because that passion will not only show through the words you write on paper or type on screen, but will also keep you going through the difficult times as you read your newest rejection letter or, for those indie authors, stare at your Amazon sales graph hoping that this time when you hit refresh there will be a magical sale.

That’s why I’m writing an Fantasy novel. I want to tell stories in an exciting world that can only be visited through the power of the human imagination. Maybe it will sell and join the plethora of Fantasy books at the bookstore, and maybe I’ll be carving out my territory in the indie world. Either way, I’ll be selling a product that I care deeply about and I hope it will show.

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