Criticism is an Anal Probe. (Writing Workshop)

Criticism is an Anal Probe. (Writing Workshop)

Into the Digital Catacombs We Go

I went full Indiana Jones on my writing hard drive this morning. Plumbing the depths of your old content never fails to enlighten. It’s also good if you’re in need of a good cringefest (gotta keep those facial muscles nice and tone, after-all).

Don’t feel bad. Even Harrison Ford puts out crap every now and again.

They say good writing is good rewriting, which is true, but one of the things that doesn’t mean is: Delete all previous drafts. I’m a firm believer that, just like the embarrassing photos your parents took of you in the bathtub with your brother when you were 8 years old, you should keep that shit for later. It never hurts to have some good blackmail in your back pocket.

Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re probably not going to blackmail yourself with your own shoddy writing/thought experiments gone awry because that would be some bat-shit crazy level stuff right there. Then again, we are our own worst enemies, so it never hurts to have some ammunition for when things start getting a little crowded up in your dome-piece.

Wait, where’s this going? Not a clue. I’m hardcore derailed at this point. I legitimately spent too long in my computer’s digital catacombs today.

Let’s pull this back to center and focus.

One article I jotted down many, many moons ago stood out to me as particularly interesting. It reads a bit like a whiny, prepubescent teenager’s glitter-bombed diary, but that’s okay. I find the content still relevant after all these years, despite the fact that I’ve put out many, many, many stories in the interim.

 

The moral of the story: Some things never change. In this case, criticism always sucks.

 

With the release of Mind Breach looming only 33 days away (available for preorder on Amazon in exactly 2 days!), I’m reminded of all the convoluted twists and turns this story has taken over the last 2 years. Mind Breach legitimately pushed me to my literary breaking point. The scope and complexity required by the story were beyond my skill to create at the time I first started the project.

Now, after nearly 200 individual days working on this thing, I’m still not sure the requisite skill is there, but at some point you gotta kick your baby out of the nest and see if it can fly. ‘Cause if your baby can fly, you like, really don’t want to have anything to do with it. I’m 92% sure that thing is definitely not human.

So, here ya go. I’m opening up and giving you a little insight into the neuroticism younger me felt all those many moons ago when I was still pecking away at Time Heist.

 

 


Criticism is an Anal Probe

 

I got bent over the other day. Time Snatch (holy crap, this is back when Time Heist was still tentatively named Time Snatch) is my debut novel, and hands down the longest project I’ve ever tried to beat into submission by way of repeatedly headbutting my keyboard. As of yet the headbutting has paid no noticeable dividends, though my computer looks at me these days with those “I thought you love me” eyes

I do. I swear, baby. I do it cause I love you.

Anyways, Time Snatch is in the hands of beta readers at the moment and critiques have been trickling in like a water boarder’s wet dream. What I’m learning is, even with a thick skin, even with a mindset that says “This is what I need, this will help my book grow stronger and level up”, it’s still hard to hear about the parts of your book that suck.

I imagine it’s akin to having a child grow up to be the playground bully. Or maybe you’re just glad little Billy isn’t coming home with his own blood on his t-shirt. Good parenting, guys.

Aces.

The thing with the critiques, though, is that they bug me because a lot of them are things I kind of already knew. They’ve been sitting out there like an overfed hydra (<—See, I’ve always been bad at similes). Part of me prayed on a hobo’s stone heart— which I extracted with my trusty Swiss Army knife– (<–guess I’ve always sucked at metaphor, too. Jesus) that nobody would notice them. Ya know, enough fluff and clouds and lasers and maybe they wouldn’t notice my main character switching from male to female to octopus throughout the story.

No, this isn’t a story about animorphs. Yes, that makes it weird for my main character to change into an octopus.

On the whole these critiques are going to make the story stronger. I know that. I feel that. I agree with that.

But I’d hoped I was closer to done. I wanted to put my steaming pile of word vomit out into the world and I wanted people to see what I’ve been doing.

It’s not about being the next big thing. Not about being the next anything really. I’ve been couped up with this story for so long, sacrificing so much time and energy to pump out word-babies. I want something tangible I can point too and say “See, that story goblin right there is what I’ve been doing.”

Okay, I know that’s super self-indulgent, but after a point I think we earn that as writers. Right?

So, I guess the question is how do we look that hydra right in its unthinkable eye and herd it into something less contemptible (<– younger me had a hydra fetish, I guess)? We take it on the chin, listen to the feedback, divide the tweaks worth making from the ones that are just twerky. There is a difference after-all and it’s important to remember that your beta readers will not always be right, but they are almost never wrong.

Buck up and face your problems. Slay those sentences that make no sense. Get your word usage right. Fix those story holes staring back at you like the gaping maw of hell itself.

It’s scary, it’s hard, and sure as shit nobody wants to do it. But this is what it means to be a writer. To be a creative type means pouring yourself into a thing. You pull apart your rib cage with nipple clamps and a hammer, you get all up in there to surgically remove a chunk of your heart and then smear it across the page (<–what in the unholy fuck, younger me?).

But be careful and disinfect that shit, maybe with that bottle of Jack Daniels sitting there beside the computer. Yeah, you thought we didn’t notice. We did.

Taking feedback is hard and I’m not sure it’ll ever get easier. I’m not sure it should (first not stupid thing younger me has said in years). Once you stop accepting that feedback, you stop striving to make your work the best possible iteration of itself, I think that’s when you need to step back and question why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Ultimately when I look at that sour puss in the mirror I realize that I don’t wake up everyday at the buttcrack of dawn because I want to write a story the world is going to love me for.

I do it because I have a story to tell, and it won’t leave me alone until I tell it.

But what’s more important than just telling this story?

Telling this story right. Now quit whining and go write.

 

 


What’s the harshest piece of criticism you’ve ever received? Did you take it on the chin or did you sumo-slam the critic? Get down to the comments and share with us how you take criticism when it comes to your creative works.

Finding Your Author Voice (Writing Workshop)

Finding Your Author Voice (Writing Workshop)


Fasten your seatbelts, Buckaroos! Today we’re talking about voice (or perhaps more specifically, STYLE), which is a slippery eel of a topic if ever there were one, so we’re gonna have to come at it all sneaky like from a couple different angles and hopefully one of them will stick

First off, before we even get into discussing how we as writers can get a lock on our one true voice and develop a unique saucy style all our own, we need to first understand WHY this topic is so tricky in the first place.

Honestly this part isn’t terribly tricky. Style and voice are hard things to figure out because they are entirely subjective. What one person considers to be a strong, fresh voice, another might find weak and derivative.

One of the greatest voices of all time.

One of the greatest voices of all time.

Here’s the first lesson when tackling style and voice: You can’t please everybody, so don’t even try.

With that said, there are certain characteristics which make for good (if not simply unique) voice, and certain stylistic choices you can make in your own writing to heighten the reader experience/engagement with your particular brand of wordsmithery.

Okay, so what is perhaps the single most important characteristic that makes for good voice?

Be Distinctively Consistent

One of the greatest reviews I ever received came from a reader who has consumed practically everything I’ve ever written. It reads as follows:

“I could’ve told you he wrote this even if his name wasn’t on it, it has his writing style and story plot all over it…”

Notice this reviewer isn’t gushing about how earth shattering the story was. Instead, it’s saying something very simple that most people will overlook, but to me (as the author) lets me know I’m doing part of my job correctly.

What’s that thing I’m doing? I’m delivering a consistent story experience to the readers who enjoy my work. If you pick up one of my stories, you’re likely to have one of three reactions.

  1. You love it.
  2. You hate it.
  3. You’re indifferent to it.

If you love it, fantastic, I recommend you go and grab the other stories. Why? Because I’m stylistically consistent. If you enjoyed (or despised) one of my stories, chances are you’re gonna enjoy (or despise) all the rest.

Now, as the reviewer above mentioned, I have a very distinct style/voice/plotting technique. (We’re just 400 words into this post and I bet you’ve already noticed that, huh?)

The point is, my voice is mine and your voice is yours. Own that voice. Make it your strength. The last thing you want to do is try and copy somebody else’s voice.

Alright, I hear you over there saying, “Yes, Anthony, telling me to own my voice is great, but I came here because I can’t find the damn thing.”

Fair play.

How does one develop their voice?

Remember earlier when I said, “The last thing you want to do is try and copy somebody else’s voice?”

Yeah, I would hope so, it was literally only two paragraphs back…

the name of the windOkay, so that thing I said was totally true, BUT we need to qualify it. If you set out to write like the next Patrick Rothfuss, you’re probably gonna fail. Why? Because there is only one Patrick Rothfuss. And even if you were somehow to mutate into a Patrick Rothfuss simulacrum capable of churning out buttery smooth prose like the bearded bard himself, it wouldn’t matter.

You know why?

Because the world only has room for one Patrick Rothfuss.

However, it can be instructive, for those trying to discover their own voice, to study what exactly makes somebody else’s voice unique.

This is a two-step process.

First: Read a bunch of stuff from that person.
Second: Type out a couple passages from that person’s work.

Step one is easy and obvious, right? How are you supposed to figure out what makes another person’s voice distinctive if you’ve never read anything by said person? That would be, simply put, bonkers.

Don’t be bonkers.

Step two is a bit less obvious. So let me expand on it. Take one of your favorite passages from one of your all time favorite authors (somebody who’s work you could easily pick out of a crowd blindfolded) and then what I want you to do is type out that passage into your little computer box thingee.

Why?

Because there are parts of your brain that light up like a Christmas tree in July when you engage your fingers. Reading is beneficial, sure. But typing out a passage gives you valuable insight into the pace and rhythm of the author your studying. Things that you would probably never notice just by glancing at the page.

What sorts of things might you notice?

Sentence and Paragraph Structure Length

Short, punchy sentences/paragraphs read quickly. If you want your work to have an err of breathlessness, than think about ways you can, overall, condense your sentences. Chuck Wendig is one of my favorite voice writers and he uses this sort of sentence compactification all the time.

Example from Star Wars: Aftermathstar wars

“Chains rattle as they lash the neck of Emperor Palpatine. Ropes follow suit—lassos looping around the statue’s middle. The mad cheers of the crowd as they pull, and pull, and pull. Disappointed groans as the stone fixture refuses to budge. But then someone whips the chains around the back ends of a couple of heavy-gauge speeders, and then engines warble and hum to life—the speeders gun it and again the crowd pulls–

 

The sound like a giant bone breaking.

 

A fracture appears at the base of the statue.

 

More cheering. Yelling. And–

 

Applause as it comes crashing down.

 

The head of the statue snaps off, goes rolling and crashing into a fountain. Dark water splashes. The crowd laughs.

 

And then: The whooping of klaxons. Red lights strobe. Three airspeeders swoop down from the traffic lanes above—Imperial police. Red-and-black helmets. The glow of their lights reflected back in their helmets.
There comes no warning. No demand to stand down.”

Notice how Wendig starts off with a dense first paragraph. Mostly average length sentences, butt the overall complexity of those structures is much higher than what follows when the action really picks up. Suddenly we the reader are flung into a lightning quick section where sentences are only a few words each and a paragraph is, at times, comprised by a single line.

That first paragraph is like the slow click-clack of the rollercoaster taking you up to the apex, giving you ample time to mull over the drop you’re about to experience. The tension mounts, building up, up, up until finally–

–it’s all released in a deluge of fast flying words and paragraphs. White space is everywhere and the reader’s eye is dragged down the page wicked fast.

One of the things you can do when you typing out another author’s passages is tweak the sentence structures. Experiment by shortening or lengthening, compressing or expanding what they put down.

For instance, what happens to Chuck’s passage when we compress that middle section?

“Chains rattle as they lash the neck of Emperor Palpatine. Ropes follow suit—lassos looping around the statue’s middle. The mad cheers of the crowd as they pull, and pull, and pull. Disappointed groans as the stone fixture refuses to budge. But then someone whips the chains around the back ends of a couple of heavy-gauge speeders, and then engines warble and hum to life—the speeders gun it and again the crowd pulls–

 

The sound like a giant bone breaking. A fracture appears at the base of the statue. More cheering. Yelling. And–

 

Applause as it comes crashing down. The head of the statue snaps off, goes rolling and crashing into a fountain. Dark water splashes. The crowd laughs.

 

And then: The whooping of klaxons. Red lights strobe. Three airspeeders swoop down from the traffic lanes above—Imperial police. Red-and-black helmets. The glow of their lights reflected back in their helmets.
There comes no warning. No demand to stand down.”

See how much less white space there is in that section. How much slower that middle portion reads? All I did was remove a couple paragraph breaks.

The big take away from this is simple. When we’re talking about voice and style, we are not just talking about what the person says, but rather, how they say it (and we’re not talking about word choice here).

Think of sentence and paragraph structure as akin to body language. When speaking with another individual, vast amounts of information are shared via non-verbal means such as how we’re standing, what we’re doing with our hands, the expression of boredom or excitement we wear on our faces. So to is it with how we as writers design the visual aspect of the page.

body language

The question to ask yourself here is: What sort of sentence/paragraph structure do you lean towards? For myself, I lean towards average length sentences, though I quite often throw down a very short sentence. Rarely, however, do I hammer out a long (20+) word sentence.

My paragraphs are almost never more than four or five sentences long. Often they are two or three. I’m particularly conscious of this because approaching a huge block of text (especially if you’re reading on a Kindle or other electronic device) is as daunting as going head to head with the Minotaur.

Word Choice

Word choice is one of the easiest ways of distinguishing your voice, and also one of the most treacherous. Often when working with newer writers, I see a tendency towards wanting to use big, hoity-toity words that sound smart. These are what we call five dollar words. Meaning, in a game of Scrabble, that word would be worth five dollars.

No, wait…actually, that doesn’t make sense. There’s no money involved in Scrabble, is there? I’m not sure what game I’m thinking of, but go with me on this. If Scrabble involved money, then a big word like pulchritudinous would be worth five dollars, whereas the word pretty would be worth roughly a nickle.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make in your own writing is buying into the belief that big fancy words will somehow make everything better. If you’re trying to find your voice hiding in the pages of a Thesaurus, I hate to break it to you turd-bird: You’re gonna be looking awhile.

Now, that’s not to say you can’t use unique words. For instance, returning to our Chuck Wendig example:

“…and then engines warble and hum to life.”

“…the whooping of klaxons.” “…airspeeders swoop down.”

Words like warble, whoop, and swoop are nothing special in and of themselves, but they clearly (and perfectly) exemplify Wendig’s writing style and voice. Even in the midst of this tense scene of public unrest, he’s throwing in somewhat silly sounding words. (Also, notice how beautifully whoop and swoop compliment each other both aesthetically and phonetically. You can bet your ass that was intentional on Wendig’s part.)

Some authors (with their own distinctive voices mind you) might not have gone that route. Perhaps they would have leaned towards choosing words with more implied menace, and that would have been fine, within the context of their own voice.

The trick here is to figure out what sort of words you would use. Great way of doing that? Write out a passage from one of your favorite authors and then pick through it, rewriting sentences here and there, plugging in your unique stylistic sensibilities.

Experiment and Tinker

To get better at writing, you need to write. A lot. But at a certain point, just scribbling words on the page isn’t gonna level you up. Which is where intentional practice comes in. If you’ve made it this far (god bless your poor, poor soul. I am so sorry), then you’re already searching out those methods of improvement.

Good on ya.

But what else can you do?

Well, remember what we said at the very beginning? The part where I said, “Don’t copy other writers”, and then promptly proceeded to contradict myself in the most fantastic of ways?

Yeah, of course you remember that, it was sort of a pivotal moment in our relationship, huh?

After you’ve spent some time diving into the works of other writers, you need to pick up the pen again and start exploring the depths of you. Plum the depths of your creative well.

How do you do that?

By playing outside your comfort zone.

comfort zone

Listen, I love writing first person past tense. It’s my jam. You give me even a slightly interesting character and I’ll find their voice and make it sing. But it took me a long time to figure that out.

I had to write many a story in third person present tense and past tense and future present past tense, to realize where my strengths as an author were hiding.

Once you locate that strength, however, it’s not enough to simply hammer out the same tune. Your readers will notice and they’ll quickly grow bored of your writing, and rightly so. You need to constantly push and adapt, latching onto the stylistic quirks of your writing that are unique to you and expanding them.

Push them out of the nest and make them fly. (Don’t worry, it’s not just you. That analogy didn’t make sense to anybody. Continuing on.)

The take-away is this: Find your strength, that small nugget of what makes you special, and then leverage the hell out of it. Use it to grow more unique little nuggets until you have a whole repertoire of nuggets. (Another weird analogy, sorry. I’m getting tired. Losing steam. Forgive me.)

There’s a famous line out there people use when talking about the derivative nature of all stories. I can’t remember it verbatim, so I’m gonna do you a solid and slap it down on the table here and butcher it for all to see. The gist of it is as follows:

Every story has already been told.

Unfortunately, my special little daisy, this is true (and an important thing to remember whenever somebody tries to sell you the totally awesome idea they dreamt up during their last peyote bender). Ideas are a dime a dozen, all that matters is the execution.

How you tell the story (with your unique voice and style) is what keeps people enraptured.

Now it’s your turn, dearest reader. What sorts of exercises have you done in the elusive quest to find your voice? Get down to the comments and let us know.

Still unclear (or tangled up on a few of the peculiar analogies I used) get down to the comments and fling some questions at my face. I’m ready for you.

And finally, who are some of your all-time favorite voice authors?

[GUEST POST] Take Your Writing To The Next Level With The Power Of Music – Ernie Luis

[GUEST POST] Take Your Writing To The Next Level With The Power Of Music – Ernie Luis

Ernie Luis is a college student down in Miami studying sportsernie luis and fitness. He loves drinking beers andgrowing beards. Hobbies include adventures and road trips with friends, obnoxiously yelling at his favorite sports teams whether they’re doing good or bad, and eating. When he’s not doing any of those, he’s probably writing and chasing his dream of telling people stories.

Connect with him on twitter @Frikkercus


 

So you’re probably wondering why Anthony Vicino is letting some low-life like me guest blog on One Lazy Robot. Here’s the thing, he wasn’t kidding when he titled his blog One Lazy Robot. Sometimes he’s gotta hit up the subs to give the Robot a lazy break. So here I am. I promise I won’t take much of your time.

You’ve probably heard this a thousand times: don’t listen to music when you’re writing. Turn the TV off. Turn the radio off. Turn Spotify off. Enter the void of writing silence that will allow you to be at your best. Well, I’m here to tell you to be a rebel. (Yay, rebellion!)

The main portion of the video I want to focus on is in the beginning, when the narrator describes our brain while we listen to music. Like “fireworks,” he says. What’s interesting is how he describes multiple portions of our brain all being active at the same time. Like warming up our minds (Ha! Take that all you teachers who told me to stop listening to music during my homework!).

I see this as a way to prime my creative muscles before I deep dive into my writing. And you should too!
My bud Anthony Vicino writes these great posts on the television shows he likes, and how he uses that to better himself as a writer (What Sense8 Can Teach Us About Characterization). Studying the characterization, the pacing, the dialogue, and applying it all into his own work. I love how he used something that’s often labeled as a distraction and turning it into something productive you can use (while also sitting back and resting those weary fingers). So here’s my version of that, by way of music:

  1. Prime your mind. Take a moment before you write to listen to some of your favorite music. It could literally be anything, any station, any genre, just get that brain working!
  2. Start picturing your scenes. What I love to do when I know I’m about to sit down and write a particularly important or epic scene, I’ll listen to film scores. Hans Zimmer, John Williams, music from epic movies to put a picture in my head of the scene I want to create. And it works both ways. Have a happy scene to write? Listen to jolly music! Have a romantic scene to write? Listen to those steamy artists on your guilty pleasure list!
  3. Listen to film scores. This is sort of an echo of the previous ones. I know some writers already do this, but for those of you that don’t, you definitely need to try it. There’s nothing like listening to the Interstellar film score while writing a space opera novel. Or listening to the Game of Thrones score while writing a fantastical scene. Try it for yourself.
  4. Listen to the lyrics. “In fields where nothing grew but weeds, I found a flower at my feet.” “I believe in angels. Not the kind with wings, no, not the kind with halos, the kind that bring you home, when home becomes a strange place.” Sometimes when I hear lines like those, it fires me up, the same way a line in a good book inspires me. Songwriters are a great source of poetry. Listen to their words. You might find your own gem you repeat to yourself when you need inspiration.
  5. Listen to music while you write. I used to do this all the time in my early writing days, a habit from listening to music every waking hour I did homework in my high school and college days. But now, once I get in the zone, I do like my silence, to just listen to the characters in my head or the cold wind blowing across my scene. But the first 200 words or so, I like to pop in my headphones and write, and this could be anything really, just to get the mind going. Write something particularly flowery or cheesy, something according to the music, just to unlock the gates and let those creative juices flow. Try it for yourself. You might find you get into your rhythm much quicker this way.

So there you are, five little tidbits into how you can be productive while listening to your favorite music. Just a few more tools you can put into your little writer toolbox. Thanks to Anthony for letting me drop by and share some knowledge with y’all. Now be a good blog reader, like this post, like his other posts, comment, subscribe, do it all!

Don’t forget to let us know in the comments what music you guys like or listen to while you write!


Anthony here again!

If you like what you read, I highly recommend you check out one of Ernie’s books. His short stories/novellas Alternate and The Killswitch are absolutely phenomenal. Go grab a copy today!

What Sense 8 Can Teach Us About Characterization!

What Sense 8 Can Teach Us About Characterization!

I’ve got to get something off my chest. Earlier this year I wrote a blog post about 5 Reasons Mr. Robot is the Best Show on T.V.. But I have to confess…there’s a new love in my life.

It’s a little show called…

*drum roll*

*more drum roll*

*cymbal splash*

Sense 8!

Wait, what do you mean you totally already knew that based on the title of this blog post? Crap. So much for burying the lede, or whatever.

Alright, so it’s true. Sense 8 is the sort of amazing that’s hard to quantify and put into words. It’s sci-fi in so far as there are 8 characters spread across the globe who one day are miraculously joined together in a telepathic orgy of shared senses, emotions, and skills.

As I’ve been blitzing through Sense 8, I’ve been trying to put my finger on why it’s so damn good. Really, it’s not super complicated. The tension and suspense are CONSTANT (and interestingly, they aren’t always tied to the threat of physical violence which is the easy go to crutch for most dramas of this sort). The writing is phenomenal. Acting is top-notch. Casting is on point. And the world-spanning nature of the story makes for one eye popping scene after another.

But at it’s root, Sense 8 wins my hearts because it does characterization better than any show I’ve seen in a really, really, really long time. Note the gratuitous use of the word ‘really’. That should give you an idea of how serious I am about this.

Now, as we learned from Alexi Ratcliff’s Using Netflix To Better Your Writing post, we as writers should be doing more than mindlessly consuming our media. Turn every moment of Netflix time into a learning opportunity, and BAM, your craft skills are gonna double or something. (I don’t really know, I’m not good with statistics.)

So let’s delve into Sense 8‘s characterization to get an idea of what they’re doing so damn right.

no spoilers

**NOTE: I WILL AVOID SPOILERS LIKE THE PLAGUE. IF YOU’VE NOT WATCHED SENSE 8, NO WORRIES. YOU’RE SAFE. SORT OF. I MEAN, THIS IS STILL THE CYBER-GHETTO. ALSO, WHY AM I STILL USING CAPS-LOCK? I SWEAR I’M NOT YELLING. OKAY, GOODBYE**

Unique Characters

One of the first things that slaps you in the face like a clammy-handed trout (whatever that means) is the sheer number of main characters. This story is told from the perspective of 8 MAIN characters, which I mean, unless you’re writing a 1,000 page epic and have tons of room to play, this is a daunting task. But you know what, Mrs. Novel-Pants, the writers for this 50 minute-per-episode tv show have it SOOOOO much harder. Each episode follows certain characters more than others, but each character’s individual story arc needs to continually move forward and not drag by comparison. The sheer amount of juggling required to pull this off is astonishing, but the writers succeed because they start off from a strong foundation. Namely, each one of these characters is UNIQUE and can quickly be identified and distilled into only a few words.

Will: Chicago cop with a heart of gold.
Riley: Icelandic D.J. who runs off to England believing she’s hexed.
Capheus: Nairobi bus driver trying to take care of his mother who’s sick with AIDS.
Sun: South Korean daughter of a business mogul. Also moonlights as a kickboxing asskicker.
Kala: Indian scientist who feels pressured into a marriage she doesn’t want.
Wolfgang: German thief and safe cracker.
Nomi: Transgender hacktivist.
Lito: Gay Mexican action hero.

Okay, so this is the launching off point. We can quickly frame each of these characters in our mind. Sure they are over simplistic and rely heavily on our preexisting stereotypes, but this is actually a good place for your character to start off.

Why?

Because it instantly makes them familiar despite the fact they are entirely alien. For instance, from my own fiction, the main character of my book Time Heist, is a down on his luck former detective who has succumbed to heavy alcohol and drug abuse. That’s a cliché character through and through, but it gives us a launching off point. If these characters were to remain static representation of the cliché, then yes they will eventually be exposed as cardboard and shallow.

But if they grow? And show depth? Ooh, boy. Well, then you have something else entirely. Now you have characters which feel real!

Depth

Creating a deep character is hard, especially when viewed within the constraints of a 300 page novel. Sure, you have this fully fleshed character in your mind, but getting it from between your synapses and onto the page (and in an interesting/engaging way to boot) is a whole other ball of waxy yarn entirely.

Now, in your novel, a good way of showing depth of character is by making us as the reader feel as though this character has more going on in their life than merely what’s being required by the plot at that moment. Remember, before your story began, your characters were all going about their lives, worrying about paying bills, grocery shopping, and ingrown toenails that may or may not be infected. Are those things always interesting to touch on? Meh, maybe that toenail, but not the other things. (unless being late on bills involves a pimp named Guillermo, in which case you might have something).

One of the limiting factors for a show like Sense 8, however, is the fact that they can’t really afford to give each character a lot of screen time. Seriously, 8 characters divided amongst 54 minutes means each character is only getting about 7 minutes of air time (not including the times when two characters are on screen together, which is actually fairly rare). 7 minutes is not a lot of time to develop a character AND keep their plot moving forward.

How do the writers of the show pull it off? By flashbacks to the pivotal moments in the character’s life which will lead directly to the person they inevitably become.

Take a moment to read that again (I know, it’s not my best sentence ever). One of the big issues I have with flashbacks is that though they might touch on something interesting, they rarely touch on something important. In Sense 8, that’s not the case. Each flashback is showing an absolutely critical moment in that character’s life.

Think about the scenes you choose to incorporate as flashbacks in your story. Ask yourself, is this interesting? Then ask, is this IMPORTANT?

One of the general rules to follow when storyboarding an idea and a potential main character is to remember that the story you are telling should be THE most interesting thing that has ever happened to your character up to THAT point. It’s hard to care about your characters troubles at the DMV, or his relationship issues, when just the week before he saved the world from a nuclear holocaust by punching a zombie-nazi-hitler in the mandible.

Sorry, that’s just the truth.

If you’re writing a series, then you should keep this in mind and each successive novel should somehow be an escalation (if not, well, again, it’s hard to keep caring).

So when we talk about flashbacks against the backdrop of this most important event in the character’s life ever, then what we’re really talking about, is the most important event to ever happen to this character before the current event.

If you’re keeping a bracket at home it would be like this:

Your stories main plot = Most important thing to ever happen to your characters
Flashback = Most important thing that ever happened to your character before that moment.
Second Flashback = Third most important moment (or something, I dunno, these are guidelines goddamnit, figure’em out for yourself!)

AGENCY

Anybody who’s ever read a book or blog post or talked to a hobo on the street about writing will have heard this one before:
Your character needs agency.

What’s that mean? Well, simply put: they do stuff. They enact their will on the story rather than the other way around.

In Sense 8 each character is acted upon to a great extent by the plot. Some characters more so than others, but without fail they are all put into incredibly difficult situations (some through no fault of their own, some as a direct result of their actions). Now, you can either let them be pushed around by the wind of destiny or whatever, or you can have your characters get off their asses and actually do something about it. In Sense 8 (with the exception of perhaps one character) everybody gets up and does something. When the plot pushes on them, they push back.push back

This is a great lesson for your own story. Have your character push back. Do something, goddamn you!

Relationships

It’s really hard to get the feel for a character when they are in a fishbowl of isolation. Introduce other characters around them, give them a best friend, or a worst enemy. Doesn’t matter. They need to engage with SOMEBODY!

Now, in Sense 8 they choose to do this by giving 5 of the 8 characters a best friend, 1 a deep connection with her father, and 2 have deep connections with their family. If your character doesn’t care about somebody else, it’ll be hard to convince the readers to care about them. I don’t know why this is the case, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that we are narcissistic and want to believe there is a chance for reciprocation of affection.

As Charles M. Schuz once said,

charlie brown

Think about some of the most despicable characters on television and even these monsters have people they care about.

Doctor Gregory House cares for Wilson and Cuddy.
Dexter cares for his sister, Rita, and his children.
Ramsay Bolton cares for… Okay, nevermind… George R.R. Martin is the exception that proves the rule.

Anyways, relationships add a layer of depth to your characters. If you find that your own character is falling somewhat flat, consider if you’ve ramped up ancillary relationships to a suitable degree.

Alright folks, I could keep going on this thread for another day and a half, easy (I mean, I haven’t even talked about how fabulous all the secondary characters in this show are!), but I’ll save you from that torment and call it quits here. Do yourself a favor, go and watch Sense 8. If you’ve already watched it, I want to hear from you. Who was your favorite character, and why?

Ending Your Story Like A Boss (Writing Workshop)

Ending Your Story Like A Boss (Writing Workshop)

We all know how important starting strong is, right? That first sentence needs to stick a finger in the reader’s mouth and say, “You’re coming with me, Jack.” Or Jill, whatever your name is. That first sentence drags the reader (kicking and screaming if need be) into the first paragraph, which leads to the second paragraph, so on, so forth…ad infinitum. All the way to the end.

Now, endings can be sticky furballs worth of frustration. You’ve partied hard for a couple hundred pages, gettingfrat house your heroine into one snafu after another. They’ve been introduced to no less than fifty million new interesting characters and now there’re loose plot strands dangling from the rafter like toilet paper from a Freshman Frat party (I’ve never been to a frat house, but I assume everything is gilded in a thick veneer of TP. I don’t know why I have this mental image, but now you do too. So come along with me as we stretch this peculiar metaphor even further.)

Delivering a gratifying ending (whether it be happy, sad, or tragic) is one of the hardest things we writers are expected to do. If your ending sucks, you’re gonna leave your reader with literary blue balls and they’re gonna think twice about going out with you on a second date, ie: they won’t pick up your next book. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Stephen King is notorious for his weak endings, but here’s the problem: You’re not Stephen King.

Unless you are. In which case, “Hi Stevie!”

Anyways, for the rest of you yahoos, you aren’t King, so you need to work extra hard on sticking the landing. I don’t profess to be an expert on writing strong endings (except for when I do), but here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned the hard way to deliver consistently satisfying climaxes.

WHAT MAKES A STRONG ENDING?

Let’s begin by figuring out what even makes for a strong ending. Is it a Shamalyanana’esque twist ending ala The Sixth Sense? Is it a gut wrenching cathartic moment ala The Notebook? Does everybody get their comeuppance? Does nobody get their comeuppance? Does everything need to be wrapped up nice and neat, or can you leave some dangling ploticiples? (participles? Hm… lame grammar pun anyone?)

Here’s the answer, and it’s part of what makes writing a strong ending so frustrating. Ready? Here it is.

It depends.depends on what

Yep, that’s right. The type of ending your reader will find gratifying is dependent on a hydroplaning semi-truck’s worth of factors. But let’s start simply with this:
What promises did you make in the beginning of your story?

To write a good ending, you have to go back to the beginning and figure out what promises you actually made to the reader. If you’re writing a murder mystery, you’ve promised to reveal the bad guy. If you’re writing a light-hearted romance, you’re promising the main characters will get together, or at least have a happy ever after ending. If you’re writing a Narnia’esque portal story, you’re promising to return the reader to the regular world when it’s all done (nobody wants to be left twisting in the Narnia-wind, right?)

So that’s first, figure out what your BIG STORY PROMISE is, and fulfill it. Now, as the story progress, you’ll no doubt make a mole-hill’s worth of other smaller (but no less important promises). You have a bit more freedom in breaking these, but on the whole, it’s still very important to keep them. Now the question becomes: How?
How do you deliver on these promises?

This is the part of the writing process that can drive you to putting down the pen and taking up something easier, like astrophysics or something casual like that. We’ve all been there, so take solace, dear reader. You are not alone.

But let’s talk about how we deliver on all those promises, because if you’ve written even a slightly complex story, you’re gonna have a bunch of plot strands needing to be tied into neat little bows. The general rule of thumb here is to resolve promises/plot strands in the reverse order they are made.

Example:

[Big story promise[[Slightly smaller story promise[[[Small story promise[[[[Smallest story promise/resolve smallest]]]]Resolve small story promise]]]Resolve bigger story promise]]Resolve biggest story promise]

Here’s how this might look with an actual story for example:

[Dillon falls through magical portal[[Dillon meets friendly magical mermaid[[[Dillon recruited to assassinate evil Mermaid King[[[[Dillon loses magic trident needed to kill Mermaid King/Dillon regains magic trident]]]] Dillon kills Mermaid King (or doesn’t, that’s up to you. It’s your story after all)]]]Dillon and magical mermaid friend must say goodbye]]Dillon jumps back through portal. Comes home]

not drunkOkay, I’m fully aware that this will go down in the annals of writing advice history as one of the worse examples ever provided. For that I am sorry. I wish I had an excuse, but it’s 2 pm on a Sunday and I haven’t even started drinking yet. My apologies.

Anyways, you get the general idea, right? Oh, whew, thank god. I thought I was gonna have to provide another example. Let’s move on and forget this ever happened.

Why wrapping up all your loose plot strands isn’t always necessary (or advised).

This is one of those damned if do, damned if you don’t type situations. On the one hand, if you wrap up all your plot strands nice and neat, then you’ll get called out because it’ll feel manufactured. Then again, leave some strands flapping in the wind, and you get called out for finishing on a cliffhanger which leads to general feelings of resentment amongst your readers.

In general, it’s a bad thing when your readership resents you, so let’s try and avoid that, yeah?

Here’s my stance: Life isn’t neat and tidy, so neither should your fiction. The caveat here is that you must address the big story promises you made at the beginning. If you neglect those, or leave them unresolved until the next book, you’re gonna piss your readers off. So answer the big mysteries your story raises, but play a little loosey goosey with some of the smaller ones.

For example, maybe you have a really mysterious wizard fellow who swoops in every now and then and does something mysterious and cool. As long as this character is sufficiently ancillary to the story as a whole, you don’t need to dive in deep to his history and background. In fact, doing so might steal some of his mysterious thunder.
As a rule, don’t steal wizard’s mystery thunder. Leave it out there as a tantalizing bit of information that the reader wants, but can’t have.

Why do this?

Well, when executed properly it adds a layer of complexity and inherit breadth to your story world. It tells us as the reader that there’s more to this world than what we’re being told, more history, more adventure, more more more.

One of the interesting things about George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is how huge the story feels in the first few books. All sorts of things are only loosely hinted. This drags the reader in and makes them ask: Well, what about that thing? I want to know more about that thing.

Martin, like the master he is, drags out this want over the course of multiple books. Now that he’s knee-deep in the story world, however, it’s all starting to feel a bit smaller, yeah? Things that were once mysterious have now been explained and are almost commonplace. We forfeit mystery in favor of intimacy.

When crafting your endings, be considerate of which mysteries you are leaving open and which ones you are closing down. If we learned everything there is to know about the white walkers right off the bat in Game of Thrones we would have lost the mystery and intrigue (two powerful motivators for luring the reader deeper into your story).

What makes a good cliffhanger?

Bad cliffhanger: Not delivering on the promise you made early in the book.

Good cliffhanger: After resolving the the book’s big problem, you reveal a NEW BIG PROMISE!

Dexter Season Four has one of the best season finales of any show I’ve ever seen. If you’ve never seen the show, well, you should. Do yourself a favor, stop reading this, go watch the first four seasons, and then come back.

*SPOILER ALERT*

There were two big promises made at the beginning of this season

1) Can Dexter learn how to live a normal life from befriending the Trinity Killer?

2) Will Dexter kill, or be killed, by the Trinity Killer?

The show writers are very intentional about making these promises in this order, and then resolving them in reverse order.

RESOLUTION/ENDING:

Dexter succeeds in killing the Trinity Killer. He wins and in the process learns some valuable things about himself and he’s confident he can live a normal life. That is, until he goes home to find his wife murdered in the bathtub. Now we get our answer to the BIG BIG SEASON QUESTION. Can Dexter live a normal life? No. His life will never be that thing.

The symmetry of this season is a beautiful thing. That final episode is a masterclass in giving a strong ending. I highly recommend it, even if I have now ruined it for you.

*END SPOILER*

What about twist endings?didn't see

Good Twist Ending: Properly foreshadowed with a sense of inevitability.

Bad Twist Ending: Seemingly random event sideswipes everything.

I’m a fan of the twist ending, but they are hard to pull off. The trick to getting it right is in the foreshadowing. What I often see are writers terrified that somebody will guess their twist beforehand, and therefore remove all the foreshadowing and allusions. Problem is the twist then comes out of left-field and leaves everybody scratching their head.

As a rule of thumb, just assume that some people will guess the twist, you can’t fool everybody. Best you can hope for is about 70% I’d say. Hell, I’m sure a bunch of people had The Sixth Sense twist figured in the first 30 minutes. That’s just how it goes, don’t stress too hard on it.

If you’re reader gets to the twist and says, “Wait, what?” and not “Ah, of course! How didn’t I see that?” then you’ve done something wrong. Don’t worry, you’re not alone on that. We’re all guilty of this one at some time or another.

Beta readers go a long ways here in helping you figure out if your twist is actually any good.

IN CONCLUSION

Alright, it’s time to wrap this up. If I were a better man, I’d rehash all the points I made, closing them down in reverse order, (ya know, to practice what I preach). But guess what, I’m not a better man. Muahaha! Plot twist! Bet you didn’t see that coming. No, see, you did see that coming ’cause I’ve gone to great lengths ensuring your expectations of me always remain low.

Anyhoo, I want to hear from you folks. What are some of your favorite endings? Doesn’t matter if it’s a television show, book, or movie. Or, if you’re feeling like a Negative Nancy, tell us about some of your least favorite endings. Get down to the comments and let your voice be heard!

GUEST POST: Using Netflix to Better Your Writing by Alexis Ratcliff

GUEST POST: Using Netflix to Better Your Writing by Alexis Ratcliff

Guess what everybody… you get a break from my mindless blathering today. Oh, you lucky, Turnips.

Today I’m pleased to hand the reigns of command over to guest blogger: Alexis Ratcliff who’s debut novel, A Vanishing Glow, just came out. It’s an amazing looking steampunk/flintlock fantasy mashup. If that sounds like your cup o’tea, then stop dilly-dallying and go grab a copy.

Alright, enough from me. Alexis has a great little topic in store for ya’ll, so without further adieu, here are some Notes on Netflix.


 

Notes on Netflix: Using TV-Time to Make Yourself a Better Writer

by Alexis Ratcliff

Netflix has been the death of more potential writing sessions than anyone can probably count. I know the feeling: You get home from work, you’re tired, and you’re staring at your open laptop on the desk. “I should really write a little bit tonight,” you think.

Then your significant other pops their head up over the couch and proposes a TV marathon of something truly awesome on Netflix. Popcorn, your favorite show, and a cuddle session on the couch probably sound a whole lot better than grinding through another thousand words tonight, right?

I’m not here to make you feel bad about that. It’s only human to cave. I get it. And while, yes, you should focus and bang those thousand words out anyway, I admit that I’m just as guilty of sometimes vaulting onto the comfy cushions and grabbing the remote instead.

But all’s not lost just because you’re watching TV tonight! Maybe you’re not writing, but get your author hat on anyway, because we’re going to get some real use out of that Dr. Who marathon you’re about to binge on. How? Let me show you.

1. Pacing, Plotting, and Story Structure

Every piece of television you’ve ever watched started with a script (unless you’re watching improv comedy), and that script had to follow most of the same rules of story-telling that your writing does. Writing for TV and film is actually tighter than books most of the time, since they have such specific time windows to fit the content into.

The formulaic pacing and plotting actually helps you in this case, because once you’re clued in, you can watch how they do what they do. I strongly recommend reading the script-writing classic, Save the Cat!, and then paying special attention to how they lay the different pieces of the story progression out in whatever you’re watching.

With time and practice, you’ll start to see the setups and pay-offs for what they are, and you can steal the same methods used by great shows for your own writing!

2. Devil’s in the (Character) Details

When was the last time a character on your favorite show stood up and began to explain their backstory? Probably never. That’s a good thing, because if they did, it would make for some pretty boring TV.

Instead, they show you what characters are like through a series of actions, words, and props. This is your chance to come up with ideas for showing versus telling. When you’re watching a character similar to a character you want to portray in your book, pay special attention to what that character says, does, and wears that evoke their character traits. Nobody will overtly tell you on TV when a character is selfish, or kind, or loves violence, but you still know when they have those traits.

Pay attention to how you know! Then, next time you get the urge to write some backstory for a character that’s a little too on-the-nose, scrap it and use the details you stole from TV instead.

3. Words, words, words! (Or really dialogue, dialogue, dialogue)

Dialogue in visual media is usually very polished for the same reasons the pacing is tight: They don’t have much time to get their point across. The thing about dialogue in writing or TV is that it’s not like real speaking. It’s like the greatest hits of speaking.

Your dialogue shouldn’t have verbal pauses like “uh” or “um,” it should be witty and snappy, and when appropriate, it should be dripping with tension. Watching TV is a great opportunity to pay attention to dialogue that sounds natural while still having those “greatest hits” qualities that are the hallmark of good writing. If your dialogue on the page falls flat, try reading it out loud and tweaking it until it sounds more like the characters on your favorite show (in the same genre). You might find that your manuscript improves dramatically!


About the Author:

alexis ratcliffAlexis Radcliff is an author, gamer, unashamed geek, and history junkie who spent the better part of a decade working in tech before dedicating herself to her first love, literature. A VANISHING GLOW, her debut novel, is the opening book in her MYSTECH ARCANUM series, an exciting blend of steampunk and flintlock fantasy with mature themes.

Alexis lives and works in the Portland area with her adorable (if surly) cat and her equally adorable fiancé. When not writing, she spends her time reading, running, playing way too many videogames, and thinking too much about everything.

Lexirad.com | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon

 

 

 


 

About the Book:

A VANISHING GLOW is the exciting opening to THE MYSTECH ARCANUM series, a deep and thrilling blend of steampunk and flintlock fantasy with mature themes.

Amazon.com | Goodreads | Read Sample Chapter 1 | Read Sample Chapter 2

It is an Age of Revolution, an Age of Industrialism. Constructs, living men who are as much brass and steel as they are flesh,a vanishing glow man the factories and wage the wars of a ruling elite who gorge themselves on the fruits of the common man’s labor. Mystech, a brilliant fusion of magic and machine, gives rise to a new class of privileged inventors and merchants even as the country festers with wounds from decades of internal strife.

Only one man holds the promise of a brighter future: Nole Ryon, the crown prince. When his childhood friend Jason Tern answers his call for aid, the two of them set out to fight for the change their country needs in order to survive, even as shadowy foes frustrate their efforts. But soon, Jason and Nole’s idealistic mission of hope becomes a furious manhunt for a political murderer as the nation balances on the precipice of a country-wide civil war. Can they cut through the threads of intrigue to discover their true enemy before everything is lost?

Sweeping from the ancient cities at the heart of the nation to the dusty edges of the war-torn frontier, A Vanishing Glow tells a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and assassins, friends and lovers, who come together in a time of epic struggle. Here a brave officer risks everything to win back his estranged father’s respect; a brilliant young engineer attempts to atone for her sins; a war-weary commander tries to pick up the pieces of the life he lost; and a man touched by the gods struggles to prepare a nation for the coming of an ancient evil which only he can see. In the dying light of a once-prosperous society, amid twisting plots, suffering and betrayal, lost love and shattered dreams, all must fight for what they hold dear. Who will taste the fruits of victory and who will lie bloodied on the ground in the light of a vanishing glow?

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