Writing Tips and Info posts

Very: Bad

Go crazy with the cutting! Be ruthless! (Picture by melemel)

Go crazy with the cutting! Be ruthless!
(Picture by melemel)

There are some words that creep into our writing while we’re not looking. I’ve already talked about one of my bugbears; now it’s time to talk about another: quantifying adjectives or modifiers.

By this, I mean words like ‘very’, ‘some’, ‘a little’, ‘a lot’, ‘a bit’… you get the idea.

As a technical writer, I naturally lean towards precision. These kinds of quantifying modifiers offer more precision than bald nouns. “It’s a little cold out.” “He was very handsome.” “She shivered a bit.” All of these statements convey more of the image in my head than if they were missing those modifiers (“It’s cold out.” “He was handsome.” “She shivered.”)

But that doesn’t mean that those words belong in the sentence. It doesn’t mean that the sentence is the best that it can be.

As a rule of thumb, modifiers like these (and adjectives and adverbs) usually can (and should) be avoided by using a better word. For the purposes of this post, I’m focussing on the quantifying modifiers.

Why should they be avoided? Because they weaken the language. They’re fluffy, softening the edges of the statement and blunting the writing.

In my own writing, I tend to see it as hedging. I’ll read a sentence with a quantifying modifier in it and think, ‘it needs more confidence. No hedging; just say what it means.’ I strive to find a stronger way to phrase the message; sometimes it’s removing the modifier and letting it simply be “cold out”, and sometimes it’s finding a better word to describe what’s in my head.

What’s worse is that some of these modifiers may have the opposite effect to the one you’re going for. ‘Very’ has been accused of lessening the importance of the word it is modifying and trying to emphasise. Also, for me, it tends to sounds childish (by that, I mean the sort of thing you’d find in a children’s book). When reading something aimed at adults, I find it can be jarring.

So what are some of the things we can do? Back to our examples:

  • For “a little cold”, is “chilly” a better way to put it?
  • “Drop-dead gorgeous” works for “very handsome”, or maybe even just “gorgeous”. Alternatively, describe more about what makes him so handsome and let the reader fill in the blank.
  • “She shivered a bit” could be written as “she trembled”, or a better adjective might be used: “She shivered lightly.” Alternatively, work it into something more evocative: “She tried to ignore the shiver that moved through her as the spider crawled over her toes.”

What if there’s no good alternative? What if it’s exactly what we want to say? Well, no rule in writing is absolute. Sometimes, these phrases mean exactly what we want them to mean.

But challenge them. Make them earn their place. Your writing will be stronger for it!

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Random Writing Tip #2: Bleed

The writer's instrument. (Picture by AMagill)

The writer’s instrument. Play it hard.
(Picture by AMagill)

I’m currently watching the Angel TV series again. In it, there’s a character called Lorne, who can read the destinies of people when they sing, because people open themselves up when they make music.

Writers sing every time they make words; they open themselves up and make everyone who looks their way into a heart-reading Lorne*. They lay themselves bare and invite insight, scrutiny, and empathy.

Writers are damn brave people.

So be brave.

Show your readers exactly how your characters feel; to do that, you have to draw on the emotions from inside you. You have to reach inside to find authenticity and show the world what you’ve got.

Take your heart in your hand and slice it all over the page. Bleed.

You don’t have to shock people. You don’t have to show them your eviscerated self, entrails gleaming in the spotlight. But you can, if that’s what you have to say. And if that’s what you have to say, you should.

The smallest drop of blood can be enough. But it has to be real blood. You can’t use corn syrup and hope the audience doesn’t notice, because they will. Real blood is thick and sticky, and stains.

Don’t hedge. Don’t dilute the flow or soften the blows. Don’t hold back: pour yourself into your work. Make it raw and strong, whether it’s pain or passion, love or loss, rage or R-rated.

Take chances. Write the things you want to in your most secret of hearts, no matter what anyone might think. You might slip and fall. You might cut yourself in the process. But that’s okay. You pick yourself up and learn, for next time. Because you might write something real and vibrant and beating on the page. You might truly touch someone.

Be brave. Be you. Show us what runs through your heart.

Bleed on the page for us.

(* Yes, I just called readers green-skinned, red-eyed, horned demons. But Lorne’s totally fabulous, too.)

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Random Writing Tip #1: Write

I come across a lot of advice in my internet forays. Some of it is good; some of it is pretentious twaddle. Some of it is pure gold and those bits I hug to my chest like furbabies.

I babble a lot on this blog. Big, fat posts that I try to cram full of information. That doesn’t suit everyone, and sometimes they’re hard for me to find time to put together. So I’m going to try something a little bit different: random writing tips. Maybe I’ll even pick a regular day to get them posted. Who knows, maybe I’ll even find a schedule and stick with it.

To kick us off, here’s my #1 tip for writers: WRITE.

Grab one of these. Go crazy. Or, if you like, type.  (Picture by KaCey97007)

Grab one of these. Go crazy. Or, if you like, type.
(Picture by KaCey97007)

What does it mean? It means that if you want to write, then go write. If you call yourself a writer, then go write. If you have a story to tell, then go write.

No excuses. Not even to yourself.

Got a busy life? Tough. You can find the time; thousands of writers everywhere manage it, and so can you. It’s possible to make time, so do it.

Don’t know where to start? It doesn’t matter; start anyway, start anywhere. You can always come back and perfect the beginning later (and it’s often better done that way!).

Don’t know if you can do it? You’ll never know unless you try. Have a go. Stop prevaricating.

Need to do research? So do it. Research enough to get started, and then start writing.

Blocked on your current project? Write something different. Grab a random prompt and put pen to paper. Make fresh words.

Computer broken? Pens and paper are cheap. Use anything to hand: post-its, napkins, bathroom walls (I will deny encouraging grafitti).

Write a story, write a poem. Write that letter you’ve always wanted to write but never dared. Write about the lessons you’ve learned. Gather up those thoughts that niggle at the back of your brain and spill them onto paper. You can do it.

It doesn’t matter if it’s crap. It doesn’t matter if you throw it away at the end of the day. Just write.

You will surprise yourself. You will develop habits and find yourself craving the sweet release of words. You will create something.

Then, you will be a writer.

Brought to you courtesy of today’s wordvomit.

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Just: a Bugbear

He may be cute, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't stamp him out. (Based on the Kingdom of Loathing bugbears)

He may be cute, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stamp him out.
(Based on the Kingdom of Loathing bugbears)

Every now and then, I notice a habit in my writing that I don’t like and I try to stamp it out. Because I write a web serial (on the fly), I’m in a constant writing and editing cycle. I’m always looking at my work critically. Sometimes this leads to blindness when it comes to habits. Other times, I notice patterns forming, good and bad.

I always seek to improve my writing, so I make an effort to challenge my habits. I don’t want to fall into a rut and I like to try new things. Keep my writing fresh; that sort of thing.

In particular, I aim to crush bad habits. I have a mental list of things that I keep an eye out for when I’m re-reading a piece. Like extraneous commas, because I know I have a tendency to put them in when I pause for thought when I’m writing and they don’t always suit the flow of reading. The other thing I keep an eye out for is words that I tend to overuse.

Lately, ‘just’ seems to be the word that’s grabbing my attention a lot. It used to be ‘that’ – often, I’ve found ‘that’ can be removed from a sentence, because it’s more of a vocal habit than a word actually required for the sentence. Apparently, I’ve moved on to putting ‘just’ into random places.

It’s just a little weird. And usually it’s just unnecessary. It adds little to a sentence and the meaning is often clearer without it. Again, it feels like a vocal habit sneaking into my written work. (This could be a result of writing so much in first person, which tends to feel more colloquial.) Whether it’s adding a subtle emphasis or moderating a descriptor, I’m increasingly deciding that I just don’t like it.

Sometimes it’s worth using. Sometimes it means just what you want to say. But I try to challenge every one of them so they earn their place in my work. If in doubt, get the knives out and cut.

So here you go, tiny word ‘just’: take this bugbear costume and go sit in the corner. Stay there until you behave. Or until something else crops up to take your place in the naughty corner.

So what’s the thing that you look out for most in your writing?

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Squishy hearts in blenders

That's your finger on the buttonPicture by radarxlove

That’s your finger on the button
Picture by radarxlove

Or, why reader trust is important.

I posted recently about how writers have to be good liars (by writing what they know) and how failing to do that damages reader trust. After I finished that post, I got to thinking more about reader trust and why it’s so precious to a writer.

As a reader, when I read a story, I want to be swept up in it. I want to find characters to connect to; I want to care about them and travel the journey with them. Love or hate them, I want to get involved. I keep reading because I want to know how it ends, I want to see how this story comes out, and what happens to these people I’ve become involved with.

For a reader, it’s an emotional journey. They ride the ups and downs with your characters. They approach your story with their hearts open and hand you the strings. They invest their time, attention, and imagination in your work. They rent you space in their minds to play out your story. They not only want to know that they’re going to get a good return on that investment, but that you’ll respect the hold you have on their hearts.

This isn’t about treating them gently. You can put their hearts through a blender if you want to. You can make them cry; you can make them angry; you can give them nightmares. Do it well, handle it responsibly, and they’ll thank you for it! (I’ve had readers thank me and curse me in the same email after particularly upsetting parts of my stories. Those emails still make me darkly happy, because I know I affected them deeply (in the way I intended). I haven’t once got abuse for it!)

This is why I wrote a post about killing characters; it’s an evocative subject and how you do it matters to your readers. Similarly with rape, race, religion, and other such sensitive topics. (I haven’t written posts about them yet but maybe I will one day.)

If you’re going to carry your readers along, they have to know they can trust you. Mistakes and inconsistencies damage that trust because it’s a lack of care on the writer’s part. If you’re careless with one part, what other parts have you been careless with? What if you run out of steam towards the end and it winds up lame or limp? What if you forget about elements your readers care about, like a character or subplot, and don’t tie them up? If you haven’t thought through your magic system enough to have it make sense, what else have you compromised on? (It doesn’t always follow and everyone is human, even writers, but this is the effect that these things have.)

Arbitrary elements that throw the reader into discomfort can have a similar effect. For example, if you randomly kill off a character for no apparent reason, you’re going to unsettle the reader. Who else is in danger? Is there a plan here or are you just using cheap tricks to play with them? Would you kill off someone they care about just to hurt them (the reader)?

Readers want to be lied to. They want to believe in the dreams you place before them. They want to suspend disbelief and jump wholeheartedly into your world. But no-one wants to be made a fool of. No-one wants to be made to feel stupid.

If you start to make them feel like you can’t be trusted, they’ll pull away from your story. They’ll protect themselves. They might even get annoyed enough to put the story down and never finish it. We’ve all done it: found ourselves frowning at a story, sometimes because of what’s happening in it, sometimes because of how it’s being handled. We’ve had that ‘wait, what? no’ moment when something just doesn’t make sense or seems out of place. It quickly descends into ‘are you kidding me?’ and ‘FFS’.

Fool me once, shame on you
Fool me twice, shame on me
Fool me thrice, and I’m asking for my money back

This doesn’t mean you can’t shock your reader or do something unexpected. Plot twists are a perfectly valid mechanism in stories. Reader expectations can be violated to good effect. However, if you’re going to do these things, be aware of the risks and work with or around them. It’s possible to do this and have your readers love you for it, too. (For example, you can foreshadow twists in such a way that they are only predictable in hindsight, or the shock factor might perfectly fit the story.)

So try not to piss off your readers. Handle them with respect. Readers want your story to be fantastic. They want you to be worthy of their trust. Take the strings to their hearts and hold them with care.

Then throw them into the blender and watch the suckers happily weep blood.

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The benefits of being a slut

Love ALL the booksPicture by Kellerio2007

Love ALL the books
Picture by Kellerio2007

Apparently, I like provocative titles to my posts lately. I’m not sure why, but let’s go with it!

Let’s talk today about the writing process. How you plan your stories (or not), how you attack the writing itself (in sequence or out of order), how you format your dialogue, how your characters develop, whether you handwrite or type, where you do the deed… all that good stuff.

No, I’m not going to go through all of those things. That’s just what your writing process encompasses. Let’s talk about how you figure out what that process is.

Most of you are probably aware that I’ve done numerous writing courses (including half a degree in creative writing (the other half was in reading and analysis)), run a writing group, and pretty actively research and

read up on all this kind of stuff. I get asked a lot: “What writing book would you recommend?”

My short answer is usually: “Choose three by different authors.” I have a list I suggest people read from (at the end of this post!), because you shouldn’t read just one writing book: you should read several. (I mentioned this in an earlier post, when I reviewed Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.) I firmly believe that there is no single writer’s bible that will give you everything you need to know.

It’s not that simple.

For example, a lot of writers (including published ones) will say that if you read any writing book, it should be Stephen king’s On Writing. However, this isn’t a great writing book (partly because so little of it is actually about writing). It’s got some good advice in it and there is value to be found there, but it assumes that your writing process must be close to King’s. He’s a discovery writer (also known as a pantser) and actively disparages any other approach. Sorry, planners, you’re not doing it right, according to King.

King’s approach is just one of many, and while it works for him, there are so many options for writers. So many different ways that we construct stories, before, during, and after it gets onto the page. What works for one writer is torture for another. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution; if there was, everyone would be cookie-cutting books out of their creative cloth.

That’s why I tell writers not to read a single writing book – read three. Read as many as you can get your hands on. Don’t just read this blog – read six others.

Faithfulness is admirable, but this isn’t an arranged marriage. Get to know all your potential spouses before you tie the knot, intimately. Try them out before you lock yourself in.

Be a writing slut. Sleep around with all the advice-givers you can find. You’ll refine your taste and preferences, and figure out what works for you. Then you’ll be able to focus on that area, narrow your field of bed-mates, though it’s still okay to experiment. You might get bored with this particular choice, and maybe you’ll seek a different dance partner down the track; that’s okay, too. You might play with new toys every now and then. Who knows what will strike the right spark and ignite your passion?

Every writer is constantly seeking to improve their art and work, so never stop looking afield for new perspectives. Someone might have stumbled over that one things that has been foxing you for ages. I write this blog because I believe I have something to offer to writers, and I hope you find something of value here, even if it’s just the knowledge that you should go look at other blogs too.

I’m pretty awesome, it’s true, but if there’s one piece of advice that should be universal, it’s: don’t listen to only one person. Cherry-pick from all the advice you can find until you have the bed you want to make stories in. Build yourself the best writing process you can for your stories. Then lie back and enjoy the ride.

Enough mixed metaphors for one day? Okay. So here’s a list of books I recommend to people. Go read all of them!

That’s it for now. I’ll let you all know if I come across any other stand-out books or sources for writers.

What about you? What writing books have helped you figure out what your process is?

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Awesome liars

Look, a bar for writers!Photo by Thomas Hawk

Look, a bar for writers! That glass is almost big enough for me.
Photo by Thomas Hawk

There are a few common pieces of advice about writing that are deceptively simple and frequently misunderstood. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is one and I’ve already written about that; ‘write what you know’ is another, and this is what I’m going to talk about today.

Who cares what you know?

Why is it important? This feeds into the believability of your story. When you put your story out there, you’re asking a reader to suspend their disbelief. You’re asking them to trust you with their time and emotions. They want you to carry them away; they want to be lied to and to believe every lie you lay before them. But you’ve got to handle your reader’s faith responsibly if you’re going to keep it.

This means that you have to prove you know what you’re talking about. Errors, mistakes, and inconsistencies break that trust and damage the reader’s connection with your story. They throw the reader out and increase the likelihood of the story being put aside. As a reader, it’s frustrating and annoying when a story can’t get its own facts right. No-one likes to be played for a fool.

For example, you might have a character cocking the hammer on a Glock; or a horse throwing up; or a character being lightheaded after losing four litres of blood; or CPR reviving someone who has been dead for three hours. It doesn’t take an expert in these areas to know that Glocks don’t have cockable hammers; horses are physically incapable of vomiting; losing that much blood will pretty much kill you; and that dude is dead, stop sucking on his face.

Then there are the experts. You need to convince them you know what you’re talking about, too, and they’re going to be much pickier than your average reader (like a soldier reading war stories, or a cop reading a murder mystery).

So what does all this mean?

Live it before you write it?

Let’s start with the misconceptions: you can only write about things you have personal experience in; and you can only write about things that you have studied extensively and are an expert in.

If these were true, should writers start by listing out what they know and then deciding what kind of story they can write? Should characters never be able to pick up a gun because the writer has never held one before? Only have sex in one position because that’s the only one the writer has tried? Should a writer never step outside their own skull?

The short answer is ‘no’.

If those misconceptions were true, our fiction shelves would be narrow indeed. How does fantasy happen? Horror? Science fiction? Historical fiction? Erotica? How does a female write a male protagonist, or vice versa?

We know these stories exist – and can be done well – so how does that work? How can you write about things you haven’t or can’t have experienced personally?

Fake it

‘Write what you know’ is perhaps clearer if written the other way around: ‘know what you write’.

It’s about convincing your reader that you have personal experience in all of the things in your story. It’s about lying to them so well that they believe you thoroughly, including the experts in the subjects you’re writing about. It’s about being the best con artist you can.

So how do you do that? The first step is research and preparation, because if you don’t know something already, you can learn it. For example:

  • Want your character to travel by horse? Look up what that means: what food there will need to be; how far a horse can travel in a day; how much your size of horse can carry; how fast a fully-laden mount can go.
  • Want your character to use a weapon? There are plenty of resources available to give you information you can use to make the experience believable. Weight, ease of use for a novice, how an expert might handle it, and just what the weapon can (and can’t!) do.
  • Want there to be magic in your world? Figure out how it works, the rules and restrictions, and feed them into the story. Introduce logic to make the wondrous believable (this is where ‘internal logic’ is your friend).
  • Want to break existing rules? Convince your readers that you’re not breaking rules at all by explaining it. For example, a two-week journey between stars doesn’t make sense unless you make it clear that you’ve got FTL travel in your world.
    The examples above with the Glock and the horse could make sense if you explain how the usual conditions don’t apply. Blood loss can be survived using transfusions. Someone dead for three hours might be a necromancer taking a nap, but thanks for the smooches anyway.

Make the impossible logical, and your reader will accept it and move on.

Writers go to all kinds of lengths to make their work believable. You can research before (or while!) the story is written; getting expert input is another option, and fact-checking can be done after the work is complete, too. Just because you’re not an expert in a particular field doesn’t mean an expert can’t help to make it convincing!

There are all kinds of crazy resources out there for writers to play with: talk to people; search the internet; have a go at getting personal experience (for example, many law enforcement agencies allow ride-alongs). The FBI even has a liaison set up specifically to help writers do research into their agency.

For less real-world stuff, you have all kinds of things you can create to make your world make sense: maps; family trees; world and racial histories (think of the Silmarillion, which was Tolkien’s background material for Lord of the Rings), to name but a few.

Waving hands are allowed

All of this background material aside, ‘write what you know’ doesn’t mean that you have to explain everything. In fact, going too far in that direction can be counter-productive when it comes to believability. The more explanation and detail you put in about something – particularly when it comes to fantasy/scifi/speculative elements – the more you open yourself up to errors and faults in the logic that readers will pick up on.

For example, I once read a character description that tried to explain in detail how the character’s super-speed worked. It went into air resistance, friction, and the G-forces involved, and the more detail there was, the more it obviously violated the basic rules of physics and raised questions in the reader’s mind. If the writer had simply put ‘can travel at X speed and is not affected by air resistance, etc’, it wouldn’t have been a problem.

A certain amount of hand-waving or glossing is allowable; what you need to do is present enough information for the reader to be convinced that you know what you’re talking about. Sometimes, the information required is very light (‘they have an FTL drive’ can be enough; you don’t necessarily need to explain how it works). The reader wants to know you’re presenting a world that makes sense to them, and they’re willing to give you a lot of leeway in doing that.

Love the lies

Keep in mind that readers want to believe in you. They want to join you on this journey. You owe it to them to be awesome at it. Convince them by sounding like you know exactly what you’re writing about.

Be worthy of your readers’ trust. Con them, be the best liar you can. We’re in the business of selling people dreams and convincing them that they’re real, so dream loud and true.

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Make it visceral

Photo by Trynes

Photo by Trynes

One of the most common pieces of writing advice you’ll hear is ‘show, don’t tell’. It’s a favoured phrase online and offline, in person and on paper. It’s deceptively simple and often misunderstood.

I read a blog post recently that claimed it was all about making the story visual for the reader. The writer should think of their story as a movie or TV show and describe that. It’s a very literal interpretation of the ‘show’ imperative and, I believe, misses the point of the advisory phrase.

(To be clear: describing things visually is a good thing, but it’s too literal and limited as an understanding of this advice.)

What does ‘show, don’t tell’ really mean? In a nutshell: I could tell you that showing was better than telling, but it’s far more effective if I show you.

So first, let’s take a step back. What is telling and why is it bad? Why is showing better? What is this advice trying to achieve?

Telling is when you state something and expect your reader to just accept it. It’s usually simple and often glosses over details. As example:

“Jane was terrified.”

Okay, we’ve been told she is scared, but we don’t really know what that means. “Jane was frozen with terror” is better, but it’s still simplified. It has little to no emotional impact for the reader.

Showing is conveying the same message to the reader by describing the effects of the thing, often without naming the thing (though you can). Taking the example above, the ‘showing’ version could be something like:

“Jane’s mouth went dry and her pulse thrashed in her ears. Every muscle froze while her mind ran in tiny, panicking circles. The worst part was that she couldn’t look away, couldn’t blink, couldn’t do anything but stare as it approached her, step by ground-eating step.”

We’re not told that Jane is terrified; her reaction shows it to us. The reader is drawn into the emotion, must empathise with her to understand her reaction, and is taken along with poor Jane.

What is ‘show, don’t tell’ trying to achieve? Better connection of the reader with the writing, better immersion, and a more convincing story. Readers will quickly grow bored with a story that simply tells them things and doesn’t demonstrate what’s going on. Such tales end up feeling very ‘surface’ but depth is preferable. You should be aiming to grab your reader and drown them in your world, your characters, and your story. Hook them hard and they’ll stay for the whole ride. They’ll come out begging for more.

There’s also a level of trust at work here. Telling relies on the reader simply believing whatever it is you’re saying; showing proves it. It’s the difference between saying ‘I’ve got the most awesome gun you’ve ever seen’ and whipping out that gun so the reader can make that judgement for themselves. Forcing an opinion on someone is much harder than leading them in the right direction and letting them do the work themselves. A shown story is more convincing than a told one for this reason.

Still confused? Here are a few more examples:

“Jack was bored.”

That’s nice, but what does boredom mean for Jack? Why do we care? Can we move on already?

” Jack considered the grain of the table in front of him. He started to count the rings, but he got distracted by a peel of skin next to the nail on his right thumb. As he chewed on it, he stared at the ceiling, noted the start of a crack in the corner, then checked his watch. Had it really only been ten minutes?”

This shows us something about Jack’s character and situation, and gets the reader involved in his state of mind.

“Mary crossed the road. Men in a nearby cafe looked at her and she smiled.”

This doesn’t really tell us much other than the bare actions. Why are the men looking at her? Why is she smiling? Does she know them? Is it relief? Why did the Mary cross the road?

“Mary’s stride lengthened as she stepped off the kerb and arrowed across the wide expanse of tarmac. The high heels of her boots put a sway in her hips that made her feel feminine in a dangerous way, like she was prowling this concrete savannah for prey to sink her teeth into.

“A pocket of silence at a nearby cafe table pressed at her awareness and she felt the eyes upon her, like hungry, drooling dogs. They knew she was queen of the street. She was sexy and magnetic. That feeling bubbled up in her chest until she couldn’t help but smile.”

This time, we know how she crossed the road, and why she might attract attention. A simple smile is put into context. We still don’t know why the Mary crossed the road, but as a reader, we know that this scene has some purpose other than getting her to the other side.

Going back to the blog post that claimed it was all about visuals, consider the ‘showing’ examples above again. How much of them are visual? Very little.

As a writer, you have far more tools than mere sight to use: you have all of the senses, as well as thoughts, feelings, memories, dreams, and metaphors at your disposal. You can put meaning in the tiniest gesture, in the fact that the character speaks too much or not at all, in those tiny fleeting thoughts that take the edge off a smile.

All of these things can be used to ‘show’ your readers your story. Text is a very different medium to movies and TV shows, so enjoy it!

By showing, you can layer your narrative with so much more than just pictures and action. This is where your characterisation can be deeper and jump out of the story. This is where your language can be rich and evocative. Revel in the detail and all that it can do for you, and show us what you’ve got.

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The confluence of ideas

Or, where do you get your ideas from?

Go to any convention or talk with creative people on the panel and someone will ask that question. The panellists will smile or maybe even roll their eyes, because it’s a common and difficult thing to answer.

It seems as if it should be so simple, as if there’s a single, consistent answer. The truth is that inspiration is a vaporous beast, one who lives in the cracks of the world around us. Usually all we get is a wisp; occasionally it emerges, fully-formed and demanding, but those creatures are rare.

The truth is, stories are never created from just one idea (this might be true for short stories, which are focussed on a single idea, but not for longer work): it takes several to make a full, rich tale, whatever genre you’re writing in.

In a recent discussion with a writer-friend, Nick, I described ideas as “like spider-webs, and you have a tiny, tiny flashlight with which to discover them.” We shine light on one piece at a time, and it can be difficult to see the whole picture.

So what are these pieces? What are these wisps of inspiration? They could be anything. It could be an image, or a particular situation or scene that has caught my attention. It could be a turn of phrase that sparks something. It could be a character, or maybe just a particular part of one. It could be something done so badly that I think of a hundred ways to do it right. It could be a single fact spun out to the extent of logic to see where it takes me. It could be someone else’s story. It could be the way that dust motes are caught in a beam of sunlight. It could be the gap in another plot that is begging to be filled in. It could be the sound of a name on someone’s tongue. The patterns the birds make in the sky or the colour of a sunset that just doesn’t seem real.

Anything.

Once I catch the scent of that wisp, it’s time to try to bottle it. But how do you capture something like that? First, you need something big enough to grab hold of.

That’s when the ‘what if’ games begin. Asking endless questions, rolling possibilities around like a bowl of chicken bones, to see what future or past they might tell. I spin and tease and wheedle to see if I can take a single spark and make a flame out of it.

Sometimes, it works. It can be that straight-forward. From a single wisp of smoke, I can draw out a whole story, complete with cast and characters, just by asking questions. By being curious, I discover everything I need to know.

Starwalker was like that. I had a single, strong idea: a ship’s log as told by the ship. Then I asked myself questions. Who is this ship? Why is she different or interesting enough to write about? I knew I wanted her to be part human, but why is this unusual? How did she come to be? What is her mission? Who are her crew? What kinds of battles can she face? What is the main challenge that she needs to face and overcome? From there, the background, characters, and plot emerged.

Most of the time, it’s not that easy. A single idea isn’t enough to build an entire story around.

A writer at a talk I went to once said it best. Sadly, I can’t remember the who the writer was, but the message remains true: sometimes you’ll get an idea long before it’s time to use it. It’s good but it’s not complete. So you file it away, tuck it into a drawer and let it sit. Later, you’ll get another idea. It could be weeks or months or years, but there it will be. It will click with the first one and fill in the gaps, and suddenly you’ve got a story.

I’ve had this happen. Even with Starwalker; that single idea gobbled up a few facets that had been hanging around in my mental filing system for a while. I knew I wanted to write about a serial monogamist, and that became the captain. Elliott took on elements of Harper from Andromeda (among other sources). Kess is a character that I have been writing for over a decade, in many different forms and iterations; this is the first time she has fit into a much larger story. Scraps of ideas from many sources merged into the whole.

With Tales from the Screw Loose, a story I’m still in the process of teasing out of inspiration and into a plan, it has been much more bottom-up. I had the initial idea some months ago: a robot brothel, told from the perspective of the mechanic responsible for the whores’ maintenance. I have a few choice scenes already mapped out in my head. The mechanic is a character that I’ve been toying with for a few years but haven’t found a place to make hers until now.

But that’s all I had to start with: a main character and the place she works. Ideas from several sources but not enough to make a story. There was still a lot missing.

A few months after that initial idea-gathering, another element fell into place when I got to thinking about tidally-locked planets. (Tidally-locked planets do not rotate: one side is permanently turned towards the sun, so there is a dark side and a light side. Our moon is the same, except that it always has the same side facing Earth, so the light-based implications are not the same.) From this, a whole wealth of ideas sprung. The implications of living on the dark side of the planet, even the impacts of perpetual daylight, are interesting to me. Putting a city on the terminus between night and day and placing the brothel smack in the middle was just too perfect to resist. Symbolism, imagery and metaphor all rolled in with delicious simplicity.

It meant that the story definitely couldn’t be on Earth, and that slid the story into one of the colonies in the Starwalker universe. I now have a solid basis to build from and the freedom to build a new colony planet (the Starwalker story hasn’t visited this particular colony).

It is taking shape but it’s not ready to write yet. I’m still missing a few elements that I don’t want to push forward without: namely, the details of the supporting cast, and the central conflict that my poor protagonist has to battle. I’m missing a driving plot. I may be planning to serialise this story, but I can’t write it without a central purpose or a goal to aim for (others may be able to do this, but it’s not for me).

I could force it. I could sit down and try to map out a plot, but that seldom works for me without that initial conflict in mind. The forced nature of it shows and honestly, it’s much less fun to write. They organic development of ideas makes for better stories and that shouldn’t be rushed. Sometimes the idea is knotty and requires a lot of untangling before I can write – and I’m not afraid of putting the work in – but it’s hard to do that without the idea in the first place.

So I’m still waiting for that wisp of inspiration to show itself for Screw Loose. Waiting for that last piece to snap into place. It could be months before I figure out what that piece is, or I might come across the spark for it tomorrow. When it does, I’ll have a complete entity in my head that is ready to write.

(Complete doesn’t mean fully planned-out – I don’t work that way. It just means I have all the elements I need to start writing.)

And then the words start flowing.

So what does this all mean? It means that searching for ideas is something that never stops. It means that even though you have the best idea in the world, it might not be enough to make the best story on its own. Sometimes you’ll take three mediocre ideas and make something fantastic. Sometimes it will take a dozen different elements. Sometimes it will be months or years before that perfect lynchpin for your story appears.

Never throw away an idea. Inspiration is never wasted unless you discard it. Makes notes in your mental filing cabinet, or a notebook, or a scrapbook, or on a pinboard, or on post-it notes stuck around your bed. Keep even the smallest glimmer of an idea, the barest wisp of inspiration, because you never know how you might use it one day.

And then you get to make it awesome.

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CAC: Characters Avoiding Conversation

This is one of my bugbears when it comes to fiction (of any kind: TV show; movie; comic; book). I’m sure you’ve all come across what I’m referring to: knowing that if Character A just talked to Character B, they would sort out Major Issue X. But they don’t, because they’re CAC (characters avoiding conversation – pronounced ‘kack’).

For example, if only Gandalf had said, “Elrond! I know these big eagles that can fly us to Mordor; none of that walking crap is necessary.” But no, we had to have two and a half books more to go the long way.

For another example, how many times have you said to a character, “Why didn’t you say that four chapters/episodes/hours ago?”

 There are lots of ways to create challenges, control plot, and create suspense in a story. Surprise events, hidden motives, personality quirks, character history, conspiracy: these are just a few of the options available. All of them help to pick a story up by its skirts and run it along to the end.

Another way is to have characters not share information. Of all of the available options, this simple mechanism is one of the weakest and can be the most aggravating for a reader, partly because it’s so easy to do it badly. When the characters blunder around in ignorance because they won’t/can’t talk to each other, it is frustrating to watch.

There are two ways in which this occurs and annoys the reader:

  • When the audience is aware of the information not being shared and there’s no good reason for that not to happen. They spend time waiting for the characters to share their pieces, and the longer the delay, the more frustrating it becomes. It’s nice when the characters catch up and everyone can move on with the story together.
  • When the information is revealed to characters and the audience at the same time, and the immediate reaction is, “You couldn’t have said that earlier?!” Continuity can fall down here, which also damages the story.

Both of these can come off as contrived and manipulative. The author’s hand can be obvious (good fiction strives to make the writer as invisible as possible) and intelligent audiences will resent it. I know it annoys me intensely.

There are several reasons why characters might avoid conversations:

  • Events conspire keep them apart, making it impossible to exchange information. This is possibly the most forgivable reason for CAC, depending on how contrived the events are and how often it happens. Once or twice might be good to raise tension; more than that, and the reader will start tapping their fingers, waiting for the writer to stop messing around and get on with it.
  • The characters decide not to mention it. They speak but fail to share the information that would drive the story forward. It can be a valid part of characterisation: perhaps one character is trying to hurt the other, or is competing. This can work. 
    However, if not handled carefully, it’s often implausible: characters need a good reason not to mention the Major Issue in their lives. If it is in-character for someone to mention something, then they should.
  • Everyone is asking the wrong questions. Sometimes this is good and right. However, it’s similar to the point above: there must be a damned good reason for it or it quickly becomes lame and fake, as if there’s a pink elephant farting in the middle of the room and everyone is ignoring it.
  • They are interrupted before they can get to it. This is a specific application of events keeping characters apart, and not something to do more than once as it can easily slide into contrivance.

 Let me be clear: these can be valid tactics to use in a story. They can be used well and to good effect. But when they are used too often, it gives the impression that the writer is trying to string the story out. It’s a sign of not enough plot in a story and smacks of desperation. It’s often laziness and a lack of creativity on the writer’s part.

It can also be a sign of a lack of internal continuity. The example with Gandalf above could have been avoided by simply not having the eagles in Middle Earth (and making the Hobbits walk out of Mordor). It looks like the writer has made something up later in the story and forgotten that it might break the continuity or logic of earlier events.

As a rule of thumb, if you’re forcing delays into the story, you run the risk of making the plot and characters look contrived. The readers will most likely notice and be thrown out of the story.

Be smart about it. Be creative. Be plausible. Most of all, don’t make me want to bang your/your character’s heads together. No-one wants that.

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