Writing Tips and Info posts

Writing Spark #62

A fiery spark

Koalas have fingerprints nearly indistinguishable from humans. What happens when a koala’s fingerprints are the only ones found at a crime scene?

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Random Writing Tip #13: Vacuums Suck

Don't be this guy. (Picture by JD Hancock, via Flickr)

Don’t be this guy.
(Picture by JD Hancock, via Flickr)

A lot of writing is done as a solitary activity. We write, we rewrite, we wrestle to make it the story we want it to be. But we can’t do all of it alone, shut away from the world.

Writing in a vacuum isn’t good for the writer or the writing.

We should also look outwards and get input from external sources. It could be other people, or other works of fiction, or real-life stories. We should gain context and an understanding of how our work fits into the world.

We should also reach out and get feedback on our work from external parties. Take in the fresh perspectives of others on the story and on our writing. We mix up this information with everything we’ve come to know, add to it the context we understand, and aim it towards the goal we’re striving for with the story.

And we learn. We improve. We hone our skills as a writer and we polish our stories with this new information.

By stretching out, we expand our vision and experience, and we enrich our writing.

So don’t write in a vacuum. Surface once in a while, let other things fill your eyes and ears, and bring it back to improve your story. You’ll be better for it.

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Random Writing Tip #12: Rest

Cats are masters at resting. Look at Jasmine. Resting. (Photo mine)

Cats are masters at resting. Look at Jasmine. Resting.
(Photo mine)

Getting caught up in a piece is great.Slogging to the end of a piece is, in some ways, better.

But what happens if you get stuck along the way? What happens if trying to move forward with the writing feels a lot like bashing your head against a wall?

I’m a firm believer in pushing through, pushing yourself, and not letting things stand in your way. It’s important to recognise that that’s not always the best thing to do.

Sometimes, you have to recognise that forcing the writing isn’t going to be the best thing for you or your writing. Sometimes, forging ahead regardless can lead your story down the wrong path, or bog it down as your disgruntlement bleeds through, or make you hate it as much as you’re hating the process of writing it.

Sometimes, you just need a break. Step back. Take a breath. Close your eyes and let the words fall away. Rest.

Sometimes you have to find the right way to 'rest'. (Photo mine)

Sometimes you have to find the right way to ‘rest’.
(Photo mine)

The same goes for when you reach the end of a piece. You’ve finished the first draft, so now what?

The next step is to re-draft it, edit it, tidy it up. The problem is, you don’t know if it’s any good. Trust me, you don’t: you’re too close to it. So how do you see it clearly enough to know what you need to fix?

Step back. Know that getting to the end was the first stage, and that the second is to put it down. Take a break.

Let yourself rest. Let the piece rest.

Close the file and put it away. Tuck it in a drawer, file it away in a folder on your desktop. Put it where you won’t see it. Put yourself in danger of forgetting about it.

Try not to think about it for a while. How long? That’s up to you, but at least a week. If you can, a couple of months. The longer the piece and the longer you’ve been working on it, the more time you should allow yourself before going back to it.

It may not be graceful, but if it works, it works! (Photo mine)

It may not be graceful, but if it works, it works!
(Photo mine)

Do something different. Clean the house. Join a gym. Paint a self-portrait. Do some spring-cleaning.

A change can be as good as a rest, so you could write something else. Occupy your brain with something different. Try not to think about the thing you’re resting.

When you come back to it, you’ll surprise yourself. You’ll see things you couldn’t before. You’ll have fresh eyes and fresh ideas. Some ideas may have cropped up during your rest, blossoming the moment you weren’t looking any more.

Then you can get to work and do wonderful things with your words. So do it! Rest, and then kick ass.

(Note: yes, these cats are all mine. From the top, it’s Jasmine, Cinnamon, and Honey.)

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Weak-kneed Women

Does it always have to be this way? (Picture by Frank Kovalchek)

Does it always have to be this way?
(Picture by Frank Kovalchek)

It’s a standard trope in romance (and its raunchy cousin, erotica) that the lead female character will go all weak-kneed and silly at the mere sight of the male lead. (Quite often, it happens vice versa, too.) The character is utterly helpless and unable to think of anything but swooning into his arms, or smooching him, or both, plus nakedness. In erotica, she gets wet just at the thought of him and just about drools all over him whenever he’s present.

It doesn’t seem to matter what the situation is, whether the characters like each other, or whether it would be natural to think of something like that. Man pretty, must lick appears to be the sum of the thoughts available to her while he’s in the room, unless she exerts particular will.

I understand that it’s a pretty standard trope in romance. I understand how it’s romantic and exciting. I get it, I do, and I enjoy romance stories.

But outside of the romance genre, these tropes have quite different impacts, like when it creeps into other genres. It’s particularly noticeable when the character is otherwise not like this.

For example, in Jane Austen, it fits to have a woman be all overcome by the presence of a man and rendered speechless or stupid. When that same reaction happens to a hard-nosed detective with a gun on her hip who is quite capable of punching men in the face, it comes off somewhere between eye-roll-worthy and ridiculous.

I’m talking about ‘strong’ female characters. I put ‘strong’ in quotes because the term has come to encompass many things. I don’t just mean three-dimensional characters (any lead should have this, in my opinion). What I mean in this case is female characters who are proactive, act with agency and confidence, and don’t rely on men to fix their problems. They’re self-reliant, skilled, and capable. They’re often presented in a professional context and are good at what they do.

Until the male lead walks into the room. Then, abruptly, her strength flies out of the window and all she can think about is the fluttery effect he’s having on her. Insert something even remotely bone-able into the scene and she goes all weak. It’s often described with words like ‘undone’ or ‘disarmed’, or a reference to losing all conscious control of herself. Usually, this is the only time she shows this kind of character weakness.

It jars for me. It throws me out of the story. It feels like a trope from another genre that has been shoe-horned in to tick a box: romance subplot, check! It feels clumsy to me, like the author doesn’t know how else to have two people experience being attracted to each other.

It just doesn’t feel natural for these characters. I’ve read several examples of this in crime and science fiction stories, and it bewilders me every time. It sticks out like a giant, throbbing sore thumb. It undercuts the character and her characterisation.

Now, let me be clear: I’m not saying that strong characters can only be strong or that they can’t have weaknesses. I believe quite the opposite: characters should be balanced, have a healthy dose of both, and I have a great fondness for flawed characters. But they have to be strong in ways that make sense for them, and they have to be weak in ways that make sense, too. You can’t just grab six from column A and six from column B and call it balanced. Most of the time, this particular presentation doesn’t make sense.

Why would a ‘strong’ woman have to go all weak and silly at the sight of a man she’s attracted to? Quite often she loses all consciousness of where she is and what she’s doing, completely distracted by the ‘effect he’s having on her’ and often winding up standing there like an open-mouthed guppy. Why is it never given context that might explain why she would have such an extreme and debilitating reaction? Who does this? Seriously?

Why can’t she have a more mature reaction, something that doesn’t make her seem like a silly teenager who has no idea what a relationship is like? How has she not learned how to deal with this? We’re never told; we’re expected to just accept this particular weirdness as if it fits.

Why? Because she’s female and we all react that way? Please.

This has frustrated me for some time (you can probably tell), and I still can’t figure out why it keeps happening. I feel like I’m missing something.

Part of why it annoys me is that it undercuts a woman’s independence so much. The reaction is usually completely involuntary, and many times unwanted (because she despises the man at that point in the story). She’s a victim to these feelings, helpless to do anything about them, helpless to fight them. She is, quite often, completely unable to fight them and loses.

In a time when we’re fighting to have women presented in positive, progressive ways in the media and entertainment, this is particularly worrying. That the mere sight of a particular man can completely undo a woman we’re supposed to view as ‘strong’ and ‘capable’ and maybe even ‘modern’ is not a good pattern to my eyes.

It’s also worth pointing out that the times I’ve noticed this pattern (because I’ve been thrown out of a story by it) have all been written by women. This isn’t a case of men being unable to write women (an accusation that I’ve often heard and don’t agree with as a generalisation).

There are so many ways to be attracted to another human being; going all weak-kneed and wet at their presence is just one of them. A character can notice a physical attraction without being overcome by it. A character might not be self-aware enough for that! A character can have some self-control and some connection with his or her own emotions and desires.

There are ways to write a romance into another genre without bringing the romance genre’s cheesier tropes with it. There are ways to write a romance that will allow a character to be strong, susceptible to love, and be seduced, all at the same time. There are ways to have her make mistakes and give in to urges without making her a victim to them.

It saddens me how few good examples of strong women in romantic plots I can think of. Zoe in Firefly is the first one that springs to mind: completely in love and happily seduced by her husband, without being undone or undermined by him. Anne McCaffrey’s books are often referred to as ‘romances’ (despite their scifi settings) because there’s often a romantic plot involved, and she has stories full of female characters who don’t go all weak-kneed and useless at the sight of their love interest.

In these examples, the romance is organic and natural. The attraction is sometimes there from the beginning, sometimes not. But there’s never a huge spotlight shining on the love interest whenever he swans into the scene. The females don’t feel the need to go fluttery. They can be adults with a lot of different stuff going on. And I like that.

In the interests of equality (which I fully believe in), I have to point out that male leads can be equally disarmed and distracted by their love interest. For them – particularly for alpha male characters – it is a chink in their armour, a weakness they fight against. But it is still weakness. Quite often, one they despise. I am not a fan of this depiction either: the woman doing this to him is bringing him down, making him less. Gee, thanks.

It’s not like I think that women shouldn’t – or can’t – have strong attractions to men (and vice versa). My main problem is that it feels so out-of-character. It can undercut so much about a character. And it’s so tired and overdone.

It feels like a step backwards, like a perception that we can’t quite shake. I think we can be better than that.

Can’t we try a little harder and show other ways for people to be attracted to one another? Can’t we work to make characters make sense?

Can’t we let women be strong and sexual without making them victims?

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Awful attitudes towards studying writing

To study or not to study?  (Picture By Lewis Hine, via Wikimedia Commons)

To study or not to study?
(Picture By Lewis Hine, via Wikimedia Commons)

This is a subject that raises its head on my radar every now and then, so I thought I’d finally write something about it. You know the kind of article I mean: studying writing is a waste of time; you can’t teach writing; writing degrees and qualifications are worthless.

Recently, a university professor (Ryan Boudinot) wrote a post about MFA programs, stating all the things he couldn’t say while he was teaching one. If you are an aspiring writer, I advise you don’t waste your time on that article. If you can’t resist clicking, then please, go read Chuck Wendig’s wonderful response to it as well.

Chuck says pretty much everything I was going to in response to that article, so I’m not going to go over the whole thing again here. I am, however, going to add a little more to the discourse.

I think it’s important to remember that university professors sometimes teach because they have to, not because they want to. It’s a part of their tenure. There are many reasons why a person might choose to become a professor at a university, and teaching is only one of a long list (money, research opportunities, paid writing time, resources, and legitimacy are among the other reasons). Sure, some of them love it and are great at it, but in my experience, they’re the minority. Most of them are okay. Some of them are terrible.

So when a professor starts to go on about how important ‘talent’ is, I get suspicious. Reading between the lines of the recent article, I get the impression that Boudinot found those with ‘talent’ the easiest to teach. He didn’t seem to know what to do with those without said ‘talent’. I’m sorry, but that’s pretty much what his role is to these students: someone who is supposed to teach and mentor them to become better writers. From the tone of his article, it sounds like he would simply throw his hands up at those students and write them off.

Talent is defined in many different ways. I put it in quotes above because I don’t know that I fully agree with Boudinot’s usage of it. He seems to think that those with talent have an innate connection to the written word and are able to produce exactly what he wants. Perhaps that’s so, but it’s also a very narrow view. An illiterate kid might have the same kind of talent but lack the skill to write it down because she hasn’t ever been taught how to. Another student may be following bad advice from a previous teacher. Yet another may not yet have found that one thing that makes him connect with the words on the page in that particular way that speaks to him. This is why they need a mentor.

Also, they produced what he was looking for. Different professors will want different things, so this is a particularly subjective assessment. I know of university professors teaching poetry who despise rhyming and would mark down students who used it. So who is Boudinot to define talent and what says he’s a good teacher?

One of Boudinot’s students came out and wrote an interesting piece in response to his former teacher’s article. In it, he sums up the issue with Boudinot’s teaching methods nicely:

“This is one school of thought on teaching: tough love. I’ve had experience with it in my life. Sometimes it pushes people. Sometimes it pushes them over the edge.”

“Tough love isn’t necessarily a fundamentally flawed pedagogy. The problem arises when a teacher with an inability to determine which students can handle it and which can’t applies the method indiscriminately.”

Teaching isn’t an easy profession. I think it’s undervalued in most Western countries (which is another post for another time), and I don’t think it’s as easy as people assume. Being very good at something and being able to explain that something in a way that another brain can absorb and understand are not at all connected. Being able to explain it so a group of brains can understand is harder still. It’s an exercise in communication, translation, empathy, psychology, and raw knowledge. Sometimes these skills coincide in the same body but often they do not. Training can overcome the gap (and I believe that training in teaching is essential, because it comes naturally to only a few of us).

Teaching art, in particular, is a tricky business. Facts are a case of learning and memorising. Theories can be learned and understood (usually on a logical level). Critical thought as a mode of examining things that can be taught. Art, on the other hand… You can’t have a multiple-choice test for art the way you can for science or maths. There often aren’t straightforward right or wrong answers to art questions, and far too often, I’ve seen students being forced to learn how the ‘right’ answer in art is whichever one suits a particular teacher’s tastes.

You can teach someone to appreciate art, but you can’t teach them how to feel it. You can teach them the techniques and technical aspects of the art, but you can’t teach them how to put them together into something meaningful. You can teach them how to write, but you can’t teach them what to say. You can’t teach them how to be a writer.

So what does that mean in terms of writing courses and qualifications? In my opinion, they should be arming artists with the tools they need to ply whatever artistic trade speaks to them. Critical examination, good practice, bad practice, grammar, spelling, how to punctuate, formatting, layout: all of these things are important and useful for a writer to know. Techniques like metaphor, allegory, and the different forms of writing are also useful.

Some of the technical knowledge will fall by the wayside of an artist’s journey as superfluous, similar to how you might teach a painter to use sixteen different types of paint but only one will suit that painter’s personal style of expression. Sometimes, knowing what you don’t want to use is as important as knowing what you do want to put in your piece. Knowing how and when a particular tool is effective is useful even if you don’t use it, because what if you can apply that principle in a new and different way? It’s all about understanding your options and making informed choices.

I’m a firm believer that an artist should know the rules before they can be broken effectively, too. Subverting rules can be very effective, but it’s hard to do it successfully by accident. Being well-armed with the technical skills and tools gives you an arsenal to draw on, but how you use them is always your choice. Part of what I try to do with this blog is to help writers to find and understand those tools; I share them so others might use them. I don’t call myself a teacher but I hope my efforts and experiences have some value.

I studied English Literature and Creative Writing at university, and have a Bachelor of Arts degree. It’s a pretty useless degree, as far as careers go, beyond being ‘a degree’ (often, that’s all jobs will ask for, not really caring what subject the degree is in). But I chose it because I love books, reading, and writing, and I wanted to study it.

I don’t regret spending three years at university, or the other writing courses I did before and after that degree, or the money I spent on the studying and books. Sometimes I feel that I would have got more from it if I had waited a few years, because I wrote pretty much what they asked me to write. I didn’t know what I wanted to say, and I didn’t know that I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I’ve always had stories I wanted to tell, but it took me years to find the voice that really fit me. The tools I learned during that studying weren’t a waste of time, though, and I got a lot of goodness from the critical reading and essays side of the courses.

I’m sure others find it much sooner than I did. Others might take longer. Right now, I’m in a good place where I’m writing the things that I want to share with other people; I think I’ve found my voice. I firmly believe that it’s not something you can teach someone. Help them find it: maybe.

I’m curious to hear about others’ experiences with being taught writing, particularly creative writing. What do you all think?

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Pacing a Serial: the Posts

What frequency will you go for? (Picture by geralt)

What frequency will you go for?
(Picture by geralt)

All right, so you know how to pace your story and how to pace your production of each post. The last things to think about when it comes to pacing are the frequency of your posts (or updates or chapters; whatever you want to call them), and how big each one is.

Your posting frequency is going to depend a lot on how you write it. Some writers prefer to write it all up front and schedule it out; others prefer to work with a nice, fat buffer; others work much closer to the raggedy edge, writing and posting and writing and posting (yes, this last one is me!). You need to work out what works for you and fits with your comfort levels.

Your posting frequency may or may not be dictated by the pace of your writing schedule. Most writers have a direct correlation between the two (and I’m pretty much nailed to it), so it’s a good place to start.

While I am currently running on the edge with my schedule, I will note that it sometimes hurts me (and my posting schedule). If I have a bad week, get sick, or am simply too busy and stressed to do anything good with my writing, it impacts the story immediately. I usually start a serial with a buffer and that’s good, but it never lasts for me. Being ahead just isn’t something I can maintain.

Everyone is different. The looming deadline is part of what works for me but I know plenty of writers who are terrified by that kind of pressure. There is no right answer; just what’s right for you.

When it comes to frequency, the most important thing by far is reliability. Readers like to know when they can log on and read the latest entry. Irregular postings make it more difficult for readers to follow your story, and the harder it is, the more who will simply forget or decide not to bother any more. Therefore, it’s important to find a sustainable cadence for yourself.

The second thing to note is that there is no minimum or maximum posting frequency. You can post daily, weekly, monthly, or even every few months. You should do what’s good for you and your sustainability. In many ways, if you build it, they will come.

When you have a reliable schedule, it’s a good idea to make it easy to remember. As a rule of thumb, weekly is good because every Friday is much easier to remember than every other Friday. The first day of every month is also easy to remember than, say, the last Friday of the month. These are not ‘preferred’ dates; they’re just examples. The human brain is better at remembering patterns, so use it!

It’s worth thinking about your post length in conjunction with your posting schedule. This is a topic that comes up pretty frequently on the Web Fiction Guide forums, and I get asked about it in person as well.

The guidelines for post length are the same as for chapters in a novel: they should be the length that fits the needs of the story, the genre, the pace, and the audience. There is no maximum or minimum length. There are serials that post 500 words at a time, and others that post 10,000-word chunks.

There is the question of reader fatigue to consider, but this can be as much a matter of presentation as it is length. Reader fatigue can be caused by many things (too many to go into here), and post length is only one of these things. The right site design and presentation can go a long way to help! I was honestly surprised at readers’ willingness to read long posts on a screen; this wasn’t as much of a concern as I had assumed when I started out.

It’s worth considering your post length in conjunction with your posting schedule, though. Asking readers to chew through 5,000 words twice a day is going to mean that those without the time to keep up fall behind. Would you consider 500 words once a month enough? You’ll find readers who love this, while making it easier for others to move on to other stories.

Personally, I aim for my posts to be around 2,000 words each. I post Starwalker weekly, and that’s a reasonable chunk for me to write and readers to get through. I know that if I’m getting over 3,000 words, the scene is too long and I’m trying to do too much.

Occasionally, it’s perfectly natural to have a very long post and I have to split it, but that’s pretty rare. Splitting it helps prevent long action sequences from being too fatiguing to the reader (to split it, I have to write in breaks to top and tail the posts), and also I don’t wind up killing myself to get 8,000 words done in a single week.

Aiming for roughly 2,000 words works for me. I try not to vary it too widely, because my readers are used to getting a certain amount of story in each update. Longer than usual doesn’t bother them (they’ll gobble it up!), but too short can raise eyebrows. Sometimes it works for the story and I can use that impact to my advantage, but that’s very rare (maybe twice in four books?). It’s worth being aware of your readers’ expectations – and remember, you’re the one who sets that up!

So there you go: my whirlwind guide to pacing a web serial. There are a lot of factors and some of them will change over time, and that’s fine. If you’re not sure what will work for you, experiment!

Most of all: don’t forget to have fun. Good luck!

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Pacing a Serial: the Writing

How fast do you want to write? (Picture by cactusowa)

How fast do you want to write?
(Picture by cactusowa)

We’ve talked about how to pace your serial story; now let’s talk about you, the writer.

Serials are long-running commitments and reliability is important, so it’s a good idea to figure out how to pace yourself. You don’t want to burn yourself out and wind up never finishing the story (your readers don’t want this, either!). You might not want to sign up for a ten-year project, either.

The pace with which you produce each post, chapter, or entry in your serial is going to depend on a lot of factors, all of them incredibly personal. Our lives are full of many demands, commitments, distractions, and desires. Where your serial writing fits into that is up to you.

When it comes to figuring out a good pace for producing your serial, one of the important things is to allow for more than just writing. The actual writing part might be the biggest chunk of work, but it’s not all you need to do! Here are just some of the things you might need to build into the time you allow for producing your serial posts:

  • Planning. Plotting, scheming, staring into space. You might be pondering the next big plot arc, turning over ideas for the next post, or restructuring an entire section of your plan.
  • Research. You might have everything figured out up-front, but you also might stumble across something new on the path through your serial that you need to work out. Fact-checking, research, even worldbuilding might be something you want to allow for.
  • Writing. Well, duh.
  • Redrafting. As much as we’d all like to produce gold in the first draft, there isn’t a writer in the world who doesn’t need to redraft their work before it’s suitable for public consumption. Personally, I do at least three read-throughs of each post, the first one or two of which is for redrafting. It could be restructuring the post, filling out parts, removing unnecessary waffle, or reworking a section.
  • Editing. Also very important if you want to produce a quality product. Once I’m happy with the big picture and flow of a post, I’ll do an editing pass, checking sentence structure and things that just sound weird. It’s also a chance to make sure that the redrafted pieces make sense in context. A last pass over the post is for proofing, for spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
  • Formatting. I do all of the above off-line, and thanks to the complex format of my current serial, when I come to upload it into the website, there’s a chunk of formatting I have to do (the things I do to myself!). This is going to vary widely between serials, but do include time to check the output on the website and correct any weird display glitches (depending on your platform, this might be easy or hard).
  • Responding to reader comments. This is something that I take great pleasure in! It is, however, another chunk of time that you should allow for.
    Be prepared to deal with spam comments, too. I spend more time filtering out and removing spam comments than I do responding to readers! There are tools that can help with this, depending on the platform you’re using for your serial.
  • Marketing. You’ve got to get the word out somehow, right? I usually spend a bit of time at the beginning of the serial to do this, because I like having readers, and then I tend to slack off. I’m terrible at self-marketing.

If it seems like a lot, that’s because it is! (It’s totally worth it, though I might be biased.)

For a long-term commitment like a serial, it’s important to be realistic with what you can achieve. There will be times when you get ahead and times when you fall behind. There’ll be parts that are harder to write than others, for various reasons, and some that rush out of your fingers.

So when you’re thinking about what kind of pace will work for you, think about your good and bad weeks. Allow yourself some wiggle room for those more difficult weeks. And don’t forget to allow yourself time to breathe!

Which brings me to the idea of taking breaks: hiatuses. There are pros and cons to taking a hiatus from your serial, but the one I want to call out here is that they negatively impact your readership. Some people will simply forget to come back, or may get distracted by another serial.

Ideally, you want to minimise your hiatuses. It’s another reason to find a realistic and reasonable pace; the fewer breaks you feel you need, the fewer hiatuses you’ll take, and the fewer disruptions to your serial.

All that said, if you’re anything like me, keep in mind what drew you to writing a serial in the first place. For me, part of it was the discipline and the challenge. I wanted to push myself, which is why the Apocalypse Blog was written, edited, and posted every day (for a year). Now, for Starwalker, posting every week can be a stretch, but that stretch is usually good for me. I try to keep my hiatuses to the gaps between books and emergencies.

This is what works for me. I don’t think I could match the pace of the Apocalypse Blog again; I adjust my pace as I move forward. Life changes and changes us. Work out what works for you!

Next up: posting cadence

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Speaking silences

Shhh (Picture by psychonix via DeviantArt)

(Picture by psychonix via DeviantArt)

Silences are powerful things. We see it every day, in life and in fiction: weighted silences, pregnant pauses, comfortable quiet, air so taut that sound doesn’t dare disturb it.

Lately, I’ve been using silences in my fiction more and more. I’m finding that it’s a fascinating tool, and a way to look at a character that offers information even when they’re trying not to give anything away. Silences, in and of themselves, say something.

A rule that I try to hold myself to is that everything must have a purpose in my writing. If I can, I make a single element in a scene do double- or even triple-duty.

It is very easy to get into the flow of dialogue and forget just how useful the lack of a response can be. I’ve seen examples of discussions where the participants spill everything, answer every query no matter how uncomfortable, simply because they are in a place where they are supposed to speak. Ask yourself: would they really answer that question? Would they really reveal all these things, or is it the author pushing them to do it because they need to move the plot along? Question everything. Make every reaction and lack of reaction earn its place on your page.

Silence is a choice, and this is why is it such a powerful tool for a writer. Every choice our characters make tells us something about them.

Think about the impact of the person who falls quiet, or looks away, or is suddenly busy doing something else. A person can give an entire response in just a glance, whether it is framed with ice or a smile. Or they may choose the more subtle avoidance of not answering a question, by changing the subject or commenting on something tangential, shifting verbally towards more comfortable subjects. Their silence may hide in a punch or a kiss. A more obvious silence is left in the wake of the one who walks away, with or without dramatic door-slamming.

All of these reactions tell us something. Maybe we don’t know exactly where mother’s best china is, but do we really need to? Now we know that the character doesn’t want to talk about the china or its current location. Perhaps they’re ashamed, or guilty, or secretly have it being restored to its former glory as a surprise.

Sometimes, the most fascinating character is the one who isn’t yelling like the rest. Sometimes, they’re the most dangerous. Perhaps they’re bored, or considering their options, or waiting for an opening to coldly stick a knife in, or so furious that it’s better for everyone if they don’t let it out.

When the building is falling down, the image of the woman on the ground standing still, looking up, not screaming or even trying to get out of the way, speaks more loudly than all the screeching steel and crunching concrete.

And when someone stops dead, frozen in place by the words or actions of another, we may not need to see any more. The fact that they have stopped, that what they have heard or seen has touched them in a deep or shocking way, tells us something.

I have a deep love of mouthy characters, who will go off on a rant when pressed the right way and let everyone know exactly what they’re thinking. No holds barred, their inner selves bared and daring anyone to counter them. Starry is this type of character: when she’s pushed in certain ways, a switch will flip and she’ll lose her shit in many different ways (mouthing off is just one of them). She has torn open time and space, threatened pirates, and blown up half a moon in fits of temper. I absolutely love pushing her buttons.

Similarly, Rosie has no qualms about letting people know exactly what she thinks, loudly and in the most crass language she knows. It’s actually an effort for her to keep her mouth shut, usually prompted by a superior on the ship. She expresses herself baldly and is quiet cheerful about punching people in the face, and I love that about her.

At the same time, I adore the quieter characters on the Starwalker. Elliott is a good example: for all his foul-mouthed-ness, he’ll close down if things get uncomfortably personal and all you’ll get out of him is a scowl. There might be a relationship building between him and someone else, but if anyone mentioned it directly, he’d avoid the whole subject, probably scoff it away. Put a hand in his in private and he’ll be fine, just as long as you’re not vocal about it.

Dr Valdimir only ever speaks about professional or crew-related matters, never about himself or his past. He also refuses to display personal affections in public, though for different reasons to Elliott, going so far as to ignore or pull away from his lover when other people are around.

In a similar vein, Cameron only tends to talk about professional matters. She’s probably the most carefully-spoken of the crew, and only ever speaks when she has something of value to offer to the situation. Otherwise, she falls into observer mode, to absorb as much information as possible. She, in particular, knows the value of other people’s silences and the weight of what they’re not saying. As the Chief of Security, it’s part of her job, and she has been bitten enough to know the importance of it.

As part of building my characters, I usually work out this type of thing. What would make them uncomfortable? Shut down? Clam up? Knowing what would make them close their mouth can be just as useful as knowing what would make them explode.

As with all elements of building characters (and worlds), I wind up with way more material than I can ever use. For example, with Elliott, no-one has tried to mention the budding romance going on, not even the person he’s having it with. It might come up one day, but it hasn’t yet. And that’s okay. The Lieutenant hasn’t confronted Dr Valdimir about being ignored, either (at least, not on the page). But I know those moments are there as options, should they become appropriate and necessary for the story at any point.

I feel compelled to add that not wanting to reveal something (as the writer) isn’t a good enough reason to make a character silent. Too often, I’ve seen stories that stretch themselves out by refusing to have characters exchange appropriate information. Just like having characters spilling too much, too easily, this doesn’t do the characterisation or the story any good. It’s a cheap and lazy way to maintain tension and make the story longer without having to do something creative and interesting.

The best rule of thumb is that if a character would say something, have them say it. But know when they would be silent. Use that. Make your readers join the dots. Hint at things. Tease.

Because those silences can say so much more than whatever words they might trot out will. Embrace the power of your silences. Use them. Wallow in them. Enjoy the quiet of life and all it can do for you.

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Pacing a Serial: the Story

Writing a serial is a bit like tackling a marathon.

Writing a serial is a bit like tackling a marathon.

I promised recently that I would start to post more stuff from my writing group discussions. I have been asked many times about pacing and writing a serial story, so it seemed like a good place to start.

I tend to put together some base material for the group to talk about from a mixture of experience, study, and research. This content was mostly gleaned from personal experience and the wonderful advice available from the Web Fiction Guide forums, where serial writers get together to swap this sort of information.

Like other writing advice I post here, this is a collection of tools and information for you to use. It’s up to you how and when you use it, and which parts you simply don’t care about. I hope you find it useful!


Pacing is pretty important to a story, and can mean the difference between a good and a bad story. It’s a mixture of a lot of things: speed, cadence, tension, urgency, mood, length, or relief.

The format of a serial adds another level of considerations to those of a non-serial writer, giving us a three-way challenge when it comes to pacing:

Tip: Serial writing has very similar challenges and principles as web comics. If you’re familiar with creating or consuming those, use that experience!

This got scarily long and rambly, so I’m splitting it up into multiple posts. For now, let’s talk about pacing the story itself.

Pacing the Story

Many guidelines and best practice for non-serial stories apply to serials as well. Let’s get them out of the way first:

  • Each post, like each scene in a story, must progress something important: plot, character development, motivation, etc. Beware of fillers and tangents; they tend to interrupt or bog down the pace of the story.
  • Be aware of the level of your pacing. There are a number of ways to chart it, so find one that works for you.
  • Avoid reader boredom. If the pace is too slow, readers will get bored. Remember that you want them to keep coming back to your serial regularly. Spice it up!
  • Avoid reader fatigue. If the pace is too fast or hectic, and readers may find it jarring or exhausting. Give them a break.
  • In a similar vein, vary the pacing to keep it fresh, don’t lull your readers into a pattern. Monotony, at any level, is bad.
  • Be wary of lingering too long in the same place: scene, situation, mood, etc. If readers feel like a story is ‘stuck’, they’ll lose interest and move on.
  • Cliffhangers are good but don’t overuse them. Readers are savvy and will get frustrated if forced to wait for a cliffhanger’s resolution for too long, or too often. This particularly applies to serials, as readers might have to wait days or weeks to get to the resolution. The further apart your posts are (in real-time), the more annoying cliffhangers are for your readers. (My readers gripe at me about this sometimes. I’m sorry! Sometimes I just can’t help myself.)
  • Know the expectations of your genre. For example, horror, action, and romance are going to have quite different demands and expectations when it comes to pace.
  • Cater to your audience preferences. This one can be hard to gauge, as you need an audience before you can ask them. But think about the typical audience for a story of your genre and type. Age is a factor (YA), as is time available (chicklit for working mums). See what’s out there and try to judge from that. It’s a place to start; you can always refine later.
  • Pace according to the needs of the story. Have an action sequence? Then pace it like one!

The breaks between posts comes up a couple of times in that list, and it’s important to keep in mind. Whatever posting schedule you choose (more on that later), there will be time when a reader is forced to wait for the next bit. This is one of the few formats of textual fiction where the writer can control how quickly a reader can progress.

It gets trickier than that, though. We can’t assume that a reader is going to keep up-to-date and jump on each update according to our schedule. We can control how quickly they read the story, but not how slowly. Different readers have different preferences, and we should try to cater for them, too. The truth is:

  • Some readers prefer to read in chunks and will ‘save’ posts up so they can read several at once.
  • Life interferes and even those who prefer to read post-by-post as they go live sometimes need to catch up.
  • New readers need to catch up to where you’re posting right now. The longer the serial goes on, the more they have to read. This isn’t a bad thing!
  • You might want to publish the serial in books or collections, to allow readers to consume it in a different format (I know some readers prefer to wait for the ebook version to come out!).

It puts serial writers in a curious position, trying to cater for continuous and broken reading at the same time. It’s something we should try to keep in mind, especially when thinking about pattens in the pacing of the story. Something that might not be obvious when looking post-to-post becomes blindingly obvious when reading stretches of the story, like an action scene that goes on for pages and pages, or a journey that takes forever to get somewhere.

Story Shape

There are lots of posts around about the kind of shape a story should have (Kurt Vonnegut famously did a lecture on this). The ‘shape’ could refer to anything you like: tension, mood, pace, happiness of the protagonist, or the progress of a plot arc.

I’m only talking about pace here, so let’s focus on that. When it comes to the overall pacing of the story, a lot depends on the form and purpose of the serial. There are several main variations:

  • Serialised novels, which follow the same guidelines as a regular novel
  • Soap opera-style serials, such as fictional blogs or ongoing stories
  • Collections of vignettes or short stories, which may or may not be linked to each other.

The form that is peculiar to serials is the soap opera-style, because they’re designed to never end, and their shape can be quite different to other forms. For example, let’s look at the pattern of the plot arcs (as progress through a plot can be a big indicator of pace).

Novels and shorts tend to have a single major plot arc (or several overlapping, entwined ones), with potentially some smaller plot arcs (or sub-plots) happening at the same time, and all of them come to some kind of resolution at the end.

Soaps, on the other hand, have overlapping plot arcs that don’t coordinate their starts and ends, and they don’t tend to have a single ‘main’ arc. The idea is to create a constant reason for readers to come back, through stories that are never ‘finished’ and new questions raised as soon as answers are given.

What does this means in terms of pacing? It means that the story should avoid natural pauses, places where a reader might take a breath and call it done. It is a rolling train, rumbling and rattling at times, swaying around corners, speeding up and slowing down, but never truly stopping.

This is not to say that soaps have arcs that never end. Plots should still be resolved and questions should be answered, but there’s usually something else picking up the slack as soon as that happens.

Personally, I don’t write soaps. I plan my serials in novel-length chunks, so I know the rough shape before I start. There is a distinct arc and an end in sight. If there’s more than one novel, there are threads that lead between the books, encouraging readers to come back, but I let there be those natural pauses.

This is because I much prefer to write with an end in mind; the notion of an open-ended story terrifies me. The chances of wandering around aimlessly are just too high! I give kudos to those who can pull it off. To maintain my own happiness and sanity, I won’t start writing a story until I know the core plot that’s driving it (which is why there is yet to be any Tales from the Screw Loose), and I won’t push a story past what I feel is the natural end of the stories I have to tell (not even if my readers beg) (Apocalypse Blog, I’m looking at you).

Figure out what kind of story you’re aiming for, and that will help you work out what might be a good pace for it.

Next up: pacing yourself.

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Making Magic

Shapeshifting might be your chosen form of magic. So work out how! (Picture by unknown)

Shapeshifting might be your chosen form of magic. So work out how!
(Picture by unknown)

If you’re writing fantasy, whether it’s urban, epic, far-future, alternate dimension, there’s likely to be some magic in it. The thing with magic is that it can do anything, right? Well, yes, but a better answer is ‘no, it can’t do everything (and here’s why)’.

An undefined magic system that can do anything is the sign of lazy worldbuilding and is often used as a ‘get out of jail’ free card when the plot gets stuck. It’s a symptom of bad writing.

Let’s be better than that. To be a system, it has to be defined, have rules of some kind, and make internal sense. Yes, it might be magic, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t make logical sense! It can be kick-ass and consistent.

But where to start? Let’s see if we can narrow down what we’re going for here.

What type of magic is it?

The term ‘magic’ covers a whole spectrum of fantastical possibilities. Here’s a list that is probably far from exhaustive:

  • Elemental (fire, water, air, earth, metal, etc)
  • Psionic (mind manipulation: illusions, control, communication)
  • Telekinesis (manipulation of matter or energy by the brain: physical objects, fire, electricity, etc)
  • Wards, enchantments, and curses (places or objects imbued with power, temporary or permanent)
  • Alchemy (concoctions of awesome, transmutation)
  • Shapeshifting (manipulating one’s own matter to take another shape, voluntarily or otherwise)
  • Necromancy (raising the dead, spirit talking, spirit wielding)
  • Clairvoyance (visions across time, divining)
  • Science (if it’s fantastical enough, it’s just like magic!)

Okay, I’m not going to talk about the last one so much, but you get the idea.

You’re not restricted to any one of these types; mix and match at will. You might even want all of them, but be aware that everything you include needs to have the mechanics figured out, one way or another.

Where does the power come from?

Magical effects have to be driven by some kind of power. It’s worth thinking about what kind of power or energy this is, and where it might have come from. Some options are:

  • Blood
  • Life (or death, or both)
  • Nature
  • Deities (singular or plural)
  • Mystical or magical energy (sometimes magic is a power in itself)
  • Sacrifice
  • Spirits
  • The caster or user’s own self
  • Objects

Some of these can easily cross over with each other: a blood sacrifice; the magic user’s own life force; the use of a holy talisman that draws power from the deity that blessed it.

What is required to use this magic?

This can be closely linked to the previous question: what does someone have to do in order to cast a spell or activate a magical effect? Think about all the different ways that magic is cast. Here are a few ideas:

  • Words (chanting, magical words, commands)
  • Gestures (by hands, wands, or any body part; maybe even a dance)
  • Ritual
  • Physical ingredients or components
  • Music
  • Actions (more than just a gesture, like the spilling of blood, the taking of a life, breaking an object, etc)
  • Patterns (alignment of stars, seasons, planets, the position of the moon, or something created manually, like the positioning of the four elements at the four compass points)
  • Symbols or runes
  • Talismen or objects imbued with power

These might be required to unlock the power already identified, or they might be used to shape that power into the desired effect, or both. Many magical systems combine several of these elements; for example, the style of magic in the Supernatural TV show can involve physical components, words, gestures, and runes drawn on the ground, all to perform a single spell.

Who can use magic?

Restricting the use of magic is not unusual, but there must be some rhyme and reason to it. This is where you’ll be able to spin out its effects on the people of the world most directly, as access to power tends to has a lot of impacts.

Those who use magic could be:

  • Anyone. Maybe it’s common enough that everyone is able to do it. Can everyone use it to the same extent?
  • Born with it (it’s probably not Mabeline). Is it genetic? Inherited in some way? Passed from one bearer to the next, or multiplied by having many children?
  • Adults. A certain level of physical or emotional maturity is required to access it. Linking it to puberty and coming of age is not unusual and tends to work well.
  • Children. It can be something lost at puberty, instead of gained. This is often linked to the loss of innocence (but doesn’t have to be).
  • Ritually imbued. A person has to go through some kind of rite to gain access to the power, like a spirit quest, a ritual, or a challenge.
  • Educated. It’s a learned skill that requires study, usually many years of intense activity and training.
  • Pure. Spiritual, emotional, or physical purity could be linked to the ability to use magic. Sin or sex could cost someone their ability to wield true magic.
  • Divine or pious. Magic might require devotion to a deity or religion.
  • Mutilated or mutated. Having a certain physical attribute or physically changing the body might be the way to gain access to magic. It could be natural or fabrication, like losing a finger, castration, a third eye, or symbiosis with another entity.
  • Bearer of a gift. Perhaps it’s an object or ability bestowed by a person or entity. It could be a physical object, a mark, or something less obvious.

The definition of the group who can use magic (and its related power) tends to be important to a world’s society and political setup. Think about all the ways that the restrictions around who can use magic might impact the power balance in a particular type of society. Think about their relationship with those who cannot use magic. Are they equal? Are they blessed or cursed?

Who controls magic and its use?

The answer to this may seem obvious, given the previous question, but it isn’t always straightforward. Do the magic users govern themselves, or is there an external party? A caste system? Rules and laws they must follow? Are the magic-users slaves to a group, god, or system (for example, in the Dragon Age games)? Do they serve the government? Do they sit outside of it? Do they run their own state or country, independent of the magicless ones entirely (like in the Harry Potter world)? Who pulls their strings, and how?

Think back over your answers to the above questions and consider how someone might have control over the magic-users. If certain substances are required to use magic, the source or trade of those substances becomes an essential link in the chain. Access to specific locations or objects could be controlled to leash users.

Consider also how magic users interact with other parts of society. Are they well-thought-of? Feared? Despised? Envied?

The answers to these questions will pick out how magic shapes this world you’re building, as well as how the world shapes the use of magic.

What are the limits of this magic?

Magic can, potentially, do anything. However, it really shouldn’t be able to do everything. To avoid it becoming over-powered and swamping your world and story with too many implausibilities, and to make it fundamentally more interesting, give it some limits. Having a character have to figure out how to best use a small amount of magic to solve a problem is far more interesting than a character who can fix any issue with the wave of the hand.

There are lots of ways to put limits on magic. Think about things like:

  • What’s required to use it. Things like components, blood, and even life tend to be limited sources.
  • The source of the energy. If drawing from something like nature or a mystical energy, local sources might need some time to recharge.
  • Fatigue of the user. If the user is a conduit for the magic, mental or physical fatigue (or other cost) could be a natural limit.
  • Natural laws. Magic’s limits could simply be defined by the physical laws of your world.

There are lots of other options. Be creative! And be clear.

What are its weaknesses?

Balance is important. If something is powerful, it should also have a weakness somewhere.

Is there a way to protect against magic? Tinfoil hats, cold iron, a pentagram drawn the right way up? Is there something a non-user can do or use against magic?

Protection against magic is only part of it; what advantages do non-magic users have against magic users? Do magic users have an Achilles heel? Think about ways to destabilise magic or its use, and things that magic users might be susceptible to. For example, cold iron often burns magical creatures in some mythologies (for example, some faerie magic systems) and they cannot defend against it at all.

Weaknesses add interesting and fun complications to a world, and your story. Embrace them, play with them, and they’ll do great things for you.

Got all that? Good. Now you should have a defined magic system and lots of elements to throw into your story.

Go crazy, do fantastical things, and most of all: have fun.

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