7 Writing Rules: #7 Know Your Audience

•February 14, 2017 • Leave a Comment

The original article said the following about this rule: “Maybe that is good advice, but I have no idea how to follow it.” I couldn’t agree more. Since I do always like to go to the extreme, I will think of examples.

If you’re writing smut for Penthouse Forums for straight guys, you aren’t going to write a chaste love story about a young hero who grows up to marry his beefy farmhand, Sven.

You aren’t going to write a lengthy, graphic sex scene in a preteen novel about a safari with talking animals.

I wouldn’t recommend writing a bloody murder scene starring John Wayne Gacy for a children’s pop-up book.

(What’s wrong with me that these were the first things that came to mind?)

So, let’s be sane, however boring that is. You’re writing a fantasy or science fiction novel. Knowing that your audience is predominantly straight males ranging in age from 14 to 50 who are more than likely to read other stuff in the genre means that you should appeal to that audience. Write about someone they can relate to, want to be, want to be with, or can admire.

That is limiting, though. In the 1980s and before there were very few strong women in writing, particularly in fantasy and science fiction, and that’s how the Bechdel Test was born — asking whether a work of fiction features at least two women or girls who talk to each other about something other than a man or boy. Of course, we can all think of a bunch of exceptions to it, but writing before that time was very male-centric, and the women were there to be rescued and desired.

Then the world was lucky to have novels  like Joan Vinge’s science fiction novel, The Snow Queen, appear on the scene in 1980. The main characters are Moon, Arienrhod, and Jerusha, and secondary characters include Elsevier, Tor, and Fate Ravenglass, all women, and with the exception of Elsevier, they all talk to each other at one point or another. The main males are Sparks and BZ. This novel won the Hugo and Lotus awards, was nominated for the Nebula award, is considered a masterpiece, has frequently been said to have the depth of Dune, and spawned three sequels, one of which was also nominated for a Hugo. Had she “known her audience” and spoke only to them, we wouldn’t have this story.

I think there is wisdom in knowing who your audience is, but in speaking only to them, you doom your book to niche appeal, you cut out others, and you alienate the experience. Nobody knows when a trend or fad will start. By not trying, by not reaching, by not stretching, you limit yourself, your creativity, and your potential audience, based on a preconceived notion.

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7 Writing Rules: #6 Write What You Know

•February 7, 2017 • Leave a Comment

This is good advice when you are writing historical fiction, a biography, stereo instructions, or a dissertation on medieval warfare with an emphasis on piercing head injuries. If you are using any of these things, do your damned research and then write what you know.

However, I like fantasy and contemporary fantasy and things in that strain. That being said, you can’t ignore the laws of physics entirely, or you need to make your exceptions to that based in fact. When you change things or explain them with magic, you must know the rules of what you are changing, and you must be consistent and build your fiction accordingly.

I think another, perhaps better way of putting this world is that you have to know what you are talking about. If, for instance, you want to make a breed of troll that originated from sharks interbreeding with moles (I’m making this up as I go along. Don’t judge.), you can work all the magic you need, but you have to know the source material. Do your research on sharks and moles. Since trolls are typically not good with the sunlight, you can think of ways to implement these into something new while using a trope. Since trolls are out at night, you could give them boring night vision, or spruce it up a little. You could have the trolls navigate by an electrical sense like sharks with their ampullae of Lorenzini, but have limited vision like moles…you had better know what those are and how to implement them and how to explain them. You are using the different parts of these animals — also known as writing what you know — to create something new, or something old with a new flavor.

Stephen King (I believe) uses the example of a plumber who wants to write science fiction. I’m elaborating here, but stick with me. The writer knows plumbing, so this imaginary person would write a novel about a plumber recruited to perform routine maintenance on a starship…that then gets captured by a hostile alien race. Using his knowledge of all things pipes and using the aliens’ disregard for a simple maintenance worker (who may not smell too good after a mishap with a broken pipe), he saves everyone, blah, blah, blah. This imaginary writer uses what he knows to produce something that sounds at least interesting.

What you shouldn’t do, for instance, is try to write an alternative history of Henry VIII’s reign from the viewpoint of Anne Boleyn actually being a witch…and make her the fifth wife. Or saying that she lived in the Tuscan court where she was a child bride to the court jester who taught her magic and how to shuck clams with her teeth. (Anyone who knows anything about Anne Boleyn just had a seizure. We will wait for them to revive.) Or write about a gravity-immune pig who poops edible figs and speaks only in backwards limericks…who breathes under water and has poisonous wing tips.

Write what you know. Use what you know to enhance your story, but feel free to change it and play with it while sticking to the rules. Don’t pull an edible fig from your backside and present it as roast pheasant. That’s just absurd.

7 Writing Rules: #5 Avoid Reviews

•January 30, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Some people say that reading reviews can help to give you a pick me up (the good ones) or can serve as an indication of things you can improve on (both good and bad) or that you can take the criticism and toughen yourself up (the bad). There is truth in this, but I wouldn’t recommend it. In fact, if you absolutely have to read reviews of your book, start with Amazon, or see which official critics in your genre might have reviewed it and read them. Are they always right? Nope. Are they often unfair? They sure are. Is there anything you can do about it? Nope.

Let’s get this out of the way here and now. If you are an author or you are thinking of being one, prepare to let go of Goodreads, if you happen to have an attachment to it. The vitriol on that site is not only unbecoming, it’s overwhelming. There are some amazing people who put their hearts and souls into their honest, mature reviews, and to those people I apologize for saying this. However, the entire basket has been spoiled almost beyond redemption by those who imagine that authors are not people, that real analysis or reviews are secondary to their attempts to be hostile and hateful, and that the whole point of a review is to be as sarcastic and degrading as possible.

Example: Joan D. Vinge’s novel The Snow Queen won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel the year it came out. One man reviewed it on Goodreads saying, “Women can’t write science fiction, and I’ll fuck anyone who says differently.” The rest of his review went on to dissolve any notions that this was meant to be some sort of joke.

Example: Some remedial hag reviewed Bram Stoker’s Dracula, giving it one star because she “hates epistolary novels.” She went on to claim that this classic was overrated and stupid because of this one thing…then admitted to not finishing it.

Have you ever read the comments section of the average Yahoo article? Do it. There comes a point when some people cross the line into being a contrarian, where they must always be against something. You could have an article about a man rescuing an abandoned puppy from drowning in a storm drain, and you will get a variety of reactions: most would laud the man for his compassion and/or curse the original owners for not taking proper are of the puppy. However, there will be some who turn it into a political debate. There are others who say that writing that article was a waste of time because there are more important things out there. There are then the obvious sociopaths who talk about how the man should have let the puppy die because of overpopulation, because of evolutionary law, or because they hate dogs. Others will criticize the man for not minding his business.

Goodreads is disproportionately full of these last types of people. Essentially, these people are trolling. Reviews can be good. They can teach you things, but they can also tear you apart. It’s not about being weak or having a thick skin, it’s about not letting that interfere with you. More than anything, it’s about trusting yourself, your muse, your publisher, your well-chosen and honest beta readers, and your loved ones. If there’s something wrong with the novel, it is your job and the job of those people I just mentioned to tell you and help you through it.

Avoid the reviews. Trust yourself and your support system, not some stranger who simply wants to seem clever or to release aggression or to be a contrarian troll. You are better than that and don’t need that validation.

7 Writing Rules: #4 Take Out All the Adverbs

•January 23, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Many writers see adverbs as little pests, not unlike greedy ants on your countertop, begging only to be squashed and murdered. They are viewed as mutant dandelions whose mere presence means that your story is heavy with monstrosities, thereby making you a lesser writer and your work next to trash. Not true.

A good example of an adverb and the most frequent offender is a modifier ending in -ly telling us how someone is feeling or saying something. An example is something like the following: “I can’t be sure who murdered her,” the butler said evasively, his eyes shifting to the side.

Something better would be to cut out the “evasively” and just letting it be this: “I can’t be sure who murdered her,” the butler said, his eyes shifting to the side.

You know he’s being shifty — it’s in the sentence itself — but you aren’t sure what’s happening. It’s more subtle and your readers will get that the butler isn’t telling us everything. He may not be sure, but he knows something, the secretive bastard.

These aren’t the best examples — far from it. I pretty much pulled them out of my buttocks as I was writing this, but you get the idea.

What is true is that an over reliance on adverbs suggests weak characters whose actions, words, and motivations are ambiguous enough that readers won’t know how they are feeling. This touches another issue: that an abundance of adverbs points to a lack of confidence in your writing. Others think that it’s just lazy.

Adverbs serve a purpose. It’s the overuse of them that gets you in trouble. Stephen King, who preaches against them vehemently, admits that he will use occasional adverbs. He does. I’ve noticed. In a review of Order of the Phoenix, he calls out J.K. Rowling in an otherwise glowing review for using them, citing that her writing is wonderful, her characters are clear, their intentions are well-stated, and that she doesn’t need to use so many adverbs. I have noticed it, but they don’t really bother me.

I can give you an example of where they DID bother me and I did notice and it was grating: the first Twilight book. I will be the first to admit that I listened to all four audio books and rarely enjoyed them. I wanted to be able to talk trash with authority and to see what the fuss was about; my attitude does not change the fact that the subject matter and writing were pedestrian at best. However, her adverbs were out of control. In something like 10 minutes of listening, I counted 17 adverbs. My favorite and the most reaching, terrible example was the someone “chivalrously” diving in front of a volleyball to save Bella in PE, but nothing compares to Meyer’s heavy reliance on the word “swiftly”. As I progressed through the books, Meyer’s writing got considerably better or her editor was competent, because the adverbs were bad, but nothing like they were int hat first book.

As with anything, the key is moderation. Use adverbs as needed, but trust yourself and trust your readers. They will get it, and you probably don’t need to bedazzle your story with unnecessary literary rhinestones.

7 Writing Rules: #3 Show, Don’t Tell

•January 19, 2017 • Leave a Comment

This is pretty much the Golden Rule of writing. If someone is reading for pleasure, they don’t want to read an instruction manual of how to import data into an Excel spreadsheet. That’s what telling rather than showing comes off as.

Consider this as an alternate version of the Hobbit’s climactic battle scene:

When the goblins and wargs came over the hill toward the dwarves, the humans, elves, and eagles joined in. A giant, tumultuous battle ensued. So hated were the goblins that all the creatures of Middle Earth took up arms against them. The battle lasted for days and a great many creatures died.

It’s quite a bit different from the actual text of the battle in Tolkien’s novel, isn’t it? I even tried to spruce it up a little (admittedly not much).

Think of a romance novel where the main character is a geek who dreams of nothing more than falling in love and someone falling in love with him. When he finally meets the woman (or man) of his dreams, if we don’t experience things with him, if we don’t know his past, if we are just told something like, “As a young nerd, he was often very lonely and wished for some companionship” it just doesn’t have the same impact. We feel nothing. We process it as a fact and we react to it in the same way we would react to Ikea furniture instructions telling up to put peg A into slot Q.

The details, the showing, they bring us into the story, make us part of the reality. They help us feel.

Personally, I think there are exceptions. Sometimes you can just say a few sentences so you don’t beat the reader over the head with something you’ve mentioned before. Sometimes you need to scale back the detail. Another big place where you have to tell and not necessarily show is backstory. Some can be told through dreams, dialogue, and so forth, but sometimes you have to just tell it — but you have to do it well.

I’m rereading the Harry Potter novels and J.K. Rowling is a master of this. Over the span of a few pages, she sprinkles all the details you need in a very clever way. She will put some action and witty dialogue, then follow it with a paragraph or two of an aside where she explains the magical world of Harry Potter. She proceeds with the action, gives some backstory with some mixed amusing observations, then continues. She does this until you have the full story while still taking part in the current story. Rowling tells, and she does it the way it needs to be done. You could do worse than to study the first chapters of her Harry Potter books to see how she does this and does it so well.

Other than this, you want to draw the reader in, so show them the wonders of your imagination; don’t just tell them it’s beautiful.

7 Writing Rules: #2 Kill Your Darlings

•January 16, 2017 • Leave a Comment

The idea that we have to kill our darlings — or edit things into chum — is mostly sound. Cut the fluff. Stephen King said “Take out the bad parts.” It’s removing the things that don’t serve any real purpose in the furthering of the novel, and this last part is important.

Think of the impact The Shining would have had if Stephen King thought that descriptions of the Overlook were extraneous, or that describing the isolation once was enough, or mentioning only in passing that Jack Torrance was an alcoholic. Imagine Jaws if Peter Benchley told us that the shark was larger than a canoe and left it at that, or just described it as a sea creature of some sort. If the recently departed William Peter Blatty hadn’t mentioned the slew of tests they put Regan through in The Exorcist, if he had just jumped right to everyone believing the mother, so much of the creeping impact, so much of the build that makes that such a successful novel, would have dissipated. Those are examples of things that moved the plot along, necessary descriptions without which the novel would lose coherence.

“Kill your darlings” is another way of saying that you have to edit your writing to within an inch of its life and remove the stuff that doesn’t need to be there. The cautionary tale is to not take the heart out of your story at the same time.

Perhaps we can imagine Harry Potter without mentioning the names of the spells or the ingredients of the potions or the shops on Diagon Alley or the lessons or the materials the various wands contain. Would the plot be there? Largely, yes. However, all puns intended, would the magic be there? No. Not in the immersive form it is now.

I think it’s something that comes with time, objectivity, a good editor, and a careful moderating of sentimentality. It’s hard. I’ve turned this on myself several times, but there’s a happy medium. Writing a long novel shouldn’t make you feel ashamed, shouldn’t make you feel like you haven’t done a good job, or that if you were a really good writer you could have squished 400 pages into in a three page pamphlet with a small glossary. That’s not a novel; there is no journey; it’s a series of bald statements. However, cutting it down, getting rid of the fluff with those aforementioned tools in your belt, and keeping the magic…that’s the tightrope every writer walks, and it’s never easy.

7 Writing Rules: #1 Write Every Day

•January 9, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I’m starting to write again and concentrate on the things I need to do to really get back out there and become published again now that my rights have returned to me. So, I have been trolling writing sites for some tips and tricks, and thought I would share them along with my own thoughts.

Here is the original article I will be ripping off: http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/7-writing-rules-ignore

The first rule is that you must write every day.

This is true and false. You have to put in the time and write or you’ll never get anywhere. Consistency is also one of the keys to success, because if you spend too much time away from the story’s landscape, you tend to forget where the road is, you can’t remember that restaurant you liked so well, and you don’t remember your neighbors’ names. However, if you spend every Saturday writing all day and you do so consistently, you’re still putting in the hours and the time you need to, though the writing may be cold and stale when you return to it.

Stephen King recommends writing up to six days a week at first, and I can’t really argue with a man so prolific, but I think being a little easier on yourself at first would serve you better. Start with four days, then move up to five. If you think you can handle six and seven, then go for it. It’s also important that you try to write at the same time on those days you do write, because your muse will have to find you, and if you’re in the same place at the same time, it will be all that much easier. To avoid using a metaphor, you will be training your mind and setting up a positive habit, and inspiration will follow.

You should be writing because you want to, and there will be times you aren’t feeling it, but you sit down because the work needs to get done and because there’s no other way to finish it. However, there is no hard and fast rule on how to get that done. You have to do it, but everyone suggests treating it like a job, a routine, something you want to do. If you see it as a chore all the time, you’re either not feeling the project or the process itself. Vary your schedule and work, work, work.

It should be fun, but you shouldn’t treat it lightly. It’s entertaining, but not a game. Above all else, enjoy the work, and don’t fool yourself that it isn’t just that. Only the good time.