More Posts Coming Soon!

This post is essentially just an update on where I’ve been and what to expect in the coming months. If you don’t know this about me, I’m a teacher, father of a new baby girl, and also a tennis coach. That’s kind of the inspiration behind a website about quick and easy tips for writers who are short on time. Ironically, I too became so short on time that something had to give. What gave was keeping up with my website. But the end of tennis season and the twelve to sixteen hour  work days it brings is near.

So the short version is that I will resume regularly updating the site with content in roughly four weeks! If you’ve stuck with me this far, I appreciate it greatly, and hope you will still be around when I get back in stride.

 

 

 

Writing – Does It Have To Be Art?

A guilty pleasure is usually a term reserved for something bad that you cant can’t help enjoying: junk food, reality T.V., B horror movies, Youtube unboxings (maybe that one is just me), or books like Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Harry Potter. Before you stab me with the business end of a broomstick for including Harry Potter with books like those, just hear me out. For the sake of brevity, I’m just going to tackle why you should stop looking at books as guilty pleasures in this post.

Even if you never plan to write a single word of fiction in your entire life, “guilty pleasure” is a label worth taking a closer look at. Calling a book a guilty pleasure is tantamount to saying that something is so bad that it makes you feel guilty to be seen enjoying, yet it’s so captivating that you’re willing to risk social ridicule. So let me get this straight. . . It’s so bad that it is embarrassing. But it’s so good that you can’t stay away from it?

What’s So Bad About Guilty Pleasures?

Most of you are probably thinking, “Well it’s not that it’s bad. It’s just so low-brow that it’s embarrassing to be entertained by it.” And this is the real central nugget. It’s not that a guilty pleasure is poorly done (though if you inspect Twilight, it apparently has glaring errors even on the first page) but that it doesn’t make us feel intellectual enough. At first, this seems like a valid concern. But upon closer inspection, it falls apart.

Entertainment Versus Art

The problem comes from the idea of entertainment versus art. And this is where authors really need to pay attention. I should preface this with a warning: my view on this is pretty controversial and most people who consider themselves writers will probably disagree with me. Go ahead. Anyway, I think the classics are dated and should be removed from the pedestals they are placed on.

When tennis was in its youth, players were taught to point their racquets directly away from the ball on the backswing, and straight toward their opponent at the end of the follow-through. As the sport evolved and the equipment improved, players began finding success with more dynamic swings. Today, players are taught instead to do what’s called a unit turn, where the body essentially coils and uncoils. The swing went from an entirely linear process to a circular process.

What’s my point? When the game of tennis evolved, there was less and less to learn from watching the old players. And if a new player wants to learn how to swing, he or she will model their swing from the current pros. But when it comes to writing, we have the idea that the “original greats” had it right and that we can never hope to match their mastery of the English language.

Frankly, that’s a bunch of bull.

Classic Literature Is Overrated

Fiction mirrors life, and our life and language now are vastly different from the life and language of classic authors. Of course our language should differ. Of course we should simplify our ideas. Of course we should write about emerging technology and social issues. The idea that there was a “golden age” of writing is perpetuated by school systems that tout classics as if they are infallible. Are they still good books? Sure. But should we discount any recent literature as valuable just because it’s not dusty enough?

Though I don’t mention it often in my posts, I teach English honors to high school seniors. And I know first hand how much teacher’s hands are tied when it comes to selecting textbooks. At my school, for example, I have a set list of books that I am allowed to choose from, all of which are at least 100 years old. This results in several problems:

  1. Students think their essays should be as wordy and inefficient as the books we put on pedestals. And why shouldn’t think they so? But there is absolutely no place in the workforce or even the literary world for wordy writing that mirrors the classics.
  2. Young people have it beaten into their subconscious early that books are dated, hard to understand, and a lot of work to read.
  3. The vast majority of young people will never read a classic again. Instead, if they eventually discover a love for reading, they will think of anything that’s not a classic as a “guilty pleasure”.

Aha! Maybe you were wondering where I was going with my tangent. But I feel it’s an important one. Our classification of anything that is compelling and easy to “digest” as a guilty pleasure all points back to the unjustified worship of classic literature.

So when you are working on your fiction, ask yourself if your goal is really to create something that is compelling and easy to digest (which will be labeled a guilty pleasure by society) or something that is thick, goes down hard, and is possibly rewarding, but only with a lot of work (which will not be appreciated by society until long after you’re dead).

And if you disagree with me about the false value placed on classics, tell me why in the comments! I’d be interested to hear other opinions.

 

Does Your Story Have A Central Conflict?

Every good story needs a central conflict. While every writer from novice to master could tell you as much, not all of them are applying the concept. To demonstrate what I mean, here are some examples and non-examples:

Examples of a central conflict:

Fantasy: If the protagonist is not successful, a corrupt leader will come to power and bring misery.

Science Fiction: An emerging technology threatens the delicate balance of power and the protagonist must make sure the right people come out on top.

Romance: The protagonist is interested in a long-term relationship with a girl who isn’t ready to settle down.

Thriller: The protagonist discovers a plot to release a chemical weapon in the Boston subway system and he must find a way to stop it.

Non-Examples of a central conflict:

Fantasy: The protagonist wants to learn magic but it’s difficult.

Science Fiction: The protagonist keeps getting attacked by space pirates and has to battle his way to safety.

Romance: The protagonist realizes his ex-girlfriend is in the same restaurant while he’s on a date with his new girlfriend.

Thriller: The hero is tied up and must solve a riddle to free himself before a bomb goes off.

 

Notice the difference? The non-examples do show conflict, but it’s not central. And there’s not really anything wrong with the non-examples; in fact, you should aim to include as much conflict as you can in your story. But the real key is this: every story needs a backbone of dramatic conflict.

If you’re working on something right now and the central conflict isn’t becoming clear to you, be afraid. The gradual unfolding of your central conflict is the stage that your story plays out in front of. It provides context and relevance to the episodic moments of tension, and those moments of tension should ultimately build toward the central conflict, even if it’s only a step at a time. It’s all tied up together like a big, tense hairball. Maybe not the best simile, but you get the point.

Every scene in your story needs to have goals, and one of the most important goals is building toward your central conflict. 

So take a look at what you’re working on now. Leave a comment describing your central conflict. If you can’t figure out what that conflict is, go back to the drawing board and figure out what it should be.

 

 
photo credit: Hunt Peck via photopin (license)

I’m Changing My Philosophy

In the spirit of this update, let me begin this post with a TLDR: I’m going to keep my posts shorter and more to the point going forward.

If you’re interested in why, let me explain. I had traditionally aimed for about 1000 words or more and tried to pack as much information as I could into each post so that it could be a resource for writers. But I think while I work on my own novel (and subsequently getting some proof out to the world that I know what I’m talking about) I’m going to focus on a more “short and sweet approach”. Why? Because you don’t have to put as much trust in someone to read a brief article that gets straight to the point. When you see a wall of text, you’re forced to ask whether you trust the writer enough to commit to reading said wall.

And that’s that.  I hope you’ll continue to stick with me as I make some changes

Book Review – The Cycle of Arawn: The Complete Trilogy

This is the first of what will eventually be many looks into a book I’ve read recently. I’ll give a big warning before I get into the nitpicks, spoilers, and things of that nature.

Should You Read This Book?

Probably not. I was initially sucked in by the unique voice and successful humor of the first few chapters. In the end, reading the trilogy is like watching an overburdened, drunken mule try to walk in a straight line for several weeks. Spoiler alert: he does eventually make it, but everyone who watched the debacle wants their time back.

Seriously though, while the series had some high points, it was mired in far, far, FAR too much muck for me to recommend it to anyone. There aren’t even any real novel ideas or interesting approaches to a magic system or a setting in the book. It’s all pretty cut and dry vanilla fantasy. The redeeming qualities are a few good laughs very early in the first book. I think I nose breathed maybe three times through the rest of the three-book series. The relationship between Dante and Blays was endearing at times, but not enough to overshadow the other faults.

Spoilers Below

The Magic System: In most cases, a magic system is only as good as its limitations. In some stories, the “fuel” for magic is a physical and finite resource. Sometimes the magic itself is somewhat weak, but can be used creatively to great effect (kind of like in Harry Potter). In this story, you can pretty much do whatever you want with magic, but you get tired. And if you’re a really skilled sorcerer, it takes longer for you to get tired.

The magic system was a huge issue throughout the entire story. There were many instances where the seemingly endless powers Dante possesses would have side-stepped an entire 400 pages worth of political maneuvering. For example, in the third book, he is threatened by the Minister and thrown out of the city just as he seems on the verge of getting what he wants. Dante had thoughtlessly killed more people over less in earlier sections of the story, but in this case, he lets himself and his friends be escorted from the city. Other times, he inexplicably decides to fight enemies with his sword rather than spike them through the face with nether.

But the biggest abuse of the magic system came during the end of the “Chain-breakers War”, which I don’t think sounds as cool as Robertson thought it did. Dante, who previously had been barely able to do more with the nether to move the Earth than he could with his hands, cracks a chasm open in the ground that swallows thousands of soldiers and saves the day. This moment, combined with the contrived feel of Lyra’s death at Dante’s hands and Blays’ refusal to hear reason was among the sloppiest moments in the series.

What I learned From Reading this

I try to take something away from every book I read, if not many somethings. This book, while I didn’t enjoy many parts of it, still taught me some valuable things.

  • Imagery like “as black as the space between the stars” is cool, unless you also compare every single thing in your story to something “sky” or “star” related. Basically, don’t over-use a source of imagery.
  • While it might seem cool to have a magic system that has few drawbacks, it makes the plot tricky. When your characters can kill anyone with a thought at any point, writers are forced into some contrived situations.
  • The hint of a fight is much more satisfying than a fight.
  • Using modern slang in a fantasy story is really jarring (“Hauled ass”, seriously?)
  • Don’t create a new “race” of people unless you put a lot of thought into making them interesting.
  • People within a race need to differ as well.
  • Putting your characters in life-or-death situations too often takes the suspense out of the moments.
  • Never, ever, ever write scenes that feel like characters in an MMORPG completing quests. “If you want this information, you must first kill all the rats on my boat.” That literally happens, by the way. Or, “I’ll tell you if you steal a letter for me.” Or, “I’ll tell you where to go if you convince this Norin to make a portrait of my face.” Ughnnnrh. Just thinking back on them is painful.

The Plot and Pacing: 

Read the following at your own risk. It’s a breakneck speed version of the plot that is enough to satisfy your curiosity if you don’t plan to read the book.

The basic plot is that two boys are manipulated into killing a woman. They realize they are being manipulated but decide to pledge their loyalty to the one who manipulated them anyway. End of book 1.

The boys have been helping the Norin by smuggling weapons to them for years now (Oh my God the Norin. The most boring, uninspired fantasy race ever to be created. More on them later). The boys are manipulated by the Norin and end up starting a war with a king who has been mostly irrelevant up until this point in the story. The boys go on a series of fetch quests that accomplish largely inconsequential tasks. A few hundred pages are spent with the boys doing favors that lead to more favors to finally earn. . . A discount on grain for their home city. In fact, the vast majority of book 2 is spent with Dante playing a board game that never is mentioned again and the boys completing tedious “quests” like going to talk to this guy who sends them to another guy, who wants them to bring him this thing. Then there’s a big battle, but the boys win because Dante can miraculously do something a few orders of magnitude greater than what he could ever do before. End of book 2.

Blays ran away and is knee deep in Robertson’s attempt at political intrigue. Dante wants to find Blays. Dante finds Blays and Blays gets away, but Dante spoils Blays’ plans when he finds him. Blays escapes Dante by hiding on a beach protected by powerful nethermancers. Dante goes back home. Blays learns to become a nethermancer because SURPRISE, everyone can actually be a nethermancer. They just don’t try hard enough. Dante goes to investigate lights in the north and runs into CAPPERS, which are boring animals that are basically just bear-sized things with horns that are immune to nether. 1000 pages later, Blays is still doing what he’s doing and Dante is still in the same mountains, just trying to cross them this time. Dante found out about a thing called the black star, which is the only plot point that interested me enough to finish the story. It apparently grants a wish and Dante wants to find it before the Gaskan king does. Dante brings a guide, “Ast”, with him, who is 100% devoid of personality. There’s a hint made early that he might be planning to betray Dante, but nothing comes of it except Ast literally admitting he planned to betray them, but changed his mind much later.

They realize the other side of the mountains is covered by huge trees that people live in. They check the first tree they see people in, which happens to be the capital and home to the only other person on the entire planet who is both looking for the black star and has a means to find it. Dante gets a cryptic hint to go somewhere else (this is a recurring theme, if you haven’t noticed. The author really likes writing about the characters traveling on the road, but nothing much ever happens on the road). They go to another city, where they also have to do some tedious quests for a lady before she gives them another cryptic clue. They are told to go to ANOTHER place. They go to a desert, where they find a village and are forced to do some tedious tasks before they are giving another cryptic clue. This time they go to the ruins where they realize that the mountains separating the two lands were made by the last person who used the black star. Dante realizes the guy who sent him there knew this all along, but just thought Dante wouldn’t believe him unless he saw it (that was about 300 pages).

Finally, Lou, who was apparently a filler side-kick while Blays was gone and completely boring and irrelevant to the story, gets killed.  Dante learns where the black star is but Blays was also trying to stop Dante from using it. So right as Dante finally finds it, Blays snatches it out of his hands, runs away, and accidentally delivers it to the Minister. A lot of planning goes on which basically culminates in, “let’s go steal it from him while he sleeps because Blays learned to turn invisible.” Somehow, Blays, who up until this point has been a peerless swordsman and nearly impervious to harm, manages to miss his target when he stabs the sleeping Minister. He hits him in the chest with the dagger and stands there stupidly while the Minister screams, instead of I don’t know, stabbing him again. Robertson tries to justify Blays’ decision to stab him in the heart by saying that he couldn’t decapitate the man without making a loud noise, but doesn’t explain why he couldn’t cut his throat. Either way, carnage insues. Blays dies. The Minister happens to be a nethermancer. Dante cuts down the entire tree the city is held in with his magical sword made of bone. Dante finds the black star and uses it to bring Blays back to life instead of to extend his own life indefinitely like he’s been planning the whole time.

Uggghhh.

 

Should You Bother Outlining and Planning Your Story?

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B&J Printing

The first word you put down says a lot about what type of writer you are. Is it the first word of your story, the first word of your outline, the first word of a text to a friend that you’re about to start a story? For many, very little thought goes into  this aspect of our writing because we assume that what’s natural is what’s best. Well, maybe you owe it to yourself to challenge that assumption. Planning out aspects of your plot, setting, and characters can benefit all writers. On the other hand, allowing a little more flexibility can get the creative juices going.

The Types

To understand why you should care what type of writer you are, it makes sense to first familiarize yourself with the possibilities. There are two broad types of writers. To put it simply, there are planners and doers. However, each type is more similar to a spectrum than a box.

Planners

Planners, as the name implies, plan. For some, planning is an extensive process that can take weeks and involves collecting research and planning out the smallest details of their characters and settings. For others, it’s a much more brief process of creating a skeletal framework for your story to fill in. Most writers do at least a little planning, even if it is mental.

Doers

Doers let the story and characters come to them as they write. How will the story end? They may not be sure, but believe the right ending will reveal itself as they become more familiar with their story. How will the chapter end? It will end when they reach a point that feels like a good ending. And if they don’t reach that point, maybe they’ll just try again. It’s all about discovery and letting the story unfold naturally and organically.

Advantages of Planning

Planning has a few very nice advantages. Probably the biggest advantage is that it allows the author to provide very satisfying endings. Think of the type of ending where “it all comes together”. One of my favorite authors who exemplifies this is Brandon Sanderson. The endings to his books are typically very satisfying because he knows how his story will end. This lets him methodically build in clues and steps that lead naturally to that ending. It also allows for the satisfying realization that you actually had enough clues earlier in the book to figure out the unexpected aspects of the ending, but would have had to read carefully.

Another advantage is that books, particularly in the science fiction or fantasy department, can become as complicated and intricate as you want. If you have a document tracking characters first and last names, relations, rank, or physical descriptions, you can avoid the moment when you forgot what name you gave to that guy forty chapters ago and avoid having to go back and sift through until you find it; writers have closed their word processors for the day over less.

Disadvantages of Planning

While it offers great advantages, planning does have a few drawbacks. For example, there is a sense of satisfaction and fun from jumping into a chapter and letting it take you where it will. If you have already planned your story extensively, it can feel like you’re just going through the motions when you sit down to write.

Many want to jump right in and get started. The idea of sitting down to think about their story in detail before they start it is enough to keep them from starting all together.

Others will argue that characters are more realistic and relatable if they are created organically. Though I would step outside the point of this section to say that very few writers will create natural and believable characters just by winging it. The natural human tendency is to make our characters do what we would do. We also tend to make them do things for the reasons we would do them, or the reasons we would like to see them get behind. It takes a little artificiality and a meticulous mindset to systematically avoid this.

Advantages of Doing

One of the biggest advantages of casting aside the planning and just jumping in to your story is that it’s fun. At first. It’s as close as you can come to reading your own book as a reader would. You don’t really know what someone is going to say next and everything is a surprise. How exciting!

Disadvantages of Doing

Disadvantages already? I forgot more advantages of doing? Nope. That was all. I’m admittedly a little biased, but I also come from the perspective of a former “doer” purist. I was the kid who would sacrifice a letter grade on my essays in school out of spite because I refused to outline my essays. So naturally, I approached writing the same way. I always loved my first chapters. My second chapters weren’t quite as good, then my third chapters started to drag. It started feeling like I was at the head of a runaway train before long.

Eventually, I would be stopped in my tracks by the overwhelming feeling that each new “discovery” I made about a character, the setting, or my plot, seemed to contradict something I had added earlier. “Dang,” I would think. “This scene is only going to make sense if X happens, but if X happens, I have to go back to scene 2 and make Y happen. But to make Y happen in scene 2, Z can’t happen in scene 1. . .” That was usually when I would close the word processor.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Yeah, so what. You’re disorganized and I’m not. I don’t have that problem.” Maybe you don’t. But even the best writers who write as they go create a very different style of book than planners. The style isn’t necessarily worse, but a true “doer” is going to write a story that has fewer connective themes running between scenes. They will also likely feel more episodic and meandering. You might not even feel like you know what a character wants or who they are until a third of the way through the book because the author probably hadn’t figured it out yet.

Final Thoughts

The message I want to send is that every writer can benefit from planning. Refusing to try is a disservice to yourself as a writer. To claim that planning stifles your creative juices is to lump all planning into one box. Imagine planning a painting. Would you just grab a random color and start making a line? Hopefully not, because most painters realize their art will be more beautiful if they take a second to think of composition.

Try it out. If you’ve never planned and think you’ll hate it, try it anyway. There’s nothing more detrimental to your writing than believing you are an expert.