Should You Write Faster?

The more time you spend laboring over each sentence in your novel, the better it will be, right? I always thought so. But recently, I’ve been taking a look at the facts, not my instinct, and what I’ve found is a little surprising.

First of all, let me explain what I mean by writing faster. I’m talking words per minute. Personally, my typing speed is around 120 words per minute, but my writing speed has probably been anywhere from 20 to 80 words per minute, depending on whether I’m writing dialogue, prose, action, inner dialogue, etc.

So with that out of the way. Here is what I have found. If I write faster, not only can I write for longer, but my prose comes out cleaner and my dialogue reads better. The two caveats are that A) everybody is different and B) how my dialogue “reads” is subjective. Either way, I have some ideas on why this may be working so well, and even if you think you’re better off writing slowly, I may just convince you otherwise.

Why You Should Write Faster

I was talking with my brother recently and he said something that really stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something along the lines of, “you’ve spent so much time writing that it should be like muscle memory by now.” When I thought about it, I realized  he was completely right to think of writing as a skill that used muscle memory.

Think about anything you’re really good at. Or even pretty good. Now imagine trying think really hard about it and analyze every movement as you do it. Granted, if you were thinking about your job as a slow-motion re-inactor or something, what I’m about to say won’t qualify. Otherwise, you probably would not be able to do it as well in slow motion.

I thought about tennis. Athletes can move through the motions of a swing or a motion slowly to warm up, but there’s a difference. I’m a little bit of a nerd about tennis and I have recorded myself in slow motion to analyze various strokes like my serve. One thing I’ve noticed is that when I’m swinging at a ball in regular speed, my legs, hips, core, shoulders, arm, and wrist all connect in a “kinetic chain” like they are supposed to. When I try to move through the motion of a serve slowly to work through kinks, the kinetic chain falls apart. My legs release too soon and my hips un-coil too late.

What’s the point?

If you’ve practiced writing, it is no different. Slowing down too much breaks apart the natural “kinetic chain” of your writing.

Try It!

My brother was the one convincing me to try writing faster, and a tool he recommended was Write or Die. It is a free website that gives you various options to keep yourself from slowing down when you write. You can set time goals and word count goals. I really don’t recommend “Kamikaze Mode” by the way. I just clicked it when I first tried the site, and then left the 2000 words I had typed in the box to copy over to my story later. When I came back, every-single-vowel had been removed from my work. I ended up just re-writing the section. You could also just hit pause when you’re finished, but really, who wants their vowels deleted. That’s too masochistic for me.

I’d suggest just trying the site a couple times to show yourself that you really can write quickly. You’ll realize pretty fast that what is actually slowing you down are likely those “speed bump” mental moments. Maybe you hit a sentence that you just can’t find the right words for. Blaze right through it! You can always come back later to fix it.

Why It’s Worth Trying To Write Faster

Benefits to the quality of your writing aside, let me dazzle you with some incentives to write faster.

1.) If you have 1 hour a day to write and you write 1000 words an hour, that’s 100 days or 14 weeks or roughly 3 1/2 months to finish a 100,000 word draft. 

OR

You could write 2000 words an hour and finish that same draft in 50 days or 7 weeks or roughly 1 3/4 months.

OR

You could write 3000 words in an hour (it can be done with practice) and, well, you get the idea.

2.) I know authors aren’t supposed to care about money, but let’s talk money. Let’s be pessimistic and say you’re going to profit $4000 for each book you self-publish.

If it takes you 3 1/2 months to self publish, that’s roughly $12,000 a year from writing. Not bad for an hour a day, but still not enough to quit your day job.

BUT if you double your writing speed, that’s $24,000 a year. And if you’re able to write more than one hour a day or squeeze in extra hours on weekends, the possibilities go on.

3.) If your book flops (I know it’s not fun to think about) you can have another book hitting shelves around the same time you realize your first book failed. And you can console yourself by knowing you only put in a few weeks instead of the better part of a year.

Final Thoughts

The numbers above are just to help you realize that if for no other reason, it’s worth thinking about writing faster to get more books published. Maybe it’s time to stop laboring over your little project and start churning and burning!

I believe it was Mr. Miyagi who said, “If you love your book, let it go fast.” Wise words. . .

 

 

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Motivating Yourself To Write: A Helpful Tip

If you ever find yourself dreading the idea of sitting down to write or struggling to keep working even though it has only been thirty seconds, you’re not alone. For many writers, the struggle to write is a source of guilt. After all, how can you call yourself a writer if you have to force yourself to do it kicking and screaming? The good news is that you’re not alone in the struggle. Even the people who will say writing is pure joy and takes no effort at all have had days when it was not easy, even if they won’t admit it.

Why Are You Writing?

Before I get into a tip to help with your motivation, I think it’s prudent to first ask you to do a little self-evaluation. Ask yourself why you want to write. I’ll differ from some of the big names here because they will tell you the only acceptable answer is because you must or something equally all-or-nothing. But that’s bogus. Writing is a form of entertainment. People like to call it an art, but that is misleading. After all, the crayoned catastrophes churned out by three-year-olds every day are art. And so is this (which sold for millions).modern_art_sold_for_bank_18

The point is that your goals for writing can be small or large. And it’s okay to say you want to make a living from it, because money is just another form of validation—a way for us to know we are doing something worthwhile.

Writing is difficult. It’s often not rewarding. So if you have ever tried it and then decided to try again, you can call yourself a writer.

Making It Easier

Do you do all your writing in one location? Is your story saved as a little word document on a single desktop computer in a cluttered corner of your house? Even if you use a laptop and sometimes write on the couch or at the table or in the pantry, you’re missing out. There are two reasons you need to try writing outside your house.

One is that writing is a creative process, and you would be amazed at how a fresh environment and atmosphere can charge your work. It can be extremely helpful when writing dialogue to just listen in to a few random conversations and measure real speech to your version. If you’re writing a new character and struggling with a description, you can just pick a random person if you’re writing in a public place.

Some of my suggestions for outside-the-house writing spots depend on your personality. A great deal of adults have a degree of un-diagnosed attention deficit disorder (ADD). And the counter-intuitive thing about ADD is that it’s often harder for people with ADD to focus in stimulation-free environments. The key is to create a sort of stimulation “white noise”. Just the right amount of chaos is the perfect atmosphere for someone with ADD to focus. And for someone who has no attention problems, it’s still a great jump-start for creativity. It’s also similar to going to a brick and mortar gym versus working out at home. Something about putting pants on and leaving the house gears your mind up for a commitment of work.

Two is that you may not realize just how detrimental distractions are to your writing. If your house is like mine, ten minutes rarely go by without an animal, baby, or a wife demanding even a few seconds of attention. And if your mind works like mine, being broken out of the “trance” for even a second can spell the end of a writing session. So another type of place that’s great to sneak away to is somewhere outside or somewhere quiet. You could go to a public library and use one of their computers (just save your story to a google document so you can access it anywhere) or you could take a laptop or tablet out to a park if the weather is decent and try that.

For me, the best method is a combination of writing at home, writing in public, chaotic places, and writing in quiet, distraction-free places.

 

Writing Fantasy – The Story Isn’t About Your Setting

If you’re like most writers drawn to fantasy, you can get lost in your setting. Maybe the most fun part about writing is dreaming up the cool places and cultures that will be featured in your world. That’s fine. But don’t make the mistake of letting the setting take the center stage. Make no mistake about it, your setting is the backdrop to the drama that unfolds, no matter how compelling the world is. Or if you want to put it another way, your setting is the flavor of the ice cream; it’s important, but no one wants to chug a bottle of vanilla extract (let’s pretend no one wants to guzzle chocolate syrup either, even though I can’t promise I wouldn’t—or haven’t, for that matter).

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Characters Are Not Just Eyes

If you’ve ever poked around writing forums or read unpublished fantasy writing, you’ve seen characters that are little more than a pair of eyes to show readers the world. Unless you’re extremely brave or simply don’t care if your work gets published, your story should take place within the setting. I’ll say it one more time for the stubborn among you: Setting is not story! This mistake can manifest in somewhat subtle ways. The simplest test to make sure you’re using setting properly is to ask if it is doing more than one job for your story. Let me give two examples:

“Brynn crossed the main street of Acretia. Above him, a tower of polished black stones thrust upward and into the clouds. Beyond the tower, and taller still, was the southern wall of the city, which bent inward to form a half-dome that cast its shadow over half of the southern district.”

So let’s say I really like the details above and want to include them in my book. I would ask myself some questions about these few lines:

  1. Do they move the plot forward? Not really.
  2. Do they reveal character? Not really.
  3. Do they demonstrate theme? Not really.
  4. Do they build subtext? Not really.
  5. Do they show writing voice? Maybe, but not really.
  6. Does it sound like I’m trying too hard? Maybe the part about thrusting upward into the clouds.
  7. Are they interesting? A little bit.
  8. What would I lose if I cut them from the story completely? *This would depend. If, for example, the domed shape of the wall became relevant later, it might be worth keeping. Or, for example, the tower of black stones could be referenced and then readers would remember having seen it. Otherwise, if this was just for flavor, then I would say no.

Okay. That’s a lot of questions. Should you literally write these out and run every two or three lines of description in your story through them? No. But you should get the general idea that these questions are striving toward and apply it to your writing. Essentially, how many ways can I make this detail about setting rich—and I don’t mean more descriptive, I mean more dense. Density is the key! The more purposes you can pack into a single line, the better.

Alright. If I really wanted to keep those details, I could try to make them more enriching to the story and address as many questions as possible like this:

“Brynn had to shove several beggars to cross the main street of Acretia. His father had told him tales of the city, but they had been just that: tales. The “towering pillar of shadow” was actually a crooked pile of dirty bricks no larger than a Varox. The “scantily dressed women” were things of questionable gender that he would rather have seen veiled in tokars. And the “impenetrable dome” was a lone patch of wall standing at the far end of town with a slight lean to it. No, Brynn thought, If Gurvus could be stopped, it was not going to be here.”

Maybe I got a little carried away. I also ended up changing the details that I originally liked in a way that felt more interesting. But that’s actually the point of questioning your details. Even if you don’t think these particular details are interesting, you can see that my attempt to make them more rich did do something interesting. It made my goal of “describe what he sees” transition into what now describes something about the character (he’s the type of guy to shove beggars) and he’s preoccupied with finding a way to stop someone named Gurvus. It moves the plot forward (whatever is going on with the army shows that he’s actually examining how well the city will stand up to an attack). I also showed his evaluation of the city through the lens of his father’s words, which provides some background on character. Theme and subtext are only hinted at slightly with the beggars and Brynn’s dismissal of them, but if we knew Brynn’s social class, those moments could show theme and subtext more strongly.  And finally, I changed the descriptions a little because I caught myself trying to sound too writerly when describing the tower before. By taking a different angle, I was able to describe the scene in straight-forward language that was more efficient.

And that’s the key. Efficiency.

Final Thoughts

So  if you haven’t already decided to, take a magnifying glass to your story. Look at the moments where you convey setting. And ask yourself if they are at least doing two jobs. In an ideal world, no sentence in your entire 100,000 word novel should be there for one reason only. When you realize how much actually needs to fit in those 100,000 words, it suddenly starts seeming like a limitation instead of a goal. You’ll also realize the need for efficiency. As a reader, efficient writing is like biting into a very satisfying and filling steak. The texture is just right, the flavors are just right, it’s warm, it’s juicy, and it smells great. Single-purpose writing is like snacking on unsalted crackers. They are dry and take a lot of work to chew, and you can eat them all day and still feel hungry (okay maybe you can’t, but I can. I have a big appetite).

Post an example of either some really rich setting sentences you’ve written, or some really shallow setting sentences in the comments.  We all write both of them, so there’s no shame in it. It’s actually easier to learn from the non-examples most of the time too. And as usual, if you enjoyed this please consider subscribing (the only emails you’ll ever get are when I post a new article) or sharing the article.

 

 

If Your Story Is Missing This, It’s Not Complete

It’s easy to get caught up in writing advice. You’ve probably read quotes from authors romanticizing the process by saying things like “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Is that going to change your story? Is it going to be the single piece of information that turns you into a best-selling author? Probably not. Most big name authors don’t like to talk about story structure. That’s because a lot of them have felt their way toward the correct structure through trial and error, talent, or persistence. What if I told you that you can skip the process and jump straight to the information that even most of the pros don’t know they are relying on? You can. It’s out there for you to grab. In fact, a quarter of it is right in this article.

So what is this thing I speak of that no story can live without? It’s a first plot point. If your story does not have a first plot point, it will not succeed.

If your first impulse to hearing the word “structure” is to cringe and throw your ink-well and quill across the room, just take a deep breath and hear me out. Structure scares many writers because they see it as a threat to their creativity. But structure is the backbone of your creativity. At least, it needs to be if you want to have your work read (and that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day). It’s the secret to successful If you were an architect and wanted to build a beautiful cathedral, you would need several types of knowledge and creativity. You might need the talent to carve intricate stonework, put together stained glass windows, and choose furnishings that enhance the atmosphere. All of that is great, but if you don’t know anything about basic engineering, you’ll at best build a shaky cathedral that might collapse at any moment, and at worst have a pile of beautiful artwork sitting atop a misshapen mass of stones and rubble.

Going into a story with the belief that your talent and love of storytelling is enough is no different. When done well, structure is invisible. That means the reader will only notice your characters, your concept, your voice, your theme, and your plot. Using accepted structure in no way compromises yourself as a writer.

Can I address every element of structure in one blog post? Technically yes, because this post could be as long as I want it to be. But for the sake of clarity, no. So for today, I’m going to focus on the first and most critical element of structure. It may not be pretty, and it may not be fun to think about, but it is absolutely essential that you understand the basics of structure if you want to be a storyteller.

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The First Plot Point

Regardless of what genre you’re writing in or what your style is as an author, there’s a critical point in your novel where you must place a specific moment: that moment is the first plot point. according to Larry Brooks (who, by the way, is the wizard of all things structure and taught me everything I know), the ideal placement of the first plot point is between 20 to 25% of the way through your story. You can read books all day and watch every movie there is without consciously realizing the need for a first plot point, but once you see it, you’ll notice it every time. If you’re a reader, you learned a long time ago that it’s unwise to give up on books before about the 60-70 page mark. Ever wondered why? It’s because the first plot point makes or breaks a book. 

I’ll get into more detail on the first plot point at the end of this article, but it’s not a solo act. A successful first plot point requires preparation.

Getting There Smoothly

If you don’t want readers to feel like they have to suffer through the first 20-25% of your book, don’t worry. There are structural tools to help liven up part one. If you’re an unknown name, you can’t expect readers to trust that you know what you’re doing and slog through the first 25% of your book without any reward. So get to know the tools at your disposal and use them well.

The first tool is a hook. There are several ways to hook readers, but many writers are surprisingly bad at identifying them. Here’s something many writers hate to hear: your voice as a writer is not going to hook a reader. You may grab some initial interest with your writing voice, but just like the most delicious pesto sauce imaginable, it can’t be served alone. So how do you write a good hook then?

Show the reader something that raises a question—and make sure they want the answer. For example, a man might kiss his daughters goodnight and appear to be the model father in all ways imaginable. But he might then go down into the basement where he has a woman bound and gagged. This raises questions. If he loves his daughters, as he appears to, why is he risking their safety? Why is he risking his freedom? Why is he doing this in his house? Is he only pretending to love his daughters, and if so, why? I could go on, but you get the idea. In simple terms, the more questions you can raise that compel readers to demand answers, the better.

There’s often a fine balance at play in the first pages of your book. If you rush through the necessary build-up, readers will not be invested enough in your character or world to care when the story kicks off. If you wait too long, they will have given up before they reach it. You must create conflict, build character, establish your world, introduce the character’s inner demons, foreshadow the events to come, and maybe introduce a portion of the supporting cast. Not always, but often, a story that begins more slowly packs the biggest punch when it kicks off. Usually that’s because the more of this information that gets packed in before the first plot point, the more compelling it becomes, and including all of this information can slow down the pace.

Inciting Incidents

So your hook is over, and it has probably only been about 7 to 20 pages. You still have around 50 to 60 pages to go until the first plot point. It’s often not enough to just coast your way to the first plot point. There’s a fine balance at play in the first pages. If you rush through the necessary build-up, readers will not be invested enough in your character or world to care when the story kicks off. If you wait too long, they will have given up before they reach it. The safer option is to use inciting incidents, or moments that foreshadow and or lead toward the first plot point. The first plot point in Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone is his trip to and arrival at Hogwarts. You may want to argue that it’s when he goes down to get the sorcerer’s stone with Hagrid or when he finds out what Hagrid was actually doing for Dumbledore, and it’s worth side-tracking for a minute to clarify why that’s not the case. Remember that:

  1. The first plot point redefines the hero’s goal or begins them on the path toward the ultimate conclusion of the story.
  2. It occurs between 20 and 25% of the way through the book.

So the Hogwarts Express fits first of all because of it’s location—right at 25% of the way through the book if you don’t count chapter one (and you shouldn’t, because it’s essentially a prologue). Beyond that, his boarding of the train is highly representative of his new mission. Harry’s goal for a while is just to keep his head down and survive. But through the first 25% of the book, he gradually and then rapidly realizes there’s another option. It’s only when he boards the Hogwarts Express that he can really be considered to set out on his journey to be a wizard.

So what is an inciting incident? To put it simply, it’s a moment that hints at the first plot point to come and/or the antagonistic force in your story. Think of these as your doses of excitement. This is how you inject energy and interest into your story while you work your way to the all-important first plot point. If you were writing a thriller where a girl is stalked by an ex-boyfriend, you might have her in the middle of a seemingly normal conversation when she notices a man wearing a hoodie watching her. Maybe he gets up and leaves when she makes eye-contact. That’s it. It takes a few lines, she notices, reacts briefly, and the story marches on. But what you’ve done is charged your story with more tension. You’ve also made sure the first plot point will be even more satisfying when it comes. Do this often!

The First Plot Point

Yes, it’s finally here. Or if you skimmed to this point, here it is. . . immediately. The first plot point! As I said earlier, this is the point where your real story launches. Your character and readers may have thought they knew what the story was, and maybe they were close, but this is the point when it really kicks into gear. If it was a love story, this is the point when the girl realizes her boyfriend is losing interest. If it’s a murder mystery, this is when the detective realizes the latest victim is his daughter. If it’s a crime-thriller, it’s when the duo slips up and has to start running from the cops. If you aren’t gathering it from my examples, it can be highly dramatic (like Neo taking the red pill in The Matrix) and waking up in a vat of goo, or it can be subtle but powerful, like in The Hunger Games when Katniss kisses Peeta on the cheek, essentially agreeing to play the game within the game, which defines her goal and the story from that point forward.

In The Matrix, you might have thought the story was going to be about fighting these “agents” and trying to kill them, but you weren’t really sure. When Neo takes the red pill, suddenly it becomes clear. The stakes are bigger. It isn’t just about one person fighting some agents, it’s all of humanity fighting for survival. That’s a big shift. In The Hunger Games you might have thought Katniss saying the famous line, “I volunteer as tribute!” was the first plot point. For starters though, it occurs way too early in the story for that. It’s more of a delayed hook and an inciting incident. You might have thought it was when the games began, but the games aren’t the real story. The real story is Katniss’ relationship with Peeta. Her alliance with him occurs right at the precise moment it should, and signifies a huge shift in purpose from that moment and onward. The games are an excellent backdrop that are interesting enough in their own right. They could have worked as a story by themselves, which is likely part of the reason the series was so wildly popular.

Final Thoughts

Structure is essential. It’s the figurative foundation upon which you build your story. Neglect the formula, and your foundation will be weak. But the formula is out there, so why waste your effort trying to figure it out on your own? If you don’t believe me, go look at any successful book. You’ll find all of these elements lined neatly where they should be, give or take a few pages, especially among new published authors.

 

If you found this information useful, check out my article on Larry Brooks’: Story Engineering. His book is so helpful that it honestly feels like cheating.

 

 

The Hands Down Best Book On Writing I’ve Read

I spent four years in college learning about writing and many more years reading everything there is about it. In all that time, I’ve been frustrated by the same thing: many writers are very bad at explaining why they are successful. The best comparison I can think of is the high school math teacher who is a genius when it comes to math. He gets in front of class and zips through the problem. Because most of the process was intuitive to him, he doesn’t know what parts are difficult, where to slow down, and where to explain things in more than one way. And like the math genius, many writers who have found success have done so through brute force determination or a natural intuition for good storytelling. The end result is that they don’t even quite know why their stories work.

So my frustration has been gathering bits and pieces from gurus, none of whom seem to have a complete and no-nonsense guide to good storytelling. That brings me to my second frustration. Writers love to hear themselves talk. We can’t just say, “Do it like this.” I’m even doing it now to an extent. I feel the need to wrap a simple idea in metaphor and context. But my point is that so many writers get wrapped up in how they explain the writing process that they forget to say anything worthwhile.

Despite having read almost all the books on writing out there, I never gained more then a momentary sense of inspiration. Sometimes I felt that I was gaining fragments on the real answer, but never the whole thing. Eventually I decided the only way to find the answer to the secret formula would be to meticulously pour through book after book, noting similarities—pulling them apart to find out what made them tick. But no writing guides out there wanted to make it simple. No one wanted to strip away all the fluff and get to the core of it. At least I thought so until a few days ago.

Before I go any further, for the sake of full disclosure, I want to point out that this this is an Amazon Associates link. If you plan to buy the book after reading my synopsis, you can use the link to jump straight to it on Amazon. It’s the same price and product, but using this link supports me and my site. Anyway, enough side-tracking. Let me explain why this book succeeded where so many others have failed.

Read This Book!

(If you run adblock you won’t see the link here to Larry Brooks: Story Engineering)

Brooks makes the bold claim that if you try to publish a book without including (and executing them professionally) any of the six core competencies, you will not be published. He says that every good book needs concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution, and writing voice. Maybe you’re saying, “yeah, nothing new.” On the surface, no. But Brooks breaks down each concept into simple, easy to understand parts. By the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll feel as though old hags had been trying to explain writing to you in riddles all your life until Brooks popped out of a coffee shop and said, “What’s all that mumbo-jumbo? You just put this here, and that there. . .”

Seriously. You’ll feel like someone handed you an instruction manual on how to build a table instead of a haiku about counting the wood grains and trying to become the screws.

Brooks even goes as far as breaking down a rough approximation of what page certain milestones typically should occur (and if you’re waving your old-school ink pen or knocking over your typewriter in rage at the idea of writing being put in some sort of box, he does an excellent job of explaining why his process is liberating rather than constricting).

Final Thoughts

Perhaps the most convincing reason to pick up his book is what it has done for me in just a few days. Like probably half of my readers, I have always considered myself a pretty good writer. Sure, I have some rough edges and things to work on, but at the end of the day I thought I had gained a good grasp of storytelling and all of its intricacies. After all, it has been a huge part of my life for years now. Yet. . . My precious little ego bubble was rudely popped a few pages into Larry’s book. Granted, it was a sort of happy pop. Maybe like a water balloon on a hot day.

But as soon as I finished reading, I felt a new kind of confidence. Instead of a vague sense of promise and potential, I felt as though I actually had a mold to pour my effort into—an assurance that if I was capable of building my story on the blueprint Larry outlined, I would be successful. It’s also worth noting that my confidence didn’t come from his promises, but from the strength and logic of his points. There’s a resonant rightness to what he says, and if your own brain didn’t already tell you he was speaking a truth, he brings examples from other bestsellers to back up his points.

If you do anything for yourself this week, make it buying and reading this book. I apologize in advance for all the editing this book will make you realize you need to do on your current project.

The Biggest Difference Between Average And Extraordinary Fantasy

If you’ve been a fan of the genre for an extended period of time, you’ve likely found out that for every amazing fantasy novel, there are at least ten average novels—and in some cases, “average” is being too generous. As someone who almost never puts down a book once I begin, I’ve become unfortunately familiar with the qualities of bad fiction. Fantasy authors in particular seem the most likely to ruin the second half of their books with excessive action scenes.

Botching The Last Half

Mishandling the last half of a story is by far the most common mistake published authors make. In the fantasy genre, action overload is rampant and comes in two primary flavors:

Getting carried away with action scenes. Many novels begin with an interesting premise and a few moments of tense action that contribute to character development. The Warded Man comes to mind as a good example. While there is action early in the novel, each scene shows character growth and thus feels meaningful. After the middle of the story, the action scenes became more and more frequent. The vast majority often existed only to show a “cool fight” or show off the protagonist’s moves.

I think the action epidemic stems from a misunderstanding about readers of the fantasy genre.  Many fantasy readers do love a good sword fight or duel with magic, but the reality is that most of them think they want more action than they do. The trick is to use action as a delivery method for the substance of your story—the nutritional value, if you will—that will leave readers feeling satisfied. It’s not unlike wrapping a vitamin in cheese so your pet will eat it. But that’s what good writing is about. The elements of your story should be so entangled with one another that all types of readers can’t help but gobbling it down. Every reader has preferences. Some love character. Some love world-building. Some love action. Some love tension. Some love political intrigue. So it only stands to reason that the more you can mix in each element into a scene, the more readers are going to enjoy reading it. Most authors understand this intuitively, but for some reason begin forgetting past the mid-point of their book when it comes to action.

My article on Action Overload goes into more detail on how action can be misused, so I won’t go further here.

Making the climax of the book about a big battle. This is similar to my previous point, but I feel it deserves its own explanation. So many fantasy books choose this route. Whether it’s a castle siege, an open field battle, a confrontation with an evil force in abandoned ruins, it’s the same problem with different wrapping-paper. In an of itself, a battle isn’t a terrible choice for an ending, but some authors seem to forget that more needs to happen. For readers, satisfaction after the middle of a novel should come from characters recognizing their inner-demons (having trust-issues, for example) and overcoming them. The climax should be the ultimate expression of their character arc, showing how far they have come from the beginning of the story in conquering their faults.

In many novels, the character growth gets paused during the entire battle, only to pick up several chapters later when it has all ended, or in the final moments. These novels tend to wrap up with the key characters having shown little to no change internally. Maybe they are stronger or defeated the antagonistic force, but as individuals they are largely the same. If the character isn’t changed significantly by the events of the climax, the climax didn’t succeed. It’s not enough to wrap up the plot at the end of the story.

Final Thoughts

I challenge aspiring authors to think twice before using action. Ask yourself why you want to use it. Is it because you just want to describe something gory and vicious? Is it because your character has a cool power and you want to play with it? Remind yourself that in real life, action is exceedingly rare and one of the highest points of human drama. If it wasn’t so rare, we wouldn’t be so interested when it happened. The same principles are true in novels. When authors start using action in scene after scene, readers become desensitized. If they have seen the protagonist survive battle after battle, their sense of tension decreases. Use action sparingly so that it remains a naturally compelling element of your story.

And finally, consider a climax that doesn’t revolve around action. A Song of Fire and Ice comes to mind as a series that uses non-action climaxes more often than not. These moments are arguably more satisfying because the author hasn’t lost sight of what readers truly crave in a climax. They want to see characters growing. When a character has been scheming for chapter after chapter and maneuvering politically, it’s just as thrilling to watch the pieces fall into place as it is to see a physical confrontation. The satisfaction comes when everything inevitably doesn’t go as planned and the character is forced to confront their limitations and inner-demons to set things right.

 

Are Your Characters Three Dimensional?

Dimensions are often thrown around when discussing characters. Maybe you’ve heard this before: “Your protagonist was very one-dimensional.” Or, “your protagonist was flat.” If you’ve only vaguely understood what that criticism meant, I’m here to dispel your confusion in plain language. Let me emphasize that last point, because I think it’s important. Plain language. If you’re like me, you’re dead tired of hearing authors discuss the craft, especially character. The reason you’re tired of hearing it is because every author romanticizes the process, pretending it can only be explained in poetic language and vague metaphors. Breathe life into your characters, we are told, or make them jump off the page. That’s all well and good, and maybe somebody out there really takes something away from that kind of fluff, but that’s not what this post is about. This is about pulling away the skin of the robot and explaining what makes it work at the most basic level.

Dimensions

Characters are essentially made up of three dimensions.

1st dimension – This is what you see on the surface. All that meets the eye, so to speak. For example, if you see a guy walking into a gas station covered in tattoos and wearing a leather jacket, you now understand him in a one dimensional way.

2nd dimension – This is the backstory. It’s the explanation for what you see on the surface. For example, if the biker guy in the above example mentions to you that he’s an accountant but is riding across the country in memory of his brother, who was a hardcore biker before he passed away, then you understand him as a two-dimensional character.

3rd dimension – This is what the character does. For example, if the biker guy tears off his jacket at the end of the ride and throws his helmet into the bushes before calling a cab back home, we see what kind of person he is despite or because of his backstory and appearance.

For some of you, this might be enough to understand a lot more about effective characters than you already knew. For others, you may be wanting a little more.

The First Dimension

Before I get deeper into the first dimension, it’s worth noting that no dimension is more important than the other. It would be like saying that a support pillar is more important than the foundation of a building. Take away either and the building will fall down. However, you can have a foundation without a support pillar, just like you can have a one dimensional character without layering on more dimensions.

Should a character ever be purely one-dimensional? Absolutely. A common mistake is to get carried away by giving every single character a backstory and trying to create a character arc for them. Save that for your protagonist, antagonist, and key supporting characters.

One common mistake in giving first dimension details to a character is to give eccentricities for the sake of eccentricities. For example, you might decide to make your protagonist OCD and describe him organizing his refrigerator by expiration date. Why? Well, because it’s kind of interesting to read about? Maybe it is, but unless you can manage to tie the OCD into your characters 2nd and even 3rd dimension, it will end up feeling clunky and unrewarding. That’s not to say you shouldn’t add quirks and unique flavor to your character, just make sure they are relevant to who your character is.

The Second Dimension

Many writers understand intuitively that a character needs to have a backstory. However, they tend to make a mistake in either over-showing or more rarely under-showing. Also, keep in mind that a flashback is rarely the most effective way to show backstory. There are certain story types that lend themselves to flashbacks, but unless it’s a major part of the story, you’ll be better suited by finding creative and effective ways to weave backstory into your story. Implying backstory, if done well, can be extremely effective as well. For example, a character who masquerades as a hard-ass being seen leaving a dance class or a soup kitchen (cliche, but you get the idea). The previous example ties together the first and second dimension. His masquerade is part of his first-dimension, but the fact that he’s trying to be seen as a tough guy when he’s clearly something more implies a certain level of backstory. This is an example of how you can more effectively layer a character. The first dimension should make a reader crave the second dimension, which should enrich the first dimension. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

The Third Dimension

Satisfying character moments can only come when a strong first dimension and second dimension have been lain. Skilled writers make it clear to readers what is at stake for each character. If we return to the biker example, you can see and even extrapolate so much from just three snapshots of the character. On the surface, he’s a biker. Look a little deeper and he’s actually a loving brother paying respect in a very touching way. But then follow him through his journey and see something perplexing, but not all-together unbelievable. Why did he throw down the helmet and seem to disrespect the memory of his brother after such a long show of devotion? Is he such a principled man that he valued his word more than his brother? Did his brother die on a motorcycle and the man now resents everything about riding, only fulfilling his promise out of respect?

With the proper foundation and support down, the actions of your characters become much, much more interesting. If we knew less about the biker character, his actions wouldn’t invite nearly as much speculation.

In common practice, the third dimension, or your characters actions, will often follow the expectations laid by your first and second dimension for about the first half of the story. If the character is a bad employee who always shows up late and does a terrible job (1st dimension) because he knows his boss stole his girlfriend from him during high school (2nd dimension) then the third dimension is how you show character growth. For much of the story, the character would act resentfully toward the boss – perhaps struggling with a desire to get over it and move on. As an author, you can show his growth when his actions finally confirm who he is, at least temporarily. Maybe he’s called to put his resentment aside when his boss suffers an accident. Does he move in to help, or does he let the man die or suffer? His actions (the third dimension) will define his character. The moment will be all the more powerful if the first and second dimension have been clearly laid out for the reader.

It’s also worth noting that even if your character does save the boss, for example, he can revert back to his old ways while still having shown growth. The third dimension is all about culminating moments. When it really counts, how did your character act, and how did that action reveal who he or she truly is?

 

You’re Probably Making This Mistake When Reading Critiques Of Your Work

Your writing is precious. In many ways it’s a part of yourself. So it’s understandable that when people want to criticize it and try to tell you to do it differently, many of us get defensive. But defending your writing is not going to make it any better. In fact, the mentality that defensiveness comes from is only going to make your writing flat-line. As someone who has been through countless creative writing courses in college and beyond, I feel I can offer some helpful advice on how to accept critiques of your work.

Your Writing Must Speak For Itself

This is the most important point to remember when listening to or reading a critique. Many authors want to step in and say, “well, actually. . .” Actually nothing—when someone critiques your story, they are doing exactly what readers will do. They are reading the story, sometimes missing details that are there, sometimes skimming parts, sometimes misinterpreting other parts, and then making a judgment based on how they read your story. So maybe a reader claims that it didn’t make any sense when Character A sacrificed himself for Character B. You might be tempted to point them back a few chapters to when Character A gave some hint that he cared more deeply for Character B than it seemed. So what’s the problem with that? Didn’t you do your job as a writer and plant the evidence? Isn’t it the reader’s fault if they missed it?

The answer isn’t “yes”, it’s “maybe”.

Why? Because storytelling isn’t black and white. Maybe you did technically include a detail or allude to something, but if one reader missed it, more will have missed it. That leaves you as an author with an important question—are you willing to let a portion of readers go through your story with the same confusion your critiquer had? Whether you decide to keep the portion as it is or not, the most important distinction to make is that no one who critiques your story can be wrong. You almost have to imagine you’re back at that minimum wage customer service job. “The [critiquer] is always right.” However, just like in customer service, that doesn’t mean you have to believe them. It just means the right thing to do is to keep your opinion to yourself, take their feedback, and consider what to do with it.

What Do You Say?

The best thing to say to anyone who criticizes your work is “thank you.” You may want to elaborate on why a specific piece of advice they gave you was really insightful or comment on how you plan to implement their advice into your work. Maybe you even want to offer to take a look at something of theirs to pay back the favor—because that’s what a critique is, it’s a favor. But what shouldn’t you do?

Never defend your work to a critiquer! Someone’s opinion can’t be wrong. A sure sign of an amateur writer is when I get a response to a critique that is a long list of the points I made, and why they will be addressed later in the story (and are therefore invalid) or why I just need to look at something differently to see that it is actually working very well. Personally, that’s also a great way to discourage me from offering future critiques.

Think of it this way. There are many different types of feedback. And people ask for feedback for many different reasons. Sometimes we ask for feedback because we want a confidence boost: “Does this make me look fat?” No one actually wants to hear you tell the truth. But when it comes to feedback on your writing, you really should want to hear the truth. It would be like deciding what you were going to wear for the next five months. Wouldn’t you want to actually know if that was going to make you look fat? If you’re going to be working on a story for hours and hours of your life, it’s a good idea to ask for and expect honest criticism.

What Do You Do With Feedback?

So you know that your story has to speak for itself. You know that you’re just supposed to be polite and appreciative of someone who offers you a critique. But then what do you do with the information? Do you take every suggestion as golden and re-work your story to fit everbody’s desire? Absolutely not! The point is to consider every criticism. Maybe someone suggests that your story should start with a sex scene. Okay. . . Some suggestions will take less time to consider than others. However, maybe you can look at a suggestion that seems completely off target and ask yourself if the critiquer is actually trying to say something else. Are they saying your story’s hook is too weak? Are many people suggesting you do something else with the beginning of your story? When you go back to edit, that’s a serious consideration you should make. The fun part is that you get to fix it however you want to. That’s why it’s still your story and not the story of your critiquers.

The key is moderation. There will inevitably be good suggestions, and there will be bad suggestions. There will also be suggestions that are really tough to consider. The easiest kind of good suggestion is when someone points out a continuity error. Those are obvious fixes. The harder kind are when someone lays down a difficult truth, like that your main character is flat and uninteresting. Tough considerations often would require major reworks.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, feedback is golden. It doesn’t matter if it’s bad, good, or ridiculous. Part of your job as a writer is collecting those viewpoints, putting them through your filter, and deciding which ones you want to act on. But if you take nothing else away from this post, don’t be the guy who writes a thesis defending his story when someone criticizes it. Even if the criticism is so off-base as to be laughable, just nod your head, say thank you, and move on with your life. Jokes and writing are similar in that neither have succeeded if they have to be explained. 

Is It Okay To Sideline a Project If You Get Bored?

We’ve all been there: it’s a few weeks in to our newest project—maybe a sci-fi novel—and the words have been flowing like nectar from the writing-gods. But one day, that sweet juice slows to a trickle, and then the nozzle just sputters out dust. So what do you do? Do you keep opening up your story day after day, trying your best to get words down even though they aren’t coming?

Or. . .

Do you take the forbidden path and start working on something new?

This has been an issue that I’ve struggled with personally ever since I started writing novels. I tend to start strong and then feel doubt around the middle, wondering if it’s worth continuing or if I’d be better off finding greener pastures. I’ve concluded that my problem, as well as others in my position, stems from a few factors.

Practice

The first issue is that when you allow yourself to restart every time the going gets tough, you’re accidentally creating an imbalance in your writing skills. It’s almost like you want to do a set of curls so you start with your right arm. You do three sets on your right arm and then do a couple on your left arm and think, “Yeah, I’m actually pretty tired now. Maybe I’ll continue this later.” So the next time you work out, you start on the right arm again. Sure enough, when you pick up the weights in your left hand it’s so much harder that you find an excuse to stop again. What’s my point?

If the majority of your practice is in writing the first fourth of a book or the first chapters, that will get easier because you practiced it. It makes sense that the middle starts to feel more difficult because that’s where you have the least practice.

 

Psychology

Another factor to consider is the way your brain is inclined to work. Whether you try to or not, you’re programmed to make connections, especially when emotion is involved. If an experience causes an emotion, that experience begins to have an association. Maybe you love nachos, but you start to get heartburn. Eventually, the negative association of pain will overpower the desire for deliciousness and you’ll choose not to get the nachos. The same process is at work when you start and stop projects. How so?

At times, it pays to think of your brain and body as two separate entities. In this case, think of the brain as a reluctant teenager. It’s fine doing something (such as writing the fun beginning of a story) until it becomes hard. Once it becomes difficult, like a teenager, it whines and complains (by releasing neurotransmitters that cause any number of negative feelings). If someone asked you what to do about the whiny teenager, the answer would be obvious, right? “Make them do it anyway, because if you let them get out of it by whining they will just whine even harder next time it gets tough.”

Yet. . .

What do most of us do when our brain whines? We listen. Of course, if you just lost a leg in an automobile accident and your brain is “whining” at you to do something, that’s a different story. You probably should do something. However, if your brain is trying it’s tricks to get out of something mildly unpleasant, then try working through it. It can help to remember that the vast majority of doubt and fear you feel once you hit that point in your story is really just your brain trying to manipulate you into doing something easier. Basically, your brain is that bad friend who just wants to stay home and watch TV so he tells you that you look fat in everything.

The Big Picture

Maybe the most compelling reason of all to continue with your story even if it’s getting hard is to look at the big picture. So many writers start and end their aspirations of writing before they ever finish a book. And the vast majority of those writers who fail to finish book have written over a book’s worth of content—often they have written several books worth of words. But they let doubt stop them from finishing anything. Doubt has killed more careers than poor book sales, lack of talent, and bad luck combined. 

If You’re New To Writing, You’re Probably Making This Mistake

This particular problem likely exists among males more than females, but I won’t generalize any further. I’m sure there are females out there just as guilty as us guys. What am I talking about? Action scenes. New writers abuse and misuse action scenes more than any other type of scene. I’ll explain how you can identify this in your own writing, convince you that it really is a problem if you are skeptical, and show you how to go about fixing it and keeping the problem from cropping up in the future.

Too Much Action

Probably the biggest error with action is including too much of it. There’s a really simple explanation for why new writers do this. When you read skilled writers, they are often adept at making the reader feel as though there’s always about to be action. You may also feel like there’s always the threat of action. To use a well known example, Game of Thrones certainly has its moments of action. However, they are few and far enough between that much more of your time as a reader is spent anticipating action or being caught off guard by it. Think of a horror movie for another example. The best part of the movie and the scariest part is often before you ever see the monster. Once you’ve seen the monster, anticipation, fear, and interest tend to wane. Action isn’t much different, but there’s an exception.

Using Action Correctly

One of the reasons I say new writers use action too much is that they are not using it correctly. Skilled authors fall into this at times as well, but more often than not, if you are reading a published author and an action scene is taking place, something more is happening. Look deeper and you’ll realize that in addition to action, there is a character changing or growing. Let me give two abbreviated descriptions of action scenes to show meaningless and meaningful action more clearly:

The lead-up to both scenes is that a man who has been learning a forbidden form of magic is confronted by two thieves in a back alley.

Meaningless action: The man fights the thieves and all sorts of descriptions are given to how the fight takes place – he dodges left and throws a bolt of energy that does something gruesome, etc. In the end, he emerges victorious and goes back home, having demonstrated how strong he is.

Meaningful action: The man fights the thieves, realizing that he’s going to die if he doesn’t use the forbidden magic against them, which may have farther reaching consequences like alerting authorities or starting him down a dark path. He grapples with the decision during the struggle, eventually making a decision to one side or another.

The difference is very clear. In one example, the author saw an opportunity to make a “cool” fight scene and had fun describing some gory details and exciting magic. In the other, the author used action as a catalyst for character change and growth. Many times, a character will be teetering on the edge of a decision, and one of the best ways to shock them into picking a side is some form of action. When action develops character, it is satisfying and meaningful.

Identifying Meaningless Action

Test your own writing. Go back through on your next round of edits and find all your action scenes. Test them. Does the scene serve any purpose other than to show action? Be careful when you answer this as well. You may say, “Yes, because it’s a castle siege, which is a really important part of the plot.” I would counter by asking if there are really no characters in that entire castle who are facing some sort of moral dilemma. I guarantee there has never been a battle in the history of humanity where lives were the only things at risk. Get inside your characters heads and find ways to make them grow and change from action. Remind yourself that in the real world, actual violence is exceedingly rare and leaves an intense mark on people. If you really have your character kill dozens of people in a year or two, imagine how much that would actually disturb and numb him.

Avoiding Action

There is a place for action. It adds tension, suspense, and allows for some reader satisfaction. However, think back on some of the most memorable action scenes you’ve ever read. I bet most of them were somehow critical to a character and his or her development. In other words, something far greater than lives was at stake, and every character involved likely walked away changed in some small way. That being said, using too much action is like putting too much salt on French Fries. Used sparingly, it can enhance the fries. Used excessively, it drowns them in its own flavor and the eater (or reader) has no chance of identifying or enjoying the flavor beneath.

So the next time you are planning out a scene or just feeling your way through one, think twice when action pops into your head. I would challenge you to even re-evaluate your story’s climax. Is it an action scene? Does it need to be? Is it facilitating a major change in your character?

These are questions worth asking yourself!