Being a Better Writer: Keeping Description in Character

Welcome once again, writers, to another installment of Being a Better Writer. Alas, this is not “fresh” in the sense that it was written by my hand on this day, but once more from the past. I’m currently out of the office, and this post was prepared in advance. Which means there’s no real news but what was from several weeks ago.

Okay, well, there is a chance that I’ll be back next week, according to the schedule I’ve gotten my hands on. I hope that holds up, because I really want to be working on Axtara – Magic and Mayhem.

Anyway, that’s literally all there is news-wise: Just me hoping I’m back. So without further beating around the bush, let’s just dive into today’s topic!

Okay, I realize some of you might look at this and sort of go “Huh?” a little. But I think if we polled those making that response, we’d find two very different causes.

One would be, of course, people who saw the title and nodded, going “Yeah, that makes sense. I guess we’re talking about this today.” But the other half? They’d be the people who saw this title and went “What? What does that mean?”

This post has its roots in that sort of response. Long ago, when I was working on my third book (which actually released as my fourth, and was the fantastically received Sci-Fi adventure Colony, you should go read it) I was “quizzed” by someone who, for whatever reason, wanted me to “prove” that I was an author in an IRL (in real life) conversation. They waved their hand at the surroundings around us and declared ‘Well, prove it and describe this scene around us!’

Yeah, people really do this. People are weird. Anyway, I retorted with “As who?”

This question baffled them. Their response, which I don’t recall word for word, was ‘That doesn’t matter, a description is just a description! Just describe the scene!’

To which I tried to explain that depending on who was looking at said scene, the description would be different, as each person/character would notice and fixate on different things. To which this interrogator grew upset, arguing that this ‘made no sense’ and that it should just be a description of the scene, like what they personally saw, and I obviously was not an author and didn’t know what I was talking about. Offering several descriptions of the scene from the viewpoint of different characters just made them more unhappy, as they argued that each character was “wrong” for thinking of things a certain way or noticing/not paying attention to certain aspects of our surroundings.

It was … a frustrating experience, certainly. But at the same time, it was enlightening. To some, there is simply the viewpoint that their view is all there is and will ever be, and other viewpoints are just “wrong.”

Do I disagree with that? Most certainly. However, I have also read books for which this sort of viewpoint seems to hold true, books in which each character’s view of the world is identical to another. And I don’t mean “view of the world” in a sense of opinions or stances on ruling powers or ethics. I mean “view of the world” as in what they physically see. How they take in the setting around them, and what they will notice and act on first.

I’ve read books where if you took any moment of scenery and put it up against another from another character, there would be no way to tell one from the other. Not because the book used a narrator that had a voice of their own, but because the character’s viewpoints and personality were not reflected in the way they observed the world around them.

And that … I think that’s a misstep. So hit the jump, and let’s talk about how we can avoid making the same mistake.

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Classic Being a Better Writer: Ambiguous Stories

Welcome once again, writers! It’s Monday here on Unusual Things, and that means that once again, we’re delving into the world of writing with Being a Better Writer.

Classic edition today, looking back at prior posts that have tickled the noodles of thousands of writers young and old. Because I, you see, am not currently in my office. I’m somewhere out on the ocean, hopefully in a ship as opposed to a life raft, braving the wilds of Alaska. And since I was running short on time before my departure, I elected to make some of the posts that went up while I was away classic posts.

One of the reasons I ran short of time, by the way, was because I needed to complete my entry for Dog Save the King, which as of this posting will close in just a few short days. You can check out more info about that here, but there’s still time to send in your entry!

Now, on to today’s topic. Ambiguity is one of those subjects in writing that, sadly but fittingly, remains ambiguous for many. Hence why about five years back, one of our reader requested topics was on the subject of how to write an ambiguous story or plot. And Being a Better Writer delivered. Take a look at the brief excerpt, and then read the rest of the post by following the link! Happy Monday, folks!

Well, the request for this was “Ambiguous characters and plots” IE characters and stories that are “vague” about what’s actually going on. An ambiguous character, for example, is a character where the reader is unsure of their motivations or objectives, or even facts about the character themselves. Likewise, an ambiguous story is one where the reader is unsure about what’s really happening, even as the story is being told, such as a story told by an untrustworthy or unstable narrator being ambiguous because we don’t know for certain if events happened the way that they’ve claimed, or if the narrator is “fictionalizing” their own account.

There can exist a certain bit of charm to these types of stories and characters (which is both why they’re written and why they’ve been asked after as a topic here). A story in which events or even the characters are ambiguous, when written well, can be exciting and teasing at the same time, constantly keeping the reader guessing and striving to put the clues together on their own to separate fact from fiction to discover the real story.

At the same time however, that’s written well. A poorly written ambiguous story or character, by contrast, will confuse and irritate its audience, often to the point that many of them will put the book down and find something else to read.

The trick, then, is being the former and not the latter. But in truth … it’s really hard to be the former. And unfortunately easy to be the latter. Because ambiguity is more than just cutting out certain details so that the audience doesn’t know what’s going on. Sure, you’ll end up with an ambiguous story … but one that’s also a mess of cut content at best, a disaster of confusing elements at the worst. No, crafting an ambiguous story (or an ambiguous character) involves careful cutting and replacing in such a way as to keep things balanced on the edge of a knife.

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Being a Better Writer: Building Governments and Ruling Powers for Fiction

Once more we gather writers, for another installment of Being a Better Writer! And today’s topic is an interesting one, once again written in advance as I am out and off of the grid for the time being. Today’s post grew out of another potential topic, but felt better suited to the aim of Being a Better Writer as a whole, IE that of improving the writing capabilities of those who follow Being a Better Writer.

Now I get that upon looking at this title, some might immediately wonder “What does this have to do with writing?” Well, today we’re going to talk about worldbuilding, specifically, and address some common issues you may have noticed across fiction, as well as talk about the role of governments and rulers and how this can impact what you write.

Again, I know this seems odd, but bear with it for a bit. You might wind up surprised. Hit the jump, and let’s talk about … well, that giant title up above. Now hit the jump.

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Stuck at the Dock: An Update

Well, this is certainly a thing that has happened.

So folks, you may be wondering “Hey, what’s this? A post?” Yes indeedy. “Am I back?” Well … no. Sands, I’m typing this on a borrowed laptop, via a hastily-built guest account.

What’s going on, you may ask? Well, fishing is one of those markets that’s a bit of a commodity. Ergo, there’s some rapid supply and demand that goes into it. So we were getting all set up to head on out—and I mean that. The gear was loaded, we had out clothes aboard, the whole nine yards save bait, fuel, and ice. We called in to get our ice … and the guy on the other end goes “Oh, I don’t think you want to do that. A big fleet is out right now and the price has dropped. We called around, and he wasn’t kidding.

So we’re at dock. Just killing time waiting for the price to rebound. Which it eventually will, but it’s not likely it will before we head out for the second half of this trip (for shrimp).

The other wrench in this scenario is the travel time home doesn’t really make it worth it to leave and head back home. I’d be there for maybe a week at best before needing to turn right back around.

In other words, I’m stuck here through the five weeks either way.

Now, that isn’t to say I haven’t been busy. Those on the Discord will know that I’ve been working on planning bits and bobs for upcoming novels. Yesterday I spent an agonizing three straight hours doing pure finance and accounting equations for Axtara – Magic and Mayhem. Some of them, amusingly enough, I was 99% positive I’d done before for the first book, but … Even if I had saved those notes, they’re down in Utah at my apartment, not at my parent’s place in Alaska.

Point being, though, I am filling the little notebooks I brought along for brainstorming and worldbuilding purposes with page after page of notes for new novel projects. I’ve gotten a bunch of prep work done for Magic and Mayhem, the second Axtara book which will be my new project as soon as I return home, but I’ve gotten some work done on projects for after that book as well.

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Classic Being a Better Writer: Horizontal and Vertical Storytelling

Hello hello writers! It’s time for Being a Better Writer!

Except that I’m currently off-the-grid in the far off land of Alaska, probably out on the ocean as you read this. No signal. No connection to the datanet. Which means … there was no way to write this post the day of. It had to be in advance.

Okay, well, if you’ve spotted the “Classic” tag above, then you’ve noted in addition that I ran out of time trying to get enough Being a Better Writer posts ready for my time away, since I also needed to get another few projects done before I left as well. Such as writing my entry for Dog Save the King, which has submissions closing before I return! By the way, submissions to that are still open as of this post date, so if you’re thinking of checking that out, do so at this link.

But today, and on alternating weeks while I’m away, we’ll be looking back at a classic Being a Better Writer post. Which for this week happens to be Horizontal and Vertical Storytelling.

This is a topic that isn’t discussed that much outside of writing classrooms, which is probably why this post has seen a lot of Google hits over the years. If you’ve ever heard the terms bandied about, well today is your chance to find out what they mean and how they’re applied to the writing of fiction.

Now, I will note, as the original post did, that not everyone agrees on these terms. The original article notes that when I was doing research for it, I found a number of places that vehemently disagreed with or contradicted one another, usually over regards to which axis was which but sometimes going even further.

That said, even having different viewpoints on fiction can be helpful, so I’d say it’s worth pressing ahead and checking out this article, even if you have once before. A good refresher never hurt anyone.

So hit the jump, and let’s talk about Horizontal and Vertical storytelling.

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Being a Better Writer: Age and Audience

Welcome once again, writers! It’s another Monday installment of Being a Better Writer, but … something’s different?

Oh, that’s right. It’s that I’m not here. This post was written in advance of my trip to Alaska. So right now I’m off of the grid and disconnected from civilization, so this post has been prepared in advance and uploaded for you to enjoy.

So, that means the new category is a little light, and we’re going to dive right into today’s topic. Which from the title, might seem a little surprising or odd to some of you, but I think you’ll find that it makes sense.

But first, really quick, just a reminder that this Being a Better Writer post, and all others like it, are free, both to read and of advertisements, but the effort that goes into writing them isn’t. If you’d like to support Being a Better Writer, please consider either becoming a Patreon Supporter or purchasing a book from the Books tab. Unusual Thing’s archive of Being a Better Writer articles, ten years’ deep, is a writing resource almost unmatched across the web—and almost anything that does match it is either supported by advertising or requires payment to access.

Spiel over, but I hope you consider either method of support. Being a Better Writer is a valuable resource, offered openly. Speaking of which, let’s get on with it and talk about today’s topic. Hit that jump!

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Being a Better Writer: Character Quirks

Welcome back, writers! You’re here! And I’m … well, not. Sort of.

By which I mean this post was written in advance of my departure to Alaska, as part of setting up the big queue so that there wouldn’t be a sudden lack of Being a Better Writer content while I was gone. As Being a Better Writer is one of the main draws of the site, I’m sure you can see the logic there. On my end, the concept is “come for the requested writing advice, then stick around and buy a book or two.” Sometimes it works.

Speaking of which, watching the Amazon ratings update has been interesting. Again, the author community is still going off of the theory that some Amazon engineer realized that a whole stash of ratings and reviews from a few nations that had accidentally been misfiled, at least at the time of writing this, but hey, Colony is over a hundred at long last! Have you read that one yet? It can tide you over until the next Axtara comes out.

Okay, enough plugging my own work. For now. Let’s dive right down to business and talk about today’s BaBW topic. Let’s talk about character quirks.

This one’s been on my mind for the last day since I recently attended a dinner and saw some “character quirks” in action that were, unmistakably, just that. Some of you, by this point, are wondering what counts as a “quirk,” so let’s get into that. Hit the jump!

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Being a Better Writer: Working with Soft Magic

Welcome back, writers! It’s time for another Monday installment of Being a Better Writer!

Well, and some news. I’ve got the serious news, and I’ve got the chill news. We’ll go with the serious news first: I will be in Alaska starting April 20th and off the grid.

Those of you that are long-time readers of this site know what that means. I’m headed up to Alaska for a fishing trip. Two, in this case. I’ll be back hopefully in six weeks, since the plan this time is to take five weeks.

Now, if you’re wondering “What about Being a Better Writer?” never fear, I’ll be spending a good chunk of this week getting all those posts up and scheduled properly. So there won’t be a drought while I’m gone, just as before. That said, if you’re using a site that relies on cross-posts to deliver Being a Better Writer content, you may not be seeing some of those non-automated cross-posts appearing. So just be aware that the best way to get your BaBW fix is to hit up the site itself.

Okay, that’s the serious news. What’s the chill news? I’ve seen The Super Mario Bros. movie, and it’s a lot of fun.

It’s also not a complicated movie, and I think this is where some of the critical miss is coming from. A lot of critics seem unable or unwilling to experience a movie that’s primary aim is just fun. And that’s Super Mario Bros. Given the games, I think that’s entirely accurate: A Mario movie shouldn’t be trying to be some massive allusion for oil, corporations, or “the meaning of life.” And that’s okay. Some movies are just fun, and that’s what Super Mario Bros. is trying to do.

I personally saw it as succeeding in that regard, and I’ll even give it credit that it did go a little further than it had to. It didn’t have to give all its characters little touches of personality with personal goals to achieve, but it did, and the movie was better for it. It definitely didn’t need to give Princess Peach the care and attention it did—I say this to mean that Illumination could have easily made her a standard Disney Princess fare and no one would have batted an eye—but they went ahead and did that anyway, delivering what was honestly one of the better “strong female protagonists” I’ve seen in a recent animated feature. Certainly better than any recent Disney movie has managed in that regard. She’s a princess who actually cares about her subjects and manages a kingdom! Acting like a ruler, while still showing that sometimes the weight of her crown is heavy, etc.

Basically, I had a lot of fun because I expected to have fun. There were a lot of good laughs, plenty of visual movement and humor to watch, tons of callbacks that—to me, at least—didn’t feel egregious, and while it’s definitely a movie where the characters are driven by simple goals and are largely moving along to keep the plot going to the next big set-piece … that doesn’t mean at all that it isn’t fun.

So yeah, ignore the critics who don’t seem to remember what “fun” is (to them, probably something that comes served on a wooden plank with a small lecture about your eco-sustainability during political elections or similar such nonsense). Just go expecting bright, colorful worlds, classic Mario tunes, and a confrontation with Bowser.

Oh, and Chris Pratt’s voice acting work is fine. Totally fine.

Will there be a longer “review” of it later? Probably. My thoughts are still settling, but overall the experience was a highly positive one. It’s straightforward, uncomplicated, fun. If you like the sound of that, I’d encourage checking it out.

All right, let’s set aside the news and talk about today’s Being a Better Writer post, shall we? A few of you might have looked at that topic and wondered exactly where this was going to go, especially if you’ve been on the Discord recently, but a certain bit of reader response to a book there actually came after this topic going on the list. It was just pure coincidence that said book happened to … Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Today we’re talking about “soft magic.” Or, alternatively, we’re discussing what a “soft magic system” is, since some will be thinking “I know of Hard Magic, but not soft” and others are probably still going “Wait, isn’t it just magic?”

So, hit the jump, and let’s start there first. Let’s talk about what Soft Magic is and what makes it different from Hard Magic. Once we’ve got that baseline established, then we can talk about the use of Soft Magic in your stories. Hit the jump!

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Weekend News – Gym Djinni on Patreon, Doctorow on Audible, and more!

Hey there folks! It’s only Thursday, I know, but I’m kicking off this weekend’s news post a little early because, plainly put, there’s news to be discussed! And we’re just going to dive right into it.

First up, there’s a new short story on Patreon for supporters! This one was a lot of fun to write, and it’s definitely going in the next Unusual Events book. Which I do have a decent pile of shorts for at this point. I should get on that. Though give how poorly the last one did, it’s not exactly a red-hot-right-now push.

Anyway, this story is titled Gym Djinni, and it sees a young museum worker at the gym spy something … quite extraordinary. Things only get stranger from there. It’s 7,000 words (actually short, I know) and was an absolute blast to write. Supporters, I hope you enjoy this one. Everyone else will have to wait until a little later. Or … you can just become a Patreon Supporter. It’s not exactly bank-breaking to do so (at least, I hope).

Either way, enjoy the story. I had fun writing it, and I think you’ll have a good time reading it.

Now, on to other news! I awoke this morning to an interesting post in my feed: A guest post on Brandon Sanderson’s site from Cory Doctorow regarding Audible and the unwelcome state—from an author’s perspective—of audiobooks.

And frankly, I think he’s got some very solid points. He echoes a few concerns and gripes I’ve noted with Amazon (and in my case, other places) in my posts about their advertising practices, but also discusses some less-than-savory ongoing problems with Audible that you may or may not have heard of.

Now, I get that people love audiobooks. But I can also see how it’s being abused, and badly, with royalties that are badly out of proportion for the author and worse, some downright nasty dirty moves from Audible (such as outright encouraging people to return audiobooks within a generous window, even after it has been finished, and then taking 100% of the refund straight from the author royalty, whilst keeping the money Audible had made for itself).

You can check it out here. I do recommend it. Especially if you’re a heavy audibook listener, you might want to be aware what’s going on behind the scenes and why that habit might not be helping the author the way you think.

Myself? I still don’t have audiobooks. Though stuff like this makes that less likely, not more, since it seems like it’d be all but impossible to recoup the costs without some sort of external marketing.

Like I said, give it a look. More news after the jump.

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Being a Better Writer: How Do I “Do the Research?”

Welcome back, writers! Another Monday is here, bringing with it the start of a new month as well as—in my case, anyway—another load of snow.

Which is both unusual and not, where I live. From my time in Utah, I’ve grown to expect the “last gasp” of winter to be a snow flurry in the first weekend of April, and most of the time that’s exactly what happens, forming a striking interrupt in what would otherwise be the “first bike ride of spring” territory.

But that’s a flurry, one that never sticks to the ground. By comparison this year has broken all sorts of snow records across the state, and last night wasn’t a “chance of snow flurries” but a full “winter storm warning.” And while that just meant a few inches as of this morning, at least where I dwell, the fact remains that such is not a flurry, and winter’s grasp is proving exceptionally clingy this year.

None of this has that much to do with today’s topic, by the way. This is just preamble. Unless you’re searching for information and research about what it’s like in Utah today, to which I’d answer at least the northern half of the state is pretty wet.

But you’re probably not here for that. No, if you’re here on Unusual Things on a Monday, odds are you’re here for Being a Better Writer. Which, fortunate reader you, is the true purpose of this post. Monday delivers something to look forward to once again.

So, enough kidding around. There’s already a news post from last Friday if you’re wondering what else is going on around here, so you can go read that if you’re curious about what the latest projects are (or if you’re new, to see what’s going on and what the rest of the site is concerned with). Everyone else who’s read in, let’s talk about today’s topic: how to do the research.

See, a common axiom repeated again and again here on Unusual Things as well as at writing conventions and other workshops involved in the process of teaching writing is “Always do the research.” Sands, it comes up often enough that there’s a tag for it in the tag cloud here (“Research,” for the curious, which will also grace this post).

With as often as it comes up, however, it continues to do so. “Always do the research” has to be an axiom because there are, unfortunately, a wide array of folks who don’t do the research. Or do the research really poorly. And prior discussions of this topic have pointed out direct examples of books that have made it to print from traditional publishers that have had wide arrays of astounding errors, each with their own ramifications.

Side note: My personal favorite has to be a Sci-Fi machinegun that fired at .25c, as in the speed of light, without somehow creating a chain of fusion explosions the moment the bullet began to accelerate down the atmosphere, while the favorite of the news is a “historical fiction” novel from a few years back that managed to infamously confuse a Legend of Zelda videogame walkthrough for “historical fact,” resulting in a truly bizarre bit of “historical fiction” (yes, this made it past the editors of a major publishing house, which says a lot about how good the self-claimed “gatekeeping for quality” seal is at actually providing said quality). My least favorite was a short story fiction winner that based its entire setup on the idea that copper rusts like steel, then presented an “idealized” future of agrarian farmers and hunters that made it very clear the author had no idea how farming worked in the slightest and couldn’t even be bothered to do some basic research.

Okay, side-note over. Point is, “always do the research” is a truism regardless of what you’re writing about. I recall one of my first exposures to this coming from what was one of my first LTUE attendances, where a fairly famous Fantasy author gave a little example of how many fantasy books he’d read that had a tannery in the middle of a generic fantasy village, which was his “red flag” for “this writer did no research whatsoever.” Because tanneries stink, and you did not want them inside the village. At the least they’d be confined to an industrial sector downwind of everyone else who cared about the smell.

Point being, just because we’re writing about fiction doesn’t mean that our stories entirely disregard reality. In fact, actually, it’s quite the opposite. Contrary to what the common layman may think, writing fiction can actually be far more difficult than writing non-fiction. Writing non-fiction often simply means reciting facts, recording or transcribing them for the future. If Scientist Davi runs an experiment and it fails, that is what non-fiction records: Scientist Davi ran an experiment—here are the details from their notes—and it failed.

Fiction, on the other hand, is not merely regurgitating an occurrence. It means taking aspects of reality, from physics to biology to finance—everything related to what you’re writing about, in other words—and then understanding it to the degree that you can write about what would happen if you applied a small twist. It’s not only understanding that something exists, such as a tannery during medieval times, but understanding enough of how that tannery operates and what it did so that you can understand how and where it slots into its surroundings and the economy of the village … So that when you do something like have it operate via wizard, or perhaps be run by a group of paranoid gnomes standing three-high in a trench-coat, you’re able to work out how that would change said tannery.

In other words, non-fiction is often about regurgitating facts, while fiction is about understanding them to the degree that you can write a reasonable way for them to become different if you make that tiny tweak of fiction.

And look at that. We’re a thousand words in and still locked in the preamble. Point being, “always do the research” is a must-have mantra if you want to write good fiction. Fiction that understands the world enough to make that tiny tweak. Now, this doesn’t mean that it’ll stay true or even happen that way—after all, Crichton wrote Jurassic Park back in the late 80s and since then the science hasn’t given us dinosaurs like the book, much in the way Shelley’s Frankenstein didn’t give us corpses reanimated by lightning. But both at the time did do research into what science thought might be possible. Sure, we may find a dozen years later that orbits don’t exactly work like that, or what we thought was a planet was in fact, a misinterpreted signal. Doing the research does not future-proof our books into being non-fiction.

But it does ground them. And there are some things that will stay true, regardless of setting. For example, if you’re writing a book about a small fantasy village with a tech-level comparable to say, 200 AD Roman Empire, then one thing you’re going to want to do research on—even if just for something as benign as a character going to get a glass of water. Because procuring a cup of water in a 200 AD tech-level is not automatically akin to producing one today. To write about how your characters might live, you need to know how people in those places and situations lived. Why they made the building choices they made. The life choices they made. Career.

Not because you’re going to replicate it 100%, but because you need to understand what the affects of your little wrinkle will be. If you’ve introduced magic of some kind to this setting, you’ll need to think about what effects that will have on things. But in order to understand that, you need to understand what is being affected and how it functions. It’s akin to … making a shot it pool. Your goal in pool is to use one billiard ball to strike another and hopefully send it into the correct place, but in order to make that judgement, you need to look at the whole picture before the ball you strike enters it.

Okay, that is more than enough preamble. Let us now graduate into today’s topic. Let us move a bit further with this concept. Assuming an understanding of why the research is important is already known to you, this can create a further question that then becomes paramount, especially in a young writer’s mind: how do I do the research?

You know the drill. Hit the jump, and let’s talk about it.

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