Being a Better Writer: Some Tips for Writing Mysteries

What a weekend. I don’t know about you guys, but I finally got my hands on a copy of Halo 5: Guardians and played through it. The short? It’s a good thing the multiplayer is so good (and I do mean good) because the campaign and story are flat-out awful. And I do mean awful. The shooting’s fun, and the environments are neat … but the story is a hackneyed, jumbled, poorly thrown-together mess, and the dialogue … oh the dialogue …

Look, Halo has never been pushing for awards for great writing, I get that. But the first three games at least put together a fun, grand story that had some great moments. Guardians, on the other hand … Well, lets just say that there are a few scenes that couldn’t bemore poorly written. No joke: if I ever teach a class on creative writing or fiction writing, I’m using one of the cutscenes from Halo 5 as an example of what not to do, because it’s just that bad.

So yes, great gunplay, dialogue and writing so bad it made me cringe. Everything you heard about Guardian‘s poor story is absolutely true. In fact, it might be truer than you expected. If they handed out razzies for poor writing in games (and maybe they do, I don’t know), I’d be nominating Halo 5 this year.

Right. To business. Mysterious tips!

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Being a Better Writer: Character Versus Plot

This post was originally written and posted November 10th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Today we’re going to talk about a lesser-considered aspect of storytelling and writing. I’ve bandied about with a few different introductions to the concept and summarily discarded all of them, so instead I’m just going to jump right in and tackle things.

Effectively—and understand that I am for the purposes of today’s concept, grossly simplifying—every story out there, written, told, or seen, rides a sliding scale into one of two categories: They’re either a character-driven piece or a plot-driven piece. That’s it. These are your options, and understanding which your story is going to be, as well as more importantly, how to achieve this, will play a part in determining the success of your work.

Okay, some of you are nodding, some of you are confused, a few are wondering where I’m going with this. So let’s look into this one a little more deeply.

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Being a Better Writer: The Thought Process

So, today’s topic actually came to me only yesterday morning whilst on my flight home. I was at 30,000 feet (or whatever cruising altitude was for that flight) and suitably armed, as is my custom, with every type of boredom-defense I can fit in my backpack that will work on an airplane. At the moment, my tool of choice was two-fold: My Zune (yes, I have a Zune, and it has endured eight years and far, far more punishment than any other MP3 player my immediate family has tried), and my kindle. Which means that yes, I was a reading, and perhaps—okay, definitely—reading with a critical eye.

Anyway, I noticed something as I read through the first few chapters. It was something that I’ve observed before in other books, but because this book actually shifted its own stance as it moved into later chapters, my attention was captured by it all the more closely. I noted the absolute lack of “it” in the early chapters, and then as the story moved on, “it” began to appear more and more, changing the tone of the book as it came. The more “it” showed up, the happier with the book I became, as, I would hazard, did the author.

What was “it?” Well, to be honest, it was something quite simple. Something very straightforward and elegant, but something that still misses entire books.

It was the character thinking.

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Being a Better Writer: Should I Build a Plot Structure?

Today I’m going to be tackling a topic by request. Now, it’s not a topic I’ve not heard discussed before. Or, to put that in a clearer context, this is a question that crops up with fair regularity in writing groups, classes, and cons … But it’s also not one of the more common questions because it implies a bit more forethought. Not that those who aren’t asking it aren’t thinking, but rather that those who tend to ask this question, at least as I see it, are probing for a bit more detail, making a bit of a “I should look before I leap” observation.

The question is: Should I build a plot structure?

Okay, there’s a bit more to it than that. Most of the time the writer asking this question isn’t really asking whether or not they should. What they’re asking is why they should or shouldn’t.

Shouldn’t? Oh yes. There are definitely cases where a plot structure might not be in your best interest, or even harmful to the overall story. Perhaps a better way to interpret this question then, is when should I build a plot structure?

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Being a Better Writer: Is It Original or Copying?

So, you’ve just finished your first manuscript. You’re excited, maybe even a little ecstatic, because at long last, you’ve finished the darn thing! You pass it off to someone to read, probably a friend or family member, and then they say a phrase that strikes terror down on your heart.

“Oh,” they say, staring at your work. “I get it. This is like The Lord of the Rings, isn’t it?”

It doesn’t have to be The Lord of the Rings. Nor do the words they speak need to be “Oh, it’s like this.” They might say “This reminds me of the stuff from Star Wars.” Or start talking about the similarities between your work and another author they read recently.

Regardless, you’re probably hearing and thinking only one thing: That this person is saying your work isn’t your own at all, but someone else’s. And now the panic is starting to set in. Maybe they’re right. Maybe your work is nothing more than a cheap rewrite of someone else’s. How could you not see it before? After all, your main character is an orphan boy who is taken to a strange place to learn magic, and that’s totally the plot of Harry Potter! You’re a fraud! All your work has been for nothing!

Or has it? Maybe it’s time to take a deep breath, let it out, and cool those racing thoughts. After all, your story does star a young orphan who lives with his aunt and uncle who’s about to be taken away to a strange place to learn magic. That was Harry Potter, right? Wait, no … That was Star Wars … Hang on a moment; who are you copying again?

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Being a Better Writer: Hard and Soft Openings

This post was originally written and posted July 28th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

So, a few weeks ago I talked about writing an opening chapter. It wasn’t a bad blog post, but as some pointed out, it was purely about structure and structure alone. There was nothing covering any of the other bits and pieces that went into an opening chapter.

This was, admittedly, a failure on my part. One that today I mean to rectify. So, once again I’m going to talk about openings, but this time from another perspective. I’m going to talk about the type of opening you choose to have for your work.

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Being a Better Writer: Creative? Or Copy?

So a few months ago I picked up a fantasy book from the library. Pretty good book, actually; it kept me gripped well enough and had me staying up into the early hours of the morning to see how it panned out. But there was something interesting about it that I felt applied to today’s topic.

You see, after a while, the book started to feel … familiar. It was, as I said, fantasy, about a young boy whose home village was razed by dragons. His family was killed and the village ruined, leaving him the only survivor. A day later, a bunch of men showed up to strip the village remains bare, and, in the process they grabbed him and sold him into slavery.

From there the book followed a fairly traditional path. His early childhood in some underground mines. His eventual escape. His learning the ways of the world while on the lamb, falling into just enough money that he could hire a man to train him in the art of the sword and survival. Because this boy—now a young man—had a goal. Revenge. On those that sold him into slavery and the dragons that had wrecked his home.

And the whole time I was reading this book, I couldn’t help but feel that something about it was familiar. And I’m not referring to the classic trope bit of “young man adventures into the world” either. No, that was pretty general. This felt even more familiar than that. Like I’d read the story before. But I still couldn’t figure out exactly why.

It wasn’t until this young man made contact with a long-thought-lost trade route and returned to the capital city of the nation with an absolutely massive fortune, buying an old palace to wow the citizenry with as part of his revenge scheme, that it finally clicked. I was reading The Count of Monte Cristo. Fantasy edition.

I finished the book. The realization didn’t make me enjoy it any less. In fact, once I saw what was going on I actually enjoyed it a little more. Once I saw the initial inspiration (or at least, the classic that it was spinning into part of its cloth) I had quite a bit of fun comparing the two as well as seeing how the universe the author had made necessitated certain changes and guessing what those changes would be.

But at the end of the day, it’s undeniable that what I had read was basically a fantasy version of The Count of Monte Cristo, complete with dragons and magic, rather than Napoleon.

So, why tell this story? Because I think it illustrates an important facet of today’s topic. Which brings us right to the matter at hand. Was this book creativity in action? Or was it just a copy?

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