Being a Better Writer: Subplots

This post was originally written and posted March 3rd, 2015, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

So about a week ago, as I was browsing a social site online, I came across a cry for help. A writer was in the process of putting together their first story—an epic journey adventure across an unknown continent kind of story—and they’d run into a major snag. Once they stepped outside the action scenes, they were finding that everything else about their story fell flat. There just wasn’t anything gripping going on outside of those pivotal plot moments. And they wanted to know what they could do to mitigate this, to make the story more than a clear case of moving from point A to point B to point C.

The answer was that he needed to have stuff to fill in the periods between those points that wasn’t just … padding. Material that was more than filler.

They needed a subplot.

So, we’re going to start with the basics here today: What is a subplot, and why do I need one? Why are they so important? And how do I use one?

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Being a Better Writer: Killing Characters

This post was originally written and posted February 23rd, 2015, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Woo boy, this topic has been a while in coming. I mean a while, I had this written down on the second list of topics I put together. Seeing as it’s one of the last on my third, it’s pretty clear I’ve been putting it off for a while. Granted, part of that was because every time I looked at getting around to it, I had a story coming out, and I really didn’t want to be that cruel, but since we’re looking at a month or so before Beyond the Borderlands is ready, I feel now I can safely tackle this topic without worrying a bunch of you. Well, except for the Beyond alpha readers, but that’s the price of being an alpha reader.

So, killing characters … Why do we do it? And how?

Well, let’s set some ground terms here. First of all, we’re not talking about red shirts, those well-meaning but ultimately diversionary characters whose only purpose for the story is to die a few scenes or minutes in just to emphasize that the situation is serious. Though these particular characters have their place (the beginning of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, for example) in establishing a scene or mood, that isn’t what this particular blog is about.

And we’re not talking about killing background or secondary characters either. You know, the kind that’s just one step above red shirt, like a main character’s parent? The one who, if they die, will actually conveniently set up the main character for their journey of discovery and adventure? Or the one who’s always been a friend to the character, but doesn’t really get much screen time past a few mentions or small scenes and a hug, but then dies during or near the finale in a manner startlingly similar to a red shirt, never to be mentioned again except maybe once in passing?

We’re not talking about those. And to be fair, maybe we should at some point, because each one of those scenarios does come with it’s own laundry list of little cliches and storytelling tools as well as drawbacks. But today we’re not talking about those. No, today we’re talking about the most influential kind of character death.

The main character death.

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Being a Better Writer: When Exposition Stops Being Entertaining

This post was originally written and posted February 2nd, 2015, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Welcome back everyone after another fun weekend! Anyone do anything awesome? I did! I spent my Saturday experiencing the sights and sounds of Comic-con, spending lots of money on said Comic-con (seriously, swag!) and then getting killed in an unexpected, but much enjoyed, run-in with Borderlands‘s own Krieg.

Thankfully, being an author, my budget is pretty small and limited, but getting respawned at the nearest New-U station wasn’t too wallet breaking. Now, my wallet slightly lighter and my goodie-bag full, I’m back once again, and ready to start another week off with a discussion on writing.

This week’s topic is one that comes from a reader and, to be honest, it’s a pretty darn good question, because it’s one concerning exposition. This is an area that has flummoxed not just young writers from around the world and across time, but even experienced ones, leading to many heads meeting desks. It’s a conundrum that pops up even in well-received works, be they movies, books, or any other medium with a plot. This conundrum? Well, I’ll let our seeker do their own explaining first. Here’s what they asked:

What do you do, when you’re writing, and the story really needs to get this information across in order to move the plot forward, but the narrative or dialogue to convey this information to the reader is soooooo boring that you don’t want to write it and you wouldn’t want to read it, either?

I’m sure that “think of a less boring way to convey the information” is a technically correct answer, but I hope you have some guidance in this area.

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Being a Better Writer: Worldbuilding Names

This post was originally written and posted January 26th, 2015, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

And so, with the death of the king, the land fell into darkness. Bereft of the powers of light carried by his crown, evil filled the kingdom, spreading suffering and death in its wake. The people despaired as their once peaceful, idyllic lives were beset by crime, villainy, and evil. The once-chancellor Valkeriank—

“Wait, what?”

The chancellor. Valkeriank. You know, the one who murdered the king?

“Well, yeah, but what kind of name is Vala— … Valker— … Valla-something?

What’s wrong with it? It’s a perfectly ordinary name

“It doesn’t look like it.”

Well it is. Now, to continue with the story. As I was saying, the once-chancellor Valkeriank, assisted by his henchman Grotkkv—

“Okay, now that’s just ridiculous.”

What?

“Gro—Grot-kk— … Yeah, I have no idea how to pronounce that. Grot-kiv? Gro-tik-vee? And who spells a name like that? It’s got two Ks in it!

It’s a perfectly acceptable name in this kingdom.

“The king’s name was Jack.”

So?

“So what kind of kingdom has a range of names from ‘Jack’ to ‘Valkerwink’ and whatever that last one is?”

A multi-cultural one.

“Right. You sure you’re not just making stuff up? And what other cultures? The map at the front of the book doesn’t talk about any other lands! There’s just “The Known Kingdom.”

Oh, they’re out there. Look, can we just move on? You’re making this very difficult.

“Fine.”

Ahem. As I was saying, assisted by his henchman Grotkkv, the chancellor ruled with an iron fist. The only hope of the people was a name.

“Is it a real name?”

Shut up. Anyway, the only hope of the people during this time was the missing prince, Prince Shadow—

“What. The. Abomination.”

Oh, now what are you on about?

“Prince Shadow? Could you get any more cliche?”

What? It’s a perfectly fitting name! He’s like shadow of justice, moving through the night. Brooding and mysterious! It’s edgy!

“So his dad—who’s name was Jack, just to reiterate to make sure I’m not pronouncing it? It’s not Ja’ack? No, anyway, so his dad, the king, looks at his baby son and says ‘I’m going to name him Shadow?'”

Yes.

“I … You know what? Fine. Move on.”

I’d like to. Now, the only hope of the people during this time was the missing prince, Prince Shadow, a noble warrior who fought against evil …

“What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

Nothing, nothing. Anyway … And so, all across the kingdom of Lt’Namur’ik””t’sephat—

“That’s it! I’m done!”

What? What did I do? Was it too few apostrophes? I knew it! It was too few, wasn’t it! It doesn’t feel authentic enou—hey, where are you going? We’ve only just started! We’re not even off of the first page? There’s still two-hundred and seventy-four more to go! Don’t you want to hear what happens when Prince Shadow faces the dark beast of the Undershadows? In the dead land of Y’rrr’itquart? You’ll love it! Come on! You’re missing out!

Names. They’re kind of a big deal, which is why we’re talking about them today (in case you hadn’t guessed). Because despite how entertaining that little clip above you might have been, a good chunk of the humor in it comes from having been that poor reader. You know, the one who suffers through names of places that have way too many apostrophes. Or the place name that’s completely unpronounceable. Or the character name that just entirely shatters the mold of the world simply because the author wanted them to have a cool name.

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Being a Better Writer: Fanfiction – School or Crutch?

Don’t forget, Unusual Events: A “Short” Story Collection is out now!

This post was originally written and posted January 19th, 2015, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Welcome back, everyone! It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it’s the beginning of another week, and I’ve got news. Some good news. Good news I won’t give you the details of yet, (as I’m still waiting on a few specific ones) but still pretty good news. Okay, really good news. I’ll give you more later this week, but for now, let’s just say those of you who like going to conventions may want to keep February 12th-14th clear on your calenders.

Alright, that’s that. Now, without any further ado, let’s get to this week’s topic of choice! Fanfiction!

So, this topic might seem a little odd to a few of you, but it’s actually based on a question I’ve been asked several times over the last few weeks, both by those that write fanfiction and those who don’t. A lot of prospective writers—even those who have been writing fanfiction for some time—seem to have a question that goes something like this: Is fanfiction really the best place for me to be practicing and building my talents? Or am I wasting my time, or perhaps being less productive than I would normally otherwise be?

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Being a Better Writer: Pacing – Part II

Don’t forget, Unusual Events: A “Short” Story Collection is out now!

This post was originally written and posted December 15th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Pacing.

If there was ever a topic that I felt needed to be discussed with young writers—crud, or at the very least referenced in a basic high school English education—that sadly seems to be completely overlooked or ignored, it would have to be pacing. A measuring stick of the writer’s toolbox, pacing is a lot like the sextant—an ancient, invaluable tool in many scenarios, but completely ignored by most because they’ve never been taught what it is or how to use it. Worse, there’s no modern equivalent of it such as a GPS to replace it, which means that many simply stumble through their works, never once picking up this ancient ruler and measuring their story with it.

Alright, you’re probably getting the idea. Pacing is important. But what is this “pacing” of which I speak? As I’ve pointed out, it’s something that isn’t really understood or taught to a lot of people. While most young writers have certainly heard the term, the actual application of it often doesn’t come with it. Most more experienced authors will mention the term from time to time—usually with a quick mention of how important it is—but unless you’re attending a panel or workshop on it, hardly anyone ever actually spends time explaining what pacing is, or better yet how to use it.

So then, let’s start with the basics: what is pacing?

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Being a Better Writer: Developing Villains

This post was originally written and posted December 8th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Villains.

Let’s be honest with one another. We love villains. Even when we despise them. Darth Vader’s labored breathing is iconic. Dolores Umbrage’s fascination with kittens an understood attempt at sinister camouflage. The Joker’s fashion sense catches the eye of any comic reader.

We can admit it. In a way, we like villains. Villains are a flavor, a spice, to our worlds and universes, an intricate part of our plotting and scheming for the story at large. And … we know this. This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed villains on this blog. Nor will it be the last. A villain isn’t a needed requirement of any story, but in the event that the story requires one, having a good villain is a key factor, and so understanding how to write a good villain is going to be integral to making sure that whatever you write is as good as you can make it.

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Being a Better Writer: Common Problems with Character Emotion

This post was originally written and posted December 1st, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

After almost a year of doing this, I’ve covered a lot of the more general subjects, so as I was considering what to cover next, I decided that today, I’d dive into some specifics. Something that I have a strong rapport with: realistic characters.

More specifically, we’re going to look how writers handle giving their characters emotions, and where a lot of the common pitfalls occur.

So right from the start, I’m going to assume we’re all on the same page here. We want our characters to have emotion. We want them to be well-rounded, well developed … real, in other words. We want characters who are complex, with multiple facets to their character who remind us of real people. We want a character who seems real. We do not want a flat character.

But the challenge is that writing such a character is quite difficult, and many authors fall into pitfalls along the way. And I’m not speaking of just novice writers out there either, plenty of long-term authors can still be guilty of making any number of these mistakes, falling into traps by either cutting corners or not realizing what they’ve done. And for it, their work suffers. Characters become “props” in a story, interchangeable parts that simply drop into scenes or events to fulfill a purpose.

So let’s look at the earliest traps first—the ones that trip up the youngest writers—before we move on to the more advanced stuff. These are errors that—make no mistake—experienced writers still make, but are more likely to be found in younger writer’s material. Errors that can be easily overcome with a little effort and work, but still manage to trip people up.

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Being a Better Writer: Character Descriptions

This post was originally written and posted November 17th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Today’s topic inspired was by a bit of a firestorm I saw with regards to a story that someone had written. And while the firestorm in question will definitely not be the subject of today’s post, nor do I wish to get into that as it is nearly an entirely separate topic, today’s topic will brush up against it for a brief moment.

Today, I’m going to talk about character descriptions.

Character descriptions are something that every new writer struggles with, and often many somewhat experienced writers as well. Because when we get right down to it, character descriptions fall into one of those writing areas where no one teaches you how to do it, and everyone assumes that it’s fairly straightforward and to the point. “You shouldn’t need to be taught about this,” the public mindset seems to say. “How hard can it be? You just describe your character!”

Well, as it turns out, and as most new writers discover when they put their pencil to paper for the first time, describing your characters is much more difficult than it appears. It’s hard. Many writers, in a fit of panic (or without realizing it), will simply throw out a narrated description of basic looks—eye color, hair, figure, etc—and then just jump right into the story, without realizing how jarring and unappealing to the reader such a description is. Only upon going back do most of them realize how truly unappealing it is for a story to start off with “Bob was Asian, five-foot-seven-inches, with brown hair and brown eyes … etc, etc.” Only when they do realize how unappealing it is does the real panic set in, when they realize that they have no idea how to do any differently.

Which is why I’m talking about this today. Because to many readers, how you describe a character can be a make-or-break point for the entire book. Young writers don’t quite realize how important something as simple as a character description can be to the reader’s acceptance of a work. Plenty a time has been the moment when a reader has picked up a book, read only a few paragraphs, run across a poor character description, and put the book back on the shelf. Why? Because even if they don’t consciously realize it, a poor character description is often an indicator of other problems with the book, be they weakness of story, poor attention to detail, or just in general a low-quality read.

Yikes. Suddenly the amount and care for detail you put into your character description takes on a whole new level of importance, doesn’t it? It might not just be something that’s a nice part of your work, it’s something that the very reading of your work may hinge upon.

Kind of makes it important to get right.

So, where do you start? How do you go about making sure that your character description is going to be something that keeps your reader flipping through your pages? Well, to start, you’re going to need to know a few things about your work.

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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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