Being a Better Writer: Subverting Tropes

Something you’ll often hear when picking up reviews or word-of-mouth for new books that happen to be particularly praiseworthy is that something is “fresh” or “clever.” Maybe that it “does something new with the genre” or that it’s managed to put a “new twist on old ideas.”

Of course, if you’ve hung around authors, particularly a group of young ones, you may have also heard this phrase repeated: Nothing new under the sun. A common enough colloquial, especially if someone new enters a well-established writing group and claims to have written something “new.” Older members will often toss this phrase back at them, sometimes as a dismissal, sometimes as a warning of “Be ready, it may not be as new as you think.”

Notice a disparity here? If there’s “nothing new under the sun” then how do new books get praise such as “new to the genre,” “fresh,” etc, etc? Well, let’s make something clear: Those reviews aren’t lying (well, not outside sometimes well-intentioned misinformation). They’re not misrepresenting something.

Don’t worry, this all ties in to the topic at hand.

See, the crux of it really comes in that last bit I gave from common reviews up in that first paragraph. This idea of a “new twist on old ideas.” Which is why I (and, in my experience, many other authors) don’t quite fully agree with the “nothing new under the sun” sentiment. Because sure, if you strip an idea down to the bare-core, suddenly it sounds like almost any other idea. Boy without parents learns he possesses a rare power and with the aid of a mentor must do battle against evil. Is that Harry Potter? Or is that Star Wars? Or is it any other of hundreds of very different stories out there starring a boy who has a rare power and fights evil. Crud, open up the floodgates there and replace “boy” with “protagonist” and now we have every story under that umbrella as well that has a female protagonist. And suddenly such a blanket statement applies to, well, a good portion of all stories ever written.

Which is why when experienced authors utter the phrase “nothing new under the sun*” there’s always that little asterisk at the end. Because these authors know that it’s a generalist statement used with a large caveat attached. Taking it literally is much like saying that both Boeing and General Dynamics make jet aircraft, therefor both make the same product … when one makes passenger and cargo jet airliners, while the other makes the deadly F-16. Yes, both are jet aircraft … but both are so different from one another you could only that they are the same by boiling the debate down to the most basic of points (such as “This is an aircraft, yes/no,” at which point you’ve lost almost all understanding of the two in the first place).

Okay, I promised this had to do with writing (and the topic at hand), so … how?

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Being a Better Writer: When Do You Publish?

We’re going to do a shorter one today, folks, so that I can get back to editing (post-edit: It was not that short). Or rather, I’m going to keep it short. So that I can get back to, well, my bit in the topic at hand. Because this is the process I’ve been going through for a few weeks now.

Okay, so let’s just say it outright: How do you know when to publish something? What’s the point where you sit back and say “this is ready?” How do you know when you’ve reached that point?

Well … I’ll be honest, this is one of those answers that’s probably a little different for everyone, where each author is going to have their own “stance” on what being ready to publish actually means, or what “being published actually entails.” For example, for some authors, being “ready to publish” may mean “This story is ready to send to my editors and start the process.” while for others, like myself, it can mean “This story is ready to sell to the public.”

In addition to that, the “when” has a bit of a broad meaning in addition to what can be meant by “publish,” based on the context of that publish. The first one, the “send to the editors” one, is going to have a whole different set of criteria from the second, because, well, after all, what you send to your editors is going to be far different from what you send to the buying public. So in that context “knowing” that a story is ready is going to be different.

So let’s break these down and talk about them separately. Starting with the earlier one: How do you know your story is ready for editors?

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Being a Better Writer: Less is More? The Art of Cutting in Editing

Welcome, readers, to something new!

Have you noticed what it is yet? I’ll give you a clue. Check the sidebar. Even if you had adblock, it’ll be a little different. Still not sure? Check the address at the top of the page.

Yes, that’s right. Unusual Things is no longer tied to another domain. Welcome, readers, to maxonwriting.com! Clicking the link, by the way, will bring you right back to the front page, so it might be utterly pointless to do so at this time. But Unusual Things now is its own site!

Which is why the ads are gone. I never saw them unless I tricked the site into thinking I wasn’t the administrator, but I do recall being quite annoyed with their placement (especially as they shoved my “Latest Release” box out of sight). But they’re gone now, because the site is mine, at its own domain!

Okay, they might be back, butat that point they’ll be ads choose, and in locations of my choice. And I’d be making the revenue off them, which isn’t a bad thing. As someone who hates obtrusive ads, though, you can bet I’ll be placing them where they will cause the least annoyance. Top billing here at Unusual Things is forever going to be the content I offer, like Being a Better Writer and my latest books.

Okay, some of you might be wondering what this means for you, aside from maybe some annoying ads vanishing. Simple: Unusual Things is now much easier to share.

Remember what the address was before? When it was at the wordpress domain? maxviking.wordpress.com. Not exactly the best (or easiest) address to give via word of mouth.

Maxonwriting.com, though, is. Max on writing, dot-com. Boom. Takes people right to the front page. Know someone looking for writing advice? Max on writing dot-com. Okay, it’s not as easy as Max viking dot-com, but I made the mistake of searching to see if that domain was open, and immediately someone snapped it up. So Max on writing dot-com it is.

Okay, I’m spending a large amount of today’s BaBW post’s lead-in on this, but there’s one more change that this opens up: Unusual Things is no longer limited to simple, straightforward web design.

First, immediate, caveat: I am not a web designer. I’ve done some graphic design stuff … but extremely tangentially, and I would not claim to be a graphic designer. Unusual Things‘ design is simple and plain, which is good … but it could look smoother.

Don’t expect any changes immediately. I have a few small ideas in mind, but right now, the site is going to stay looking pretty much the same as I experiment with the new tools at my disposal to see what I can and can’t do. I would like the site to look a bit cleaner and more professional, but I’m not about to dive all over giving it wild fonts and appearances. Unusual Things needs to be kept simple and clean above all else, easy and unobtrusive.

Right, that’s the news. At least, all the news for today. Check back tomorrow for even more news. Yes, I have been busy lately, why do you ask?

Bah, moving along! It’s time to talk about writing! Well, sort of. Editing, actually. Today’s topic is an interesting one from the list. I can’t recall when it got on there, only that it had to do with a discussion somewhere about the challenges of editing, but it was one of those topics that came up that instantly made me think: Oh, that’d be a good one to talk about.

Now, you’ve probably guessed what it is if you’ve even glanced at the title. Today we’re talking about editing, and we’re talking about one of the more difficult parts of it: cutting stuff.

I’m going to start right away by throwing down a gauntlet: You will cut stuff when you edit your story. If you don’t, you’ve probably done something horribly wrong.

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Being a Better Writer: Writing an Anti-Hero

Well, it’s Wednesday! And here I am with the promised Being a Better Writer post! Plus, as you can likely guess, I survived the MRI of my knee! Now I’m just waiting for the doctor to give me a call and let me know what’s up.

In other, closer to BaBW-related news, however, there are changes coming! I won’t specify anything right now (I’d rather tease), but I will say that the first of them is that Colony finally has advertising! That’s right! Not just word of mouth or what I have here on Unusual ThingsColony is now getting broadcast by Amazon’s Ad service. Which … is actually a lot different from what it was when I first took the time to look at it way back when. It’s changed quite a bit. Anyway, that’s just the tip of the iceberg on some exciting new developments coming. Check back soon, and you’re sure to see some of them!

Oh, and Shadow of an Empire is close to beta. That is all I’ll give away for now, but if you’d like to get a sneak-peek, keep your eyes posted on this site in the coming weeks. Or you can support over on Patreon for an early look at the first seven chapters of the Alpha Reader copy!

Right, enough news! Let’s talk business. Specifically the business of the last topic from Topic List Ten! And a request topic:

How to write an anti-hero.

Now, we’ve talked about anti-heroes on here before, and in fact if you have not read that post I’m going to stop you right here and make a very strongly worded “request” that you go read it. Sands, even read it before writing this post, not only to refresh my memory on anti-heroes but to check up against what I’ve written before on the topic. And this post will be written with the full assumption that you have read said post immediately before reading this one, because it provides a lot of background context on anti-heroes that I’m going to be assuming you’re already aware of in order to tackle today’s topic without spending several thousand extra words on it that I’ve already written.

So, let’s get down to business. You’re going to write an anti-hero. Or, at least, you want to. How do you go about this?

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Being a Better Writer: Holidays

Hey there readers! Quick note before I let you go on: Don’t forget that we’re currently undergoing a Topic Call for Topic List 11! That’s right, Being a Better Writer‘s topics of choice don’t just spring from my head, but from yours as well! Got a writing topic you want to hear about (or hear more on)? Then hit the link and let me know, and I’ll add it to the list! Do it now while it’s still open!

Right! Got that out of your system? Ready to move ahead? Then let’s go! No sense beating around the bush today; we’re diving right in!

So, Holidays! What on Earth am I talking about when it comes to Holidays?

No, I’m not talking about the practice of going on holiday yourself (to use the British term for it), though we have touched on it before (take a break every so often, readers, and keep moderation in all things!). No, I want to talk about holidays in your story.

This is an obscure bit of world-building that doesn’t come up that often, but I want to bring it up for that reason exactly. So let me start with a question: When was the last time you read a book, story, whatever that talked about a holiday that the characters and cast celebrated or revered. Can you think of one?

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Being a Better Writer: Good Subversions

Welcome back, readers, to another Being a Better Writer post!

Okay, so it’s not that surprising. After all, these things have been dropping like clockwork each Monday for almost five years now, so any surprise at this point either means you’re new or really poor at picking up on patterns. But in any case, it’s Unusual Things‘ … well, thing!

Anyway, I got all relevant news out of the way last week with the last news post, and there’s nothing new that’s worth bringing up at this time, so let’s just dive in to today’s topic shall we? And, oh yes, this is a request topic (clearing out the last of Topic List Ten, so get ready to suggest new topics), one that’s been a long time coming!

So, today we’re going to talk about writing good subversions. Which, almost immediately, means that our first question is going to be “What is a subversion?”

Well, it’s both simple and more complicated than it seems at the same time. But a subversion is when the story sets up an expected path, event, trope, etc, and then when the moment arrives to bring that same event/trope/story element to its expected conclusion … something happens to turn everything the reader expected about said element on its head. It’s called a subversion because when you subvert something, you undermine the established “traditional” narrative, or disrupt it. In other words, you—the author—have become a subversive element to an established trope, event, etc.

Let’s talk examples, and pick one of the more famous ones: The classic fantasy damsel in distress. We’ll start with an even more common story-arc in this formula, that of the princess being kidnapped by a dragon, and a heroic knight sent out to rescue her in return for her hand in marriage. That’s the classic setup echoed across fairy-tale and folklore for the longest time.

Now? Let’s subvert it! Sat we follow this story, it’s novella length, from the knight’s perspective as he travels across the land, in pursuit of this dragon and hunting for its lair. Then, after a time and some arduous travels, he arrives to find … That the princess doesn’t want to be rescued, thank you very much. She’s best friends with the dragon, been pen pals for years, and her dragon friend wasn’t kidnapping her but saving her from … Oh, an abusive parentage, or an arranged marriage of political convenience that the knight was specifically not told about (so that the king can conveniently backstab him later). The princess isn’t being poorly treated, but in fact is living well and finding her true calling as a baker …

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Being a Better Writer: When Readers like It … but It’s Bad

This is an interesting one, and one that I’ll freely admit I never would have thought of on my own—at least not in such context. Which means that, yes, today’s post is another reader-requested topic (which reminds me, we’re getting closer to needing more of these, so start thinking of questions you’d like me to address).

But first, some quick news. Those of you who read my LTUE recap might remember the uncertainty around the Barnes & Noble upset? Well, it’s still going. Though it didn’t seem to make the news most places, hundreds of former B&N employees have now spoken up an confirm that yes, almost most if-not-all full-time employees of the last remaining physical book retailer have been let go. At least a thousand people from one department alone confirmed as gone. B&N has since seen that yes, it has “saved” the 40 million it won’t be paying those employees … but it’s stock has also tanked (dropping by around 60% in a single day last I heard) and seen a massive bailing of investors and stock offloads.

So head to your nearest B&N store and pick out the furniture you’d like to take home, because they’ll be selling it soon!

Second, Alpha Editing on Shadow of an Empire continues to progress. The good news is that we’re not seeing any major changes, just tiny alpha tweaks. The bad news? Well, you can’t read it yet, I suppose. But soon! Still looking at a spring release!

Right, that’s the news! Onward to bad writing!

So, you’ve just put the finishing touches on your latest story. Maybe it’s a fanfic, maybe it’s something original you put together after a workshop or on the train ride to work. What matters is that it’s yours. You wrote it, and you’re proud of it.

Well … almost. Or crud, maybe you are in the moment. Point is, you’re excited and enthused, and with a few clicks you throw your story out there into the wild. It hits the net … and your readers love it. You go about your day, and come home to a barrage of comments, attention, and fanfare. Great!

Except there’s just one problem. The comments aren’t what you expected, and as you look over your own story you realize that in the excitement of getting this idea down on paper it kind of slid past you how bland the rest of the story really is outside of that concept. You start noticing all the errors that you should have fixed before posting, all the flaws, but at the same time …

All these readers love it. Is it really so bad?

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Being a Better Writer: Overpowered and Beyond Characters

So, this topic is an interesting one. In a way, it’s sort of the inverse of a prior Being a Better Writer post on Overpowered and Underpowered characters. Or perhaps an extension of that same post. I’ll let you be the judge, though both probably work depending on what part of that post stood out to you.

In any case, today’s topic comes via a request from a reader, who was wondering how one could write characters that were bonafide reality warpers, like the imfamous Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation, without breaking their story. A valid question, considering that such characters are typically powerful enough to solve a story’s problems with a snap of their fingers … or at the very least usually a similarly light level of exertion. How can one have a story while still playing around with a character that’s capable of solving everything with a flick of their near-omnipotent wrist? How do you have any sort of tension with a character like that around?

Well, the answer is at once both simpler and more complex than you might expect. The first, because there are some pretty common workarounds to the “problem” a reality-warper character presents for your narrative. And complicated because, well, while the solution sounds simple, pulling it off poorly leaves the reader with a bad taste in their mouth. A case of “simple solution, tough execution” if you will.

We’ll start with the simple bit: Give them limits. Yes, reality-warpers and nigh-omnipotent beings. Limits. It may seem like a contradiction, but if you recall the post on overpowered and underpowered characters linked at the beginning of this blog, having characters with limits, and then exploring how that character overcomes them, create some of the best narrative experiences.

Now, I can already see some of you younger readers shaking your head and saying “Limits? But an all-powerful character can’t have limits. That’s the point!”

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Being a Better Writer: PoV Strengths

Welcome back readers, to Being a Better Writer! Yes, it’s a day late, but I warned you guys. Unfortunately, I have that part-time job, and sometimes that means they want me for most or all of Monday.

Now, a quick update! Prior Alpha Readers, as in, those who have Alpha Read for me before! You should have an invite to the Shadow of an Empire Alpha in your inbox. If you have not received one, then something has gone wrong, please get in touch with me so I can update your contact information or pull you from the list if you’re no longer interested.

On that note, if you’ve not been an Alpha Reader before, or have elsewhere an are interested in being an Alpha Reader on Shadow of an Empire, contact me as well. The more critical eyes I have on this, the better. As always, I want this story to be the best it can be, and that takes some solid effort.

Last note, then we’ll jump to the meat of the post. There’s a new feature coming soon to this site. I’m not going to say exactly what it is, but if you’ve kept up with the news of my projects these last few months, you’ve heard whispers and mentions of a side project almost a whole year in coming that’s finally hit. It’s not another book; I’ll tell you that up front. But it will be something you guys may enjoy hearing about. Which is all I’ll say for now.

So, news is done. Let’s talk writing!

So today’s topic is, as almost usual these days, a request topic. I don’t recall which reader specifically requested this one (sorry), but it’s a good topic that, in light of some discussions I’ve seen online that all but floundered on this same point, seems to have come at a good time. Today, we’re going to be talking about PoV, or Point of View.

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Being a Better Writer: Sympathetic Villains

URGENT: READ THIS FOLLOW-UP IF YOU READ THIS POST! It clarifies a few important things.

… are a mistaken understanding.

Okay, that’s a strong statement as a lead-in for today’s post, but it has merit! Welcome back to Being a Better Writer, the weekly writing guide post where we discuss, well, writing topics of all kind.

Today’s topic, Sympthetic Villains, is another request topic. It’s also a topic that I knew would inspire a bit of controversy when I tackled it, particularly among newer writers, because of the amount of misunderstanding I’ve seen concerning it. Misunderstanding that comes from, unfortunately, the name itself and the oft-mistaken misuse of two similar but different words: sympathy … and empathy.

See, a lot of people use the former when they mean the latter. And, to be fair, the two share similar meanings. Sympathy is defined firstly as “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune,” and empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”

Pretty close, right? Well, you’d think so until you saw the second, third, or even fourth definitions (depending on the dictionary) of sympathy, which move from “feelings of” to “sharing understanding” or even “agreeing with.”

Uh-oh. Can you see where the the use of the wrong word can cause a problem for young, newbie writers yet? Or even for more experienced authors? The problem is that while empathy means understanding a character’s perspective, sympathy means agreeing with it.

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