Being a Better Writer: Leaving Unanswered Questions

Hello readers! We’re back with another Monday installment of Being a Better Writer! And we’ve got an interesting topic to cover today. One that can be a little contentious depending on your audience.

But first, a little bit of news. Or rather, a bit making sure you didn’t miss the news. Last week had a decent amount of it. A summation on Wednesday, and then a post of its own on Friday concerning book pricing that’s definitely worth a look.

But I do have two more newsworthy items for all of you readers before we dive into today’s topic. One a question which I hope to receive responses to. A two-parter. How happy are you with Patreon being available, and would any of you relish having a Ko-Fi available to donate to instead?

I ask because it has been brought to my attention that some people prefer Ko-Fi donations rather than Patreon’s monthly service, and it’s been one of those things that occasionally I’ve been asked to think about. So now I am. What I’m asking in turn is do any of you wish to use it? There’s little point in me having a Ko-Fi to donate to if no one wishes to donate to it.

Last, but not least, the Starforge Alpha 2 Call will go up Wednesday. That’s right, the time has come! It is expected that this draft will be shorter than the Alpha 1, so under 500,000 words rather than over. If you’ve been excitedly waiting for the Alpha 2, then hit up the post on Wednesday, because it’s about to arrive!

And that’s it. Please leave responses about Ko-Fi (or any comments on the Patreon) in the comments below. With that, let’s talk about today’s topic.

As I said above, this topic can be a bit of a contentious one, and that’s something that in my time I’ve noticed seems largely dependent on audience. Some audiences do not like having lingering, unanswered questions left in any narrative. Some readers are fine not getting every puzzle or every single thing answered concretely, or are willing to extrapolate (in the positive).

So let’s talk about this topic for a bit and how it might change what you decide to write. Hit the jump.

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Being a Better Writer: Considerations for a Villain Protagonist

Welcome back readers!

By now, unless something has gone desperately wrong, I’m well away from my desk, and this post was actually written back in April! So you’re getting this via the scheduler (which is also why some external links like Patreon or the Facebook page won’t have it until later). Me? I’m presumably experiencing salt air and endless rain. Because, you know, Southeast Alaska.

There’s a reason I live in a sunny location now, but it is nice to visit home every once in a while. I just need to make sure I return from there in a timely manner and have a few months to dry out.

So, what are we talking about today? Well, this post is a sort-of follow-up to our post a few weeks back about how to deliver an effective villain. A reader hit up the Topic Call post active around the same time asking after a villain protagonist.

See, as par for the course when discussing terms that are easily conflated, that prior post (as well as a few others) had discussed the differences between a villain and an antagonist, noting that they are not the same thing (and if you’re wondering how or why, hit that link up there, because this is a very important distinction to get right). Same with a hero and a protagonist: They’re not the same thing. They can overlap, but they’re two different roles that aren’t exclusively linked.

And today, we’re demonstrating that link by talking about one of the rarer combinations out there: a villain protagonist.

That’s right. When the villain is your primary character that the story revolves around.

Now, while I did say these are rarer, that’s not the same as nigh-impossible to find. Sands, I linked a video clip in our discussion on effective villains from Megamind, which is indeed a movie about a villain protagonist. There exists a Star Wars comic series that’s all about Darth Vader and has him as the protagonist killing jedi and wreaking havoc. There are even video games that explicitly put the player in the shoes of a villain protagonist.

So this isn’t rare on the level of say, naturally occurring nuclear reactors, but if you were to do a breakdown of all stories out there, villain protags would definitely be on a small end of that list. Especially if you took into consideration all the stories that claim to be about a villain, but really aren’t, and just paint them as the victim of a misunderstanding or the hero of another story (once again, as noted in our post on villains a few weeks ago, a villain by definition chooses evil actions, so a misunderstanding, accident, or “I’m really the hero” don’t count unless they truly are a villain, something most shy away from).

Then again, it’s not hard to see why most stories are reluctant to embrace a villainous protagonist: It’s hard to get a reader to root for a character doing morally repulsive things. AKA, the bread and butter of a villain.

Which again, isn’t to say that it can’t be done. Megamind for instance, paints its villain protagonist as perpetuating evil … but out of the belief that someone has to fill that narrative, and he might as well engage it if he’ll take blame for it anyway. He still openly admits he’s a villain and does immoral things … but at the same time is a very good example of “evil has standards” since he deliberately goes out of his way to keep bystanders from being harmed and the like. For the most part.

However, Megamind is comedic, and also follows its villain protagonist having a change of heart over the course of the film, switching from villain to hero. And again, he’s a villain with standards. So while he’s still “evil” the film is able to use laughter to mask some of the more despicable acts (like another villain-themed film released around the same time) and of course, he does end up good in the end.

But what about a darker villain? What about someone without those same standards against say, killing innocent bystanders? How can we get a reader to follow along with a character when they’re well, not good? When they’d rather kick the dog rather than pet it, or maybe just flat out incinerate it, listening to it howl in pain?

How can we make a villain protagonist work?

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Being a Better Writer: Runaway Characters and Script

Hello readers! Welcome back! It’s another Monday, and bigger still another month! It’s officially April! So, let’s drop some updates before we get into the meat of things. Starting with some real news about Starforge.


Alpha Reading continues, slowly but surely. The furthest reader is about halfway through now (I did mention this is a 500,000 words book, didn’t I?) and the rest of the Alphas trailing somewhere near or far behind. Right now, since I’m hot on the heels of the lead for edits, I’m thinking of starting a second edit pass back on the early chapters, specifically with regards to a phew larger rather than smaller overhauls (like on chapter three, which needs some serious “sanding” on those rough edges).

The pace, though, says this one might take a while. I’d like to get it out this November, but currently the Alpha’s have had access to Starforge since early-to-mid February and we’re now in April with the leader among them only halfway through. Big. Book. At the current pace then, the slowest of the current Alpha Readers will finish it around … August. Which is a little too late for getting a second Alpha batch in, followed by at least two Beta passes and a copy edit if it’s going to be out by November. That would leave three months for a second Alpha pass, two Beta passes, etc.

I may have to do what I’ve done before and leave a few Alpha Readers behind, especially as there are already waiting people for the second Alpha Read (plus the Beta). Schedule is a requirement, and I simply can’t wait until 2023 or 2024 to get Starforge out.

On the plus side, those who have been Alpha Reading have really been enjoying it as the story has taken off (though again, not without areas that are getting fixed, changed, tweaked, etc). I’m enjoying the feedback and seeing the reactions of readers as they journey through the finale of this trilogy!

I really would like to see this one released by November, and that means getting the first Alpha done by at least the start of May. Earlier if possible. If you’re a current Alpha Reader who hasn’t sat down at it yet, please take the time and dig in. As with Colony and Jungle, you’ll very likely find it hard to pull away (past a few problem areas you’ll already see comments about).


Now, news outside of Starforge: Topic List #19 is almost exhausted, so this week I’ll be posting a call for writing topics you’d like to see in future Being a Better Writer posts. I’ll also be planning a live Being a Better Writer for the coming weeks, where we do a live Q&A on the Discord for everyone to listen in on. And if I end up heading up to Alaska in a few weeks (more on that as it develops) for a short trip, once again I’ll be building a backlog of Being a Better Writer posts, along with other posts to keep the site delivering content while I’m “off the grid.” I’m fairly certain that’s going to happen, but the timing so far has been very loose.


In other news The Minstrel and the Marshal is ready for submission to Troubadours and Space Princesses, the next LTUE Anthology collection. As each author is allowed two submissions this year, I’m debating a smaller, goofier and more light-hearted second entry, though it needs a little more brainstorming.

Submissions do close at the end of the month, so if you’re curious about submitting, or would like to have a go at getting your name in print—for a good cause no less—then check out the submission guidelines here.


Really quick, since I did mention The Minstrel and the Marshal, I do want to talk about plans for upcoming writing projects (and other writing-related stuff). While Alpha Editing is going on I do tend to have some time to write on the side (how Minstrel and its predecessor were written) and there are a few more short story concepts for More Unusual Events that I could plot out. Past that, if I take some spare time to write, it’s definitely time for another Jacob Rocke adventure, and I have been slowly putting a new mystery together for him to solve!

After that gets written (sometime over this spring, likely while I’m letting Alpha/Beta Readers build up a headway) then the next project will be Axtara – Magic and Mayhem. Oh, and somewhere in there I should look at polishing up Fireteam Freelance.

And with all that said … let’s talk Being a Better Writer and put the news on hold, shall we? That was a bit of a news dump, so let’s swing to today’s topic and talk about what to do when your characters or your script start to run away with things. Hit that jump, and let’s talk writing!

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Being a Better Writer: Where to Start with Building Worlds

Welcome BACK readers! Sands and storms it has been a while, hasn’t it? But once again, Being a Better Writer is back and returning to its regular schedule.

Just in time too. The break was nice, but it was starting to be strange not to have these coming out every Monday. Legitimately weird. So I’m glad to be back at it at last. That, and I’m pretty sure a number of you were really starting to miss them as well.

But, convention must be adhered to. So before we dive in to today’s topic, let’s talk about some news.

First and foremost: Starforge is in Pre-Alpha. That’s right! The finale to the UNSEC Space trilogy is going through the early editing phase before Alpha readers get to see it. I’ve got a notepad with notes I’m jotting down, changes are being made, and I’m having a good time reading through and experiencing a story that to date I’d only seen during the writing process.

Does that mean Alpha Readers should be sitting up and getting ready? Well … no. Not yet. After a week I’m only about a fifth of the way through this enormous titan of a tome. So it’s going to be a few more weeks yet, plus I don’t know how much of it I might end up rewriting prior to the Alpha.

That said, the Alpha could drop as early as February, and with this book’s big status (the biggest, and most anticipated, release I will have to date) I’m determined to make sure that at launch it’s as polished as I can make it. This means if you want to Alpha Read, I want you to Alpha Read. If you want to Beta Read, I want you to Beta Read. Sands, I am even going to be looking for people that haven’t read the first two books to at least read the opening chapters of Starforge to see if they can follow along and put together what’s both happening and has happened enough to be able to keep up with the book (at least, until they decide to go back and read the first two, hopefully).

But yes, Starforge is coming. Line by line, page by page, it is coming. And this book is a ride. If a trilogy is a three-act structure, this is the climax where everything rarely stops blowing up.

So get ready. But not just for that. Because in just over a month, Life, The Universe, and Everything happens! That’s right, it’s time for LTUE once again! And once again, I will be there and paneling and signing books.

If you’ve never been to an LTUE before, it’s a fantastic experience. LTUE is a convention, but an unusual one in that it’s entirely about the act and art of writing. The panelists are authors, editors, publishers, and other book-related creative folks, all there to talk about Sci-Fi/Fantasy writing. How to do it, what works, what will benefit it, everything! It’s an absolute blast, and if you’re at all interested in the art of writing (or just in meeting a bunch of your favorite authors), this is the con to go to.

So far, the plan is for LTUE 2022 to be live and in person (though the venue does have health and safety requirements). If lockdowns emerge, then it will be online like during 2021, but we’re all hoping that we’re able to meet in person once more. Regardless, as I understand it there are plans to stream this year’s LTUE online using a similar setup to 2021, so those of you that are a vast distance away can still participate!

So, Starforge is coming, as is LTUE 2022! Got it? Good! Now, let’s hit the jump and dive into today’s topic, which is a bit of an interesting one: where do we start when we’re setting out to worldbuild?

Hit the jump, and let’s get building!

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Being a Better Writer: Fleshing Out Stories and Characters

Welcome back readers! First of all, I apologize for the lateness of the hour with this post. These are supposed to be up in the morning, and it’s something I’ve slipped on further and further over the last few months. One my goals over the coming month is to get that schedule back on track.

Secondly, I am indeed able to report that the same day I posted last week about Stranded (Friday’s post) I did indeed finish off the story. Which means that today I can start going over Alpha Reader feedback, doing some spit and polish, and so forth. I still think it’s a dud, but I’m glad to be done with it all the same and the stuff that I wanted to practice at with it did turn out all right, I think, so it wasn’t a loss.

What does this also mean, however? It means that the Pre-Alpha for Starforge will start this week! That’s right, I’m going to begin poring over Starforge‘s draft at long last and start making nips, tucks, and other fixes and improvements before passing the story on to the Alpha Readers.

Which yes, Alpha Readers, means the book you’ve been clamoring for these last few months is almost in your hands. Be ready, because the last book in the UNSEC Space trilogy is about to arrive at last! Just in time for Christmas!

The rest of you waiting for the epic conclusion to what began in Colony and continued in Jungle will just have to wait a little longer, I’m afraid. The book isn’t going to be out for purchase this year. Next year though …

The only thing I can’t do yet is give you all an estimate as to the full release date. Starforge is massive, about 80,000 words larger than Jungle (which was already a monster), so editing is going to take some time. And as the ultimate peak of the trilogy, I want to make sure it’s shining and brilliant when you all get your hands on it. So, as of right now, no release date outside of “next year” and a confirmation that pre-Alpha work is starting this week.

And that’s the news! A decent chunk of it this time around I would say! Plenty to muse on and get excited over.

But for now? Let’s get talking about writing! This week, we’re talking about fleshing out characters and stories. Which almost sounds a little grotesque if we stop and think about it for a moment, but rest assured it is, like many other things in writing, only a somewhat gross or grim saying.

Boy, we really have a lot of those, don’t we? Ah well, good thing we’re writers! Hit the jump!

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Being a Better Writer: The Mary Sue

You know, it’s almost impressive it took this long for a direct post on this topic to come up.

I mean it! While the topic has come up before in other posts and been discussed in amounts ranging from referential to a few paragraphs, in all the years Being a Better Writer has been running, we’ve never tackled the topic in a post of its own. Somehow, it just never came up or was requested in an in-depth fashion.

But then I had a conversation that got me thinking on Mary-Sue characters once more. Specifically, a conversation that held a bit of a debate over what a Mary Sue was, with various folks offering different opinions. Most of which were quite accurate, but there were a few offered that were also a little far from what a Mary Sue was, which led to further discussion over the definition.

At which point, as some people held that a Mary Sue was just “a character they didn’t like” I checked the archives here and realized “Well dang, I’ve never actually written a post on this topic” and put it on the list, once and for all.

Which brings us to today, and the pertinent questions that come as a result of such a straightforward topic: What is a Mary Sue? Where did the term come from? How does it show up in writing. And, of course, the most important question of all for BaBW: how does can we put this knowledge to use in our writing?

Hit the jump, and let’s talk about Mary Sues.

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Being a Better Writer: How Much Drama is too Much?

Welcome back readers, to another Monday installment of Being a Better Writer! Written via time travel … technically. As I am still in Alaska, this post was written and scheduled in advance, so I won’t see your comments until I return. That said, thanks to the magic of technology I can still deliver Being a Better Writer to you despite being—peers ahead—currently finish off another longline set.

So, with no news, there’s little for me to do but dive right in. So I’ll start by asking the question posed in the very title: how much drama is too much?

The prompt for this question came from a story I was reading a few weeks ago, in which two characters who were getting pretty close suddenly and out of nowhere had a massive moment of shared agonizing over holding one another’s hand. And I don’t mean “It became a big deal.” I mean “It became a big deal,” to the degree that everything else that had been going on in the story stopped dead while these two characters agonized over it.

Now, I’m not saying that someone agonizing over whether or not to reach for someone’s hand is a bad thing. Or an improbable one. Or even one that doesn’t bring the world to a halt for the duo involved. But as storytellers, we not only need to consider all of those things but as well everything around that moment or event. In this case, the story had not to this point had such a moment of drama. In fact, things had been quite the opposite, with the characters being very relaxed and at ease with one another. Again, not to say that there aren’t moments of transition from ease to panic in real-life relationships, but what happened here was less a transition and more a leap off a cliff. Or maybe up it, and the audience was left at the bottom. Not only was it quite sudden and out of the character we’d seen so far, but it also brought the rest of the story to a screeching halt, everything going on hold for a long segment of panic. Pacing? It was dead by the time that sequence was halfway over.

Which got me thinking, and led to me adding this topic to the list. How much drama is too much drama?

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Being a Better Writer: Nailing the Last Third

Hello readers, and welcome back to another installment of Being a Better Writer! A little late today, as my morning ended up running a little long. But still here on Monday, so that’s what counts.

Not much in the way of news to talk about today that won’t be showing up in the Bi-weekly Update post later, so I’ll just settle for a singular note that there were some great reviews that rolled in this last week! Colony and Jungle each picked up a nice array of Five-Star reviews, and Axtara – Banking and Finance got some Five-Star love as well! If there’s anyone that doesn’t love that dragon yet, they haven’t shown themselves!

But we’re not here to talk about the news. We’re here to talk about writing! And today’s topic is one that may be a bit familiar to long-time readers of the site. We’ve discussed it before in a few ways, but it’s because it’s a topic that keeps coming back around, and never hurts for new explanation. Before, I’ve called it a keystone to making a story work—an assertion that isn’t wrong—but today, I think I’ll refer to it in a different fashion: sticking the landing.

Because no matter how the rest of the sky dive goes, if you don’t stick the landing … Well, let’s just say you’re going to leave an impression and let your imagination do the rest of the work as to what kind of impression that is.

Let’s talk sticking that landing and getting the last third of your novel right.

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Being a Better Writer: Why Stories Need Conflict

Hello readers! Before we dive into today’s (somewhat delayed) Being a Better Writer post, I have an urgent PSA for all of you residing in the United States.

Go VOTE. Election day is November 3rd, 2020—which should be a national holiday, and the fact that it isn’t tells us a lot about what the government thinks about our involvement in matters. Look up all your candidates. Study them. Learn about them. Don’t just watch their ads and a three second clip of the “News” and decide you’re good. Do some digging. Read about tbe results of their policies and approached. If you’re religious, pray for some guidance. Whatever means available to you, make use of them to learn about the candidates running for all the various positions you’ll be voting on, and then go out and vote.

Yes, I know this year has made it a mess. Voter suppression has been pretty flagrant and open, as has complete ignorance of the current pandemic sweeping the nation. Keep that in mind when you vote too, or rather when you’re looking at candidates. If you’re in one of those counties where for “safety reasons” five polling places were reduced to one, consider who made that decision, how safe it really is, and whether or not you want someone with the governmental mindset of UNSEC in office again.

All right. PSA over. But it was an important one. And it’s probably going to be scrutinized by the ad-checkers, or even demonized by a few people who take issue with it.

Whatever. Go. Vote. Don’t let anyone stop you. Unless, you know, you’re not registered, in which case you should regretfully acknowledge that you didn’t prep for this one. But on the bright side, you’ll most likely have four years to correct that mistake.

Now, with that PSA said, let’s move onto today’s BaBW post! Which is an interesting one! Today’s topic was posed by a reader after they encountered a post on a writing forum where the OP (original poster, for those of you not familiar with internet parlance) argued that stories did not need conflict to be stories, and in fact (IIRC) that whole genres such as ‘slice of life’ shouldn’t have them. The reader posted here asking if that was or wasn’t possible (suspecting, again if I recall correctly, that it wasn’t) and asking me to do a bit on it.

Well, reader, here you are! And let me clear this up immediately, and with a declarative statement:

A story without a conflict is not a story, but merely a series of words laying out a disconnected summary, lacking events.

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Being a Better Writer: Outlines and Outlining

Welcome back readers! Ready for a lightning-fast news moment? My thoughts on Fireteam Freelance have been written and will automatically go up on Wednesday. If you’ve not left your thoughts on Fireteam Freelance now that the series is complete, you can do so here.

That’s it! Lightning news moment over! Let’s talk Being a Better Writer!

So today’s post has a bit of a slightly embarrassing story behind it. I hang out in a few writing spheres online, sometimes lurking, sometimes posting, and the other day a discussion got started about how to outline. Now, usually when a post like this starts and someone is digging for some detailed info I’ll mosey on over to the search bar here on the sight, type in the subject, and drop anywhere from one to three posts on the subject. Want detail? Here you go!

Except when I did that for outlines … I came back empty.

Yeah. There are posts discussing outlines here on the site, but they’re always an angle, like “don’t get bogged down doing outlines” or “Outline or pantsing?”

Nothing. At all. On just a basic outline.

Sands and storms, talk about an oversight. Because almost every writer uses an outline at some point. Hence the question that led to the discover in the first place. So today we’re going to talk about one of the most basic concepts of writing a story of any kind. We’re going to discuss the humble outline. And guess what?

It’s easier than you think.

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