Being a Better Writer: Writing Exercises for Viewpoints

Welcome back, readers! And welcome to Tuesday! As you probably guessed, I had work shift yesterday, and as low as hours have been lately, there was no way I wasn’t taking it.

Just gotta make it to the end of August. The end of August.

Anyway, you guys aren’t here to hear about how close to the edge a writer’s life is. You’re here to hear about how it can be you at the edge!

I’m only sort of joking. Anyway, you’re here today for Being a Better Writer, and today we’ve got another request topic to tackle. Which, if you’ve glanced at the title above, you already know of: writing exercises.

Okay. I’ll give you all a minute to think on that one, and then I’m going to change the game. And again, if you saw the title, you’ve already guessed how that’s going to change.

I won’t be offering a comprehensive breakdown of dozens of writing exercises. Because, honestly, it’s easy to find writing exercises. Just type “good writing exercises” into Google and you’re bound to find hundreds. My offering, in that respect, of retreading the same ground? Not so useful.

However … that doesn’t mean I have nothing to offer. I’m not going to retread a bunch of exercises you’ll find elsewhere, but I will go over some of the exercises I did in college, as a young writer in creative writing classes, and discuss what made them stand out and why I still remember them today.

Sure, it’ll be a bit unconventional for a BaBW post, but I’m allowed to do that. It’s my site, and I answer to me. So, looking back, here are several challenges and exercises that helped me improve at my craft: what they were, what they each entailed, and how they helped me get better.

Let’s rock.

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Being a Better Writer: Writing for Interactive Stories

Welcome back readers! It’s going to be a great week here on the site. More stuff coming, as usual. Follow-ups to prior posts, feedback … Basically, there’s a lot going on at the moment, so expect to see quite a bit of that on display here as the days come along!

Okay, rather than spend a few paragraphs on news or teasers, I’d really rather just jump into today’s topic. This one is, as many of you probably already know, a request topic. And you know that because you were one of the many readers that requested it, and you let out a satisfied “finally” the moment you saw this post’s title.

But yes, we’re talking about writing for interactive stories: Choose-your-own-adventure-style works, tabletop campaigns, or any other sort of story where you give your audience the means to pick their own fate.

Now, this is one of those posts that I’m going to lead with a disclaimer. A stronger one than the normal “everyone’s experience is going to be a little different.” And that disclaimer is: I am not an expert at this. While I’ve been playing tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons for a few years now, and have been running my own custom campaign now for over six months, I would still acknowledge that I’m a novice of sorts and tend to make a lot of mistakes. Crud, last week I made a pretty lousy one and did something that would have worked for a normal book … but instead flubbed pretty bad because it wasn’t a book, it was an interactive story.

In other words, what I offer today is only going to be scratching the surface. I’m not a master-class writer at doing interactive stories and running tabletop games. I’ve never once written a Choose-your-own-adventure story, though I did read a number of them growing up. What I offer are some of the basic lessons I’ve learned that can hopefully help get you started. From there, I would hope that if you find the topic interesting, you would go to someplace like Youtube or Google and start searching for advice from dedicated Game/Dungeon Masters who have run professional games and have for decades. Yes, such advice does exist, and in fact I watched quite a bit of it before starting my own campaign in January.

Also, a bit of a warning: We’re going to bounce a bit today. Mostly because running a tabletop campaign story is still a bit different from a CYOA-style story. Plus, since I have more experience with the former, the advice I share here today will be more tailored to what I have done for that and would I would do for the other.

Right, disclaimers and notifications out of the way, let’s get this post underway! So … you want to run an interactive story.

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Being a Better Writer: Chekhov’s Gun

Welcome back readers! Guess who had a real breakfast yesterday morning? If you guessed me, that’s correct. If you’re wondering why that’s significant, all I feel I need to do is point you at the title of my last post, the self-explanatory Flu.

Yup. The latter half of this last week was fun. And compared to that, being able to have real food is absolutely wonderful.

On another note, you know what else is wonderful? Seeing the first reviews and feedback start to trickle in for Shadow of an Empire. It’s official: Shadow of an Empire is an awesome, gripping read, and people love it! This also marks the first time I’ve ever had people contact me over Twitter to tell me how much they loved the book—right on! If you’ve not gotten started on Shadow of an Empire yet … well, what’s the hold up? Click that book cover on the right and get going! Knife-fights, horseback chases, shootouts, and more await!

Grabbed your copy? Good. Now that you’ve done that, we can move onto today’s topic: Chekhov’s Gun.

I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of this one. Chekhov’s gun is one of the more universally known writing rules. Named not for Chekhov of Star Trek fame but rather for a book on writing advice by one Anton Chekhov, Chekhov’s Gun has become an almost universal law across fiction. It’s simple, easy to remember, and most of all, works. Writing a story? Keeping Chekhov’s Gun in mind will not only help you keep track of important narrative objects, but also trim out unneeded descriptive elements and clutter. Not bad for a straightforward, easy to remember quote.

Now, at this point those of you who can paraphrase the rule off-hand are probably already jumping ahead, but those of you who cannot, and are either new to the rule or inexperienced with it may be wondering exactly what it is or how pulls this off. So, as we start our discussion of Chekhov’s Gun, let’s revisit the rule itself. Like I said, it’s pretty simple, and easy to remember. You ready? Here goes:

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Being a Better Writer: Currency

Welcome to Monday, readers! And to another installment of Being a Better Writer! Where today, we’re going to talk about something worldbuilding related: Money!

Now, those of you who’ve been following things since I announced that Shadow of an Empire would release on June 1st (and you can pre-order it now!) may have caught on that BaBW posts since then have been kind of tied into something to do with Shadow. Which makes things easier on me at the moment, to be sure. But those of you who have may be wondering how currency as a topic ties into Shadow. Well, outside of “Hey ho, I can’t wait until Shadow of an Empire launches and I start making a return on it!” Which, to be perfectly fair, is a 100% reasonable reaction from a content creator. We like to be able to afford rent.

But that aside (Order Shadow of an Empire!), how does currency tie into Shadow? Well, to be perfectly frank, it doesn’t … in any more or less capacity than it would tie into any other book taking place in its own little world.

Let’s step back for a minute. Say you’re writing a … oh, let’s go with the Fantasy genre. So you’re writing a fantasy story, and you’ve got your group of characters out on the road for an adventure or whatever. They come across an inn and stop for the night, expecting to buy dinner and a few rooms. Now, quick pause here: how are they going to pay, and with what?

Well, if your character were having a fantasy adventure in the United States, it’d be with US currency. If they were journeying in the Indrim Empire, they’d need to shell out some Imperial Marks, hard metal coins minted by the empire, or sign a bank writ of sale. If they were in Sheerwater, they’d use reeds—basically metal straws of varying values and make. And if they were at the Leaky Cauldron of Harry Potter fame, they’d need to produce knuts, sickles, and galleons.

The reason I bring this up is because currency is one of those facets of basic life that most take for granted, so much so that it often seems to slip beneath the cracks in a lot of basic worldbuilding (nod your head here if you’ve ever read a book or played a game that’s defaulted to simplified gold, silver, and copper “pieces” without even a name or mention of mint). A lot of novels and worlds simply … skip, I think would be the best term … this aspect of worldbuilding. They go with the aforementioned copper, silver, and gold pieces, because … well, to be perfectly frank, that’s usually the system they know, the one that they’re most familiar with next to whatever they use each day.

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Being a Better Writer: Research and Ramifications

Welcome, readers! Before we begin with today’s post, an obligatory plug, if you will. If you somehow missed it, Shadow of an Empire‘s cover has been revealed in all its glory! You can check it out here! And yes, that does have to do with the slight redesign of the site and its colors. Shadow of an Empire is releasing June 1st, and will be available for pre-order later this week!

Excited? Good! I know I am.

So, that out of the way, let’s talk about today’s topic: Research and the ramifications that come with it. Because, as with most things in the writing world … it’s not quite so simple when you get down to it.

Now, I’ll be clear up front: This is a request topic. Actually, it’s a pretty common request topic. Which, as often as I hammer the point home of “always do the research” doesn’t exactly surprise me. I’ve made a point of it time and time again in my posts here on the site and elsewhere around the web—and even in person! If you want to be an author, and write a story about anything … Do. The. Research. Learn about that thing. And learn well.

Naturally, this second bit is the crux of the topic today. At least at the outset. Because while it’s one thing to say “do the research,” for some it’s a bit like telling someone to build a boat. I say “do the research” and there are a cluster of authors new and old who respond with the concerned question of “Okay, how?” And yes, I say old as well as new because there are plenty of authors out there I’ve read that clearly have no idea how to do even the most basic research.

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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: Character Matters

So, last week I was browsing the web (one of my favorite pastimes for finding interesting details and acquiring knowledge) when I came across a very … shall we say, interesting post. It was on a book forum, where someone was, if I recall the context correctly, talking about a specific Sci-Fi book they tried to read. A recent award winner, again if I recall correctly, from one of those snooty ‘literary’ awards. Anyway, they mentioned that they’d tried reading it, but had given up because, as they explained, all the characters fell flat. Or rather, were flat, simply mouthpieces to explain the story’s science. They had no other character or uniqueness other than a name. They were just there as, well, robots, to drive the science forward. Other than that, they were simply flat caricatures. As a result, the reader had given up on the book, because there was no character to revolve around.

Now, this post jumped out at me for two reasons. The first, but not the foremost, was that it lined up with a news article I recall reading a few years ago about in which a major publisher, faced with the falling sales of their Sci-Fi and Fantasy, conducted a nationwide survey of their former readers (no idea how they pulled that off, but they have to have some metric for it) asking why their former readers had abandoned them. The answer? That too many of their books just didn’t have good characters anymore, or worse, had characters that were just ideological mouthpieces for the science/social angle of the book. Without strong, compelling, or real characters, their readers had abandoned them.

The second reason that this post jumped out at me was the response to it. This was on a forum that is … Well, let’s just say they’re the kind of readers that the current publishers want to have in greater number. The response was immediate and, shockingly, angry. We’re talking caps and exclamation marks about how dare this reader put down a book because the characters weren’t good. Because—and understand I’m summarizing a number of posts here—characters aren’t important. They’re just mouthpieces to present the science. You’re not supposed to care about them. Or find them interesting. If you do, that’s a bonusnot a requirement. Blah blah blah, you read the book for the message, not for the characters, who cares if they’re shallow, etc etc etc.

Reading over this led me to this post. Where I’m going to say something flat-out.

That stance? That characters don’t matter? It’s wrong. From start to finish. This isn’t even a matter of opinion. That’s why the survey sprang to mind. That survey said that people do care about characters, that people are invested in how characters act and why. And do you know why?

Because they are! Great characters make stories come to life! They sell stories. Not science or social messages. Those can be pandered anyone in a deadpan monotone and still find their audience of those already subscribed to the idea. But a story? That takes characters.

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