Tag Archives: Writing Tips

Guest Post up at Warpworld

Author Kristene Perron is one of the most genuine individuals I’ve ever met. As part of the launch of the fourth book in the Warpworld series, Perron and a number of other authors will dive deep into the concept of loss. How we cope, how we process, and what part loss plays in a story. She writes:

In a world that at times feels obsessed with having more, more, more, it is intriguing to see how much we gain when something is taken away, pulled from us against our will. The characters in the Warpworld series lose their freedom, their beliefs, their privilege, their homes, their families, and yet somehow, as Lois McMaster Bujold so beautifully expresses in her novel Memory, they “go on”. In the weeks to come, we’ll introduce you to some amazing real life people who have found their own way through loss, their own way to “go on”.

I had the honor of writing the first guest post on the subject. Here’s an excerpt:

For all my unpublished short fiction, I can pinpoint where I was when I wrote the story and who I wrote it for. The names and places change. They’re overlaid with magic and technology, separated by eons of time and light-years of space; but the feelings never change. Lost love still hurts. Lost family cannot be replaced. Choices cannot be unmade and death cannot be undone. When someone or something I love disappears, and there are thousands of words left unsaid, I have to put them somewhere.
Read the full article here.

Advertisements

The Zen of Nightmares – How to Use a Dream Diary

I see this and panic a little.

I just had the worst dream.

I was trying out a new gym. When I returned to the locker room I found that my katana had been destroyed. That’s right, the one in the banner above.

I looked around the locker room, and all these thin blond sorority girls applied deodorant, dressed or did their hair. The smiled at each other, but never at me. I knew in my bones that they had done this. I looked down at the remnants in my hands. The blade had been snapped off a few inches from the cross guard. One strip of wood dangled off the tang, two of the pins were gone, and the wood on both sides bristled with jagged splinters where the end cap would have been.

I ran around the locker room looking for the blade. Three or four shards of it were being carried away on the backs of brown mice and black rats. I chased them, but they scurried down a hole too small for me to follow.

I wandered the streets with my shattered hilt. I saw the mice carrying the shards into a hole in a warehouse wall. I found the door and went inside. There were two men seated in the front waiting room, wearing baseball caps and looking at the floor so I couldn’t see their faces. I asked for the pieces back. The two men said they didn’t know what I was talking about, and then three lamia appeared from a back room. They were disembodied floating women’s heads, each with a spine still attached. They wailed and screamed, trying to bite me. I ran outside and slammed the door.

I had to get the pieces back. I went back inside. The two men were still there in their baseball caps, drinking beer and staring at the floor. This time, the blade had been reassembled, but it was weak and flexible like a tai chi sword. I burst into tears. I couldn’t see how a flexing blade could ever re-attach to the shattered parts I held. The blade, of its own volition, wriggled away like a snake. I went back outside.

I took a breath and stopped crying. I went inside a third time. The whole room had re-arranged, and the two men were working at two tables. Their baseball caps were gone and I could see their faces. One was blond and wore glasses. I asked them if they could fix my sword, and held out the pieces for them to see. They looked up at me and apologized. They only made latex boffer weapons here. The blade was gone.

I woke up on the verge of tears. I rolled out of bed, scooted over to my weapons rack and had to touch it to realize that my katana was still there, and undamaged.

What This Has To Do With Writing:

Nightmares make better story-seeds than dreams, and not always because of the conflict and content. My sword broke. So what? I could have just gotten a new one, right? Wrong. The anguish was never about the sword, it was about what the sword was/meant/represented. Once you write out your dreams, look at why they triggered an emotional response.

The dream seemed to point out my attachment to material things. Or how I’m clinging to something that’s broken. Or a warning that physical strength is fleeting.

Meaning without a story is preachy. Stories without meaning are hollow.

Tension and choice are the story. Any problem you create with technology or magic can be solved by technology or magic — that’s not compelling. The deep human meaning of these things is what makes them relatable. It’s not what you lost, but the idea of loss itself.

Part of a warrior’s path is the capacity to confront things that scare you — whether you’ve planned or not. We do it so others don’t have to. Your path is toward your fear.

When you want the hero (and the audience) to suffer, think about the underlying meaning of the event. If it’s contrived, it’ll fall flat. If you find yourself crying as you write, you’re on the right track. Are you translating those feelings to your stories in an authentic way?

Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.
― Stephen King

People with intelligence will… try to push through whatever they want with their clever reasoning. This is injury from intelligence. Nothing you do will have effect if you do not use truth.
― Yamamoto Tsunetomo

Timeless Archetypes – Building Characters Independent of Setting

dandelion

“Warrior” is a much broader term than you think.

We’ve heard it all before. Nothing is original. The same characters get recycled over and over into different times, worlds, and scenarios.

True, true, true.

While entertaining some foreign exchange students, I brainstormed what to do with them. I thought I should take them to touristy places, or museums. My friend shook his head at me. “Don’t get stuck on their background,” he said. “They’re your age. Go do stuff you’d think is fun.”

The point he was trying to make is that the person — the individual — isn’t tied to a time or place. As such, their interests and psychology should determine their character more than the setting. Setting determines what’s cool and fashionable, but you could say with confidence that the Teenager will want to assert her identity by being rebellious — pursuing that which is cool and fashionable.

With this in mind, it’s important to represent archetypes honestly. Let’s take, for example, a soldier. Her job is war. He must keep his gear in good repair. She must execute her orders with efficiency. He must obey superior officers. She may believe in honor, or be completely jaded; but generally speaking soldiers want to LIVE.

They “believe” in laying down their life for their country, their king, or their Alpha Centauri Consortium, but mostly they want to get themselves and their buddies out alive. Or they want to plunder. Or develop their career.

Vikings went a-Viking to bring home enough wealth to start a farm. The Baby Boom happened right after World War II. See what I mean?

When developing characters, start with setting but don’t  get stuck there. Think about who they are, and what they want out of life. A great character will be the same person whether they’re on the battlefield, or a boardroom.

No matter where you go, there you are.”
— Buckaroo Banzai

I am a person before I am anything else. I never say I am a writer. I never say I am an artist…I am a person who does those things.”
― Edward Gorey

Repurposing Rejections & [Harsh] Criticism

I’ve started collecting rejection letters. Stephen King slapped them on an old nail in a beam; I put them in a specially reserved E-mail folder. Since I’ve been collecting the letters, I’ve realized that they don’t tell me anything. Rejection letters are usually one-size-fits-all automated form letters. For me, they’re a checklist. A tally.

They create a vacuum of WHY. In the hunt for WHY, I began to eat criticism right up.

Criticism hurts. Of course it does. It’s hard to separate criticism of ME and criticism of WRITING. These are some of the critiques that I’ve gotten so far:
  • Forced waves don’t flow.
  • Yeah but, what’s the point?
  • It’s got flavor but no depth.
  • It’s not gripping. There’s nothing to take away from it.
  • POV is wrong.

Kill Bill (2004)
Kill Bill (2004) – Pai Mei is an excellent teacher, but not a kind one.

If I were a painter, it would be like hearing, “You’ve figured out which end of the brush to hold, but these colors just don’t work together.” At first, all you hear are the words DON’T WORK. But if you listen carefully, you hone in on COLORS and TOGETHER. You see not only where the issue is, but exactly how to fix it.

Any time I talk to a published author, I ask them “What’s the most hurtful piece of criticism that you’ve grown from?” Everyone has a story.

There was always a time when everything went wrong and they had to pick themselves up. They absorbed the criticisms, played with them, and applied them.
  • Christopher Moore (Lamb) doesn’t write dumb blonde heroines anymore.
  • Neil Gaiman (American Gods) used a derisive Monty Python comparison as the billing for his book “Good Omens.”
  • Peter Beagle (The Last Unicorn) was cruelly rejected by someone who later submitted poems for his approval. It re-enforced how important it is to be gracious in this industry.

Be open to critique, even if it hurts. When someone tells you THIS IS NOT WORKING, translate it into THERE ARE OTHER OPTIONS. Then, try them out.

“Beware of what flatters you…the only real education comes from what goes counter to you.”
— Andre Gide

Find what you are afraid of, face it, and then you won’t be afraid of it anymore.”
― Marilyn Manson

How to Write Realistic Brawls/Scraps/Fights

Come at me, meow!

Realism* is your best friend when dealing with a fight. We already know realism makes romance and erotica come alive, and it’s the same with a fight. Without realism, the erotica will be limp, the romance will be un-relatable, and the fight will be boring.

*As much realism as you can have when magic and super-speed are involved, but more on that later.

Combat is a physical, visceral thing. Showing, not telling, is key. Spending words on your characters’ thoughts will slow down the action. If you’re getting mugged, do you think your mugger would pause while you reflected on your unfortunate circumstances?

No! He’d take your damn wallet and run!

That level of urgency is important in a fight. Do warriors analyze the situation? Of course, but that analysis is instant. Their experience and ingenuity will be better reflected in your writing by describing what they DO, not what they THINK.

Just as a physicist will be unimpressed if you write bad science, fighters will be unimpressed if you write bad fights. Always ask if you’re not sure!

Here are some quick principles and a practice exercise to help you tighten up flabby fight scenes.

BLOW-BY-BLOW! The best written combat sequences obey the following rules:

  1. Short, direct sentences. Make them clear and to the point.
  2. Vivid description. By vivid I mean specific, not florid.  “She was hit hard in the face by his elbow,” is awful. “He broke her nose,” is alright. “His elbow slammed into her nose with a  sickening crunch,” is better.
  3. A blow-by-blow account. This is the difference between a good scene and a great  scene, and sportscasters have known this for years. Chat with your local dojo’s demo-team instructor, or watch movies choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping. They’ll give you good examples of sequence. (Ideally you could sign up for martial arts classes yourself!)

These principles apply equally to gun fights and magical onslaughts. I don’t know much about tank/ship/spaceship combat, so let’s omit vehicles for now. All the same, seeing the essential steps of the dance will give it beauty.

EXERCISE ~ LINKING ACTION AND REACTION

reaction

Kill Bill, 2003

Take a short fight scene, slow it down, and practice describing  the sequence of strikes. Capture the sequence first, and add details later. I chose THIS RANDOM VIDEO as an example. I’ve named the woman in pink “Kelly,” and her opponent’s new name is “Mary.”

STEP I: Break the moves down to their simplest choreography 

Kelly punches Mary.

Kelly looks at her knuckles.

Mary kicks Kelly in the groin.

Mary drops.

Mary grabs Kelly‘s hair.

Mary drags Kelly across the floor.

Kelly tries to get up.

Mary throws Kelly into a table.

Check the video again to make sure you didn’t miss anything. They do the same sequence twice.

Now that you have the skeleton of the action, you have a clear view of how each fighter acts and reacts to the other.

STEP II: Relate A’s actions directly to B’s actions.

“You knew this would happen,” Mary said. Kelly smiled, and punched Mary in the eye. Mary’s head snapped back while Kelly looked at her bruised knuckle. Mary took a step forward and kicked Kelly in the groin, which made Kelly drop to her knees. Mary then grabbed Kelly by the ponytail and dragged her across the floor. Kelly kicked and screamed. She tried to get up, but Mary threw her into the table. Mary put a hand to her eye, growled and stomped away. 

STEP III: Edit to give it life. Omit unnecessary action, shorten sentences, break up paragraphs and add tiny embellishments for color.

“You knew this would happen,” Mary laughed.


Kelly smirked for half a second, then socked Mary in the eye. Mary’s head snapped back.


The shock didn’t last. Mary lunged, kicking Kelly in the groin. Kelly dropped to her knees. Mary grabbed a chunk of Kelly’s hair and dragged her kicking and screaming across the floor.

Kelly tried to scramble to her feet, but Mary was stronger. Mary slammed Kelly into the table, and Kelly dropped like a sack of rocks.

Clutching her stinging eye, Mary stormed off.

To Recap:

Principles:

  • Short, direct sentences.
  • Vivid, specific description.
  • A blow-by-blow account.

Steps:

STEP I: Break the moves down to their simplest choreography.

STEP II: Relate A’s actions directly to B’s actions.

STEP III: Edit to give it life. Omit unnecessary action, shorten sentences, break up paragraphs and add tiny embellishments for style.

Final Notes:

  • I omitted some of the details I felt slowed down the narrative, including grunting and screaming. The body language was enough.
  • I spent more time describing actions that took longer to execute. Your words are like a film reel, dedicate the time only where it agrees with pacing.
  • Only use active verbs. “Kelly was punched by Mary” sounds like a crime report. “Mary punched Kelly” sounds like it hurt.

Based on the text, you should be able to re-create the fight. Ask yourself, was the pacing the same? Did you feel the same way reading the text as watching the video? Most importantly, are you creating an authentic fight, or mimicking what’s been done before?

Red Sonja (1985). I love this movie, but standards have gone way up since then. Don’t recycle the same tricks.

This example is very basic. The point is to practice flow and sequence. As your instincts get stronger, steps I and II will merge, and you can get right down to the fun stuff like spurting blood and what it feels like to have bone fragments grinding against each other.

I couldn’t find any good quotes by Joe Abercrombie about writing combat, but R. A. Salvatore nailed it right on the head. In my opinion, those two are the absolute best combat writers in fiction. As someone with over twenty years of martial arts study, working with demonstration teams, stage-fighting and practical application, I’ve learned the value of writing sequences that are both pretty and realistic.

Writing a fight scene is about mechanics (it’s got to make sense to  people who know something about fighting–kind of like the science in a  science fiction book has to pass the physicist test!)… Mostly, a good fight  scene is about the pacing. I notice that my sentences get shorter,  paragraphs become single sentences or even sentence fragments, and  characters are too involved in staying alive to muse about the meaning  of life.” –R.A. Salvatore

Questions? Critiques? Leave a note.

Hello Friends!

This is the first of an ongoing series of research blogs. Writers often stretch the bounds of imagination to bring you to wild, exciting worlds of high adventure and high stakes. We take time to do research and develop plot in a sensible way. Unfortunately, fiction (especially genre fiction) can be recursive, and there are certain errors that continue to appear. Readers are becoming more educated all the time, and these kind of technical details shouldn’t be glossed over anymore.

Today we’ll discuss: FEMALE ARMOR

Are you a superhero? 'Cuz you're definitely wearing your underwear on the outside.

Are you a superhero? ‘Cuz you’re definitely wearing your underwear on the outside.

I have a great appreciation for fantasy female armor. I think it’s gorgeous, takes a lot of design and crafting know-how, and is far more interesting than your standard business-casual attire. It has its place, but that place is not on the battlefield.

Armor, n. Metal coverings formerly worn by soldiers to protect the body in battle.

Coverage: One of the requirements of armor is that it must cover weak spots. While the ribcage protects human organs from everyday bumps and bruises, a metal sheath does a better job against a stabbing. CollegeHumor.com released a wonderful video that demonstrates this weakness. While breasts are important, women can die from wounds in other places as well.

Structure – BreastsAdrienne Wilkinson (Eve/Livia on XWP) once commented at a con that the armor she wore was uncomfortable and pinched. Armor was never snuggly in the first place, but did you know that sculpted breasts on a breastplate could be fatal? Convex curves on a metal breastplate were meant to absorb the shock of a blow. According to Asher-Perrin’s article, Time To Retire Boob Plate Armor, the divot separating the breasts counteracts that design. In fact, sculpted breast armor prevents strikes from glancing off. Worse, if the warrior falls or gets hit with sufficient force, that divot will split her breastbone.

Structure – Overall:  Plate armor deflects blows; but just like Kevlar, it won’t absorb all the shock all the time. Soldiers, mercenaries, and the Chosen will need padding under their armor to help absorb the shock, keep them warm in cold climbs, and prevent chafing. When you’re wrapped in under-layers, you’ve essentially erased the figure of the person underneath. Armor wouldn’t need to be custom-made for women any more than it would need to be custom-made for especially broad or slender men.

Four of the many armor types: Plate, leather, segmented, chain.

Historical Precedent: When women went into battle, they wore proper armor. Sometimes the armor intentionally hid the fact that there was a woman inside by adding a masculine details like a moustache. In some cases, noblewomen like Countess Jeanne de Penthièvre became military commanders. There is also emerging evidence that women went a-viking more frequently than we originally supposed, and that burial with a weapon didn’t mean the skeleton was male. There’s definitely a precedent for women in combat, which brings me to my point about writing…

Wraps, gloves, mouth-guard.

Write True to Character: If you’re writing a character who makes a living through violence, they would know their tools. UFC fighters don’t wear a lot, but they don’t need to because their opponents don’t use blades. As professionals, they pick the tools that fit the job. Factors like weight, the need for stealth, mobility and how expensive gear is would determine your fighter’s armor. Utility first.

Entering a fight without protective gear is worse than unrealistic – it’s amateur.

Sex-appeal can and should be expressed, but don’t force your smart characters to make dumb decisions.

Am I wrong?  Did I miss something?  Please let me know!

What kind of technical details in books and movies make you twitch? What kind of technical details are you having trouble researching?  Leave a comment and I’ll look into it.

Birds of a Feather Sometimes Despise Each Other

sharpie

“What? You said we must bring a sharpie to class!”

Sometimes while looking for a community or mentor, you strike gold. Other times, our fellow writers can be as alienating as the most soulless corporate setting.

Toward the end of my college career, I decided to take a writing class which was far outside my major. The class was described as a place where Writers (published, fancy, mentor-types) would talk to us about writing. They would discuss the process of writing, works they’ve produced, and so forth.

Yes! I thought to myself. A writing class! I can always learn new things! O joy! O rapture!

It was not that.

On the first day of class, three-hundred would-be writers stuffed themselves into a lecture hall to listen to the prof review the syllabus. So far, so good. Certain phrases wafted up to me like sewer fumes.

“Your assignment is to fall in love with a novel this quarter [from a prescribed list].”

Oh no.

Then the prof read four poems to us. Four poems she wrote. She read them at a slow cadence, rising and falling with practiced gravity. They were… not good. She poured her lexicon down over our heads, filling our lungs with artistic sludge, and I knew I was going to suffocate. Flailing did no good. Her premise was too thin to swim through. I’m going to die, I thought. I’m going to drown in bombastic overwrought remembrances of “the parlour games of Tolstoy as a nine-year-old boy.”

We must have been darling indeed, for her to murder us on the first day.

After the intellectual water-boarding, she asked us if there are any questions.

I asked if we’re going to talk about the business side of writing. How do we find an agent? How do we get published? She said that there’s no money in poetry, and I bit back the urge to say, “I can see why!” or “that’s not what I asked you.”

She suggested asking our guest speakers those kinds of questions, and assigned us to “discover a haunting, arresting moment, and write it down in your journal. Nothing really developed, not a full idea, just the seeds of a notion.”

We also had to memorize three poems [from a prescribed list].

Continuing in the angry vein, we went on to do ice-breakers in small groups. With a partner, write your name, year, and major on an index card. On the back, write two reasons you think writing is important. I wrote:

  1. Writing is an important outlet so that you don’t pick up a tire-iron and brain someone.
  2. It is a document to prove that we were here.

Reason #1 is Lewis Black’s explanation for why there’s no such thing as bad language. Reason #2 is a line from the Assemblage 23 song, “Document.”

The only person who laughed at the tire-iron joke was my partner, and she thought my name was Whitney. My name sounds as close to “Whitney” as the name “Katie” sounds like “Azerbaijan.”

“What?” I said to my classmate.

“I don’t know! I told you I’m not good with names!” said my classmate.

“Do you prefer to be called Whitney?” asked the teacher, confused.

“No, my name is not Whitney. I have no idea where she got that from.” I said.

She also didn’t know what year I was. Or what my major was. These were one-word answers that I gave her not two minutes beforehand. They were also written down, plain as day, on the index card sitting on our desk.

Sometimes you won’t fit in. That’s ok. Don’t give up. Your people are out there.