Saturday, November 23, 2013

My Journey in Writing Female Characters

Several weeks ago I encountered an old man who decided to “take me under his wing.” By that, I mean, boss me around and be surprised when I wasn’t interested.

I am a quiet, young girl, small, thin, who makes a point to smile because otherwise people think I hate them. I am, what I would call, a bully in nerd’s clothing.

I have talked about before how, in constructive criticism sessions, the person who gets the worst of it is not the worst writer or the biggest jerk, but she who looks like she won’t fly off the handle at every insult. The person who looks like she will say, “Oh. Okay.” I look like that person. I can be that person. I’m rarely that person. Especially when you tick me off.

The first time we met, I questioned him. By questioning him, I mean, he told me—his voice harsh; he might have been constipated—“You contradicted yourself there,” and I said, “Yes. He [the character] doesn’t know what she’ll do.”

He stared at me.

“Did it not look like that’s what I wanted?”

Then the man crumbled into himself as though the organs had all fallen out. He wouldn’t respond at first; someone had to do it for him.

We continued on without him.

He stopped talking, and we let him be, I, completely unaware at the time.

Because I have a big stack of drafts at home, all filled circles around words I should not be using from 20 different people, none agreeing on which words, when someone tells me something is awkward and should be changed, I always say, “Do you mean that it was hard to picture the image? Or that it was distracting or…?” Because it would be easier to rewrite my whole book in a different mindset then try to “fix” every word that someone doesn’t like to a word that everyone is okay with, especially when I’m not sure on the problem.

So after the meeting, I took a draft in which someone wrote, “Expand for clarity,” at the top, asking her to point out specifically where. He is waiting, and I thought to talk to her, when he says to me, “Can I interrupt?”


“I didn’t want to say this while other people were around, but you are very defensive.”

The little space behind my ears went red hot. It was a weird sensation, because I did not believe for a second I was—I know what defensiveness feels like—so I wasn’t offended or embarrassed, just annoyed, knowing that I would be thinking about this for a while.

I said, “If I’m defensive, what do you think my reaction to that would be?”

I told him that I would often go home from these places and look at these remarks and not understand why that person found this problem so important. Why this wording was awkward, but that wording is okay. What they mean when they say, “Fix” or “?” or “I don’t understand.”

Then, by this time, another writer had returned, hearing the tail end of this conversation, and said, “I don’t think she’s defensive.”

And the old man bowed his head again, looking down as he muttered something about, “I just thought you should know.” Then leaving.

He’s a lawyer. He should be better at arguing.

My point here is not about whether or not he was correct in his assessment of me, however. I can’t prove anything, and I could be wrong. My point is that this old man waited for a good time afterwards to tell me I was being defensive, and I can’t imagine he does that for every person who he feels is behaving inappropriately. Why could he say it to me? Because he’s older, wiser, and I’m a nice young girl who would appreciate having the advice of someone of his stature.

In the discussion, he never critiques the men. Not unless it’s one of those “agreeable” guys who accept everything they’re told. Then he’ll contradict everything. He always is harsh and abrupt, and downright rude towards the women. After our little tete-et-tete, he started treating me in the same manner as the guys. He would rarely say anything, and if it did, it would be as small and unsubjective as he could make it. Typos and such.

Now the biggest problem with sexism is that you’re never really sure if that’s what’s going on. I’m not positive if he confronted me because he thought he could get away with it, but it certainly looked like it. I do not believe he would ever do that to any one of the highly competitive men in our group. He would not do that to someone who he thought would say, “Go to hell.” I, being forty years his junior and a girl, fell into the more submissive category. So, it was okay.

What does this have to do with my evolution of female characters?

Well, about two weeks later we were both in a writer’s workshop (it’s a small town), when out of the blue he brings up, “I think everyone has a hard time writing for characters of different genders and different races because you don’t know what it’s like.”

I don’t know what it would feel like to get my arm blown off, doesn’t mean I can’t imagine it. That’s called, empathy, sir. Something I know you do not have.

This gentleman was sure that his problem was everyone else’s, and in reality, it isn’t. I have read the first books of some men that characterized women in interesting and believable manners. (They were, of course, good at characters in general, which helps.) One of the big parts of writing is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, no matter what gender, and try to figure out an appropriate way to react to a situation you have never been in before. And, I know a lot of women who don’t write well for women either.

Because women are hard.

Why? They’re just people, right? And women can relate to other women, right? So what’s the problem?

The problem is not “relating to them,” although, that would definitely be my first suggested to the fine gentlemen. Or maybe, get your head out of your ass. (This is the bully part I’m talking about.) The problem is there is no “correct” way to do a female character, that standards for fictional women warped our understanding of real women, and that we succumb to trying too hard very quickly.

I started writing when I was thirteen, and my first characters were, for lack of a better term, bitchy. They were contradictory and aggressive and unlikeable. Even at that age, I had a firm opinion against most of the women in movies and television shows who were also contradictory, aggressive, and unlikable. I thought I could do better, and I struggled with it.

I kept writing them, trying too hard to make them strong/independent, though I didn’t realize that was what I was doing. The consequence of these choices was alienation. They were sarcastic, but they weren’t funny. They were independent, so they had nothing to do with the story.

Soon I developed my first tactic to prevent this: Acknowledgement. The fellow characters in the book, especially the boys, would recognize her bitchy behavior and make fun of it, mock it, point out that I knew how she appeared. This helped the overall appeal of the book, saving the other characters from being brought down with her, but she was still unlikable.

Lesson number one? The other character’s reactions are important.

Then, one day, I saw Ironman. There I was introduced to Pepper, one of the most annoying female characters I’ve ever seen in my life. I hated her, mostly because I loved Tony Stark so much. It was not a jealousy issue—the way I enjoy movies demands for my favorite character’s happiness with the people of their choosing—it was a, “Stop being such a buzz kill!” issue.

And I had to wonder why I hated Pepper so much, why her lines were not funny at all, yet Stark’s had me in tears. They were written by the same people. The difference was tiny. Was it the acting? Yes, I think that was a big part of it. Was it the different way I perceived women and men? I hoped not, but a possibility. Or was it something about the difference of their personality? Bingo.

Pepper behaves as an antagonist to Ironman, except that her “antagonism” is also always correct. She is always telling him he’s wrong, he shouldn’t do that, saving him from stupid decisions that we expect Stark would make, but couldn’t possibly make without dying. She was the voice of reason, but that made her obnoxious.

I wrote a book called Silver Diggers, a story about siblings who live in the Wyrd, fighting supernatural beasts. In it, Kaia had the same sarcastic personality, a borderline bitch, but she was always on her brother’s side. They fought a lot, but she defended him at times, and they let each other live. Both acted as the voice of reason for the other, both got angry, but they never tried to force the other into taking their advice. They let their sibling make a mistake, and thus, Kaia, a selfish and greedy woman, ended up being fairly likable.

Then I started the book I named The Fallen Prince, in which an exiled prince is asked to return home, followed by the singular maid, Paris, who had sided with him at his banishment. As I began the first few pages, I immediately felt my dislike of Paris and knew that I was falling back into my old trends. So, approximately twenty pages in, I cut all her lines.

She wasn’t allowed to talk. I developed her as a shy girl. She had those contradicting and sarcastic thoughts, but she just didn’t say them. Not until she and Prince Anders were alone. In which case, her true self came out, which developed a connection between them, and illustrated her trust in him. It also made sense because of her standing and history.

Lesson number two? Not all reactions have to be verbal.

A couple of false starts later, I eventually began a beast of a novel, The Dying Breed, in which, for the first time, I had no idea what I wanted the female lead to be like. A dystopian romance, I sat down, for the first time saying, “Be whatever you wish to be.” It led to a lack of cohesion, but, by the time I finished it, Libra had become a better developed personality than I had of any other character. She was also sexist as hell. At least, in the beginning.

A brainwashed child of a cult, I had to go back through and make her more submissive, more pathetic, more afraid. She is kidnapped, and though is angry about it, decides to stay with the man doing it. It’s not Stockholm syndrome—she loved him before—it’s just stupidity. The character is not the most likeable person, but she is a character of her upbringing. For once I stopped worrying about looking sexist, (women can fear that too) and just let her be what she needed to be. It was freeing.

Lesson number three? Don’t worry so much.

Sometime later, as I was screwing around and writing the 100 page outline for another book in which I considered making the protagonist a deliberate bitch, I saw the preview for the new Hansel and Gretel movie. In it, we see Gretel walk up to the leader of a town and head butt him, and I thought, “It must be nice to be a woman and get away with assault.”

Now the movie actually handled it better than I gathered in the preview, but it led me to another epiphany. Women, in these movies, rarely have to face ramifications for their actions. And that’s the problem. You introduce a character to a world, then have her break the rules of the world and not pay for it, she doesn’t really belong to that world, does she?

I realized something very important. The reason why many women—Pepper, Gretel, Kora from the Last Airbender—are irritating is not because of their actions, but because their actions make for hard reactions. If it is so easy to break societal rules, why isn’t everyone doing it? If it is so easy to be a strong and independent woman, why is this girl the only one in the movie? If you are untouchable, why wouldn’t you just do anything you wanted? What’s stopping you? Your morality? Boring.

Lesson number four? Punish her.

It’s hard for people to humiliate women. For many, they can only do the extremes. Invincible or raped, those are the options.

With this in mind, I started the book The Imposture’s Prison, in which the sister of a fallen Chosen One is asked to take his place. I had one basic rule for Iris: She is allowed to act on impulse, but once she does, so is everyone else.

She was injured throughout the majority of the book.

Because I wanted her to live in a semi-barbaric world, and I could not motivate removal of sexism all together—nor did I really want to—I had her defy the societal rules, and gave good reason why most people wouldn’t. She said something sarcastic, someone backhanded her. She voiced her opinion, people pretended she didn’t exist. She was a loose cannon warrior on the edge, and she sat in the stocks—despite winning. I was hard on Iris. She spent many days starving, bleeding, invisible (metaphorically), and just in a lot of pain. And she was likable. She is my favorite character, male or female, to date.

Lesson number five? Strength only means something if it’s hard to come by.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Ten Tips to Getting Me to Read Your Self-Published Novel

I actually buy and read more self-published books than I do traditional ones. There are several atypical reasons to this—I am more interested in authors than I am characters, I don’t feel bad about being uncommitted, I enjoy overtly bad writing, I accidentally find more of them, I am more likely to impulse buy an ebook (but I don’t like ebooks when paper ones are available), and I like supporting people. So that being said, my motives for purchasing a book or not are always universal, but here’s the truth:

1) Make it easy.

The thing about buying an unknown book from an unknown author with a huge spectrum of possible quality is that it’s often now or never. If I pass, even if I decide I do want it later, I’m going to have a hard time finding it again. And because I come across them in bulk on writer’s forums and Facebook, I’m going to take one look at it and then move on to the next.

If someone advertises their story and I find it, the best thing to do is to give me a link directly to the purchasing page. While I am usually more interested in the author’s website than I am the actual work, if I have to go browsing through it to find the book in question, I’m more likely to lose interest.

I am also more likely to buy if it’s on Amazon than if it’s on any other website. The reason is simple: I don’t want to put my credit card into some unknown place. Also, I don’t like putting my credit card in at all. Getting up and fetching the bitch is just problematic enough that I will blow off a sale of even something I really want. Made for people like me, Amazon has a “One-Click” option which involves nothing more than a confirm. I will then have the book immediately before I get bored and move onto something else. That instantaneous retrieval is more likely to actually get me to read the damn thing too; by the time I've completed the billing process, you've already lost me.

I never look at self-published books with the plan to buy. It is very much an impulse thing, and like most impulse purchases, any obstacle will dissuade me.

2) Be clear about what it is.

The most annoying thing to me about self-published works are the weird lengths. You get some story that is 30,000 words long, and it’s too big for a quick read and too short for a full investment.

I hate buying books then finding out they’re short stories or just really short novellas. While my first recommendation is write something closer to “industry standard” size (under 20,000 or over 70,000 words.)

It is flexible, and professional, traditional novellas are commonly printed from 50,000 to 70,000 words. But I don’t buy those either.

But, really, the size isn’t much of a make or break deal as long as I know about it first. I prefer short stories around 5,000 words, and really want books around 90,000, but these preferences are not primary motivators for me. I’m using buying it because I like the author. Or, sometimes, hate the author. has an approximate page number before you buy, but often times I can’t find how big the book actually is. It’s less of a problem to me that it’s 30,000 words and more of a problem that I didn’t know that. If I bought your book because I’m actually interested in reading it, and I find out it was really short, or worse, a part of a story with no ending, I’m really angry. I expected a satisfying read, and now I’m disappointed. If you admit this is a just a part, then I might say, "You know what? I’ll buy the first, and if I like it, I’ll by the second." Weird lengths are undesirable, but they won’t stop me. Having a proper amount and a full story gives me just a tiny extra push, but it's not necessary. What is important, however, is to not make me feel ripped off.

Or even when it is a short story and the author didn’t make that clear in the beginning. When I thought I was getting a novel, I can be pretty annoyed.

And I might add, while knowing that something is only a short story or novella-poser might dissuade me from getting it, I have been burned enough to never buy something that doesn’t explicitly state what it is. And when I have felt tricked, that’s when I’m inclined to leave a one-star review.

Let the reader know how long it is and if it’s complete. If it’s being published as a serial and has a huge hook, waiting to explain things in the next story, tell us. If it’s a secondary book in a series, say it in big letters. The reader should know exactly what it is he’s getting. It may not matter if your book is fantastic and exactly my thing, but if I find it on the edge of great and okay, (there is no “just good” in my mind) it will make or break it.

3) Let me see a sample.

I will not buy books that I can’t look inside at first. Funnily enough, the sample rarely changes my decision if I’m going to get it or not, but when I can’t look at all, I just move on.

Amazon does a good job of this, but many other self-publishing websites don’t. Especially if your book is not a dollar and/or is paper printed, I need to have an idea of what it looks like before I get it.

If your website doesn’t have that option, then include an obvious link where I can get the first chapter, probably in the summary box. For readers like me, it’s fairly necessary.

To be honest, I’m not necessarily looking for well-made books in these samples. I am looking for what I should expect; typo-ridden crap or  beautiful indie stories, or something in between. I’ll buy books because they look really bad, really good, or just on the edge of good with just a little bit missing. So, to me, what the sample is doesn’t actually matter. It’s just a little security blanket, letting me know what I’m in for.

4) Be clear what it’s about.

This is the same advice for any query letter. A lot of time when authors first summarize their work, they focus more on having a hook and being mysterious then actually letting us know what we’ll be reading.

If I’m not buying the book because I know it is God-awful (which I do do), then I actually do care about the reading experience and whether or not I will be interested in it. If I don’t have a pretty good understanding of what the reading experience is likely to be like, I’m inclined to think it will be bad, as most random books are.

Now, in traditional publishing, the publisher knows this. They recognize the benefits of being not predictable while seeing the negatives of being unpredictable. Because they have to sort through thousands of horrible queries every day, they are aware of what needs to be in a summary. A first time publisher often does not.

Things that I need to know to see if I’m interested:

The setting—This one is especially important to me. I have very specific tastes about what I do and don’t like, and the majority of them fall into setting. I don’t like contemporary places, I hate police and military matters (that aren’t at least a hundred years ago), and I want supernatural elements. Now, this isn’t universal by any means, and my point is not to write about these topics, but to let the reader know what topics the world will supply. A good portion of readers are interested in setting, so if they’re not clear about the where, and the uniqueness of the where, they aren’t going to risk it.

The tone—My biggest issue is, being that I read supernatural stories, when I’m not sure if the author intended scary, campy, or didn’t care what came out. It is important to me what the author was going for. If I pick up a book that seems silly, and it’s clear the author didn’t want that, then I don’t trust him with my emotions. If the author doesn’t care how I feel, I still don’t trust him. And I will never invest my emotions in a story I don’t trust, for obvious reasons. Again, I just want to have a little understanding on what the reading experience will be like. I can do creepy, I can do funny, I can even fluctuate between extremes, but I don’t want to do some watered-down mixture. Let the reader know exactly the atmosphere you’re going for so they feel safer in your hands.

The conflict—Letting us in on the conflict lets the reader know what she might want to happen, and therefore, why she might care. If it’s about “Susie is a vampire, but she wants to be human again,” then I know I should want Susie to be human again. If I don't like vampires, or don’t likes stories about "supernatural people wanting to be normal," I won’t waste my time. If it’s about “Jimmy wants to get his sister back from an evil overlord,” then I should want Jimmy to get his sister. Just by that information I can start to decide if I actually do care or not—Which is the very reason people leave it out. How can I really know how invested I am in Susie’s humanity until I’ve actually met Susie? Authors think it’s best to reveal it through their hard spun words, and it’s true that it’s easier to make people invested by showing instead of just explaining. But that only works if I’ve already picked it up. Again, if I don’t know whether or not I’m going to care about the conflict, I’m going to assume I don’t.

5) Let me know it exists.

When I go to writer’s blogs and forums, I’m actually looking for this kind of crap. I want blogs and self-published works, and I go to one every time I see a link for it.

Now, I realize I am not the norm, and that many people who go to these places are looking to promote, not support. It can be very frustrating to see competition posting and not see results. Which, you won’t. I sometimes make an effort to comment and let people know I’m reading them, but it is only done out of common courtesy. Even if I love a blog or story, I’m not likely to go about reviewing or commenting on it. So, because support is done from the shadows, it feels like everyone is being narcissistic, and, considering how hard it is to self-promote anyway, authors tend to say, “I don’t want to be that guy.”

Honorable, but if I don’t know the book exists, I can’t buy it.

Sure there are times to promote and times to not, and it can be hard to tell the difference. I struggle to find new writer’s blogs to read and new books to look at because self-advertising is so hard. But the reality is that while no one likes to be spammed, most people who will respond negatively are those who wanted to do the same thing. Everyone else is happy about it or ignores it.

I’m not saying to go to every blog and writer’s forum and post your book there; know the location. If it says don’t do that, don’t do that. If a lot of other people are, then no one cares, go for it. Worst that happens, you’ll be ignored.

Feel free to splatter across your Facebook. Go make interesting, conversational comments on forums and blogs before including a link. Most websites have a place just for that. It won’t guarantee a lot of traffic, but you’ll get people like me who just go through the comment sections to find new websites and works.

You know what’s a great place to post? My Twitter page. I can guarantee at least one hit.

6) Focus on describing what happens over quality.

This is actually a very specific comment. I don’t see this a lot, but I do see it enough.

The author uses a lot of adjectives like “amazing,” and “acclaimed,” and not a lot like, “frightening,” or “comedic.”

Okay, yes. I will agree that subconsciously this may lure in more people. But for me, I'm outright critical.

The summary should tell me what my experience will be like atmospherically and specifically, not that I will like it. Knowing and understanding my reactions takes a lot of skill and experience that I am unlikely to think the author has, especially a self-published one. Being able to predict reader’s reactions is a useful and important talent that writers take years to develop.

While, yes, descriptive adjectives like “humorous” or “romantic” do imply I will find it humorous or romantic, they give me a good impression of the specific the author was going for, specifying how I will enjoy it and not just that I will. I don’t need to know he was going for “good,” I figured that.

7) Tell me about yourself.

Again, the primary reason why I read self-published books is because I like writers, and I feel more connected with the self-published and their plight than I do with those big, lofty authors. This means that the more I know about you, the more likely I am to buy.

People hate talking about themselves. It is so common to be accused of lying or being “modest” or being narcissistic, we don’t want to tell others how we see ourselves. So, many people don’t.

Here’s what happens: I find a self-published work and I go to the purchase page. I think, “Eh,” and move on. But wait! There is an author’s website, which I was more interested in anyway. I go to it and read their biography. Then they have a blog. I read that too. Then, after spending a good amount of time with them, I feel more inclined to purchase their book. And even if I don’t at that juncture, if the website has promises of consistently new information, I’m likely to come back. And I'm more likely to be able to find their website or Facebook page that I've liked than their book I glossed over. Once I read a woman’s blog for two months before suddenly deciding to purchase her book.

Some people don’t give two licks about who wrote the story. But they are also unaffected by how long a biography is on the website or how many blogs she has. There are a good portion of people, like me, who are interested, and just by having material available will utilize it. The more I know about an author the more I connect to her, and the more I connect to her, the more likely I am to buy.

Have a website, have a bio, talk about yourself. Get a blog. Post a lot.

8) Format the inside well.

I can tolerate typos—sometimes I like them. They confirm my expectations without actual thought—but poor formatting drives me nuts.

I need page numbers. Traditional ebooks will have them naturally underneath, but many of the self-published works don’t. On my Kindle App on my computer, they’ll tell me, “Location: 68 out of a billion.” Next page? “102 out of billion.”

Very useful. I love not knowing how long this book is, especially when it could be any wazoo size in the first place.

Books need page numbers, even ebooks. If I lose my place without bookmarking it, I have an impossible time finding my way back. If I want to see how far I have to go, it becomes an ordeal.

Large font sizes are obnoxious. I’ve had some books that had three sentences per page. This really disturbs the reading process. Many ebook readers have the ability to change the size of the font, but not all do. And sometimes, I just can’t figure it out. (I have about four different places where I read ebooks, none of which I spend a lot of time understanding. My fault, but sometimes it's an issue of formatting.)

There are no spaces in between paragraphs. Especially if it’s indented as well. Here, in this blog, you’ll notice, I do have spaces instead of indentation. I do this because it’s online and HTML can’t screw it up as much as it wants to, so it’s easier not to have indentation.

While I am not one to advocate “doing things how they’re done,” formatting paragraphs the way that traditional books do will make the read far less unusual and flow better. When I read stories with spaces in between paragraphs, I subconsciously put a longer space in between them. No matter the story, it has always ruined my reading experience. And, if the author is attempting to hide the fact that it is self-published, nontraditional paragraphs, weird fonts, and stupid formats are the first way to botch it.

9) It’s a dollar.

This, unfortunately, is a deal breaker for me. I will buy it if it’s a dollar or less. I will not spend any more money on it.

I have, as of yet, to buy an ebook for $2.99. It’s not impossible, and maybe, if I’m really excited, I will. Up to now, however, I haven’t bothered.

From my experience, reading through samples, temporarily free editions, previous works by the authors, and stealing from my friends, the $2.99 books are often worse than the dollar ones.

Keep in mind it’s a correlation, not a causality thing. Also a generalization thing. But here’s my logic:

Most self-published works can be bought for 99 cents. Tripling that amount implies an ignorance of the field or a high level of egotism. Now, I am the first to argue writers need to be paid more for their work than just a dollar, but it is a supply and demand issue. There is a low demand for self-published books and a ridiculously high supply. Added with the limited quality control, there is nothing to say that the book is worth the extra two dollars.

At best, the author’s a genius and he recognizes it. The book is fantastic and he wants to be taken seriously. He chose to get self-published, and we’ll say it’s because he rightly knew that maintaining his vision was the only way to keep its integrity, and he could not do that with other people trying to make it “sellable.” In this hypothetical, this isn’t in his head, it’s just true.

I, the reader, don’t know any of this.

Why didn’t he make it the cost of a normally published book? Self-doubt? That doesn’t inspire me to have confidence in him either. (Not that I would ever spend ten dollars on a self-published ebook. Not that I would spend ten dollars on any ebook.)

If the author lowers his costs, he lowers the audience’s expectations. A dollar says, “Take a chance on me.” Ten dollars says, “I’m worth it.” Three dollars says, “I’m not Prada and I’m not Kmart. I’m a pricier knock off.”

Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if a three dollar book was good. I’m not saying it immediately devalues itself. I’m just saying that I’m taking the same amount of risk for more money from someone who might just possibly think he’s worth more for the same amount of work. Considering how many people throw up an ebook with the expectation that destiny will make them viral, readers are constantly on the lookout for that behavior.

But I’m not the rule. While the price is a firm line for me, it might not be for others. So, if you can get the money, go for it. I'm just saying, if you're looking for readers, price is a big factor.

10.) The cover.

I hate to put this on here because it’s obvious. That being said, I’m more likely to buy a book with a crappy cover than a good one—just not for good reasons.

If a cover has the tell-signs of a self-published book (singular default fonts, solid pictures without layering or fading, and no artistic risks), I’m likely to buy it for the “tearing it apart” pleasure. If a cover looks beautiful, it doesn’t stand out to me any more than “regular” books. I'm less likely to buy it, but if I do, it's for actual reading pleasure. If I think that it might be self-published, I will dig through it more to figure it out. That might just buy some time for me to actually consider the content.

I’m not advocating a crappy cover. I’m saying the opposite. A beautiful cover will lead me to taking the book seriously. A crappy book will make me doubt the author’s every action. I admit to buying more of the horrible covers, but that’s with the intention of never finishing them, having something to rant about, or just supporting the “poor struggling indie.” When I do come across a gorgeous cover, it becomes about the actual story, and I’m more likely to trust the risky choices inside.

And then I don’t care as much.

It may be confusing as to what I am suggesting here. My point is, people judge a book by its cover, and the content inside will be affected. I have to admit to buying poorly crafted work in the name of honesty, but the book would have to be far better for me to give it faith. I do buy “pretty” books, and I give them far more credit, which means that any risks will be construed as artistic experimentation rather than “trying too hard.” I buy more books with crappy covers, and judge it so harshly that its rare anyone will have a chance. I buy a lot of books with beautiful covers with the actual intention to read it as a story, and am more committed in the beginning. I ignore mediocre ones completely.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Five Writing Rules and How I Understood Them

It took me many years to start to understand certain common ideas, despite having heard the same things over and over. Because none of my teachers put it in their own words, it became an issue of getting it off the first go or never at all. Either their clever quotes made sense or they didn’t. I would ask, but the answer wasn’t clearer. And if the teacher had any insecurity about what he was saying, he would start to perceive me as nothing more than the face of evil. Asking questions is not the same thing as questioning you, Mr. Gary.

I’m using the term “rules” because that’s how they were defined to me, despite I see the concept of rules as an unhelpful limitation. They seem like the sort of laws that are passed by a suspiciously utopian society, that look like they make sense, but only for those people “too stupid to think for themselves.” That being said the outright rejection of these ideas is about as simplistic and unhelpful as unquestioned obedience to them. Whether we refer to them tools, rules, or the bane of my existence, they still have their place, and I was determined to figure them out.

1. Learn the rules to learn to break them.

Part of the reason why no one told me this in a way I could grasp had to do with the superficial nature of it. We couldn’t talk about the why because that would bring up the entire issue of “playing the game,” something that, as a high schooler, I was not the sort to buy into.

Literature is primarily a comparative art form, meaning that there are no rules. As soon as everyone does something, it becomes wrong. This is illustrated by some people being allowed to break them, but not others. It sounded, when first spoken to me, like they were saying, “There are separate rules for amateurs and experts. You need to know your place.”

Well, of course I’m not going to be taking that seriously. And yes, most of you are going “That’s not what it means.” But that was the way I interpreted it, and, without having someone put it to me differently, I never questioned that interpretation. Quite frankly, not even enough to recognize that was my interpretation.

So what does it really mean?

The problem is that if the rule exists only to be broken later, it isn’t a rule; it’s a guideline. And when working in literature which one of those “guidelines” is to defy the superimposed boundaries of a project, no one is going to look at these paths and decided, “I need to be told what to do.” Clearly it is an issue of context, so it becomes about learning what context to use it in. It is a blanket rule to teach authors how to contextualize, which is just contradictory.

The issue discusses a problem that most authors don’t want to talk about for fear of tainting the sanctity of writing: There is no such thing as quality, but there is such a thing as the perception of quality.

Like beauty, it is an illusion. “Good” does not just exist. A chair exists. You show it to someone without a word and they’ll agree there’s a chair there. You put another chair next to it and it’s still a chair. With the exception of some bizarre styling choices, a chair is always obviously a chair, and you can’t change people’s minds by saying it isn’t.

We like to think that people aren’t stupid, that they can tell for themselves what quality is and isn’t. But being uncertain on what’s “good or bad” doesn’t make someone stupid. The reality is that, because it doesn’t exist, it’s hard to recognize it when we see it.

Greatness is not always recognized in its time. People want their work to speak for itself, but in order to do that, someone has to listen. Readers start listening because they have faith something interesting or useful will be said. That requires a good first impression. A good first impression comes from meeting people’s cultural expectations. It comes from keeping up appearances.

Abiding by cultural expectations, from plot structure in your story or wearing a suit to work, sometimes feels like we’re bartering into a system, playing by people’s stupid rules just to get them to like us. Which is exactly what it is. But doing things to get people to listen to you, especially when it doesn’t affect what you’re actually saying, is the only way to get people to commit to your book over all the others. Potential is defined by perspective. Perspective is defined by all the elements, superficial or no.

“Learn the rules to learn to break them,” means “Make a reader think you know what you’re doing so you can do questionable things later.”

2. Everyone wants something, even if it’s just a glass of water.

The most important part of a story is motivation—The character’s motivation, the narrator’s motivation, the writer’s motivation, and even the reader’s motivation. A good story has characters, narrator, and readers wanting something, things that best conceal what the author wants.

The way I finally understood “everyone wants something,” is, “no one does anything without having an intended result.” That result does not have to be specific, likely, or even logical, but they still have some sort of hope for something good to happen.

It can be simple. I sat down because I thought it would feel better than standing. I go to work to earn money and then want the day to be over as quickly as possible. I asked “How are you?” because I thought I would feel better without the lengthy silence.

A motivation can be vague or unlikely, without any knowledge of the actual “how.” I said hello because I thought that I might find out you were the one and we would eventually fall in love and get married, and I don’t have to worry about my weight anymore. I applied to UCLA because I am going to go there and meet people and network until I find myself successful in the film industry. I write a book so that people will respect me. (Hypothetically of course.)

Every action has a reason behind it. This is true in reality as well as fiction; we just aren’t always aware of it.

Just because we don’t know our thoughts doesn’t mean they’re not there. We are always thinking as well as thinking many things at one time. If we are conscious of one of them, we’re doing good.

A great example is a comedic article I read on the internet in which it discussed between what a man and a woman were thinking.

A man says, “Are you tired?”

The woman over analyses it until she decides it means he hates her.

But, according to the article, the man was really “just curious.”

There are two things that people rarely are. And I mean rarely like a dog playing a piano rarely. Not impossible, but not something you’d see everyday. Those are “just curious,” and “just explaining.”

Both of those two remove as much motivation as they possibly can, which not only is the least interesting choice, but not a very natural one. Because we all have an objective, “just explaining,” is limited to the artificial set up of a clear hierarchy—A speech given by a politician or teacher. And even then, they often still have an agenda.

To prove the article’s point, let’s overanalyze what “Are you tired?" really means.

It is most commonly motivated by three things.

“Are you tired? Do you want to do something else tonight or go home?” The intended reaction could be either, “Yes, I want to come home,” meaning the man will finally be rid of her, or it might be, “No, let’s go to the movies,” or even better yet, she reaches over and they start making out. But, his motivation was trying to find information so that he could take an action.

It might mean, “Is that why you’re being such a bitch?” The motivation is he’s trying to inform her, “You’re being a bitch,” so that she either stops or at least is punished by being informed that’s exactly what’s happening. His intended result could be that he thinks it will make her stop being cruel.

Or lastly, he might just be trying to fill the dreaded silence and can’t think of anything else. The intended result would be, if not rationally, that it would ignite a conversation, or stall long enough until he could think of something interesting.

“Everyone wants something, even if it’s just a glass of water,” illustrates that it is unnatural to not want anything. The tool of motivation can make any inorganic scene better. From bad dialogue to unconvincing fight scenes, understanding and indicating a character’s objectives can fix many problems.

3. “Don’t use said.” OR “Always use said.”

I feel this is the most common on this list because no matter the class, the teacher always brings one or the other up, and there is always a student who goes, “Wait. I thought it was the other way.”

People like this, I guess, because it’s pretty straight and to the point. The use of the word said, or lack thereof, is an obvious and fairly influential choice that can change the entire value of a dialogue.

Said is a supportive word. It is neutral and without connotation. It can be used in any situation and still make sense, whether it be crying, screaming, love, or general apathy. All synonyms for it, besides for a few exceptions like “tell,” are influential words. They change the tone and can only be used in certain contexts.

It is common for writers to overuse supportive words. Not only is there a strange belief among some that the best kind of writing is neutral writing, but supportive words are safe. If you have achieved the tone you wanted, said will not ruin it.

But not only are influential words more interesting, they have the capacity to grow and add onto the scene. The constant changing of it, even though in the end it’s the same outcome, makes it more interesting and less predictable, also seem less lazy. If choices were numbers, “said” would be zero, and everything else would be everything else.

Say an author wants 21. His first choice might be 21 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0, instead of going 8 9 3 -5 -3 8 1 22 -13 -6 -10 7. He says what it is supposed to be (telling instead of showing) and then does his best to not influence the story in either direction for fear of him not being able to get back to 21.

But readers grow tolerant to stagnancy; they want change. In fact, if an author was capable, he would benefit from using only influential words because they are more powerful, more heartfelt, and make every single sentence add to the story. Supportive words only maintain the status quo.

So that sounds like I’m on the side of “Never using said.” Let me go on. It is not possible to constantly use influential words because there aren’t enough words in the English language. Many have additional meanings that subtract from the intended vision. Secondly, even if there is a perfect word out there, you very well might not be able to think of it. And it might not even be worth it.

While supportive words are flexible, influential words are not. Hence the gist of the problem: using an influential word in the wrong way can ruin the tone created, just like we feared.

The reason why people like the word said is because it doesn’t stand out until about the 60th time it’s used. But an influential word, if used properly, doesn’t either. The issue is that when it is used improperly, it screams at the reader.

I discussed writer’s motivation a little above and how it is important for the character’s and narrator’s motivation need to overshadow the author’s. This is a case in point. Many people, having been told never use said, will proceed to try not to use said, and it will often read like that’s what’s happening.

If I say, “‘The engine’s internal mechanism will combust if we don’t cool it down!’ he ejaculated,” every single member of the audience will be brought right from emersion and think, “Why did the author choose that word?” And, in this case, it will be very obvious that I was just trying to use something other than the word said.

Influential words imply a tone. It gives us a distinct image of facial expression, body language, and the inflection. It is important for synonyms of “said” to fit the situation precisely. If it does, the sentence will be enhanced in bounds. If it doesn’t, it would be ruined to the same extent. Said is for when you can’t think of a word that precisely speaks the desired tone, which will be most situations.

4. Never use a semicolon.

This comes from the same problem as the above. Just as “ejaculated,” means, “I’m trying not to use said,” to the reader, the semicolon says, “I’m trying to sound smart.”

That’s all there is to it. Semicolons tend to ruin immersion by means of illustrating the author’s motivation. They are distracting. It’s why people don’t like them.

With that in mind, I personally advise to throw this this advice right out the window. Semicolons are useful, and the more we use them the more people will ignore them, thus solving the problem.

I am constantly feeling limited by the options of punctuation I have. There are many web comics and blogs that make jokes about “new punctuation” we need, and they stem from a place of truth. Periods and hyphens and question marks are the subtlest means to indicate pauses and inflections. We are already limited; we don’t want to make it worse.

And for those who don’t believe that the semicolon is useful, they are disregarding the importance of rhythm and flow, i.e. are dumb.

The semicolon is used between two full sentences as a continuation of a thought.

“The dog was ugly; he was brown.” The dog is ugly because he is brown.

“The dog was ugly. He was brown.” The dog is ugly and he is brown.

A hyphen might work: The dog is ugly—He is brown. But it changes the tone. The semicolon makes the voice drop down and be completed, the hyphen makes the voice go up, trailing into the next sentence. Both are acceptable, yet each one is better than the other in different contexts, meaning we shouldn’t limit ourselves just because one is “close enough.”

The semicolon is punctuation we can’t afford to lose.

5. Show, don’t tell.

I, like every other teenager in the universe, did not take well the word “don’t.” I still don’t, ironically.

Translate advice with has the words, “don’t,” “never,” or “always,” into, “I assume you do too much, so stop it.”

Balance and variation are the keys to good books, and it is fairly typical for beginning writers to have the same sort of problems.

Telling and not showing is a typical one.

Telling is far more efficient, clearer, as well as easier. There are a lot of benefits to doing it, which is why it is typical for people to do it far too much.

So, we’ll just clear out the “don’t” part of the sentence because everyone whose ever heard this advice probably already did. As it is the main part we take issue to, it’ll also be make the advice more palatable.

Showing is proving. Telling is… telling. I can say to you, “My character is really cool.” The problem with that is 1) the author’s motivation is really obvious, and 2) people are probably not going to believe it. Mostly because the author’s motivation is really obvious. So, instead, the author marches him into a room where everyone hates him, has someone shout at him, “Your book is a travesty against literature!” makes him raise his hand in acknowledgement and say, “Noted.”

Could people not understand that this “proves” he’s cool? Or worse, disagree with it? Absolutely yes. Hence why people like telling. I once had a reader write a bunch of questions in the script, complaining I wasn’t explaining enough. Then, in the next paragraph, where it had answered those questions, she wrote, “Why are you talking about this?” So yes, it’s easy to be too subtle.

When people know someone’s trying to persuade them, they tend to do their best not to be persuaded. Or that might just be autobiographical.

Showing tends to be more grounding. It gives you specific images of actions rather than abstract big pictures. The examples prove far cleverer, mostly because an actual illustration that someone is a bad ass is much harder than just saying that he is.

The difference between a summery and a story is the difference of showing and telling. It’s the difference between reading the Wikipedia page over the actual book. Showing has ambiance, immersion. Telling is more straight-to-the point and gives less room for error. Though that can be the thing you want at that moment, showing is what makes the book real.

Too much simplification of information makes it inaccurate, but it doesn’t void it of truth. When trying to give blanket advice to many people, writers, teachers, and critics do their best to come up with something that everyone can use. Of course it doesn’t perfectly fit to each case, so it becomes the job of the individual to filter past the generalization, through the “cleverness,” and get to a point of usability. It helps when someone puts it the way they see it.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The First Problem of the Author: Insecurity is Showing

Writing mistakes are not actions; they are outcomes. The problem with “bad” writing is not what the author did. It’s not how many adverbs he used or that he chose to say “red” instead of “blood.” It’s not what he chose to do, but how that affected a response. It’s about the undesired result for the reader. Until the writer understands what using said too much will do, he can’t readily know when the “rule” applies. And while many people believe the solution to this is that knowledge will be found in blind obedience, I believe the answers are far simpler, the reader’s abrasion attached to an underlying tone.

In many cases, it is the tone of insecurity.

Confidence is appealing in many contexts, and when a writer behaves as though he isn’t, it’s hard for the reader to put her own faith in him. And, unfortunately, like with most subtexts, an author’s insecurity of his own writing ability will leak into his word choice without the slightest hint it is happening.

1) The writer has long sentences meant to get information out quickly, fearing interruption, confusion, or boredom cutting him off.

There is a belief in the writing world that if a sentence can be shorter, it should be. I don’t believe this. I am not an advocate for the shorter the better, and I do not mean to imply that having a long sentence is bad. I do believe, however, that shortening a sentence can solve a whole group of problems, which is why it is so common for people to think it should be done all the time.

The long sentences I am talking about here are linked directly to the implication of insecurity. These are phrases that have several thoughts attached inside them, that take longer than the implied action, or are memories the character would have known but not thought.

For example: “[Dorian’s leg] was leaping up and down even as he sat in the office that Kera had fashioned from a disused library in the small house that she shared with her father.”

This exposes a lot of information and does give the reader a good image as to what is going on and what the room looks like. The problem is, for starters, this is obvious that that’s what’s happening. The reader knows the author is saying these things to explain the situation. The sentence itself is unnatural, most of the thoughts not actually connected with each other.

Prepositional phrases (in the office, in the small house, with her father, in, on, under, around—remember, anything you can do to a tree) tend to be the gremlins bringing a hint of self-doubt. The writer sounds like she is afraid of being interrupted, and that the reader won’t keep going if he doesn’t know everything upfront. Splitting this sentence would take more time to explain the same thing, so the author gets the description out quickly and soon.

A confident person, however, will take up space. He takes his time, stands his ground, and while a good author will never abuse his readers in a potentially pompous way, he has the ability to give them tough love. This makes the reader feel, for one, she’s in safe hands. He acts like he knows what he’s doing, and he expects her to think he does too.

A Quick Fix:

Hide the description within the point.

The point of the above sentence is that Dorian is impatient. Half of it, however, starts to be about where he is. Either she can separate them up: “Dorian’s leg was leaping up and down. He sat in Kera’s office fashioned from a disused library, waiting for her or her father to come from where ever she could be in the tiny house.”

Or she could use her first point (how he’s feeling) to discuss the second (where he is): “Dorian was even in Kera’s small house, already in the tiny office she had made from a disused library, and yet he still had to wait, leg leaping up and down as he sat impatiently.”

2) The author gives very specific and clear details for fear of expressing the wrong image.

A writer’s insecurity is directly correlated to his writing insecurity, i.e., his ability to tell a story in an accurate way. What happens for some writers is they focus all their attention on that accuracy, trying to be clear and understood. Fear of misinterpretation runs rampant in most people’s lives, but it is a kiss of death for the author. So the writer—who, if we’re going to go with stereotypes, already feels like an outcaste and misunderstood—actively works to explain himself in a unarguable manner. This, however, sacrifices tone, mystery, and atmosphere, sounding to the reader as, “I really want you to understand what is happening.”

That amount of pressure is undesirable, and the tone leads to metareading, the reader now more focused on the author’s motivation than what is happening in-world. She has a hard time of being sucked in, is instead looking at the word choice.

In order to be clear, the author again explains things that are true, and, again, that the character would often be aware of, but not think about.

For example: “The thing she pulled away from my left ear was released and hit the side of my head.  My head jerked to the right and the ringing started instantly.  I couldn’t hear anything else out of that ear for an unknown amount of time.”

Including words like “left” and “right,” specific measurements (“He pulled a six inch knife”), and overusing words, (in this case, ear and head) the author allows the reader to know exactly what had happened. There’s no ambiguity. But with this explanatory tone, the read comes more like a textbook than a story. I know exactly where he has been hurt, but I’m not feeling the pain he’s in. Again, prepositions become an issue because it is so easy to take them on and clarify what the author is talking about. They tell the reader specifically where something is happening, even when she probably already understood that, or it wasn’t really important.

A Quick Fix:

Describe images in the fewest words possible and play with ambiguity.

Change repetitive words, use pronouns, use active verbs in place of was, make two words one when possible, and cut down on prepositions. Most importantly, some actions can be implied and can be filled in easily. If we saw the fist and he’s now on the ground, we will know he’s been punched.

Of course, being too ambiguous is problematic as well, so use this advice sparingly. It’s just important to remember it’s easier to fix mistakes induced from risks than those made by playing it safe. So, take chances.

“The thing released my lobe before she smashed it across my head. I jerked as the ringing struck, the ear knocked deaf for an unknown duration.”

3) The author overuses adverbs.

Last time I heard someone giving the advice not to use adverbs, I just told him to cram it. I hate this whored out feedback more than anything, mostly because it is whored out.

That being said, while I maintain my—and everyone else’s right—to use adverbs, they too tend to indicate an insecure author.

Put simply, choosing the right two words is easier than choosing the right one word, so it is common for writers to tack on an extra term, “Just in case.”

For example: “‘Demon! Spawn of evil!’ the witness dramatically pointed at the clearly bored girl sitting casually while leaning her legs on the table in the most un-lady-like manner.”

This description gets the girl’s mood across before we even finish the sentence. By the time the reader finishes “dramatically pointed,” she knows the protagonist’s opinion of the scene. In a common, erroneous writing method, the author shows how she feels, then tells us at the same time.

Because adverbs are hard to misinterpret, it is typical for an author to put add them in just to confirm anything that might be vague. The problem is this is a safety net, and it will make the affect a lot less impressive.

The adverbs in this sentence explain things that the author already showed fairly well. While I like the word, “dramatically,” (it brings to mind a comedic image), I did already guess by her words that she was being ridiculous. There are some faith issues there—maybe I just think that she’s an overzealous writer who meant to be serious—but obliging my lack of faith just leads me to think that she believes I shouldn’t trust her either. Though “clearly bored” and “casually” lets the audience immediately know the character’s mood, she proceed to show us the same thing by how she was sitting. Despite that I have a hard time imaging the way she is “leaning her legs on the table,” that action by itself illustrates the apathy that “clearly bored” and “casually” already explain.

The whole of the sentence more accurately describes what is going on, but the audience feels less tension and is more inclined to think they’re being talked down to. It doesn’t sound like the writer has a lot of confidence in the words she’s chosen and so put in some more just to be sure.

A Quick Fix:

Turn the adverbs into verbs.

Verbs are actions, adverbs are how we do those actions. A verb: to run. An adverb: quickly. In most cases the overuse of adverbs mean either a reiteration of a verb (she screamed loudly), a weak verb (she was pale), or the combination of a simple adverb with a simple verb (she stood suddenly). By “verbing” words, using one word instead of two, and playing with unusual descriptions, the author takes more risks and allows for the imagination to be used.

“‘Demon! Spawn of evil!’ The witness whipped a gesture at the dull-eyed girl who, in response, didn’t even consider removing her legs from the table.”

4) Stand-alone sentences that tell instead of show.

Stand-alone sentences are phrases that hold all the information the reader needs to know. They don’t require knowledge from the last sentence, nor do they pike curiosity about the next. They, like everything on this list, are not bad in themselves, but they will add up pretty quickly if used too much.

Most stand-alone sentences “tell,” which is why they are stand alone. They are used best to give out information quickly and painlessly so as to not waste time with boring but important details. Unlike sensory sentences, they don’t have to connect to anything else.

For example: “Kara’s father didn’t like Charles. He called him effeminate. Charles was a computer programmer. He programmed pop-up advertisements for the Internet. He had programmed more than one thousand.”

I don’t actually contribute writing this way to insecurity, but I do find it appears like insecurity.

Like the others, the author won’t risk miscommunication or impatience. He doesn’t need the reader to follow each sentence. If she misses something, it won’t affect her understanding of the next. And it’s less likely that she will miss something because it’s to the point with no guise of atmosphere, hyperbole, or any sort of risky creativity.

A Quick Fix:


Smooshing is the process in which the author takes ideas or sentences and squishes them together so that more information is revealed closer together.

“Kara’s father didn’t like Charles, calling him effeminate. Computer programming was not a real job, despite Charles having created over one thousand advertisements on the internet.”

5) Over explanation/repetitive information.

They say don’t treat your audience like they’re stupid. I say don’t treat your audience like they’re going to think you’re stupid.

By far the greatest sign of insecurity is the actual over explaining of things. Above I suggested that not every action needs to be told for the audience to understand what is going on. What I’m talking about here is the exact opposite. Not only does the writer describe each portion of an event, he will often go on to explain it. Sometimes this adds to the story, but it can just as much take away from it.

For example: “She glared at me. Somehow, my words had angered her. ‘And you don’t think I would do the same?’ she demanded furiously.”

This is the “Show then tell” technique. Like sitting with that annoying friend at the movies, the author will do something, then proceed to tell you what had happened, effectively ruining the joke by explaining it.

The way I see it, writers don’t do this because they think readers can’t get it, they do it because they don’t know what the readers will get. When we look back to the fear of being misunderstood, it makes sense why the writer feels she should error on too much clarification. Unlike in regular day-to-day speech, where we would get interrupted if we try to explain ourselves too much, and will be asked if someone doesn’t understand, the written word has all the space in the world to say it right. But, instead of taking the time and actually saying it right, the author will say it a lot and hope it will stick.

A Quick Fix:

Take the unsatisfying section (or one unsatisfying section), and mix up the sentences. On doing so, the reader will become aware of a good deal of potential issues (from a repetitive sentence structure to stand-alone sentences), but primarily, it will become readily obvious when something has been said more than once.

Now rarely will the writer have said something exactly the same; each sentence will have a slightly different point and there will be viable arguments as to why it needs to be there. This is up the writer’s discretion, of course, so it’s up to him to decide when it is benefiting the piece and when it kind of just happened that way.