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I Am Not John Green’s Target Demographic

August 2nd, 2015 | Fiction, Review, Writing

Thanks, characters, for the summation

The premise of John Green’s megahit young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars is a simple one: a love story about two teenage cancer patients. This is a good and relatively original premise. I approve. To make it work will be difficult, though. To write about the life of a teenager, and the tumultuous nature of teenage love, is difficult enough without adding cancer to the mix. To make this premise work, Green must confront the unavoidable fact that sick people feel very, very bad most of the time. It’s not conducive to romance.

The easiest solution to this problem is to sweep the experience of sickness under the rug, and unfortunately that’s exactly what Green does. Sickness is window dressing in this story. The primary function of cancer in this story is to grant travel via the Make-a-Wish Foundation and to incapacitate characters when required by the plot. When the plot needs the characters to not be sick, they are conveniently not sick until the plot needs them to be sick again. It’s a depressingly shallow understanding of the experience of illness, and Green sells his characters short by not making better use of the storytelling opportunities afforded here.

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Stereotyping: The Young and Old (Fiction Skills Series)

July 4th, 2015 | Errors of Content, Fiction, How to Write Fiction That Doesn't Suck, Tutorial, Writing

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

Do you know how teenagers are talking nowadays? Well, me neither, so that’s why if I write a teenage character I’m not going to try to indicate their age by giving them silly dialect I remember from my own teenage years. That means no “wicked,” no “far out,” and definitely no “grody.” Even if you do spend time around teenagers and have a good grasp of their dialect, it’s still a perilous idea to give it to your characters, as it’s bound to date your work, possibly before it even sees publication. This stuff changes fast, and there’s no need to burden your story with it if you don’t have to.

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Stereotyping: Gender (Fiction Skills Series)

June 22nd, 2015 | Errors of Content, Fiction, How to Write Fiction That Doesn't Suck, Tutorial, Writing

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

This image has a gender.

Many writers falter when trying to write characters of whose genders are different from their own. Even Margaret Atwood, a writer who I deeply admire, has this problem at times. In her book The Robber Bride, the primary characters, three women, are all rich, complex characters. Their male partners, by contrast, are a bunch of shallow, selfish morons who easily fall for the charms of the book’s female villain. Male writers frequently struggle with the same problem, writing women who blather about shoes and makeup, making clichéd remarks like “men are idiots.” These are not characters. These are bland collections of traits which we associate with one gender or another. Granted, these characters don’t offend many people, as stereotypical depictions are so familiar as to be invisible, but neither will anyone see these as memorable characters. We know the stereotypical traits of gender; we’ve been learning them since before we we knew how to talk. If you want to make a nuanced character, we need to know more than what gender they are.

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Stereotyping: Race (Fiction Skills Series)

May 3rd, 2015 | Errors of Content, Fiction, How to Write Fiction That Doesn't Suck, Tutorial, Writing

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

The evil Fu Manchu, a familiar Asian stereotype

Given the nature of race relations throughout human history, this is probably the touchiest subject we’ll be touching on, so bear with me, and understand that I’m not assuming you’re racist. If the issues discussed in this section don’t apply to you, so much the better. If they do, that’s a problem, but it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, just that you’re not a fully mature writer. In short, take this post to heart, but don’t take it personally.

When creating characters of different races, don’t treat “race” as some sort of variety pack of character tropes. Far too many stories have a “token” character who is Black/Hispanic/Asian/etc., and is primarily defined by various stereotypical traits associated with her race. Much ink has been spilled over the sociological implications of token characters, but our primary concern here is that they’re just plain stupid, and in many senses not characters at all. They are just superficial conglomerations of whatever vague ideas the author may have about people of a certain race. It should be noted that these aren’t necessarily negative stereotypes. I’ve seen numerous examples of the Asian character who is really good at math and is also a computer hacker. This character is every bit as trite as the Black character who says “yo dawg” and spends every night spraying graffiti. Positive stereotypes are still stereotypes.

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Archaic Language (Fiction Skills Series)

April 25th, 2015 | Errors of Style, Fiction, How to Write Fiction That Doesn't Suck, Tutorial, Writing

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

“Lo,” quoth the shepherd, extending his staff toward the citadel.

The ancient fortress was perched atop a hillock some fathoms away, and the company strained to look at it. Cloven it was, struck in two by some bygone enchantment, and its once-stalwart ashlars were strewn across the slope.

“Truly a vision,” spake Quagmire at last, relieving the quietus which had fallen upon the party.

The problem of archaic language is usually particular to fantasy fiction, which treads a thin line as it tries to cultivate a medieval atmosphere while simultaneously maintaining a natural flow to modern ears. Many writers, as in the example above, make free use of as many old-fashioned terms as they can think of, and arrive at this ugly combination of cutesy phrasing and thesaurus attacks.

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Know What You Write (Fiction Skills Series)

April 20th, 2015 | Best Practices, Fiction, How to Write Fiction That Doesn't Suck, Tutorial, Writing

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

"The Flintstones" is not a viable source of information about prehistory, sorry.

Among the most backward, counterproductive bits of writing advice ever conceived is the adage “write what you know.” Following this concept to the exclusion of any others greatly restricts the scope of your storytelling. While many writers have mined their lives for material, this should hardly be considered the only viable source of stories.

Instead, you should know what you write. By this I mean that any subject is fair game–provided you do your research. Many beginning writers are under the impression that fiction writing is easier than nonfiction writing because fiction requires no research. Well, writing bad fiction requires no research, but the same can’t be said about good fiction. Writing good fiction requires you to know what you’re talking about. Your readers’ lives may be similar to those of your characters, even if your own is not. If your depiction is not accurate, those readers will have their suspension of disbelief broken, and you will lose some credibility in their eyes.

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The Twin Demons: Sentimentality (Fiction Skills Series)

April 11th, 2015 | Errors of Style, Fiction, How to Write Fiction That Doesn't Suck, Tutorial, Writing

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

sentimentality

Sentimentality is best defined as emotion which has not been earned by the scene. Unsophisticated writers live off sentimentality. It thrives in everything from bestsellers to movies, and audiences eat it up. So why avoid it? Because, like so many other things, sentimentality is the exclusive domain of cliché. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • A character dies, but not croaking out a few words of wisdom and love, and possibly reconciliation.
  • After said character dies, his family sobs uncontrollably for a long time.
  • A story centers on a dysfunctional household in which people scream at each other more or less constantly.
  • A sappy love scene in which the characters repeatedly proclaim their feelings for each other.
  • Pretty much any instance of a character howling “NOOOOO!”

Sentimentality occurs when characters’ reactions to a situation are predictable and at least somewhat exaggerated. It’s difficult to depict emotions in a nuanced, realistic way, so many writers compensate by turning the emotional “volume control” as high as it will go. This makes it easier for the writer to describe the emotions, and for the audience to understand them, but comes at the expense of credibility. In real life, people who emote on the level of sentimentality are the so-called “drama queens,” who are generally considered to be highly annoying. If your writing is sentimental, that means that you’ve effectively made all your characters emote like hormonal teenagers, and I shouldn’t need to explain why that’s a problem.

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The Twin Demons: Melodrama (Fiction Skills Series)

April 3rd, 2015 | Errors of Content, Fiction, How to Write Fiction That Doesn't Suck, Tutorial, Writing

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

“I don’t think melodrama is a good thing, [but] I believe books need to risk sentimentality and to risk melodrama.”
– novelist Naeem Murr

asteroid_impact

Which of the following situations are melodramatic?

  • Joe is walking home one day when a ton of bricks falls on him, killing him instantly.
  • Lillian is on her way to jump off a bridge when she finds a winning lottery ticket, bringing her financial woes to an end.
  • Count Evilstein fails to destroy the world because he has a heart attack just moments before he would have activated his space laser.

The answer is that all three of these situations represent different manifestations of melodrama. Many people seem to think that melodrama only refers to situations in which bad things happen for no reason, but this is only partially true. A more accurate definition of melodrama is things which happen to the characters for reasons unrelated to their actions. It doesn’t matter whether the outcome is favorable or not, if things happen for no reason, they’re melodramatic. It’s also worth noting that this definition of melodrama is as exclusive as it is inclusive: a character who has been established to be a repeat drunk driver can get into an accident without invoking melodrama, regardless of the consequences of the crash. (This can, however, lead to sentimentality, as we will see.)

An understanding of melodrama is important because it’s directly related to the concept of plot as a chain of causality, which is perhaps the most important concept in storytelling.

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Avoiding Purple Prose (Fiction Skills Series)

March 22nd, 2015 | Errors of Style, Fiction, How to Write Fiction That Doesn't Suck, Tutorial, Writing

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

purpleprose

It was late and the city had become deathly quiet, tomblike almost. The streets glistened as if varnished from the fallen rain, which now rose in misty vapors into the cool night air. The gossamer haze drifted through the gauzy beams of the streetlights, whose rich amber glow bathed the broken sidewalks with an eerie radiance.

On nights like this it’s easy to feel very alone, Mary thought. Her muscles ached, dull pain caressing her nerves with its bitter electricity. She needed something to eat, something to take the edge off the cavernous hunger of her stomach, unfed since noon. Ahead she saw the greenish luminescence of fluorescent light, and a strawberry-red neon sign: a dilapidated hole-in-the-wall diner was open. Already her mouth was watering in anticipation, and she didn’t even like the greasy heaviness of diner food.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: it’s fun to put words on the page. As long as the words keep flowing, it’s easy to feel like you’re really getting somewhere. This, you think, is a brilliant piece of fiction. It must be, because it contains so much beautiful writing, so many excellent words!

The truth, of course, is that you just blew it. All that superb verbiage that sounded so nice as you were writing it is, in fact, what we call purple prose.

Almost all novice writers fall into this trap at some point. It’s an easy mistake to make; once you realize you can write anything you want, you soon begin to write down every phrase that pops into your head. This is especially true when writing toward a wordcount goal, as in National Novel Writing Month, as every word counts toward that magic number whether or not it’s well-placed.

Purple prose is a problem because it actively interferes with storytelling. Look at my example passage from the beginning of the chapter: our fearless protagonist decides to go to a diner while out walking in the middle of the night. That’s all that happens, but it took over a hundred words to express that idea. When an entire story is written this way, it becomes difficult to tell what’s even going on, because maybe only one word out of a dozen is actually pushing the plot forward. Your reader will lose track of what’s going on, and if her attention strays, she may gloss over the only important part of a sentence. She will get bored and confused. She will stop reading your story.

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Myst in Retrospect: The Book of Ti’ana

October 7th, 2012 | Myst in Retrospect, Review, Writing

Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t read The Book of Ti’ana, I suggest you do so before proceeding. You can buy all three novels here.

Harbor in D'ni

We’ve reached the end of the Atrus-centric installments, which leaves only one direction to go: the backstory. Backstory is an important part of any fictional universe, as the additional details we learn from it add to the believability of the world overall. The Myst series, having created this vast edifice of D’ni to support Atrus’s story, has an almost infinite amount of space for additional backstory. We want to know more about D’ni, its inhabitants, and its history. Myst: The Book of Ti’ana, and our final two games, Uru and Myst V, give us a glimpse of the days before Atrus and the span of the D’ni society of old. As we move through the D’ni-centric arc, we’ll consider the following questions: can backstory itself be a story? If not, what does it take to make a backstory into a frontstory? Let’s begin.

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