snoopy writing typewriter

All My Writing Tips

These are all the tips and advice about writing that I’ve collected over the years. They first started when I was outlining Stephen King’s On Writing and ballooned from there. They generally start simple, then expand to complex and detailed. Some of them are long. Some of them repeat. Some of them conflict. Some of them might be controversial. Mileage may vary.

  1. Writing is telepathy. It is trying to communicate a message or image (both, really) from your mind to another person’s mind. No person will see exactly what your mind sees. It is the job of the writer to communicate as much as what is necessary, while leaving enough out for the reader to have fun filling the gaps. The writer cannot be fully detailed or the work becomes an instruction manual.
  2. You must not come lightly to the blank page. If you can’t take it seriously, then you have no business with it.
  3. Read William and Strunk’s Elements of Style.
  4. Eliminate needless words.
  5. Kill your darlings.
  6. Fear (or timidity) is the root of bad writing.
  7. Your first duty is to the story. Your second duty is to the truth.
  8. Practice is invaluable. Honesty is indispensable.
  9. Always do it for the joy. Never do it for the money.
  10. No one and nothing will inspire you. There are no muses. Muses are like a kid with an ant farm. They’re always watching, but they’re never gonna do anything.
  11. Writing is like building a house. Both are hard work, consisting of (what seems like) menial labor. Both end up as something great.
  12. Read a lot and write a lot. There is no way around these two things. You don’t need to read to study, you can read for fun. The lessons will be assimilated automatically. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write. 50% of your writing time should be spent on reading. This will not seem strenuous if you enjoy what you’re doing. If you’re not, you’re not cut out to be a writer.
    1. Bad books teach us what not to do and encourage us to keep writing (in the “I can do better than this guy and he’s published!” sense).
    2. Good books teach us what to do about style, narration, plot, and characters, and encourage us to aim higher (in the “I’ll never be able to write like this!” sense).
  13. Writing is a toolbox. The most commonly used tools are on top. Rarely used ones are on the bottom.
    1. The first level is vocabulary and grammar. Use your own vocabulary, not $3 million dollar words to make yourself sound smart. Nine times out of ten, the first word you thought of is the best one for the job. Use the word that is appropriate and colorful. Grammar is the same. If you read enough, you will assimilate all the rudiments of grammar you will ever need. If you’ve grasped the rudiments of grammar, you can experiment with sentences that don’t always include nouns and verbs. The object of fiction is to tell a story, not to strictly adhere to rules of grammar.
    2. The next layer is elements of style. There are not so many tools here, as there are tools not to use.
    3. Avoid the passive sentence form. People use it because it’s “safe”. “The meeting will be held at eleven o’clock” is safe – it’s a proper sentence without needing to know who’s holding the meeting, who will be at the meeting, and so on. “The meeting is at seven o’clock” communicates the same thing in active tense. Have someone/something doing something. Do not have something being done to something/someone.
    4. The adverb is not your friend. The adverb is the coward’s way out. Writers use the adverb when they are afraid that some emotion is not being communicated clearly and the adverb is there to properly punctuate it. This is doing the reader’s thinking for him/her. The surrounding prose should, and usually does, communicate what the adverb is doing. Go through every first draft and find “ly” and kill all adverbs that deserve it.
    5. Do not use adverbs in dialogue attribution (ex. “Don’t do it!” she said mightily). Do not change the verbs to compensate for the lack of adverb (ex. “Don’t do it!” she gasped.) The word “said” is always good enough.
    6. Always add ‘s to possessives. Even ones that end in ‘s’. “Thomas’s bike” is easier to read than “Thomas’ bike”, which the reader will hiccup at. This is the word of William and Strunk.
    7. The paragraph is the next layer of the toolbox. These demonstrate whether the book is hard or easy by the white space and frequency of dialogue. Paragraphs meant to explain/describe start with a topic sentence, just like always. Everything else depends on the story, where the paragraphs determine the division themselves.
    8. Words combine to form grammar. Grammar combines to form sentences. Sentences combine to form paragraphs. Paragraphs combine to form stories. Every story, big or small, was built one paragraph at a time, like a house.
    9. Good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, clear and clean style).
  14. There are a lot of bad writers, many competent writers, few really good writers, and geniuses. Bad writers are often on MySpace, writing one-page slash fan fiction, or technical manuals. Competent writers are often newspaper staff, magazine writers, bookstore rack authors, and Open Mike Night speakers. Really good writers are published and have varying degrees of fame and fortune. Geniuses are fortunate freaks, like Faulkner, Shakespeare, Eudora Welty, Dickens, and so on, all unaware of what made them geniuses, otherwise they would bottle it and sell it at $19.95 a pop. You cannot make a bad writer into a competent writer. You cannot make a good writer into a genius. But you can make a competent writer into a good writer.
  15. How much writing is enough? Who knows. James Joyce was happy to get seven words out. Some authors write “The End” and start writing the next book immediately. Others like Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger write one book… ever. Finding out your writing style (the style of the act, not the words) will take experimenting until you find something comfortable. If you write 2,000 words a day you can finish a 168,000 word novel in three months, a season.
  16. Write every day. I’m not fucking kidding here. Write every day, or there will come a time when you won’t write any day. That may be too lofty for a goal for us (including myself), so try for a thousand words a day, with a day off during the week for good behavior. The point here is to make writing a habit.
  17. Have a writing room. It should be a humble room.
  18. You can write about anything, as long as you tell the truth.
  19. Pay attention to how real people around you act.
  20. “Write what you know” is a sound philosophy, but falls apart when talking about fiction, because we can’t know what it’s like to be psychic or teleport. Write what you want to read. Then put in all you know about life, people, environments, friends, relationships, sex, work, anything you know. The point of this is to make a world/situation that is not impossible to believe. John Grisham writes lawyers because he knows lawyers, he was a lawyer. With this, he could write lawyers with the mob, lawyers versus politicians, lawyers in love, and lawyers in space. He writes what he knows to give plausibility, then what he knows less to give a story. Know what you write.
  21. People love to read about work. No one knows why.
  22. Plot is nowhere. Do not plot your work, do not write a plot outline. Write a situation, then have your characters guide it to the conclusion. Why? Two reasons. Because life is largely plotless. Because it prevents spontaneity of the story. If you don’t even know where the story is going, the reader definitely won’t, and excitement is sustained. Stories must grow out of the situation plus characters. Stories are like a fossil, a small bone poking out of the ground, that needs to be uncovered by brushing away the dirt. Brushing, brushing, brushing. Things will happen to the characters as the fossil reveals itself. You write the characters as what they would do if they were in the situation. Never plot. Write a story. The story is the boss.
  23. Situations arise from “what if?” questions. This is the bridge between inspiration and story.
  24. Description is best when it involves all five senses. Especially smell, if it’s appropriate. The trick is knowing how much to reveal. Skimp on physical descriptions of people. Use the mind’s eye to see the key details and write those down. Leave the rest to be filled in by the reader.
  25. Use metaphors that are appropriate to the mood/genre of the story.
  26. Don’t use cliché metaphors. Don’t use metaphors that you’ve heard before.
  27. In dialogue, never tell a thing if you can show it. How to write dialogue is best learned by talking and listening. Especially listening. Use dialogue for character development.
  28. Be real with the dialogue. If a character would swear, have him/her swear, even if you don’t. If a character would sleep with a cheap slut, even if he’s the hero, then he sleeps with the cheap slut. Never censor yourself. Prevent others doing it for you at all costs. People that do are afraid of hearing the truth. Your job is to tell the truth.
  29. Characters develop as the story develops.
  30. Character archetypes–such as the “evil emperor”, the “anti-hero”, and “the tough princess”–don’t exist in real life, and your job is to simulate real life (tell the truth).
  31. Make your characters act in a way that keeps things happening and seems reasonable to the reader. All characters do things based on anger, fear, happiness, disgust, shame/guilt, sadness, desire, pity, love, discovery, and other emotions. In other words, they act based on how they feel.
  32. Fancy things like onomatopoeia, symbolism, stream of consciousness, verb tense, back story, theme, pacing are all nice. Use them when the story seems like it has it already. Do not shove them in there. Do nothing that gets in the way of the story or decreases the value/quality of it. Upon reading the first draft of the story, you should be able to see certain elements like that creeping in. Your job is to bring them out further into the light in the second draft. Find a thing that shows up a lot, then play with the images, themes, and ideas that you associate to bring it out further.
  33. You can’t please all the readers all the time. You can’t please some of the readers all the time. Try to please some of the readers some of the time.
  34. Story is the trees. Theme is the forest. If you get writer’s block, recollect the theme of the work and have your characters do something that applies to that. But theme is not a big deal. Good fiction begins with story and progresses to theme, never the other way around.
  35. The drafting process consists of a first draft, a second draft, and a polish/final revision (the 2.5th draft). But this only how one successful writer does it. Others wrote and rewrote a page at a time.
    1. The first draft is done with the door shut. This the all-story draft. Write it as fast as you can with little looking back or evaluation of what’s right/wrong/good/bad/going to work/not going to work. Keep enthusiastic. Relegate self-doubt. It should be written with no help from anyone else. You don’t want to be forced to explain things. You don’t want praise to make you complacent.
    2. When the first draft is finished, order a pizza and let the story sit (incubate) for at least six weeks to regain objectivity. Let someone else read your work during this time. Do not talk to them about it until you are ready to talk about it. Do not stop writing during this time. Write smaller things.
    3. When six weeks is up, read the draft in one sitting (if possible). Concentrate on fixing mundane things like spelling and inconsistencies. You can make notes and make things clearer. Look for coherency, symbolism, theme.
    4. The second draft is done with the door open. Show your work to four to eight close friends who will critique it, not review it. They must be both objective (looking for inconsistencies and mistakes) and subjective (overall feelings of realism and pacing). Listen to the points that are common between them. If some of their points conflict, tie goes to the writer.
    5. Second draft = first draft minus 10%. Be a leaver-outer, not a putter-inner.
  36. All stories start in media res. Don’t concentrate on it. Start your story at the beginning. And when you come to the end, stop. The reader is more interested in what’s going to happen than what already did. Everyone has a history. Most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are. Gloss over ones that aren’t.
  37. Research is okay. It adds flavor to the story. Do not let it interfere with the story. It is a story, not a technical manual.
  38. Some people keep an idea notebook because they are always forgetting things. Some do not. This is an exercise in story preservation. The bad ideas self-destruct and are forgotten. The good ideas keep floating to the top.
  39. Writing classes are largely useless. They make writing an “I have to” instead of “I want to”. They force you to always write with the class in mind. They do not provide the magic secrets of writing. They force you to explain things that are not significant to your story. And they take time away from what you should be doing–writing. However, they do take writing seriously and provide jobs for creative writers. You do not need these writing classes to become a writer.
  40. To become publishable is a multi-step process. Do not seek a literary agent. An agent will come to you if you are salable. Get a copy of writer’s journals, “Writer’s Market”, “Writer’s Digest”, “The Writer”, and “Literary Market Place”. Pay attention to the “little” magazines if you’re a beginner. These provide little compensation, usually from $25 to contributor copies. Nothing to live on. When submitting, always be professional and polite, as if it were a job interview. Follow all the rules and guidelines.
  41. Have a cover letter on every submission telling where you’ve published other stories and what this one’s about. Always close by thanking him/her for reading.
  42. Once you have a good resume of published works established (at least one award would help a lot too), you can look for an agent for a novel. Or continue writing short stories to progressively bigger magazines. Be extremely skeptical of anyone who promises to read your work for a fee.
  43. Never open a novel with weather unless to set up atmospheric conditions or a character’s reaction. And then don’t go on too long.
  44. Avoid prologues. Prologues are backstory and can be dropped in anywhere.
  45. No more than two or three exclamation points per 100,000 words.
  46. Never use “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”.
  47. Use regional dialect sparingly.
  48. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  49. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  50. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Most of the time these are long paragraphs full of description or internal dialogue. Don’t you skip over those too? No one ever skips over dialogue.
  51. When you have no idea what your characters should do next, send someone in brandishing a gun. Sending in a vampire also works. Or set someone on fire. Or send in a long lost relative. Throw something in the mix and see what happens.
  52. Live. Have life experiences. Ride horses. Fly planes. Travel.
  53. Learn to read. How does the other writer do it? Play with their idea. Switch POVs or settings around. Evaluate it: did the writer fail/succeed?
  54. Read the markets you’re submitting to.
  55. Don’t worry about what the reader will think of you personally. Worry about making yourself perfectly clear.
  56. Don’t write sentences like ad copy.
  57. Read the type of material you mean to write, for a wide range of ages, levels of seriousness, audiences, classics.
  58. Don’t read endless series.
  59. Find a quiet place to write.
  60. Writing time: aim at writing at least one hour a day. What will you give up to get this? Sleep? Social time? TV? For 28 years, Gene Wolfe held down a day job as a mechanical engineer and still wrote.
  61. Come to grips with the fact that you’re not going to be able to write at the same time and place all the time. Adjust and keep going. Writing on a train is great.
  62. When you correct galleys, use a colored pen, not black.
  63. Write your ideas down as they occur to you. Make notes more detailed than you think you need to be.
  64. Initial situations are easy. You don’t have a story until you have an ending. Furthermore, you don’t have a story until you write it.
  65. No amount of planning, world-building, etc. constitutes a story. Don’t spend more than an hour researching/planning a short story (a day for a book) before you begin. Only by writing do you find out what you need.
  66. Don’t mirror your outline or your research. You made it or found it, you can change it.
  67. Writers’ groups can be good or bad depending on who’s in the group. Creative writing classes are the same, only they cost more. Find out who the teacher is; that’s important.
  68. Writer’s Digest is for people who haven’t published a word. Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop online is better.
  69. Network. Odyssey is good. Get to know the local bookstores and who works in them. Go to cons (especially World Fantasy Con). WorldCon used to be good but it’s so big now it’s hard to find the right people. You can find valuable friends at these cons.
  70. Get to know the fans, but especially get to know the editors, agents, and writers. Sit up front and ask questions. To get into the green room, ask if you can help.
  71. Collect all the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten.
  72. Prepare to be able to teach. Study until you know it backwards, forwards, and upside-down.
  73. It’s easy for you as the writer/teacher to tell people how to write. What’s hard is getting them to believe you.
  74. Rejection is not personal. Writers take it as personal because they consider their work as their identity. Publishing has a 98% rejection rate, often with random, but reasonable, justification.
  75. Know the rules. If you must break them, have a good reason to.
  76. Make your characters talk like people talk. Don’t populate it with “um”s and “ah”s and broken sentences. Use contemporary language. Don’t make your language difficult.
  77. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  78. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  79. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  80. Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action (which is to say, create or resolve tension).
  81. Start as close to the end as possible.
  82. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them so that the reader may see what they are made of.
  83. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  84. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages. Don’t hide information that the POV character knows just to give the reader suspense.
  85. Information should create reaction and emotion–the character must want to know it, perhaps even need desperately to know it. The greater the need in the character, the more the reader will be curious. It is a mistake to shovel in loads of information before either character or reader cares. The skilled writer waits until the information is necessary before fitting it in.
  86. So how to show all those changes of expression? It calls for some close people watching. When someone is angry, what exactly happens in his or her face? Eyes widen or narrow; mouths thin, or pucker, hands are great for indicating emotions. Anthony Hope’s mastery of body language is in how he reported on his characters’ use of hands. Frequently he intersperses vivid observations between phrases of dialogue, meaning he never stops the action to report on how someone looks or acts. The whole is so smooth that the flow never once jolts or bobbles. You can sometimes hear the breathing of someone who is endeavoring to control strong emotion. Posture is another great indicator; watch how people sit at work, or at a party, or in the park. Look at old photos. You can frequently guess at who knows whom, who likes whom, who is comfortable or uncomfortable with whom. Watch movies; is the hero holding the heroine with his thumbs away from her body? That seems to be a subtle indicator for a situation in which Character A is forced into proximity with Character B but doesn’t really care for Character B. By seeing how people react to various types of emotion or confrontation and describing that, using verbs that mean what they say, the scene is strengthened.
  87. What about settings and background? This problem besets the fantasy or SF writer who has created a new world. In contemporary novels we only have to include the briefest sketch to orient the reader. But in a made-up world, how to get across all the history, geography, mythology, and so forth that we’ve invented? Try using the layered cake method: to slide that information in one item at a time so the reader is never aware of learning about the world, motives, past actions, or history. Characters can make assumptions about a situation based on past history; characters can repeat gossip and be corrected; local details can be fitted in as a character enters and assesses the locale. The key is a bit at a time, preferably have a character react to it. Don’t stop the story to include a long flashback or history lesson. A stopped story is one easy to put down–and never pick up again.
  88. Do not head-hop. Do not rotate between character’s POV in a scene. Do not be in one character’s point of view then quickly switch to another’s for a single thought, then switch back.
  89. Brevity, brevity, brevity. Do not write this: “Thinking back on her past, she remembered her childhood of twenty years ago when, as a six-year-old…”
  90. Keep your character’s emotions in check. Don’t have them laugh uproariously all the time or agonize over standing in line or fighting to keep from screaming at a salad bar. Don’t have the character’s emotions always turned up to eleven.
  91. Polite greetings and mannerisms, exchanges of compliments, goodbyes, and the like, can be discarded. Unless you’re trying to do characterization through charm of greetings or a James Bond villain goodbye monologue.
  92. Don’t write meaningless action (a character pulling into the driveway, going to the door, opening the door, etc) unless there’s a point to it (such as we know there’s a killer in the house or there’s a zombie apocalypse that he doesn’t notice for irony)
  93. Only one scene of someone waking up per novel.
  94. No long, rambling political digressions. College students and military service members are fond of doing this. They put the audience to sleep and eventually become outdated.
  95. No flat descriptions about a character’s emotional state. You can’t just say “Her accusation made him feel bad.” Show the effects of that accusation.
  96. Keep adverbs and quantifiers on a tight leash. Watch for overuse of words like “large” and “almost”. No point to say what “almost” happened.
  97. No characters or gear or features that popup in mid-scene. Don’t mention there’s a gun above the mantle during a fist fight.
  98. Always establish the time and place (in every scene, if necessary) before or as you start the action.
  99. No Mary Sues. Don’t make it easy for your characters.
  100. Don’t insert culture from our world into an SF/F story. They don’t have orcs named Fred. They don’t have Christmas in the goblin grotto.
  101. There are many scenes that take place in a bar or tavern in SF/F so that it’s become cliché (at least according to editors). Have them talk business in a sports arena, religious rite, festival, public bath, market day, wedding, theater, reading of edict, or auction (or something else even).
  102. Amateur writing often involves something the protagonist has to accomplish at the beginning and sticks to it until the end. In a novel, events should move the goal posts back and allow the character change what he/she needs to do, rather than what he/she wanted to do in the beginning.
  103. Don’t interrupt with an author’s analysis of what you just wrote.
  104. More is less. Quality not quantity. One single image can be more arresting than a page full of splatter.
  105. Don’t bog down the writing with a laundry list of clothing or descriptions that you feel like a police sketch artist. Use language that allows the reader to summon an image from his/her own experience.
  106. Don’t describe sunsets.
  107. Trim your own work. Two reasons: You know your story best, so you are best-qualified to tell what can be thrown off the ledge. And by doing your own cutting, you can learn how to write tighter in the first place.
  108. Cutting the first 10% is easy. So where to start? If you have a defined goal, and your story is only 10-12% longer than that, relief is yours, because it’s going to be easy and won’t impact the storyline or characterization. The following suggestions for things to cut are not bad things (for the most part). Any of them can be part of good writing. But if you need to make cuts, these can be cut with the least damage to your work. These alone will definitely get you a 10% cut, often even 12-15% if you do all of them. Beyond this, you’re into characterization and plot cuts… the harder stuff, but still doable. Unless you’re a very very loose writer, a one-third cut will have to come from the meat and bone and heart and guts of your story, not just the fat and clothing.
    1. Adverbs, especially -ly adverbs. Reconsider the verb that adverb modifies–often a strong, precise verb will eliminate the need for the -ly adverb. Does the adverb have a plot purpose that no verb alone can convey (i.e. does the way the person does something matter to the plot? Right this moment? Or can he or she just eat, read, drive without more description?) “He walked along slowly” can become “He sauntered along” or “He slouched along” or “He paced along”, all of which convey walking slowly in one less word. (There are other ambulatory words that suggest slowness… your character can “idle along” instead of “walking along idly.”)
    2. Adjectives, especially multiple. Precise nouns need less help. Rarely should a noun need two adjectives (especially not when you’re having to cut). If your character must have “long silky curly tresses,” pick one for this instance and cut the others. Only rarely are adjectives plot-contributors… does it matter to the plot right now that her hair is long, silky, or curly? If you’ve mentioned it before, probably not.
    3. “The”. Sometimes “the” is absolutely necessary–often it’s not. When it’s not, cut it. “The two horses in the field looked up as the truck went by” vs. “Two horses in the field…” If it doesn’t matter to the plot whether there were only two horses in the field, use the second and save a word.
    4. “There” except as a definite locator (“She dropped it there,” he said, pointing to the bloody splash on the floor) usually forces more words. “There was a castle on the hill. There were tracks leading to the gate.” vs. “A castle stood on the hill. Tracks led to the gate.” Fourteen words vs. eleven words.
    5. Check long sentences and paragraphs. Note: I’m not advocating writing in short choppy sentences and paragraphs. But long ones, like thickets, are places where your thought may have tangled and taken more words to say what you meant than you needed. Read them aloud. Is something out of sequence? “He went to the store to buy the axe after he had the argument with her because he knew then he was going to kill her but before that he had to have something to kill her with.” vs. “After the argument, he knew he must kill her. He set off for the store to buy an axe.” Unless you need to show that your POV character thinks in a disorganized, disconnected way, the second version is easier to read as well as shorter. Also look at your “smoothing” phrases, such as “for example” and “however” that help orient readers–you may not need as many of them as you put in originally.
    6. Passive voice. “He was hit by the rock” has two more words than “The rock hit him.” But apparent active voice isn’t enough: check for active verb evasion. “He was about to [active verb]” or “starting to [active verb]”. Infinitives and progressive forms (“was biting”, “were going to bite”, “They were starting to think they were about to be attacked…”), especially in combination, are both active-voice evasion and mushy writing. From inside POV, you’re aware of when your character started/began/was about to do something… but even if you think it necessary to mark that, find another (less wordy and more interesting) way to put it. Writing mostly in active voice allows you to use passive where it fits–and the passive then has more force. You will need a vocabulary of strong, specific verbs (and nouns, for that matter, because writing in active voice needs the right noun to go with the right verb). “He put the bridle on the horse’s head” is active, but “He bridled the horse” is better (and shorter).
    7. Characterization: Can minor characters be eliminated or combined? That exchange of witticisms with the guy on the train who never shows up again? Never happened. Backstory on a minor character who’s got only one purpose in the story? Drop it. Major character backstory that has no relevance to this particular plot? Drop it. Major character description–don’t repeat. In other words, every time she flips her hair, ignore it. She flips it “in a characteristic gesture” and that’s it. Let the reader imagine the other flips. His familiar grin, grimace, glare, or jerk of the head… it happens once. Those pearly whites or snaggle-teeth or hair/eye/skin color–establish early and then leave ’em out, unless it’s seriously plot-relevant the next time. (And don’t mention them at all if they’re not relevant to this story. Does it matter–as in identifying a corpse–if he has a long second toe? A missing tooth?) Don’t forget scenery/time as character–if the details of the location (how high the mountains, how blue the sea, crops in the field, season, month, day of the week, hour of the day) are not plot-relevant, either don’t mention them or shorten to the max.
    8. Conversations: If you have to cut, there’s no room for idle chit-chat by your characters. Every conversation must function to reveal character and advance the plot and establish location/time and mood/tone. What information needs to be conveyed from one character to another to motivate their next actions? Actions during conversation may need to be trimmed or eliminated. Instead of “He turned around and glared, his dark eyes flashing with anger. ‘You liar,’ he said,” you might use “He turned. ‘You liar.'” (Or “turned and glared” if you must.)
    9. Plot: Look at your main plot. Do you have subplots? How entangled are they with the main plot? In short fiction, you don’t need subplots. Not even one. Not even the one about the sidekick who…no. Only the best short-story writers can interlace main and subplot in a few thousand words. Removing subplots is a pain because it’s like pulling one strand of greenbriar out of a thicket. But it can be done and the thicket looks better afterwards. So may a story. And at least it will be shorter.
  109. Common feedback responses/criticisms and what they really mean:
    1. “The beginning’s kind of slow”: Slow beginnings mean one of two things–you started the story in the wrong place (the real start of the story is later) or it’s the right place but you didn’t make it clear why it’s the right place. Today’s editors want to see a strong beginning. They are less tolerant of “calm before the storm” scene-setting. (Some readers like that. Some like the story to go KA-BOOM on page one. There are more of the latter.) If you need the “calm” scene-setting, by all means write it–but know you’re going to lop it off later. The real beginning of your book should introduce the protagonist or other important character and a conflict that will last more than one chapter (if not the main conflict of the book.) So look at your first two pages: is there a clear orientation to place, time, person? If not, fix that. Is there a clear indication of some conflict either happening or in the offing? If not, fix that. W which may mean cutting off a page or a chapter or giving the conflict more prominence.
    2. “I don’t believe he/she/they would do that!”: The most common character problem is failure to prepare the reader for the character’s sudden actions. The fix–set up the motivation for this out-of-character behavior early on–plant little hints that the character either is changing “undercover” or has something in his/her past that will enable and motivate the surprising action. Yes, the person afraid of firearms may shoot someone. The person afraid of conflict may “snap” and scream obscenities at the boss. But you have to make it believable.
    3. “That character’s so predictable…”: The next most common character problem is the one who never surprises. Minor characters can be absolutely predictable (they’re not onstage enough to be boring) but if you know everything that a character will say and do… why read the book? Main and secondary characters have to have the complexity to make “what will he/she do next” uncertain at least part of the time. The surprise doesn’t have to be always what he/she does–it can be how he/she does it, or why he/she does it, or when he/she does it. It’s the tension between predictability (and thus stability of characterization) and surprise (because of the complexity of characterization) that enriches a story. Character problems can be fixed by giving characters another level of complexity, and drawing from the different levels for varying motivations while maintaining the character’s believable rate of change (if the character changes) and thus stability. When checking through a manuscript before sending it somewhere, ask yourself “Why did X do that?” (“Because someone had to,” or “Because the plot demanded it,” shows that you have work to do.) The answer to “Why?” needs to come from the character–needs to be a personal motivation, already at least hinted at. (Your writerly reason may still be that the plot demanded it–but from the reader’s POV, the action must be “natural” to the character.)
    4. “I liked the beginning and the end, but the middle kind of sagged.”: Middles are a problem for many writers. How much middle is needed and what’s it for? The middle of the ride is what makes it exciting. Same with a story–you need to continue the connection of character to action (strong motivations arising from different character levels) through changes of direction/scenery/time/conflicts/interactions. Unlike a roller-coaster, stories can actually start with the smaller humps and work up to the big one. The trick here is not to have all the “humps” the same size and the same distance apart–not to become too rhythmic. If every chapter has two pages of setup, five pages of crisis, two pages of escape from crisis… after awhile, it’s not as much fun. Maintaining tension through the middle is a matter of shifting from one level to another, one kind of problem to another, to keep the reader interested but not bored. The roller coaster doesn’t always turn the same direction. Look hard at your middles. Are you using everything about your character and the situation that you could be? Look out for lumps of infodump in the middles because this is where your enthusiasm in research (or for your own pet interests) is likely to lure you into that bog (and leave your readers grumbling). Whatever your personal hobbies, pet interests, political opinions, religious opinions, etc. they should appear in the story only as much as they enhance the story (not just because you like repeating them). And they only enhance the story if they’re necessary to the story, not to your ego.
    5. “The plot doesn’t make sense.”: Sometimes this is a plot problem, but sometimes the reader’s saying that the character’s actions don’t make sense in terms of that character. Check for motivation gaps. Then look at the plot itself. Did you put an effect before a cause? (It happens to all of us.) Sometimes all you need to do is put the cause sentence before the effect sentence. All effects need a cause. Causes come first (or you end up with boring explanations, either as straight “telling” or as disguised telling as one character explains to another or thinks about the cause). Another cause of a plot not making sense is poor transitions. If readers aren’t sure what character is speaking/acting, or where or when they are, they often blame the plot.
    6. “I was fine with it until the ending.”: For most readers, whether the ending is “happy” or “unhappy” isn’t the measure of a good or bad ending. It’s whether the ending seems to fit what has gone before. The ending feels right for that character in that situation. The last part of the story roller coaster has prepared the reader for the ending (even if it comes as a last-minute surprise… there is preparation that makes it feel right.) So a tragedy (in the classic sense) satisfies the hunger for story, and so does the eucatastrophe of a well-constructed happy ending. Bad endings fall into several categories: they don’t seem connected to the rest of the story (either plot, character, or both), they’re too short (feel rushed, hurried, cut off, story “just stops”), or they’re too long (drag on and on, like someone who can’t finish a joke or like some modern music that goes on and on and on with the same words until it finally fades away.) Readers vary in their tolerance for endings that aren’t “final” (readers who hate series want final endings to a standalone) but even in a series an ending needs to make sense for what’s happened in that book. Some conflict must be resolved, even if another is looming. Endings (the last 10-20% of the wordage) are not the place to spring surprises on the type of story this is or whose story it is or try to force the inertia of the previous 80-90% to go another direction.
  110. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech you are used to seeing in print.
  111. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  112. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  113. Never use the passive voice when you can use the active.
  114. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  115. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
  116. Avoid stereotypes.
  117. Avoid “on the nose” writing. Make the audience work a bit, think a bit, for the information. But not so much that they get frustrated.
  118. Keep your stage direction short.
  119. Spend most of your time with the first 10% of your story.
  120. Surprise us with quirks and unusual traits. The feeling of surprise is something the audience desires. Discovering something fresh and unusual about a character provides that.
  121. Transform the main character over the length of the story.
  122. Be aware of theme and keep it consistent throughout the story.
  123. Know what your hero wants (the goal), what happens if he doesn’t get it (the stakes), and who/what is preventing him from getting it (the villain).
  124. Things to know before you start writing a novel:
    1. The main arc. Where your characters start, where they’ll end up, how they’ll change along the way. You don’t have to know everything, but the more you think of the long arc the better.
    2. The main obstacles in the character’s path
    3. The protagonist and his/her/its qualities
    4. The setting and how it influences the character
    5. The style in which you plan to tell the story
    6. The climax. The most important sequences, where something very exciting happens that changes everything.
  125. Three questions you have to have clearly defined: What does your protagonist want? What is standing in your protagonist’s way? What does your protagonist value most? (These also apply to other characters, but are most important in the protagonist.)
  126. What if your characters don’t want anything?
    1. Rethink your characters: Create memorable characters with large desires. Find out where they came from. Redefine their backstory to create some defining moments that drive them today. Give them an obsession. Create unfinished business.
    2. Rethink your plot: Your protagonist’s goals might not drive the story, but your antagonist’s might. One person wants a thing, another person wants something else.
    3. Make your character’s desires more important than the plot: To the hero, his unfinished business still looms. His/her desire may not drive the story forward, but it prevents closure.
    4. Wants don’t have to be simple or tangible: mixed feelings, conflicting desires, and neurotic drives are part of being human. Abstract desires like redemption, revenge, or a parent’s approval also work. Or an itch in a place the character can’t reach, or a nagging pain that can’t be coped with. People don’t always know what they want, until they can’t have it.
  127. You must write.
  128. You must finish what you write.
  129. Eight rules for writing killer short stories:
    1. World-building should be quick and merciless. Hang your scenery as fast as possible. Oblique references to things taken for granted can help.
    2. Make us believe there’s a world beyond your character’s surroundings.
    3. Fuck your characters up. A little. Give your characters some baggage, enough to keep them interesting.
    4. Dive right in–but don’t sign-post your plot in big letters.
    5. Experiment with form.
    6. Think beyond genre. Pretend you’re writing for The New Yorker, or writing it as a romance, or a mystery.
    7. Don’t confuse your gimmick with your plot.
    8. Don’t fall into the character-based/plot-based dichotomy.
  130. Follow these steps to be a prolific short story writer:
    1. Know how your story ends before you begin it.
    2. Don’t just write the same story over and over again, or you’ll bore yourself.
    3. Start crude, then work on refining.
    4. Have a bunch of stories on the back burner, and keep rotating.
    5. Don’t be afraid to stare at the blank screen for a few hours.
    6. Write a bunch of stories in a shared world.
    7. Some stories are just the turning point in the story, not the whole story from beginning to end.
    8. Try creating a character study, or a collection of potent images, instead of just a series of plot twists.
    9. If you’re getting bogged down in a particular story, you probably haven’t found what it’s about yet.
    10. Try an exercise, like rewriting a well-known story from a different viewpoint.
    11. Don’t be afraid to take crazy risks.
    12. Write for different markets.
  131. Tips on how to write women/female characters (these are written absolutes, but all women vary—they are characters and no two are alike):
    1. Men are linear thinkers–one thing at a time, in straight lines of logic. They want to deal with HOW. Women think in circles–circles that are connected and have relationships and emotions. They want to deal with WHY.
    2. Have women get emotional about what they really care about.
    3. Give women powerful reasons for what they do (true love is the one that motivates most).
    4. Do not confuse romance and sex. Female drive is wired to how a man makes her feel emotionally.
    5. Romance equals effort. If a man pays attention and does something she likes, buys something she wants, says something she needs to hear, that is romance. If he tunes in to her, turns away from everything else and listens, that’s romance.
    6. Write a woman character so that she isn’t dependent on a man to save her.
    7. Women have close friendships with other women. If Ted Bundy had been a woman, her friends would have known. Women keep a circle of women friends around to talk about issues. Without that circle, women feel completely and utterly alone.
    8. Women become intimate by talking
    9. If a woman has no female friends, this means something’s wrong (unless that wrong thing is that she’s a genius in a tiny town and doesn’t fit in, which means she’ll be fine if she moves somewhere with more people).
    10. A woman alone will feel it more than a man. She will miss not having someone to talk to. A woman who says she hates women and only likes men is a danger flag. Note how many hero’s girlfriends have no female friends whatsoever.
    11. A detailed description of appearance is not a substitute for characterization.
    12. A woman who looks like a supermodel must work very hard to do so. Women come in all shapes and sizes, interests and personalities.
    13. Men fall in love with their eyes. Women fall in love with their ears.
    14. A woman who is friends with guys must hit the “sister/buddy” button to belong. Not the girlfriend button. It doesn’t do much for your love life.
    15. Women make connections.
    16. Female characters must strike a balance between strong-willed and bitchy. Maybe she’s tough as nails with some things, but small animals turn her to mush.
    17. Keep in mind their age and monthly cycle. Menopause can be very freeing, because they won’t have the emotional ups and downs. From age 10-50, the hormonal bell curve has a constant effect in life.
    18. Women are sexual, but not stimulated by the same things men are. Women like things clean e.g., mouth, body, house, sheets.
    19. Women love how men look. When they smell good, in a shirt & tie, young, thin, muscular, older, tall, smart, handsome, accomplished, kind, generous.
    20. Women are extremely sensitive, insecure about their looks, and are slow to forgive and forget when someone makes them feel unattractive, stupid, masculine, or some other undesirable thing e.g., the person who teased them because their chest was flat, a man who tells her she’s getting “big”, a man who says she had big hands, the boy who said her butt was getting jiggly after the end of basketball season.
    21. Women have feelings. Write about that. Guys have no idea how much every little action or possible meaning behind an action is noticed.
    22. Relationships are the most interesting thing in the world.
    23. A good writer can hook women by giving the characters interesting motivations, including the relationship, in the middle of action. Example: They’re being chased through the jungle by a giant zombie dinosaur. Does the guy run off and leave the girl to fend for herself? How does she feel about that? Does she dare toss the arm of their dead companion into the clearing to distract the zombie dinosaur? A woman might have feelings about that where a guy might be more practical.
    24. Females are nurturers. Men are fixers. A woman may try to sense what someone needs and provide that. But if a female is self-absorbed, she wants nurturing herself and will go to any lengths to get it. But it is still about nurturing.
    25. A woman who understands men will provide nurturing by trying to “fix” a problem for the man, since that is how the male goes about it. A woman tries to get nurturing by providing it. She may not receive it from men, so she has to get it from other women. The male who nurtures a woman will likely have putty in his hands.
    26. Strong women don’t have to be cold.
    27. Too much crying is bad. Women might cry, but not in the middle of a fight, or at the drop of a hat.
    28. Your female character shouldn’t be worried about clothes and hair while she’s saving that world.
    29. Give her some motivation. If she’s breaking a man’s heart, we should know the reason–eventually, at least.
    30. Give us a reason, other than sex, for the man to love her.
    31. Girls are stupid, women are smart. Teenage girls think about boys and sex a lot. Women are more inclined to think about careers or something that doesn’t involve men. Thinking about babies occurs, but tapers off after the age of forty.
    32. Three things you should never ask a woman: How old are you? How much do you weigh? When is your baby due?
    33. Women find sincerity, humor, self-confidence, and broad shoulders attractive. Jaw lines, powerful hands, and how a man presents himself are also attractive.
  132. How to Sell E-Books:
    1. Write a series of books. Keep readers coming back so you can build an audience. Write with a persistent character/world or books of a similar type (romance).
    2. Target a wide audience. Write in genres that are currently popular (thrillers, romance, YA).
    3. Get a lot of books out quickly. Have the next one up in a week or two (this may mean you have to write seven or eight before releasing the first).
    4. Make the books short. 40,000 words is a good number.
    5. Price them cheap. Most authors who succeeded priced them at $0.99. Sacrifice short-term profits for a long-term audience.
    6. Don’t ignore traditional marketing points. A great cover, strong quotes, intriguing back copy. Make it easy for the reader to get the next books in your series.
    7. Market your books aggressively. Blog, speak in public, do readings at libraries, release press releases, talk on the radio.
  133. Creating Book Credibility Through “Hooks” (for non-traditional-publishing, in order of importance):
    1. Cover: a picture/design that invites the reader in. Too dark and it blends into the wall. Hiring a capable illustrator is a good idea.
    2. Name: Anyone’s name draws an emotional response. Does your name sound like someone your audience would want to read?
    3. Cover quote: This can be a blanket quote or quote specific to that work.
    4. Tagline: A line that describes the basic problem of the novel.
    5. Back Copy: Gives the reader more flavor of the novel, using emotional tags. Is it romantic? Intriguing? Hilarious?
    6. About the author: Cover awards, previous publications, or areas of study/experience
    7. Novel Opening: People usually don’t buy a book without reading the first few pages.
    8. Ending: Some readers check out the last page to make sure the hero’s head doesn’t get blown off.
  134. The Hollywood Formula:
    1. Every movie centers on three characters: the protagonist, the antagonist, and the relationship character (this does not mean relationship in the romantic or familiar sense).
    2. The protagonist is the star. This is the character who wants something. Something concrete and achievable. Not “I want to be happy” or “I want to be pretty” or “I want to be rich”. It should be “I want him to fall in love with me so I can be happy” or “I want to win this game show so I can be rich” or “I want to rob the casino of the guy who’s dating my ex-girlfriend so I can be happy and rich”.
    3. The antagonist is the person/thing who puts obstacles in the way of the protagonist. His/her goals are diametrically opposed to the protagonist’s. He/she is the one who blocks the protagonist’s journey. The antagonist cannot be the protagonist.
    4. The relationship character accompanies the protagonist on his/her journey. Typically, this character has some wisdom to impart onto the protagonist (in the “been there, done that” sense) and the protagonist isn’t hearing it. The relationship character is the person to whom or from whom the theme of the film is articulated, like a conversation in the middle of the film. At the end of the film, they revisit that conversation (in the reconciliation between the antagonist and protagonist) and re-articulate the theme.
    5. The film is done when the protagonist achieves his/her goal, defeats the antagonist, and reconciles with the relationship character. The closer together those three events happen, the more emotional impact.
    6. The script is divided into three acts. 25% of the text is the first act. 50% of the text is the second act. The remaining 25% is the third.
    7. In the first act, you establish the characters and describe what they want. 30-45% through the first act, the protagonist gets the “fateful decision”. This is where the protagonist is presented with a choice. He/she must choose the choice that makes the film.
      1. Example: Thelma & Louise: the jerky husband tells Thelma she can’t go on the trip. Thelma must decide to either listen to her husband (no movie) or get in the car.
      2. Example: The Matrix: Neo gets three fateful decisions. In the first, he gets the cell phone in the FedEx package and chooses not to go on the ledge. In the second, he chooses not to leave the car after finding the bug in his stomach. In the third, he is presented with the red pill or blue pill.
    8. The first act and a half (50% of the total work) is about asking questions. The last act and a half should stop asking questions and start answering them.
    9. At around 75% (end of the second act) through the work should be the “low point”. This is the point where the protagonist is the farthest from his/her goal that he/she can get.
    10. Tension does not come from whether or not the protagonist will win (e.g., the Harlem Globetrotters, James Bond). It comes from what the protagonist will have to do to get there.
    11. The third act is the “final battle”. It is the fight from the low point to the ends.
      1. Example: Die Hard and Stargate are unique in that they are “third act” movies. Most of the movie takes place in the third act.
    12. Examples:
      1. Casablanca:
        1. Protagonist: Humphrey Bogart. He wants Elsa back.
        2. Antagonist: Victor Laszlo. He is the obstacle in Rick’s path.
        3. Relationship Character: Claude Rains (the cop, the vichy water guy). He tells Rick “I think you have the letters of transit.” Rick says “I stick my neck out for no one.” Rains says “No, you don’t. You’re still a patriot.” That is the expression of theme, and Rick doesn’t want to hear it. At the end, when Rick gives up the girl, Rains says “I was right, Ricky, you are still a patriot.” This is the reconciliation.
        4. Note: The antagonist is not the Nazis. They are part of the setting. They are not the obstacle in Rick’s path. They would perfectly happy to take Victor Laszlo away and shoot him so Rick can have Elsa back.
      2. Thelma & Louise:
        1. Protagonist: Thelma & Louise. They want to escape (achieved by driving off the cliff at the end).
        2. Antagonist: Harvey Keitel. Even though he’s the one decent man, trying to help them at every turn, he guesses they’re about to commit suicide and tries to prevent it.
      3. The Dark Knight:
        1. Protagonist: Bruce Wayne. In this movie, he wants to quit being Batman. When he sees Harvey Dent arrest five hundred gangsters, he likes it. He wants Dent to be the Gotham’s hero.
        2. Antagonist: Harvey Dent. Even though Bruce Wayne wants Dent to step up, he continues to make weak choices and bad decisions. He tries to shoot the Joker in order to find out where Rachel has been taken. Dent puts obstacles in the protagonist’s path because he never steps up to being the person Wayne wants him to be.
        3. Relationship Person: The Joker. He delivers a speech that iterates the theme: “Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak, like me! They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be.” The reconciliation is when Batman finally defeats the Joker on top of the building (after telling a joke). Later, he tells Gordon to let the city think he murdered Dent, to let Dent be the White Knight and himself the Dark Knight.
  135. Ways to overcome “Writer’s Block”:
    1. If you can’t come up with an idea, prime the pump with writing exercises. Ideas are common, execution is the hard part. Imagine your life if a major incident hadn’t occurred. Write some fanfic. Write a scene where someone dies and someone else falls in love, even if it doesn’t turn into a story. Write a scandalous satire or character assassination against someone or something that pisses you off.
    2. If you have too many ideas and can’t commit to them or they all peter out, throw them out. If an idea’s not getting traction, it’s not getting traction. Save them and come back to them a year later. Tackle them when you have more experience and a different mindset.
    3. If you have an outline and can’t get through one part of it, there are two reasons. One: your outline may have a major flaw that you can’t admit or see. You can’t get from A to C because B makes no sense. Either it’s out of character or breaks with logic. In this case, you already know the problem and need to revise your outline. Two: the part you can’t get past is boring, or it’s a lull between two cool moments. Try taking a detour or tangent. Maybe find a cooler transition. Most likely, there’s something that needs to happen with your characters that you haven’t hit on yet.
    4. If you’re stuck in the middle and have no idea what happens next, try going back over what you just wrote. Rethink what you already wrote. Introduce a new complication. Twist the knife. Drop a safe on someone.
    5. If you have the feeling your story took a turn a hundred pages back and you have hit a dead end, then there’s no point in going any further, if you’re absolutely sure. If you see what your story should be like at this juncture, you can keep going as if you hadn’t taken a wrong turn. Or partially rewind, go back fifty or so pages, and pretend you’d made that choice originally.
    6. If you’re bored with the characters and they won’t do anything, either you’ve got your supporting cast, you haven’t found the main character yet, you don’t know what these characters really want, or you haven’t found the conflict to spur them into action. Once you find what the characters are about, you might find a conflict or a character to present as the protagonist.
    7. If you keep imagining all the reasons people will say your story sucks, that’s your inner critic. Drown him out. Chances are the idea you’re putting down isn’t as bad as you think. In any case, you can fix it in rewrites.
    8. If you can’t think of the right words for this one paragraph, use the wrong word for now and fix it in rewrites. Part of the right word is properly visualizing the scene in your head. It’s fine to spend some time on this, but more than a week, and you need to move on.
    9. If the incredible idea in your head seems dumb when you put it on paper, make sure it’s not your inner critic. If you’re sure it’s not, there’s nothing wrong with abandoning a novel and starting fresh. But don’t give up too fast–your problem may be poor execution. Write a synopsis of the stuff you’ve written. This will help you see how it fits together and if there are buried parts that should be turning points.
    10. If, in revision, you can’t see your way past all those blocks of text you wrote, you just have to plow through it. Revising is hard and long. Look at the text from different angles. Get feedback from people to see where the problems are. Try rewriting large sections from scratch.
  136. “When a competent writer tells you a story, you know what happened. When a good writer tells you a story, you feel it happen to you. When a great writer tells you a story, you feel your life change because of it.” –John Scalzi
  137. You admire a character more for trying than for their successes.
  138. Keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. The two can be very different.
  139. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the actual story is about until the end of it. Then rewrite.
  140. Once upon a time, there was ________. Every day, _________. One day, _________. Because of that, _____________. Because of that, _____________. Until finally, ________.
  141. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff, but it sets you free.
  142. What is your character good at? What is your character comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at him. Challenge him. How does he deal?
  143. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Endings are hard. Get yours working up front.
  144. Finish your story. Let go, even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world, you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  145. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times, the material to get you unstuck shows up.
  146. Pull apart stories you like. What you like in them is part of you. You’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  147. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, it’s a perfect idea, but you’ll never share it with anyone.
  148. Discount the first thing that comes to your mind. And the second, third, fourth, fifth — get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  149. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  150. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning in you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  151. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty leads to credibility to unbelievable situations.
  152. What are the stakes? Give us a reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  153. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on — it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  154. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best and fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  155. Coincidences to get characters in trouble are great. Coincidences to get them out of it is cheating.
  156. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How do you rearrange them into something you DO like?
  157. You got to identify with your situation/characters. You can’t just write “cool”. What would make you act that way?
  158. What’s the essence of your story? What’s the most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
  159. How to write sword fights:
    1. The key to writing about sword fights is not by watching them, but reading about them.
    2. Focus on fear, imminent threat of death, powerlessness and weaknesses, violence and injury, and treachery.
    3. Instead of describing parries and ripostes, you could treat it as an exposition of the mind, regarding strategies and counter-moves, strategies and maneuvers. (ex. The Princess Bride)
    4. Very few readers have ever done fencing or sword-fighting and do not know the jargon and techniques. Lewis used two fights in a story. The first was to explain it. The second was for the climax after the reader knows.
    5. Technical explanation slows down the action. A sword fight takes less time than the time it takes to describe it. Separate the necessary information from the action.
    6. Sword fights have a course, a sequence, with turning points.
    7. It must be important — it must be relevant and resonate with the hero. Failure leads to certain ruin. (Ex. if either of the two fighters die, we lose a main character).
    8. It must represent a real danger to the hero. The danger must be imminent.
    9. Make a reversal something obvious to a reader who ignored/forgot the explanation.
    10. Use spectators to describe “what just happened”.
    11. Use accidents, reversals, cheating, crowd interaction, for excitement, not the swordplay.
    12. Exhaustion, rage, fear, obstinacy, and distraction are factors in losing. Skill, luck, good judgment, courage, and determination are factors in winning.
  160. If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.
  161. Don’t say that the moon is shining. Show the glint of light on broken glass.
  162. Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
  163. Try to leave out the parts that people skip.
  164. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the four hundred pages and write just one page for each day. It helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
  165. When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  166. Always pretend that you’re sitting across from somebody, telling them a story, and you don’t want them to get up until it’s finished.
  167. A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.
  168. If you are using dialogue, say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
  169. Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.
  170. The hardest part is believing in yourself at the notebook stage. It is like believing in dreams in the morning.
  171. Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.
  172. Tips on receiving feedback:
    1. Be careful of responding too quickly or explaining yourself. The goal is to find out what others felt, understood, or were confused about.
    2. Any critique that starts with “You know what would be funny…” or “You know what would be neat…” can be ignored (unless the person can tell you why it would be funny and it fits in your vision).
    3. Don’t be afraid to ask someone why/how they got something unexpected from your work.
    4. If someone tells you what they think should happen, ask why.
    5. Even the most bizarre or hurtful critique can contain a grain of truth.
    6. Don’t take anything personally. If the other person gets personal, bring it back to the work.
    7. Sometimes strange questions/comments expose where you led the audience down a misleading path.
    8. You don’t have to answer anyone’s questions.
    9. When you’re talking, you’re not listening
  173. Tips on giving feedback:
    1. Avoid phrases like “when you said” or “when you did”, when you’re really talking about what the characters said and did.
    2. Avoid generalizing (e.g., “someone wouldn’t do…”) The issue is whether this particular character would say or do something.
    3. If you feel like you must give a suggestion of what might happen or what a character might do, give three different ones.
    4. If you find yourself thinking you didn’t “like” something, ask yourself why. Was it the dialogue? The motivation? The situation? The storyline? Be specific.
    5. Questions are better than statements. But don’t expect any answers.
    6. It is not your job to fix the work.
    7. Mention what you like.
    8. The purpose of giving feedback is to help the writer expand and refine his/her ideas about the work.
  174. Beginnings should establish five things:
    1. Character (main, hopefully)
    2. Place/Setting
    3. Tone (will this be comic? Literary?)
    4. Motion (the story must start moving – in early, out late)
    5. Rules (any special non-standards about this world, like magic)
  175. Is your character ready to figure out what he/she really wants? (desire) Is your character ready to fight for what he/she wants? (conflict/obstacles) Is your character ready to risk it all? (suspense & uncertainty/drama)
  176. There are no good guys. Every person is tarnished with morally ambiguous deeds.
  177. Utopia is not perfect. Humanity is full of conflict and compromise. Utopia is not stable. It is a precarious, ever-changing world full of problems that may not ever be resolved.
  178. Never give your protagonist a simple motivation.
  179. History will fuck you up. Wars and personal conflicts stretch long times and go deep.
  180. Political values can transform the fabric of time.
  181. Planets waste a lot of matter.
  182. Your intentions are only as good as your weapons.
  183. Immortality and hard AI don’t cause an apocalypse, but don’t solve humanity’s problems either.
  184. Astropolitics, not space opera.
  185. The consequences of your adventurous episode will alter somebody else’s entire world.
  186. Never include anything the audience can reasonably/easily assume has happened.
  187. Never give exposition unless the missing fact would cause confusion. The audience maintains interest when you withhold the information, instead of giving it, except what’s necessary for comprehension.
  188. The least important facts come early. The next most important later. The critical facts last. The critical facts are the secrets – painful truths the characters do not want known.
  189. Readers are fascinated and threatened by significant change. They want the story to start with such a change. They want to have a question to worry about and will lose patience with all material unrelated to the question. They want the question answered in the ending.
  190. Reasons most screenplays are rejected (in order of frequency):
    1. Story begins too late
    2. Scenes are void of meaningful conflict
    3. Script is “by-the-numbers” execution (too formulaic, like Mad Libs)
    4. Story is too thin (twenty pages of story spread over one hundred pages; stuffed with tone but light on plot)
    5. Villains are cartoonish/evil for the sake of being evil
    6. Muddy character logic (lack of consistency or logically unsound villain plot or characters acting without motivation)
    7. Female part is underwritten
    8. Narrative falls into repetitive pattern
    9. Conflict is inconsequential/flash-in-the-pan
    10. Protagonist is standard issue hero
    11. Favors style over substance
    12. Ending is anti-climatic
    13. Characters are all stereotypes
    14. Script is arbitrarily complex
    15. Script switches gears/goes off rails in third act
    16. Questions are left unanswered
    17. Story is a string of unrelated vignettes
    18. Plot unravels through convenience/contrivance/luck/coincidence
    19. Script is totally confused (i.e., moments of tension disrupted by moments of comedy – script is not sure what story it wants to tell)
    20. Script is stoic to a fault (nothing rattles the characters)
    21. Protagonist is not as strong as he/she needs to be
    22. Premise is a transparent excuse for action
    23. Character backstories are irrelevant/useless
    24. Supernatural element is too undefined
    25. Plot is dragged down by disruptive lulls
    26. Ending is a case of deus ex machina
    27. Characters are indistinguishable from each other
    28. Story is one big shrug (never feels like anything important happened, not engaging)
    29. Dialogue is cheesy/pulpy/action movie cliches
    30. Script is a potboiler
    31. Drama/conflict is told but not shown
    32. Great setting isn’t utilized
    33. Emotional element is exaggerated
    34. Dialogue is stilted and unnecessarily verbose
    35. Emotional element is neglected (melodrama)
    36. Script is a writer ego trip (includes camera direction, soundtrack choices, actor suggestions, etc.)
    37. Script makes a reference but not a joke
    38. Message overshadows the story
  191. How to write descriptive passages without being boring:
    1. Commit to never being boring: don’t settle for blocks of dull text. Make descriptions as zingy and quotable as your dialogue
    2. Engage all five senses: Smell helps a lot, like pungent ammonia or dreadfully musty. Don’t forget temperature of a room, the smell of a person, and the feel of their clothes.
    3. Be super terse: be vivid without being lengthy. Use a few well-chosen words.
    4. Make it dynamic rather than static: Things change, nothing stays the same forever. The best description tells a story. Take us through the evolution of a person/thing.
    5. Make fun of the thing: Depends on tone of the story. A self-loathing character can use a lot of vitriol. A strong impression can be cartoony. Use in moderation.
    6. Project feelings onto an inanimate object: A chair might be friendly, or a pair of shoes might have it in for you. A building might look as if it’s trying to drive you away. Good for mood and foreshadowing.
    7. Give your POV character some reaction: Visceral or emotional. Show how a setting or character affects your POV character. Vivid description often depends on a strong emotional reaction to something.
    8. Use less dialogue: Try writing descriptive passages as replacing dialogue, rather than a backdrop for it. Try taking a speech-heavy scene and replacing half the dialogue with actions/descriptions of stuff that convey the same emotion and information.
    9. Use description to set up a punchline in dialogue: Force yourself to create vivid descriptions of surroundings with verbal jokes that only work if the scenery is fixed in the person’s mind. For example, Oscar Wilde’s last words: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”
  192. Make sure you have a plot, not a situation. Interesting characters and voice always win out.
  193. “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” –Linus Pauling
  194. “In nearly all good fiction, the basic — all but inescapable — plot form is this: a central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.” — John Gardner
  195. “Begin with an individual, and before you know it you have created a type. Begin with a type, and you find you have created nothing.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald
  196. “Resist the temptation to try to use dazzling style to conceal weakness of substance.” — Stanley Schmidt
  197. “Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it…” — Michael Crichton
  198. “Engrave this in your brain: EVERY WRITER GETS REJECTED. You will be no different.” — John Scalzi
  199. “Only a person with a Best Seller mind can write Best Sellers.” — Aldous Huxley
  200. “Writing isn’t generally a lucrative source of income; only a few, exceptional writers reach the income levels associated with the best-sellers. Rather, most of us write because we can make a modest living, or even supplement our day jobs, doing something about which we feel passionately. Even at the worst of times, when nothing goes right, when the prose is clumsy and the ideas feel stale, at least we’re doing something that we genuinely love. There’s no other reason to work this hard, except that love.” — Melissa Scott
  201. “There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one can agree what they are.” — Somerset Maugham
  202. Ten Things You Need to Believe as a Writer:
    1. Only you can write this.
    2. You were born to write this.
    3. People need you to write this.
    4. The world is waiting for you to finish this.
    5. One day, someone will tell you how much they needed to read this.
    6. You can write anything you set your mind to.
    7. This has a glimmer of brilliance in it.
    8. The crappy words will fall away in revision.
    9. My vision of the world matters.
    10. I see people in a new way.
  203. 10 Things a New Science Fiction Writer Should Know
    1. You’re still just telling personal stories. Stories meaningful to you. Not finding the personal story in the alien invasion or world-changing technology is an easy way to fail.
    2. The things everybody remembers about their favorite stories are never why those stories work. People seem to fixate on one cool moment or clever line. People love the story for everything that set up that cool moment.
    3. Science fiction is always about the time when it was created. You’re still commenting on the world of today.
    4. Ideas aren’t stories. Know the difference between a premise and a plot. A premise is “in the future, everybody has a brain chip that regulates emotion”. A plot is “one person’s brain chip malfunctions”. A premise is a pitch at best.
    5. Even if you perfectly imitated your heroes, you’d still fail. A carbon copy of LeGuin or Gaiman would fall flat. The field is constantly changing, not looking for what was popular twenty years ago.
    6. Cool story ideas are a dime a dozen. Just spend half an hour reading New Scientist or a newspaper front page or watching people in a public place. The trick is coming up with a protagonist that’s fascinating and belongs in the middle of that cool idea.
    7. Resist the urge to give up on your characters. Take a step back and think about what they’re really going through and what they would feel in that situation.
    8. Trends are at least half over by the time you know about them.
    9. Doing your homework is half the battle. Learn how to talk to scientists about their work. Learn how to read scientific papers. Do research about other cultures and times.
    10. You’re the worst judge of your own work.
  204. Character is action. A character is what he/she/it does. Speech can be an action too.
  205. Compelling characters are those who do something unexpected. Make the reader curious about the character.
  206. Personal contradictions make people curious about characters. Ex. A vegan who wears leather. A Buddhist sadist.
  207. A single striking detail can make people stick in the reader’s mind. Ex. A jewel the person wears or an odd habit or a detail of appearance or a habit of speech like a catch-phrase.
  208. Save extra details for rewrites. Details like the character’s taste in music, eating habits, taste in decorations add an extra layer of realness.
  209. Create a compelling world and a character who is at odds with it. The most interesting character is one that sticks out from the world. Ex. A cloud-herder who’s allergic to vapor. Not necessarily a social outcast, but one with a unique relationship to the world.
  210. Sometimes it’s helpful to act out a scene to see how your characters portray what they’re thinking and feeling. Anger can motivate characters. Anger turns into other emotions easily.
  211. A character’s desire can be extraneous. If the story is about accomplishing a particular task, consider having the protagonist want something separate from the task.
  212. Write an origin story, even if you don’t use it. It doesn’t have to be more than a paragraph or two. Write about the key elements in the character’s life that shaped him/her/it, such as dropping out of high school ten years before the story begins.
  213. Work against the flow of the plot/story. Pay attention to points where a real person wouldn’t necessarily walk into danger or make the decision to move the plot forward. If the plot is going too smoothly, it’s because there aren’t enough complications and the characters aren’t really making their own decisions. Real people have their own agendas and qualms. When the characters have screwed up the nice path you laid out for them, the world-building kicks in and prevents them from doing whatever they feel like.
  214. “Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that — but you are the only you.” –Neil Gaiman
  215. Ways to begin a short story:
    1. Scene-setting: Joining the characters in a pause before the action. Allows reader to know characters and setting first. Use if setting is a big part of story or to establish a powerful mood. Use if story is about a particular feeling.
    2. Conflict Establisher: Begins at exact moment characters know they’re in trouble. Creates a sense of urgency. Do not use if the bang falls flat. High risk opening.
    3. Mystifier: Doesn’t make sense, because it refers to stuff the reader doesn’t know yet. Throws into a situation without knowing all the pieces. Use to create intrigue about a mysterious situation. Mystery has to be really cool for it to work. Asks a lot of the readers. Have to unravel the cryptic opening at the same time as characters and setting.
    4. Third person narrator speaks to you: Explain something to the reader, often in second person. Useful information, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Or stark explanation of something the reader isn’t going to get in any other way. Use to create a warm tone, if a chatty narrator. Allows feeding of a bunch of information without feeling too much like an infodump. Has to be entertaining. Must sustain the narrator chattiness on and off through the story.
    5. First person narrator speaks: Narrator says something reflective, musing about ideas or heritage, or starting a rant. Puts into main character’s brain. Good if you’re writing in first person anyway. Creates bonding and emotional punch. Not getting to know character, but knowing him/her in the world. Can be too philosophical.
    6. Quotation: If intriguing enough, compels reader to find out who’s speaking and what they’re talking about. Like the “thrown in the deep end” opening crossed with mystery. Get raw personality of speaker. Can be clunky, especially if quote is hanging by itself. Needs to be ultra-sharp.
    7. Puzzler: Establish conflict and mystify reader. Makes reader guess at what is going down. Tricky to pull off. Hit the reader with a concentrated blast of verbal pyrotechnics and strangeness. Messes with reader’s head. High chance of failure.
  216. If you want to forget the three-act structure, make the story a series of great bits. In real life, we don’t know what’s going to happen yet and we can only experience things in the moment. If characters are worrying about what’s going to happen or how they’ll achieve their goals, then the plot has a sense of forward momentum, no matter what.
  217. Emotions create their own suspense.
  218. Try outlining from the villain’s POV.
  219. Do not have characters know anything. Present the details that allow the reader to know them. Do not describe the character wanting something. Describe the thing so that the reader wants it. No short-cuts. Only action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling/touch.
  220. Look for “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph, like a thesis statement. They state the intention of the paragraph. It steals the thunder of what follows. Either put it at the end of the paragraph or change it to “Brenda would never make the deadline.” Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters. Allow the reader to do the thinking and knowing and loving and hating. Make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail. Pieces of evidence.
    1. Example: “Brenda knew she’d never make the deadline. Traffic was backed up from the bridge, past the first eight or nine exits. Her cell phone battery was dead. At home, the dogs would need to go out, or there would be a mess to clean up. Plus, she’d promised to water the plants for her neighbor…”
  221. Do not leave your character alone. Your character should not be alone. Alone means your character starts thinking, worrying, wondering. Instead of: “Wanda remembered how Nelson used to brush her hair.” Use: “Back in their sophomore year, Nelson used to brush her hair with smooth, long strokes of his hand.”
  222. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the four hundred pages and write just one page for each day. It helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
  223. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person — a real person you know or an imaginary person — and write to that one.
  224. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it — bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
  225. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  226. “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.” –Joyce Carol Oates
  227. Suffering does not equal greatness.
  228. Stop trying to sound smart.
  229. The only parts of the narrative should be what the POV character can see, smell, taste, hear, touch, feel, feel emotionally, think, and know for certain.
  230. The more specific you get, the more universal it is.
  231. The reader is going to take the position not represented in the text. (Meaning if a character is doing something of arguable ethics, and other characters support it, the reader will not.)
  232. Joss Whedon’s Top Ten Writing Tips:
    1. Finish It: Finishing a story is truly difficult and really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect and you know you’re going to have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure
    2. Structure: Know where you’re going. Don’t meander about. If you want to, make charts: where are the jokes? The thrills? The romance? Who knows what? And when? These things need to happen at the right time. You build the structure around what you want the audience to feel. Charts, graphs, colored pencils, anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.
    3. Have Something to Say: The number of movies that are not about what they purport to be about is staggering. Have a story with an idea, not just “this will lead to many fine set-pieces”.
    4. Everybody Has a Reason to Live: Everyone has a reason. They have their own voice, own history, own identity. If the person is just setting up someone else’s lines, all you get is soundbites, not dialogue. They don’t all need to be funny or cute or delightful or even have lines. But if you don’t know why everyone is feeling what they’re feeling, you’re in trouble.
    5. Cut What You Love: If something isn’t working, take your favorite scene or best idea and cut it. It’s brutal but sometimes inevitable.
    6. Listen: Even the stupidest person in the room might have the best idea.
    7. Track the Audience Mood: In order to connect with your audience, you must track what your audience is feeling at all times. Intentions of the author mean nothing.
    8. Write Like a Movie: If something is lush and extensive, you can describe it glowingly. If its not important, describe it tersely.
    9. Don’t Listen: The best work comes when someone bucks the system, done the unexpected, and let their own personal voice into the machine. Fight the homogenizing process.
    10. Don’t Sell Out: Never take a job just because you need to. That doesn’t mean you don’t need to work, but it means you can take the job you love. If you can find something you love, you can make anything good. If you can’t, it doesn’t matter how skillful you are, you are whoring.
  233. No “and then”. Every scene should be followed by “therefore” or “but”. If it’s “and then”, it’s a boring story. This happened, therefore this happened. Therefore, this happened. But then, this happened. So therefore, this happened.
  234. A good antagonist should be exceptionally good at attacking the hero’s greatest weakness, pressures the protagonist into difficult choices, and competes for the same goal as the protagonist.
  235. A scene has the following three-part pattern:
    1. Goal – what the POV character wants; specific and definable
    2. Conflict – obstacles the POV character faces on the way to the goal
    3. Disaster – the failure of the POV character reaching his goal; something awful happens
  236. A sequel has the following three-part pattern:
    1. Reaction – POV character reacts viscerally to disaster; show the hurting
    2. Dilemma – a situation with no good options; gives reader a chance to worry
    3. Decision – POV character makes a choice among several options; risky but has a chance
  237. MRU – Motivation-Reaction Units – each scene or sequel is written as a continuing cycle of MRUs
    1. Motivation – external and objective. Presented as if it would be shown in a video camera. Simple, sharp, and clean. (Ex. The tiger dropped out of the tree and sprang toward Jack.)
    2. Reaction – internal and subjective – Different paragraph. Consists of feeling, reflex, and rational action & speech. You can leave out one or two of these parts if they don’t apply, but they must remain in the correct sequence. After reaction comes another motivation. (Ex. A bolt of raw adrenaline shot through Jack’s veins. He jerked his rifle to his shoulder, sighted on the tiger’s heart, and squeezed the trigger. “Die, you bastard!”)
  238. Storytelling tips learned from Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”:
    1. You can be scary, funny, AND sad: Use humor to bond with quippy, funny characters and you’ll grieve harder for their misery. Juggle darkness, humor, and emotion. Make sure everything comes back to the characters. Emotions and viewpoints are always front and center.
    2. Stakes are relative: Some of the most epic battles have low stakes, like saving just one person or stopping a minor injustice, rather than averting an apocalypse. Make the danger feel personal and relatable. Bring it down to Earth and show rather than tell. Have personal struggles in the foreground.
    3. The best hero wants something he/she can never have: Put the hero into situations where they can never find happiness (Ex. Normal life as a high school student, romance with a vampire and vampire slayer, sex turning someone evil). Wanting the impossible so badly makes the reader pull for characters. And unexpected payoffs mean more.
    4. Places where we want to spend time can be great supporting characters: Characters have a lot of love for the places they hang out. You can have as many locations as you want in a book, but sets where characters spend time can make the reader fall in love with them.
    5. Big mysteries should always have a hard-hitting payoff: Mysteries, prophecies, cryptic hints, weird puzzles, flash-forwards, dark backstories. If there’s something to keep the reader guessing, there should be an answer. And that answer should be a slap in the face, not just a new piece of information. The longer a reader has to wait for the answer, the more horrifying and upsetting it should be. It should never be prosaic or harmless. People keep secrets because they’re too horrible to share, not because they’re pathologically secretive.
    6. Magic should come with dreams and visions: Magic interrupts the “real” world so it should be depicted as strange and otherworldly. Touches of surrealism, dream sequences, or crazy visions accompany stories of mystical forces. At least a dreamlike feel. Magic is not always predictable, safe, or comfortable.
    7. Characters can start out as archetypes and then go SO deep: Characters can start as one-dimensional archetypes. That is how we remember them. As time goes on, they all develop layers and defining characteristics. This happens organically as we get to know them, but also from engineering characteristics at right-angles to their original description/archetype. You can create a character who’s a single vivid depiction, then add stuff as you go. Find something memorable about the character, so the reader can get interested themselves, then fill details over time.
    8. Real life can be more terrifying than monsters: Real-life challenges, like high school, dealing with family, finding a job. Traumas of everyday life are just as bad as monster fights. Some things just suck. The scarier, more intense the non-supernatural traumas, the more intense the supernatural ones.
    9. A great villain has a scary goal: Terrifying and fascinating villains want something truly terrible. Aimlessness, or only wanting to torture the hero, only goes so far. Any major player should have his/her own agenda not just related to making sure the hero is okay/not okay.
    10. You can use a tired trope without following all the usual boring storylines: The Chosen One trope can go in different directions than just “the hero’s journey”. The hero should grow, change, and wrestle with what it means to be singled out for a purpose. Any idea can be fresh if you ask the tough questions along the way.
  239. The beginning of the scene should frame what the whole scene is about. The scene then funnels down to a single point, with most important word or line of dialogue stated last.
  240. Romantic “Problems”:
    1. “But we’re best friends!” — fighting, friendly bickering, but perfect for each other, slight glances and grazes, one day realize they can’t live without each other
    2. “He’s a bad boy!” — a guy who’s tortured/player but when he’s with you, he’s good, needs to change his ways, talks to you like no one else
    3. “It’s forbidden!” — best friend’s brother, coworker, hiding it is arousing, chill of excitement because can’t vocalize connection, how do you show affection while being secretive
    4. “We hated each other at first!” — tension, creating fights because they secretly wanted each other, being the two who are always at each other, get a thrill out of it, ignite each other’s fire, put rivalry aside
  241. Plot dragging? Drive the narrative forward by making things difficult for your characters. Here are some possibilities:
    1. Threaten them with a monster, danger, or location
    2. Reveal an unwelcome truth
    3. Show signs of an approaching threat
    4. Deal damage
    5. Use up their resources
    6. Turn their move back on them
    7. Separate them
    8. Give an opportunity that fits a character’s abilities/skills
    9. Show a downside to a character’s abilities/skills/strengths
    10. Offer an opportunity, with or without cost
    11. Put someone in a spot
    12. Tell them the requirements or consequences of their goal
  242. First-Person Perspective/POV:
    1. Strengths:
      1. Immediate immersion into storyspace
      2. Personally identifiable language
    2. Weaknesses:
      1. Story has to happen around viewpoint character all the time. You can’t show the reader anything the viewpoint character can’t see.
      2. Keep track of what off-stage characters are doing, but be scrupulous about showing this information. This is often where the villain starts monologuing or other characters recount a travelogue.
      3. Getting creative with showing information in this POV often has the side-effect of the viewpoint character becoming proactive and nosy, poking into everyone’s business (which makes this POV a favorite for the mystery genre).
  243. Third-Person Perspective/POV:
    1. Strengths:
      1. Can introduce more than one POV character, which can lead to playing all kinds of head games with the reader, in that the reader knows things the character doesn’t (the “don’t go in there!” effect).
    2. Weaknesses:
      1. Problems displaying enough emotional depth in the characters
      2. A larger cast will grow increasingly difficult for people to keep track of.
      3. To help keep the characters straight in the reader’s head, make sure you are extra careful about establishing characters and their goals.
    3. Getting creative with showing information in this POV often has the side-effect of the viewpoint character becoming proactive and nosy, poking into everyone’s business (which makes this POV a favorite for the mystery genre).
  244. The story question: “[WHEN SOMETHING HAPPENS], [PROTAGONIST] [PURSUES A GOAL]. But will he/she succeed when [ANTAGONIST PROVIDES OPPOSITION].”
  245. What makes an interesting character?
    1. Exaggeration – Physical, mental, or emotional. Features taken to extremes. Gives reader an acute mental awareness of the character
    2. Exotic position – Unusual location or situation, like the oval office or space shuttle. Social, geographic, intellectual, or moral.
    3. Introduction – First impression, characteristic entry action: bring character into story in the course of an action that clearly, sharply defines who and what he/she is
    4. Verisimilitude – they act believably. Convey that the person has a life outside this particular story. This is done by showing the character’s emotions, reactions, and decisions. Use tags (adjectives that you only use with that character and nowhere else) and traits (trademark props and/or mental attitudes)
    5. Empathy – relies heavily on the skilled use of sequels (as in scene-sequel format)
  246. How to survive the “great swampy middle” of a book:
    1. BIG MIDDLE: plan a big event for the end of the middle. A big dramatic confrontation of whatever kind is appropriate to the genre. The fallout from that event is what boots the book down the homestretch to reach the story’s climax. Drop little hints and establish props that lead into it.
    2. MINI ARC: Create a whole little storyline of its own and plop it in the middle. Normally it intertwines with the main arc, but sets the characters onto a new track. It is, essentially, a smaller story which interfaces with the larger story enough to expose cool character stuff. Example: The Two Towers (Merry and Pippin)
    3. NEW SUBPLOT: Like a watered-down mini arc, a subplot is a new plot that suddenly develops and must be dealt with without becoming an overwhelming part of the story. It begins and ends in the middle. Generally introduces some cool characters or threats native to that subplot. Example: In Star Wars, the Millennium Falcon is captured by the Death Star. The main goal of getting the Death Star plans to the rebels gets sidetracked by the trash compactor and rescuing the princess and Obi-Wan’s side mission.
    4. NEW CHARACTER: A new character appears, one more flamboyant and memorable than any other supporting character. Doesn’t exist on stage long, but serves a role in forwarding the story and entertains the audience. Example: Edna Mode in The Incredibles.
  247. Scene structure format:
    1. POV CHARACTER: Usually this is easy, especially if in first person. Otherwise, pick the character with the most at stake. Or the one in the most pain.
    2. GOAL: Active, specific, apparently attainable. Can be as simple as “get some breakfast”.
    3. CONFLICT (scene question): Two characters going head-to-head, each trying to achieve a conflicting goal. Someone working against the viewpoint character.
    4. SETBACK/DISASTER (scene answer): Character doesn’t get goal. Scene answer is one of four results:
      1. “YES”: least desirable of outcomes. Results in no conflict or tension or desire to read more.
      2. “YES, BUT…”: success, but some kind of complication has resulted. One that might have dire consequences down the line. The more dire/disastrous, the better.
      3. “NO”: Character is shut down or flatly denied. Can have the accidental effect of bringing your story to a halt, or leaving the reader frustrated, or making your character look foolish/incompetent (which reduces reader empathy).
      4. “NO, AND…”: Character has failed and managed to make things worse. It’s best if the worsening is the protagonist’s fault, but it doesn’t have to be. This is the Big Gun to pull out when the plot is slowing down. But has the effect of forcing the writer to be creative and can potentially complicate the plot with more problems for the hero to solve.
  248. Sequel Structure Format (order cannot be changed, but some steps can be skipped/abbreviated):
    1. EMOTIONAL REACTION: Basic instinct, human emotions
    2. REVIEW, LOGIC, AND REASON: Brain tells you things. Things like why it turned out this way, what could have been done to avoid it, what the options are, what needs to be accomplished immediately, where you’re suddenly not going to be. Going over the facts. Sometimes during review, new information is discovered that provoke different emotions.
    3. ANTICIPATION: Start thinking about what happens next. What is the immediate future, based on current options. And what the consequences of those options are.
    4. CHOICE: Decide what to do next.
    5. Romance leans heavily on the EMOTIONAL REACTION and ANTICIPATION. Mystery/Sci-Fi lean on REVIEW, LOGIC, AND REASON. Action goes light on everything but CHOICE. Horror focuses on ANTICIPATION.
    6. Sequels apply color to the story. It’s the best point to manipulate reader emotions. Tuning up sequels will help fix characterization problems (too dry and boring? Add more EMOTION.)
  249. “There’s a forest fire” or “it’s really cold outside” are not conflicts. They are dramatic elements or “adversity”. They have nothing to do with character(s).
  250. Parts of a climax:
    1. ISOLATION: The hero stands alone (or is the only one who counts). Other characters have been whittled away.
    2. CONFRONTATION: Protagonist (all alone) confronts the antagonist.
    3. DARK MOMENT: The confrontation does not go well. Odds are stacked against.
    4. CHOICE: Protagonist chooses whether to stay true to purpose or be swayed by fear/temptation/weariness/etc. The call made ultimately reveals who the protagonist is deep down.
    5. DRAMATIC REVERSAL: The choice made causes/influences events to change in an unexpected way.
    6. RESOLUTION: Balance has been restored as a result of the reversal. Catharsis is complete. Tension is eased.
  251. Body cues should create a strong mental picture. If the movement is too drawn out or complicated, the emotional meaning behind the gesture may be lost.
  252. A ticking clock can ramp up the emotions in any scene. As the character hurries to complete a task or meet a need, mistakes caused by rushing open the door for a richer emotional ride.
  253. To add another layer to an emotional experience, look for symbolism within the character’s current setting. What unique object within the location can the character make note of that perfectly embodies the emotion they are feeling inside?
  254. To create empathy for a character (including the antagonist), take the time to humanize them through their actions. Even the most unlikable person has a redeeming quality. So show it to the reader in a small, subtle way.
  255. Pay special attention to the events leading up to an emotional response. If the plotting feels contrived, the character’s reaction will seem contrived as well.
  256. Don’t be afraid to challenge your character’s morals. Putting them in situations that are outside their comfort zone will make them squirm, and the reader will too.
  257. Don’t get caught up on the eyes to convey emotion. While eyes are often the first thing we notice in real life, they provide very limited options for description possibilities. Instead dig deeper, showing how the character behaves through their body movement, actions and dialogue.
  258. If a critique partner voices confusion over the emotional reaction of one of your characters, check to make sure the stimulus trigger is prominent. Showing the cause-effect relationship is vital when conveying authentic emotion.
  259. For each scene, identify the emotion you need to show and think in terms of three. What three ways have you reinforced the character’s feelings through verbal and nonverbal communication?
  260. It is natural to hold back or hide our true scope of emotions in the presence of others. When writing a conflicted protagonist, it is critical to show through action the emotion the character wants to convey to others while also expressing their true feelings to the reader.
  261. In scenes where information must be shared, characters should still be moving, acting, and revealing emotion to keep the pace flowing smoothly.
  262. Men and women experience and express emotions differently. When writing a character of the opposite sex, get a second opinion if needed to ensure a character’s reactions, thoughts, and feelings are authentic.
  263. When revising, look for instances where emotions are NAMED. Nine times out of ten this indicates a lack of confidence that the emotion is shown clearly through thought, sensations and body language. Strong verbal and nonverbal cues negate the need to “explain” the emotion to the reader.
  264. Smell triggers memory. Take advantage of this sense and build olfactory description into the scene. This will draw readers in and make them feel part of the action.
  265. To reveal quieter emotions, try using contrast. For example, pairing a character with someone who is highly volatile will help their own milder body cues stand out clearly.
  266. Choose each setting with deliberate care. Each location should symbolize something to your main character, and have an impact (positive or negative) on their psyche coming into the scene.
  267. Make a list of your body language crutches (frowning, smiling, shrugging, head shaking, etc.). Use your browser’s search function to highlight these so you can pinpoint where the emotional description needs some freshening up.
  268. It isn’t enough to show emotion; a writer needs to make the reader feel it. Think about the core visceral sensations you experience when feeling strong emotion, and if appropriate, utilize them to convey a similar experience to the reader.
  269. Emotion should always lead to decision making, either good or bad, that will propel the story forward.
  270. Clothing choices are individual and project an image of one’s personality. When creating unique emotional body language, think about how a character’s clothing can be utilized to reveal their insecurities or vanities and show feelings of self-worth.
  271. Never underestimate the power of texture. The way an object feels against the skin can create a powerful reaction (positive or negative) and add to the reader’s emotional experience.
  272. Characters experiencing raw emotion often react without thinking-either through dialogue or action. Rash behavior creates the perfect storm for increased tension and conflict.
  273. While melodrama is usually a bad idea in fiction, it can be used effectively to characterize an over-the-top character.
  274. With extreme emotions that trigger an immediate fight-or-flight response, it’s important to know which “side” fits best with your character’s personality. All actions should line up with this choice.
  275. When steering your character through scenes that allow for emotional growth, don’t forget to also provide setbacks. The path to enlightenment isn’t smooth for anyone, including our characters.
  276. Maintain an overall perspective of the book’s emotional range. A strong manuscript will always expose the reader to several contrasting emotional experiences that fit within the context of the protagonist’s growth.
  277. To generate friction in dialogue, give the participants opposing goals. A heightened emotional response is the natural result of not getting what one needs.
  278. Make a list of the body parts you incorporate when expressing emotion. Are there ones you don’t use at all? Challenge yourself to come up with a unique cue by using one of these “missing” parts, and substitute it for a gesture that is overused.
  279. Be wary of showing emotion too readily through the act of crying. In real life, it takes a lot to reach a tearful state and so it should be the same for our characters.
  280. When crafting the physical movement of a fight scene, remember that less is more. Too many details create a play-by-play feel which can come across as mechanical.
  281. If you’re stuck on how to show an emotion, form a strong image of the scene in your mind. Let the scene unfold, and watch the character to see how they move and behave.
  282. Prime readers for an emotional experience by describing the mood of a scene as your character enters it. If your character is antsy, the reader will be too.
  283. Use a character’s intuition to draw the reader more fully into the scene. If you show what has primed their intuition clearly, the reader’s own gut will respond and they will pay extra close attention. The flash of intuition must pay off in some way to complete the circle.
  284. Make it a goal to offer the reader something unexpected in every scene, be it an emotional reaction, a roadblock to trip the character up, or a snippet of dialogue that sheds new light on the events unfolding.
  285. Character bibles can help you keep track of hair, eye, and clothing choices for each character, keeping the continuity from the first page to the last.
  286. To increase tension in a scene, think about what is motivating your character, and which emotions could get in the way. Introduce an event that creates the very emotions the character wishes to avoid.
  287. One way to create emotional intensity is to have the character remember the stakes on the cusp of taking action. Worry over the outcome can add a slice of desperation to any scene and create a compelling emotional pull for the reader.
  288. Force your characters to make choices between bad and worse. Readers will empathize with your character, remembering their own past when they faced a similar dilemma.
  289. Add conflicting emotions for a richer experience. A character might feel excitement and pride at purchasing their first car, yet worry that they might be extending themselves too far financially. This inner conflict helps to humanize a character to the reader.
  290. A natural way to describe a character’s appearance is to show them interacting with their environment. A sense of movement also allows this type of description to flow with the scene as it progresses.
  291. Never let the reader notice the writing. Overusing metaphors, similes, descriptive terms, and repeated body language can pull the reader out of the story.
  292. To create a fluid, emotional arc in your story, make sure your character’s feelings build in intensity and complexity as the novel progresses.
  293. Scenes do not happen in a vacuum. Don’t forget to include setting, thoughts, or verbal cues that allude to the passage of time.
  294. Make body language unique to the character. Do they lift themselves up in their shoes as they wait in line? Do they run a finger along the seam line of their jeans when deep in thought? Creative emotional mannerisms help characters leap off the page.
  295. In each scene, think about the lighting. Full sunlight, muddy clouds washing everything in grey, the onset of sunset or even darkness/light and shadow can affect a character’s mood, amp their stress level or even work against their goals.
  296. Body movements should never be random. Everything a character does should have a specific intent: to achieve an end, reveal emotion, or to characterize.
  297. Sentence structure is especially important when describing. Varied sentence length keeps the pace moving and livens up sensory detail, avoiding a “dry report” feel.
  298. Body movement and external reactions alone will not create an emotional experience for the reader. Pairing action with a light use of internal sensations and/or thoughts creates a deeper emotional pull.
  299. When introducing and describing characters, parcel out personal details in small bits. Anything that isn’t pivotal to plot or characterization can be left to the reader’s imagination.
  300. When delivering emotional description, it’s easy to rely too much on facial expressions. Instead, look down and describe what the arms, hands, legs, and feet are doing.
  301. In dialogue, it’s not always what a character says that’s important, it’s how they say it. (And sometimes it’s what they are trying hard not to say!)
  302. Choose verbs carefully. The meaning of a sentence can be altered through the words used to describe action. Readers will see a character who trudges up the stairs as being in a different emotional state than one that bounds up them, two at a time.
  303. Understand your character’s emotional range. For one character, intense situations may make them hyperventilate. For another, it might cause them to shift slightly while seated. Knowing how expressive a character is will help you find the perfect body cue to convey an emotional meaning.
  304. As your character reacts emotionally to circumstances within the environment, don’t underestimate the importance of sensory details. Do textures bother them because of a heightened state? What sounds do they pick up on that they might not otherwise notice?
  305. Watch for possible description crutches. Is the color “green” used too much? Does a sensory sound (like wind rustling through the trees) happen in multiple scenes? Keep track of these details to avoid overuse.
  306. When a character is hiding an emotion, the cues are not as noticeable. In this circumstance, it’s often more effective to show the emotion through change-altering a speech pattern, falling back on habits, posture shifts, etc.
  307. Avoid brand dropping to characterize. Brand names come and go and can date your writing. Instead, use other clues to convey your character’s personality, strengths, or shortcomings.
  308. Description is clearest when a writer adheres to the real order of events in a scene. Show the action (stimulus), then the reaction (response) and a reader will clearly see how A leads to B.
  309. When exposing the reader to a new scene, person, or object, it can be useful to have some description or opinion delivered through a secondary character’s dialogue. What they notice and how they respond provides an opportunity to characterize.
  310. Too many emotional internalizations in a scene can slow the pace considerably. If the thoughts are key, try shifting some of these to active, realistic dialogue. It will increase the pace and reveal the character’s feelings.
  311. In dialogue, be on the lookout for where your character “thinks” instead of “responds” verbally. This leads to unnatural, one-sided conversations.
  312. Loners and their lack of social interaction present specific writing challenges. To break up long stretches of introspection, maintain some character relationships. Remember that a person can be lonely even when surrounded by people; use the dialogue, dysfunction, and drama that go along with those relationships to keep the pace moving forward.
  313. When describing a character’s emotional state, pay attention to their voice. Does it rise or drop in pitch? Get louder or softer? Grow rough or silky smooth? Changes in pitch and tone are great indicators for when a character is trying to hide their feelings from others.
  314. There are dozens of physical, internal, and mental responses to use when conveying a given emotion. Filter possible cues through what you know about your character. “Would my character react this way?” is a great question to ask to stay on the right track.
  315. Don’t make it easy for your heroes. Pile on the difficulties. Overwhelm them. Make it seemingly impossible for them to succeed so that when they do overcome, the reader will be properly impressed.
  316. When describing a character’s feelings, the word “felt” is often a cue for telling emotion, not showing. Run a search for this word and challenge yourself on its use.
  317. If your scene includes a small dip into the past to retrieve information that has direct bearing on the current action, make sure there is an emotional component. Emotions are triggers to memory and help tie the present to the past.
  318. With emotion, never be afraid to try something new. Individual expressions should be genuine but unique.
  319. While it’s tempting to let a character speak openly about their emotions in dialogue, it will raise a red flag for the reader. If you wouldn’t say it in real life, don’t let your character.
  320. Emotions usually don’t jump from mild to extreme in a short period of time. To gain the reader’s trust, lay the proper foundation and show how stressors lead to a greater intensity.
  321. When conveying high emotion, keep the metaphors to a minimum. No matter how flowery or creative a character might be, in the midst of strong emotion, most people don’t think in those terms. Keep it simple to maintain believability.
  322. Maintain an overall perspective of emotional range as the story progresses from scene to scene. A strong manuscript will always expose the reader to contrasting emotional experiences that fit within the context of the POV character’s growth.
  323. To create a stronger reader reaction to emotion, remember to focus on showing what triggers the feeling, rather than only showing the character’s response to it.
  324. When writing emotion, pull from your own past. Even if you haven’t experienced what the POV character is going through, chances are you’ve felt the same emotion about something else. Draw on your personal experience and bring life to the story.
  325. Weather details can add texture and meaning to a scene. Consider how a character’s mood can shift because of the weather. It can also stand in the way of their goals, providing tension.
  326. When writing about a situation that is outside of one’s experience, consult the experts. Textbooks, professionals in the field, or friends with personal knowledge can provide the details needed to write credibly about the event.
  327. Setting should be shown through the development of character. It should help them, challenge them, and be an obstacle for them. It should make them feel at home or completely lost. At ease or anxious. It should push them forward through the story.
  328. Personality flaws should have tangible consequences in your character’s life.
  329. Have your characters sacrifice something. Have them lose something. Have them screw up royally.
  330. “If a lot of your first chapter is getting people into place, I’m yawning by chapter two.” –Janet Reid
  331. “If your character doesn’t have to change, move, decide, risk something in the first 50 pages, it’s often a pass from me.” –Janet Reid
  332. Remember the Robert Frost poem that starts “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood?” Facing those two roads is where the story starts. How our Man in the Woods got to the place, what he’s carrying in his rucksack, what he ate for lunch, why he’s carrying three cats and a lute…all beside the point. Interesting of course, and I’ll be keen to see more about it later, but the story starts when Captain Woodsman has to decide which path to take. This is often what we’re thinking about when you hear “slow pacing” or “the story didn’t start soon enough” or more baldly “no plot.”
  333. What is your protagonist’s biggest fear? Exploit it.
  334. Grammar is not important in your first draft. Fix it later.
  335. Consider writing secondary antagonists to support the main one.
  336. “Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad stories in a row.” –Ray Bradbury
  337. “The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing and you work off the resonance.” –Richard Price
  338. Make sure your plot problem comes early. Don’t test a reader with background noise and hope they hang in there. Put them in the middle of the problem — heck, try to show them the problem with the very first line if you can.
  339. Find a way to give the reader a short-term payoff. It doesn’t need to be big at all. In fact, the smaller the better. But set something up and spike it so that they know it’s going to be a good game.
  340. Breaking rules isn’t the problem. Breaking all of them is.
  341. Stifle any feelings of sympathy to your protagonist. Make them suffer. Have Cinderella burn herself cooking her stepfamily’s breakfast. Make one of the stepsisters slap her. Let the family dog bite her.
  342. There is no such thing as a perfect book or a perfect story.
  343. When you introduce an important new character, try to find a way to use their name three times in situations that make their identity clear.
  344. “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” –Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  345. Nine ways to make the audience care about an amoral/evil character:
    1. Make their ends noble even if their means are evil
    2. Ensure there is a line even they won’t cross
    3. Give them someone or something they care about
    4. Show us how they lost their moral compass
    5. Make everyone else worse than they are
    6. Give them a sense of humor
    7. Make them lose
    8. Falsely accuse them of worse crimes
    9. Make everyone hate them
  346. Words that describe someone’s voice:
    1. adenoidal
    2. appealing
    3. breathy
    4. brittle
    5. croaky
    6. dead
    7. disembodied
    8. flat
    9. fruity
    10. grating
    11. gravelly
    12. gruff
    13. guttural
    14. high-pitched
    15. hoarse
    16. honeyed
    17. husky
    18. low
    19. matter-of-fact
    20. monotonous
    21. nasal
    22. orotund
    23. penetrating
    24. plummy
    25. quietly
    26. raucous
    27. ringing
    28. rough
    29. shrill
    30. silvery
    31. singsong
    32. small
    33. smoky
    34. strangled
    35. taut
    36. thick
    37. thin
    38. throaty
    39. tight
    40. tremulous
    41. wheezy
    42. wobbly
  347. Italics mean the word is a label for a concept, not a concept itself, like when one italicizes a letter (as in “the letter a” or “it looks like a z to me.”) Example: Monarchy is a form of government headed by a king or queen. Monarchy is defined as “a form of government headed by a king or queen.” This can also occur if a word is being introduced for the first time as vocabulary. If the term consists of more than one word, do not italicize but enclose in quotations. (Ex: “Such office settings came to be called cube farms” vs. “Someone came up with the phrase ‘cube farm.'”)
  348. The first step is learning the rules. The second step is following the rules. The third step is breaking the rules.
  349. Making a First Act and Inciting Incident:
    1. The point of Act 1 is to “destroy the normal world”. The protagonist is in a situation/lives in a world where he doesn’t believe in the theme (e.g. accepting the love of a family in Logan and to have hope instead of despair and futility in Children of Men).
    2. The hero is facing some crisis at the beginning of the story (in Logan, he’s a chauffeur whose healing ability is failing and has to take care of Xavier. In Children of Men, he’s a cynical bureaucrat who was an activist)
    3. The inciting incident provokes the protagonist on the journey where he’ll learn the theme. Often, this is an offer of money, especially for males. The best kind makes the hero think he has overcome the crisis he faces at the beginning of the story (needing money or something like that). It comes in three parts:
      1. Sudden Opportunity: (in Logan, this is where the nurse pays him a ludicrous amount of money to take her to a motel, in Children of Men the ex-wife asks for transport help for some amount of money).
      2. Refusal by the Protagonist: Hero initially says no — too much risk, too much involvement, and it contradicts their “belief”
      3. Reluctant Agreement: The hero changes his mind because this will help overcome the crisis he faces at the beginning of the story. the money is too much to refuse and accepts the mission. In fact, the hero has just gotten into the worst trouble of his life. This trouble will destroy his normal world and cause a reversal in his behavior.
    4. After this point, the setup ends and the story begins for real.
  350. Good flaws for villains:
    1. Vanity: Vulnerable to flattery, probably has portraits of himself all over the place, always checking appearance. A lengthy talk about the villain’s traits may allow others to get into position.
    2. Hubris: The need to avenge insults quickly and decisively may lead to tactical mistakes.
    3. Honor: Makes villain predictable in combat, will probably show mercy to foes, and pointing out unfair advantages may lead to villain discarding them.
    4. Cruelty: May be able to sway subordinates to hero’s side or betray villain
    5. Wrath: Angry villains aren’t reasonable villains. By learning stimuli that incurs wrath, villain may make tactical mistakes.
    6. Overconfidence: Villain recognizing own power may lead to viewing hero’s as less of a threat than they are. Example: a vampire, instead of killing heroes, decides to play cat-and-mouse for a while, letting them find some deadly artifacts.
  351. World-Building – The Express Version
    1. Themes
      1. Think of a handful of concepts that describe what the world is about. These are usually short phrases. Start with 8-10, then reduce to 4 or 5.
        1. Ex: Roman Empire, ice world, city campaign, elves vs. dwarves, bronze age technology, pirate archipelago, thieves’ guild, Riders of Rohan, Roman Legions, aftermath of a great war, Scottish Highlanders
      2. Create areas related to those concepts
        1. Ex. the “Riders of Rohan” would need plains and steppes for their mounts. Highlanders need cliffs and mountainous regions. Roman legions need rolling hills between the riders and highlanders.
      3. Decide what threats would exist in those zones
    2. Mapping
      1. Using the known zones, make a map of this place.
        1. Start with coastlines
        2. Then mountains because that dictates where river systems begin
        3. Then forests
        4. For the remaining areas, consider rainfall – those with rain are plains, those without are desert.
      2. Now name everything.
      3. Assign where your cultures will live.
      4. Add conflicts — why do these cultures hate/like each other.
        1. These can be wars, plagues, trade disputes, succession, religious conflicts, philosophical movements, peasant rebellions, wars with evil humanoids, undead dragons, etc.
        2. Ex: Romans view most other humans as rebels; Riders think the Romans are deluded, that the highlanders are uncivilized swineherds, and that the mercantile humans are a bunch of effete hedonists; Highlanders think that the Romans are dishonorable and power-hungry, that the Riders take themselves far too seriously, and that the mercantile humans are greedy; Mercantile humans like the Romans because their minted currency is of uniform weight and quality, they like the riders because they’re poor at commerce and export cheaply, they like the highlanders because they have a strong work ethic and their weak economy makes for low wages. AND they like tensions between groups, because tensions create a need for troops, which create needs for goods and services.
    3. History
      1. Create a history of the world, divided by three categories:
        1. Ancient ages
          1. 500-1,000 years in length
          2. Consists of epic events, empires rising and falling, cataclysms natural and man-made, technological discoveries, epic wars, great migrations, legendary figures, etc.
        2. Middle periods
          1. 50-100 years in length
          2. Beginning of recorded history so a kingdom or temple may prominently figure (along with revisionist history)
          3. Usually contains plagues, colonization, natural disasters, kingdoms rising and falling, technological advances, wars of invasion, wars of succession, crusades, rebellions, etc.
        3. Recent events
          1. Occur every 1-6 years, sprinkled over 50 years back
          2. Consists of strong/weak rulers, plagues, monsters, brigands, recent wars, social scandals, etc.
    4. Culture
      1. With the established timeline, the map, and the concepts, create places where interesting or story things would happen
        1. If you want to go the extra mile, make copies of the map depicting the terrain of the region (without settlements or political boundaries). Assign each copy an approximate year in history, dated about 500 years apart. Then place political boundaries that exist at each date, creating something of a pictorial history of migrations, trade routes, and wars.
      2. Create memorable cultures.
        1. Establish each zone’s cultural traits (and people who might go against them). This includes mutually exclusive goals, misunderstandings, prominent religion & mythologies, social alignment (chaotic/good evil), type of government and its popularity, predominant occupations and their values (e.g. farmers value patience and hard work, merchants value financial acumen and wealth), the equipment used and carried by the people of that culture, types of housing, forms of art, preferred entertainments,
  352. Killers of the first 50 pages (13000 words):
    1. Weak first line – think of the start like the beginning of a movie. You need an opening shot of someone doing something interesting or unusual. Not boring clouds.
    2. Starting with a dream
    3. Lack of engaging hook
    4. Telling instead of showing
    5. POV errors
    6. Shallow characters
    7. Lack of beats for pacing and description
    8. Stilted dialogue
    9. Clumsy fiction craftsmanship – avoid strange participial phrases like “Having grown up in Louisiana, Jerry had blond hair.”
    10. Inadequate description of characters and setting – add sensory details and comparisons and word pictures. Describe a character as soon as he/she steps on the stage for the first time. For settings, start describing them by the end of the first 250 words of a scene in a new location.
    11. Starting the main action too soon
    12. Going into flashbacks too early
    13. Jumping to a new POV character too early
    14. Too little conflict
    15. Lack of stakes or ticking time bomb
  353. “Telling” is when you stop the story to explain something the reader doesn’t care about. The exceptions are a) the reader must want to know the information or b) the story cannot go on without this information.
  354. If the camera can’t see it, it’s telling, not showing.
  355. Only give the bare minimum of what the reader needs to know to comprehend what’s going on in the scene. What you lose in detail (when you show instead of tell) is made up for in reader engagement.
  356. The “dumb puppet” trick:” to add exposition without exclusively telling, include a character who doesn’t know what’s going on and has a reason to ask. Good candidates are children, tourists, reporters, and socially awkward brothers.
  357. Don’t say anything that the viewpoint character wouldn’t see or know. “Jennifer reached out her willowy arms and wondered if Maurice could still love her.” This doesn’t work unless she’s sitting around thinking “My, I have willowy arms.”
  358. A character is considered weak if you can’t tell (within 13,000 words) which character is which, aside from cosmetic differences (e.g. gender, age, role, office, species, attitude, goofy accent). If you can switch the names around and nothing seems out of the ordinary, then the characters are weak. That goes for stereotypes too (e.g. Smythe the proper Brit hanging with Han the Chinese scientist and Bubbles the airheaded blonde; David is always mad and Hooper talks dirty and that’s their only difference.). Characters must not only talk, dress, and look different, they must seem different. They shouldn’t be a group of clones.
  359. Primary method of reader engagement: make the reader bond with the main character. Cement an emotional connection with the hero. We connect with Luke Skywalker because he’s an orphan/idealist/dreamer longing for adventure. Forrest Gump is loyal and loving and innocent, so we want to protect him. Scarlett O’Hara is resourceful, clever, ambitious, and, though cruel on the outside, she has a soft middle. Thus the hero must be either heroic (willing to sacrifice/risk for others), principled, sympathetic, winsome (kind/childlike/funny/good-hearted), or smart. These features should be demonstrated in the first 13,000 words.
  360. Things the first 13,000 words have to give in order to establish “normal”: genre, milieu/era/setting, backdrop (larger event in background), and tone.
  361. For the beginning hook/scene, think of your hero’s essence and how that could be illustrated in a scene. Don’t worry about how it can be implanted into the story world (genre, setting, etc.) yet. It’s easier to go than trying to mandate something that fits in your story world. (e.g. Character waiting in an airport instead of an airship docking station.) Think of it as a small short story.
  362. Showing your character’s work and/or home is good for establishing the normal.
  363. How to figure out your character’s “essence”: how would your character want his/her portrait to be painted in the Renaissance (e.g. Elizabeth I of England, the Armada Portrait by Woburn Abbey). What stuff is around her? What is she wearing? Where is she sitting? What’s out the windows? What’s on the table next to her?
  364. WALL-E is an excellent example of what the “first fifty pages” should do: establishing-the-normal, bond-with-the-character introduction.
  365. An excellent way to beginning a book is by introducing the villain (e.g. Star Wars). It establishes the antagonist, shows the challenge the hero must face, sets the stakes, shows the consequences of failure, begins conflict, initiates suspense, and sets the ticking time bomb.
  366. Imagine the first line as a tweet. It has to stand on its own. It must be simple, engaging, and tone-appropriate.
  367. First lines fall into four categories: 1) striking 2) profound 3) funny 4) mysterious
  368. Stick with your main protagonist for the first 10,000 contiguous words of the novel (with the exception of the prologue).
  369. Recommended: The book should start with a 2000-5000 scene. Do it like a short film or short story. Make it stand alone with beginning, middle, and end. Wall-E’s short story begins as he’s working, and ends as he goes to sleep for the night. Launch with a dance number, not a tip-toe.
  370. A character should have a weakness, a desire, and a need. For example, in Shaun of the Dead, the main character’s weakness is the unwillingness to make change, his desire is to get more out of life, and his need is to take responsibility, grow up, and truly live his life.
  371. A character should be part of a web in which each helps define the others. In other words, a character is often defined by who he is not. One represents his weakness, one his desire, and one his need.
  372. Setting the Stage: How I keep my novels on track is I have a general idea about the behaviors, preferences, morals, resources/skills, and goals of my different characters in the plot. Divide the characters into groups (most basic would be “good guys” and “bad guys”, but stories can have more than one faction/side at play). These are your “sides” for the next step.
  373. Placing the Pieces: Your story comes from one or more of your “factions” wanting something that the other faction(s) will try to stop them from getting/achieving. Based on this, pick out where the story ends. (ex. the bad guy is thrown to his death from a church rooftop, the MC slays a dragon, the leads fall in love, whatever you want the big defining moment to be before your credits roll, so to speak). Now pick a starting point (preferably as close to the inciting incident as possible) for your protagonist’s “faction” to charge at this goal from. You now have plot point A and Z. One side is as far from victory with the other side(s) sitting on their ultimate goal. The trick is now getting them from A to Z. But why A and Z, not A and B? Because the next step generates B, C, D, and so forth.
  374. The Back and Forth: Plots develop by placing roadblocks that side one must overcome and making advances that side two must counter. You don’t have to come up with them in order (you might cook up plot point X long before B), and the events can be rearranged while drafting your novel, but the point is a cohesive plot is made up of side one (the heroes) making advances towards the villains (side two) and then the villains must chuck up a protective roadblock to prevent the heroes from leaping straight from starting line A to the top of steeple Z and tossing them off.
  375. Making Advancements: Any hero (faction) worth reading about will make advancements toward the finish line (plot point Z) that arise from the skills, background, morals, etc. the characters on side one possess. The friendly friar finds out what church the villain is standing on top of. The warrior digs deep to master his alcoholism so he can balance on rooftops and toss villains without falling off himself. The thief delves into the underworld to secure a boat to the island with the church the villain is hiding in. None of this work is random. It can arrive as a result of information obtained overcoming a roadblock (ex. one of the monsters sent to kill the heroes are animated church gargoyles, giving them the idea “faction two is at a church!”) or it can be a result of the starting state of each side one member at plot point A (ex. the MC started their quest to find the evil, church-defiling villain). Note: not all of your side one characters have met at plot point A. The friendly friar may be halfway across the board between A and Z and one of the made advancements can simply be reaching and speaking to him, but he only has the information he started with or his own roadblocks have revealed to him.
  376. Roadblocks: Bad guys want good guys to chuck off a church steeple or kill them, rob them, or whatever else your end game goal is. So the bad guys will do something to put a roadblock in the way of the characters reaching them on that church steeple. This is a plot complication, and it must spring up as an action by the bad guys. Maybe a bandit lord likes a physical approach; knowing that at some point he is liable to toss a bunch of bandits at the the good guys. But if they are an evil enchantress with a penchant for nature spells then the complication might be corrupted ents or poisonous vines in the dark woods… The point is to always create roadblocks by having the bad guys either actively place them, physically relocate to put them in the good guys’ path, trick the roadblock into getting in the good guys’ way, etc. All major blocks should come from the bad guys in some fashion visible to the reader. If the reader can’t see the connection, it is random and comes off like a video game. (Granted, you can toss in the occasional “my cell phone ran out of batteries” or “a wyvern just ate the horses” but those random events must be heavily outweighed by the actively placed/created roadblocks and, IF AT ALL POSSIBLE, try to make it somehow the bad guys’ fault either actively or passively.) Not all roadblocks are placed after plot point A. While falling into the evil lich’s pit trap is plot point W, he may have set it fifty years before plot point A hit because he was expecting somebody to try to attack him up on that church steeple. Physical traps, escape routes, etc. are more believable that living things or loyal soldiers being set up in advance, but the later can be done if adequately foreshadowed (such as raids, prior attacks on the party, etc.).
  377. Query Letter: How do you get stakes on the page? The easiest place to start is answering these four basic questions: A) Who is the main character? B) What does she want? C) What is keeping her from getting what she wants? D) What must she sacrifice to get what she wants? Example: A) Jack Reacher B) is sitting alone in a small town diner, and just wants to finish his breakfast C) when he is suddenly, inexplicably arrested for a murder he could not have committed D) When the man behind the false arrest is also killed, Reacher can stay in town, at great peril to himself, to solve the case or he can leave shake the dust of this crazy town off his sneakers and get on with his wandering.
  378. Query Letter: How to get “what the book is about” on the page: The main character must choose Path A or Path B. If she chooses Path A, the dire consequences/outcome/peril she faces are X. If she chooses Path B, the even more dire consequences/outcome/peril she faces are Y. Example: When her younger sister is called to be their district’s entry in the Hunger Games Katniss Everdeen must decide whether to go in her place. If she goes, her family will suffer because Katniss’ hunting skills are what keeps them from starving now. If she decides not to go, her sister will surely die in the Games.
  379. Adjectives in English have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. Green great dragons can’t exist.
  380. Books thrive or fail based on their writing: plot, characterization, narrative style, etc. Worldbuilding is part of that.
  381. When worldbuilding secondary worlds, learning curve increases with difference. Suggestion: immersion should be proportional to the difference level. In other words, the more different it is from us, increase scope/closeness to the perspective. (i.e. The Hunger Games has high immersion or close first-person POV and explains little, Lord of the Rings has low immersion or distant 3rd person POV and explains often, sometimes with infodumps).
  382. You can’t research everything. Use enough science to make sense to the layperson. Use your writing to sell the “whoppers”.
  383. Fiction must engage, not just educate or entertain.
  384. Believability =/= realism. Realism =/= dark. Dark =/= good.

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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