Writing: Tropes and Archetypes Won’t Kill You

Archetypes and Tropes: The Futility of Writing ‘Original’

It is ridiculous–RIDICULOUS–that I’m doing this many blogs when my novel comes out in less than two weeks, and I am behind, behind, behind.

But I came across a ‘how to write’ sort of article today that generated deep, deep feelings of disagreement, and I think I need to share it with you. Not the article, of course, as that would be somewhat rude. Besides, there are a million others like it out there–which is, in and of itself, very funny and a little sad.

But you know these articles. One #amwriting search on Twitter will get you like fifty of them: The Ten (or Five, or Three, or Twenty) Tropes We’re So Very Tired of Seeing in Writing. The Ten (or Seven, or Four) Plot Devices You NEED to stop using. Etc., etc., ad infinitum. It brings to mind a few questions:

1) Who died and made you the King of Preferences?

And, two:

2) Okay, so I SHOULDN’T be doing any of this. What, then, as long as I’m listening to you, SHOULD I do?

The response, of course, is: ‘be original’. Which, considering you just expended more breath telling me what not to do than God expended on the Ten Commandments, I find a little amusing.

This preoccupation with the original idea is the result, in my opinion, of a me, me, me culture. It isn’t the same as write a good story, write a story that will move people at all. It is: write something that people will admire you for, because you’re just so new and fresh and creative. Spend several years coming up with an idea–the ONE idea, that for some reason, no one has employed before. Because a fantasy hero fighting half-bat, half-fruit fly demons isn’t essentially the same thing as a fantasy hero fighting dragons at all. In that sort of story, a fly-swatter/harpoon doesn’t serve the same purpose as a sword at all.

It’s a story of man vs. nature, vs. the monstrous Other, either way. What matters in the story is how the man fights the strange creatures, what the strange creatures mean, why he’s fighting them. It helps, sure, if the trappings are cool. But it’s the same basic story either way.

Do you think Romeo and Juliet was the first tragicomic love story ever penned? Look at the Greek myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. Shakespeare sure did.

Here’s the thing. If you write a story with only the idea of avoiding a character looking into a mirror, a doomsday prophecy, a vampire who sleeps in a coffin, a magic sword that only speaks to its appointed bearer, you will. Write. A horrible. Fucking. Story.

Not because convention is always good. But because in focusing on the trappings, your ignoring the consequences these things have for your story. Sometimes, it’s good to have a vampire who sleeps in a coffin. He might need to, for one reason or another. Maybe vampires really only can sleep in coffins, because, you know, that’s what we expect from dead people. Maybe this common archetype inspires you to write a story about a vampire who was cremated, and drifts across the country in the form of a barely-sentient blood draining ash cloud. I don’t know. But remember, he’s still a vampire. Don’t shy away from that. His vampirosity is what the story is about, not whether or not he sleeps in a coffin. If him sleeping in the bathtub instead gives you an opportunity to display something about his character or his condition, go for it. If it doesn’t really matter, it’s coffin city. People know where they stand with a vampire in a coffin, and it doesn’t distract.

If you want to write a story about half-bat half-fruit fly monsters, you absolutely can. It’s pretty cool as an idea. But this isn’t original. What makes your story original, again, is tailoring that very traditional story– man vs. monster–and making it a story about bats and fruit flies. It’s up to you to decide how much of your story focus needs to be on explaining and detailing that idea. If you want it to really be a love story, maybe stick to dragons.

Look at Ender’s Game, that classic of sci-fi. Are the Buggers a particularly original concept? Is the alien invasion? No. But Orson Scott Card’s story isn’t really about an alien invasion, about the Buggers as a race. It’s a story about a sensitive young boy who is drawn into doing something that goes against a good part of his nature. And in this–in his depiction of Battle School, of the way older people train and warp these children simultaneously into something almost monstrous themselves–he is very original. Because this is the part of the story that matters to him. Because Ender’s story is the story, and not just trappings.

So next time you’re rereading your draft and you see your character looking into a mirror and raise your finger to the delete button, stop for a second. Think about it. Can you convey more–can you gain more–by having your character look into this mirror and think about themselves than you will lose by having a few snotty readers groan? Would having your character look into an Anzelpuff-Snurtz Reflectionator take up far, FAR more story space than you’re willing to give it? The ‘trope’ of the mirror exists because people do look into them occasionally. Actually, that’s why mirrors exist. Don’t reach, and fail, in trying to ignore that.

At some point in your story, your character is going to have some thoughts about himself. We all do. It might as well be in front of a mirror–then you can concentrate on what moves the story forward. You can concentrate on the thoughts.

If you do this, your story will become original all on its own. I promise you. Your brain will take you to some funky, funky logical conclusions, when you just let the story matter. And if someone rolls their eyes because oh how dare you, I don’t know where commas go but your character looked into a mirror and that makes me smarter, fuck ’em.

Take back your own story. Do what you want to do with it, and do what you think is appropriate, what you think matters. You’ll be surprised at just how original the results will be.

Writing in 3rd Person: Surface as Depth

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Surface as Depth: Rocking 3rd Person

You guys wanna talk about something I believe in? It’s 3rd person narrative. To the Nth degree. To artformitous levels.

1st person is nice. So’s 2nd person, though if you’ve written an entire novel in 2nd and it’s readable, trust me, I want to read it. But 3rd person, often (wrongly, I think) regarded as a sort of assumed base state for storytelling, doesn’t get a lot of talk, and it should.

Because it’s NOT just a base state. Because it’s NOT natural, and doing it well isn’t easy.

Our ‘natural’ storytelling tense, especially in this age of facebook and instant communication, is first person. We talk with the most assurance about things that’ve happened to us, things we felt and thought and mulled over. We can even describe, more or less naturally, things that go on inside our own heads (how we do this I’m not certain. My brain is my own personal final frontier. Could I explain to you why, when I smell corn dogs, I think of Phantom of the Opera? No. Hell no.) It’s easy to figure out where you’re at writing in first person, because you just think of what would be running through YOUR head when you smell corn dogs, and paraphrase accordingly.

Third person, however. How do you humanize that lonely-sounding he or she? How do you, perhaps, characterize an ‘it’?

Even the most informal and singular 3rd person POV stories show secondary, and sometimes primary, characters through a double lens. The lens of your viewpoint character–how he or she views this person–and the final lens of you, the author, writing about these characters from the generalized human ether taking place outside of he/she. When you think about it, it’s a hard road to walk. Because there’s also that third lens, the one you can only guess at.

Your reader, viewing this person being viewed by this person being viewed by you.

Oh my God. SO META. So meta it could make your brain explode.

To write third person effectively, you have to consider all three of these lenses. Actions and dialogue, therefore, can be viewed in this form:

1) How does my viewpoint character take this?

2) How/why am I writing it this way? What good does it do my story to write this character in this way, to have my main character take this character’s actions/speech in this fashion? (You’re in control of this story, remember. Write it like you are.)

3) How’ll the reader view it?

If you’re writing a mystery/thriller type of story, you’ve probably thought about these three lenses a little more than most. Mystery-driven stories, where small pieces of evidence are often dropped through unreliable secondary characters in deliberately misleading ways, prove damn well why all of these considerations are important.

As an example I think, in Halloweeny fashion, of the Twilight Zone episode where the aliens have a book entitled ‘To Serve Man’. Folk take this in a very rosy light, but guess what? It’s a fucking cookbook. The characters think one thing, the writer knows another. As the tale unfolds, the viewer (and the characters, hopefully) start to think again.

Your story might not be mystery or horror, and you might not need that ‘a-HAH!’ moment at the end of it. But this sort of misinformation–what Ms. Austen would refer to as ‘prejudice’–drives a lot of our day to day lives. You know that guy you always see at the bus stop complaining about his wife? You know how you think he’s kind of a dick? Well, how would you feel if you found his wife, upon returning home from work, beats the shit out of him every night, and he won’t leave her because he loves her, even though the MPD and the fact that she keeps calling herself Melvin the Drive-By Trucker drives him crazy? She refuses help. She knows something’s wrong, but she’s too scared and too ashamed to go to a doctor. So he sticks by her, even though she definitely isn’t the same person–or even the same NUMBER of people–he married twenty years ago. He recognizes that his wife is confused and in pain, and wants to be around to help if he can, even if it annoys the shit out of him, even if it’s dangerous. You might want to discreetly leave a few abuse hotline pamphlets at that bus stop, by the way. His wife might be ninety pounds, but Melvin the DBT doesn’t pull his punches. What he’s doing is sweet and loyal in its way, but is it healthy?

Things change when you have the full story. And, in third person, the story has to develop. You have to build your full story through your characters, who are human and fallible and see the world through their own eyes and not yours. No one just TELLS the full story. Not at first, at least. I have never gone up to a guy in a bar and said ‘I’m Em. I’m a slightly overweight failed author with a major class-chip on my shoulder from working high end retail, as well as an unpredictable temper. I’m happy to drink a beer with you, and am a smart and honest person, but I had a guy I dated for several years up and leave me in the holiday season with full rent for a two bedroom apartment and unpaid bills, so I have mild abandonment issues, and probably WILL mention his name when we fight, and compare you to him. Also, I snore. Nice to meet you!’

Though, Jesus, it might’ve made my love life simpler to do so.

The story unfolds, in third person especially, through interaction. When your MC asks the girl at the bar if she’s seeing anyone, she doesn’t answer ‘I have a softhearted friend who I like but don’t love and hate to let down who I’m sleeping with about once a week, and a midlevel involved crush on the mailman, who asked me out to coffee last Wednesday’.

No, she says: ‘not really’. Or she says ‘kind of’. And from that, your main character infers something. WHAT he infers, precisely, depends on what sort of person he is. And what the reader infers–well. It depends on what you give away. Is she smiling when she says it? Does she look uncomfortable? Does she drain her Cosmopolitan, and order another?

If you want your MC to be sympathetic and relatable, what he observes should affect him in a way you’d imagine it would affect the reader, or at least in a way the reader would find understandable. Otherwise, because you ARE writing in 3rd person and can only describe in shorthand what your character feels, you don’t get that access to this person’s head.

The girl twists a peroxided curl around her fingers, says ‘not really’. Your MC smiles, drains his beer, and decides it’s about time to call a taxi. I haven’t used the phrase ‘he felt’ or ‘she felt’ ONCE. Not ONCE. But you know what he’s thinking, and what assumptions he made.

But I’m the writer, so after the taxi-calling bit, I’ll add this:

He had almost made it to the corner where the taxi stood idling when he heard the clatter of heels behind him, caught the scent of her jasmine perfume.

“Y’know,” she said, after she’d caught her breath, “I’m really not seeing anyone. At least, no one I can’t stop seeing.”

He met her eyes. They were the honest gray of an Andrew Wyeth sky.

“No one I won’t stop seeing,” she amended.

There aren’t any feelings mentioned here. Not directly, at least. But you can imagine a little bit about this girl from the details–the sudden rush, the clatter of heels, sickly-sweet perfume, twisting a curl. She was seeing somebody. She’s probably a little shy, a little vulnerable. But she’s willing to take a chance.

Sometimes, a lot says more than a little. A bombshell-blonde curl twisted around a finger means a lot more, is more relatable, than deadeye statements like ‘the pretty girl was obviously nervous’.

If you’re having trouble with this, seriously, go to a bar you don’t usually go to, a place that isn’t too loud but isn’t too dead, either. Just sit there for an hour or two and observe. Be a creeper, go ahead. It’s not illegal–hell, in this case it’s fucking research. Bring a book if you care about creepers noticing you creeping.

Watch how people react to each other. This will actually work even better if the music is loud, and you can’t hear them. Come up with stories about them, conversations for them. Figure out if they’ve just met, if theyr’e family, if they’re longtime friends, husband and wife, etc.

Then ask yourself how you know.

The answers will be in gesture form, in facial expressions, in seating arrangement and touch. This is how you explain yourself in third person. Will you occasionally need a ‘he/she felt’, a look into your viewpoint character’s head? Yes. But, like Lysol, deploy it with care. A little bit helps to solve a problem. A lot just makes your story stink.

WRITING WEDNESDAY: Beautiful

WRITING WEDNESDAY: Beautiful

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This is a pretty short WW, and it’s something I’ve touched on in other posts, but I wanted to talk about it anyway.

That ‘it’ is beauty, and its place in fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand and accept that there are beautiful people in this life. More so now that plastic surgery and photo-retouching are readily available, but yes. There are people who are beautiful and good, beautiful and smart, beautiful and downright evil. Beauty has many faces, many meanings, many personalities.

But when I read fiction, I come across a hard to ignore truth: the population of beautiful people in the world of words is far, FAR greater than that of beautiful people on Earth. And when someone ISN’T beautiful, it seems like it’s either A) a big fucking self-esteem issue, or B) solely so someone can prove that ‘beauty is on the inside, hrpldrplehurr’. Or, conversely and ironically, because this person is evil.

My question is: how interesting, in a written work, is ‘beautiful’?

My answer: not at all. Not much. I’ve never been captivated by a description of somebody, never fallen in love with a character because he’s written as 6’5 and hung like a racehorse. Y’know why?

Beauty ISN’T on the inside. Sorry. That’s something called ‘character’. Beauty is a purely visual quality, and it tends to be startlingly homogenous when you describe it. There’s only so much I’m willing to put up with the wind rustling your character’s platinum curls, the shade dancing over his/her even features, the light shining in his or her (insert jewel-descriptor here) eyes. This is boring as FUCK, especially if, as is frequently the case, your character’s level of attractiveness has nothing else to do with the story.

If your character is beautiful for a reason, go for it. Like I said, I recognize that there are, even here on earth, some fabulously attractive people. But I do ask you: so she’s beautiful, okay. Beautiful, AND…?

Folks fall in love with a character for the way they react to a situation, the things they say, the sacrifices they are or aren’t willing to make. If you want me to like him, quit telling me about his rock-hard abs and start telling me about how kind he is to the palace charwoman. Stop telling me about her beautiful dress and start telling me about how red she turns when someone insults her, how easily she flies off the handle. Obviously, the opposite is also true–if you want me to hate him, tell me about how he fell asleep in the Council hall during a crucial meeting, etc.

Beauty–looks in general, unless there is something particularly eye-catching about your character–is worth a word every few chapters, at most. And honestly? Not everyone is beautiful. Not everyone SHOULD BE beautiful. And when someone IS beautiful, people react to them differently. People are kinder to them, or jealous of them, often more likely to make things easier for them. A beautiful woman walking into a bar is more likely to get mobbed than an ugly one. I always find it silly when a beautiful female MC walks into a crowded bar and just sits alone in a corner. Has this writer ever BEEN to a bar?

Also. Some people–even good people–are ugly. They just are. It’s a toss of the genetic dice, people, not a statement of intent.

I’m tired of the association we automatically make between worth and beauty. I’m not a beautiful girl, and I don’t know how many times I’ve uttered this statement for some clarifying purpose and gotten like six coos and responses of ‘oooh, honey, of course you’re beautiful!’

No, I’m not.

No, it doesn’t bother me. Most of us aren’t. If I’d said ‘I’m not good at math’, d’you think I’d get the coo bath and pep-talks? No. But I can’t help being bad at math, either.

I do, however, fully believe that I’m worthy of attention and respect. I believe this has absolutely nothing to do with my face. This is even MORE the case for your characters, who don’t even HAVE real faces, unless somebody draws them.

If you want someone to like your MC, you need more than auburn hair and a dazzling smile. You need a person.
Personality is built, not on genetic die-tosses like looks and intelligence, but on decisions and reactions.

A person can BE stupid, but study hard. Or: a person can BE ugly, but primp carefully. These things tell me more about your character than beauty or intelligence ever will.

There y’go.

EXCERPT: Apples

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Photo from unsplash.com, by Kim Daniels. You should totally check out this site, there are some beautiful photos on it.

This is what would essentially be the prologue to a novella-length story I’ve been working on, unrelated to Aurian and Jin. It’s just a draft, really, but I’d appreciate thoughts: this is a little more heartbreak than I’m used to accommodating in a first chapter. Not sure if this is worth going on with. Don’t worry, the main character is only a kid in this bit.

Southern Gothic, one of my lost loves, with hints of mythology (bonus points for the person who can guess the story from this chapter) and what’ll be some very American magic.

I
SPAWNING

The thing was warty, green, lopsided. It had skin like a grapefruit gone mad.

“It’s a hedge apple,” Granddaddy said, smiling at him. “No–don’t try and bite it, son. It ain’t for eating.”

The little boy took the fruit away from his mouth. “It’s so big,” he said. He weighed it in both hands. “It’s heavy.”

“Solid all the way down to the core.” Granddaddy knelt beside him, pointing. The little boy could smell his aftershave on the autumn breeze, an old-man smell mixed in with the loam and sweet rot of the woods: he looked where his granddaddy was pointing, all the way up into the trees.

“They grow up there,” Granddaddy said. “Can you see ’em, Rusty?”

Rusty could. They looked almost normal so far away, like golf balls or dim green marbles. When the wind moved the boughs of the tree they stayed in place, anchored by their own clustered weight. Rusty thought about his mama, about the pendulous way she moved now, how she swung out from her belly like the branches around these not-to-be-eaten apples.

His mama’s belly, she had told him, was full of a baby sister for Rusty. He thought babies must be like peas, or apples, or corn. They grew and grew and grew, and any day they might pop out. Mama seemed happy enough about it. It was just that when he went to kiss her goodnight, there was no more room in her lap.

“Why do they call ’em apples if you can’t eat them?” Rusty asked.

Granddaddy just laughed.

“I don’t know, son. Why do they call a cow’s doodie a pie? Don’t look very tasty to me. Sometimes a name is just a name. Speakin’ of names, I think I hear your mama calling you in for supper. C’mon. You can take the hedge apple with you.”

Rusty followed his grandfather down the path, turning the funny green fruit over and over in his hands as the great Piedmont trees dwindled to underbrush and pine needles. He could see his backyard from here, the firewood piles and the live oaks and the little well, its roof shingled with scalloped working in the eaves. He could see the tire swing turning idly in the breeze, smell what was definitely mama’s split pea soup drifting through the open kitchen door. The magic of the woods seemed very far away, the silence composed of small sounds and growth and decay.

“Won’t you come in for dinner, Granddaddy?” Rusty asked, being polite like mama taught him.

“Rusty,” Granddaddy said. “You know I can’t do that.” The old man listened for a moment, his head cocked–his grey hair, shaggy and grown out like an old hippie’s, brushed his shoulders as he did so.

“That ain’t callin’,” he said, after a moment.

Rusty listened too. He could hear his mama’s voice loud over the lawn. He could hear Papa’s voice too–he hadn’t known Papa was home again. They were shouting at each other. Rusty heard a crack like a cast iron skillet hitting a wall. He heard many little bumps and crashes, a symphony of painful sound. He heard Papa’s sun-bleached Cavalier start, saw the trails of dust as it whipped down the dirt road almost on two wheels.

They lingered in the air, the dust and the smoke. A burger wrapper, whipped from the car by the wind of its passing, settled slowly to earth.

The old man took Rusty’s hand in his own liver spotted ones, knelt once more so his eyes were level with Rusty’s. His eyes were poison green, the green of new leaves, the green of the hedge apple in Rusty’s pocket.

“Listen to me, boy,” he said. “There’s an old tale about hedge apples. Tale older n’ your house, all the way back to the first settlers in these parts. If you’re lonely, they used to say, and you need a friend, all you have to do is tell a hedge apple, and a friend will come to you. You understand me?”

“Yes, sir,” Rusty said, though he didn’t understand at all.

“Remember,” Granddaddy said.

“I promise,” said Rusty. “But won’t you–”

“I can’t,” said Granddaddy, his voice rough. “You know the rules.” He squeezed the boy’s hand and let it go. “I’ll watch you, though. This I promise.”
Rusty nodded, knowing not to press Granddaddy too hard. He could get tetchy if you pressed him too hard, and then it took a lot of buttering up to get him sweet again.

Rusty tramped across the yard, past the oaks and the swing and the cheerful little well. Mama had the screen door propped open on a rock. When he came in she was sitting on a stool in front of the big-bellied stove, an ear of corn unshucked in her lap. There were several ears, already shucked, piled on the cutting board. The silk from these clung to Mama’s white pregnancy dress. They glittered like strands of something precious in the wet blood that coated her legs.

Mama’s voice was like raw rock. “Rusty,” she said. “Hey, honey.”

The blood had filled her left slipper. It dripped down onto the linoleum in the silence. Drip, drip, drip. Rusty wanted to hug her but his arms wouldn’t move.

“Where’s Papa?” he asked.

“He’s already gone, honey. Maybe for good this time. Don’t you worry.” Tears coursed down her cheeks. “Rusty? Do you remember the number Mama taught you to call when there was an accident?”

“I can call Granddaddy,” Rusty said. “He said he’d be watching. He’s right here.”

The woman let out a strangled sound, something halfway between a sob and a scream. Rusty scampered backwards. Mama had never hit him, but then again, Mama had never made that noise. Mama’s eyes had never been so crazy. Mama’s mouth had never hung open and slack, her jaw jerking like a caught fish.

“Your granddaddy is dead,” Mama snarled. “How many times do I have to tell you, Rusty? Your granddaddy is dead. He. Is. Dead.”

She lunged off her stool, took a wild swipe at him with the ear of corn. Rusty backed up almost to the kitchen door, almost to freedom and the lawn and then the wood and Granddaddy. He would have taken off had she not slipped in her own blood, and fallen to her knees, and started sobbing.

Rusty didn’t like seeing Mama cry. It made him feel real worried, real little and scared.

She was skinny again, he noticed. She was skinny, and she had one eye puffed almost shut.

“Did Papa take my baby sister?” he asked. Papa took things sometimes. Packs of cigarettes, Mama’s car. Last time it had been the silver, which Mama called ‘ancestral’. Rusty figured that was a brand, like Jiffy or Aunt Jemima, but it must be a nice one if she kept talking about it.
Mama kept crying. She was crying harder than she had over the silver. She cried and cried and cried. On the stove, the soup started to boil over.
Rusty, who had learned about such things from his mama, turned the burner off.

Rusty didn’t know what to do. He put his arms around her, as far as they could reach.

“Just get upstairs,” Mama said. He could feel the rigidity like a branch inside her. “Get upstairs. I’m gonna call the number. I’ll be back before you go to school tomorrow, okay? Just get upstairs.”

Rusty was only a little boy. He went upstairs, climbed into his little bed and buried himself under the quilt. He stayed there until he heard the sirens, heard the ambulance men taking Mama away. He stayed until the last rays of the sun had set and all he could see, all he could feel and smell and breathe, was darkness.

He took the hedge apple out of his pocket, felt the hard puckered skin of it with trembling fingers, and remembered what Granddaddy had said.

“I need a friend,” he whispered to it. “Please, please. I need a friend.”

The apple, bumpy and dumb under his fingertips, said nothing in return.

He fell asleep clutching it, rich red dirt under his nails, the smell of the woods in his nostrils.

It was only once he was asleep, and the house completely silent, that the hedge apple began to shake.

It was just a little tremble at first, like the beating heart of a bird. Then, with a faint pop, two warty green arms extended from it, followed by another pop and two warty green legs. The feet on the end of these legs were bird’s feet, three toothpick talons ending in three toothpick nails. They extended, stretched, made cartoonish shapes as tendons warmed up. A head, saggy and droopy and wedge-shaped, followed the legs and arms.

Two eyes, poison green and slitted like a cat’s, opened. A third eye, protected in the folds of hard skin on the back of the neck, opened as well–this eye was red and round, and it never blinked. It cast a little ray of red light before it, and this ray swept back and forth in the gloom beneath the covers until it found the sleeping boy’s face. The two green eyes had a sparkle to them–soul or spirit, mischief maybe–that suggested a conscience inside the hedge-apple body. The red eye had nothing. The red eye, open and unwavering, was a miniature window to some place people didn’t much want to be.

The boy, perhaps sensing he was being observed, stirred in his sleep, mumbled something, and opened his eyes.

The red light disappeared immediately. The eye vanished beneath a warty green membrane, and the neck-folds gathered over it as though it had never been.

The creature smiled, showing three rows of yellow teeth. It turned its head, so the boy could see its face.

“Hi there, Rusty,” it said. Its voice was soft, barely more than a bedtime whisper, but Rusty thought he could have heard it from across the yard. It was a nice voice, a happy voice. It sounded a little like his friend Sam’s papa, who was big and jolly and always gave Sam a hug and a kiss and never ever hit him, not even to spank him, not even when he’d done something bad. “My name is Azoth. I heard you needed a friend.”

REVIEW: Why I’m Not Doing Reviews Anymore

Today, we’re doing something different and making an announcement.

I don’t think I’m going to continue doing Friday reviews.

I know, I know, this makes me a terrible person somehow. I’m sure it does. But I started doing it because I wanted to use the time to point out some of the very best things I’ve seen in indie pub, especially fantasy indie pub. I wanted to give some recognition to the good guys, people who have written and carefully edited a great story, and who’re brave enough to try and get it going on their own.

I’ll still do these reviews when I find these books. They’re out there, and I love them. I still stand by everything I’ve recommended so far. But I have to say: once a week is killing me. There aren’t a lot of these truly great stories, and I have difficulty finding them. The sheer amount of money I’m spending on indie books is unsustainable for someone in my (very low) income bracket, and I’ve been hurt too much, too much.

My standards are pretty high. I read books like some people chainsmoke, or like alcoholics drink. If there was professional gear for reading–some sort of sacred polar bear hide laser-honing bookmark, maybe–I’d own it. I’m a far better reader than I am a writer. I admit this freely.

There are plently of good indie books out there. Loads of them. But, let’s face it, there are also plenty of not-so-good ones. I don’t want to talk about these, because I’m an indie writer and I recognize fully that my book might be one of them. But I’ll say this for myself: at least mine is fairly well-edited.

Yes, I’m aware I’m not making any friends here. I am painfully, painfully aware. But if I said things just to make friends, I not only wouldn’t be me anymore, I also would be successful. (Did I mean ‘wouldn’t’ be, you ask? No. Just…no.)

Wading through fantasy indies (or, worse, free fantasy indies) I’ve noticed one thing that keeps me gritting my teeth throughout. I wanted to bring it up here because, though I see it talked about in other blogs, I never see it discussed from the point of view of a reader.

Folks:

When you self-publish, you are still very publicly publishing a book. You are, whether you expect to succeed at it or not, releasing a potential bestseller onto hordes of possible buyers. Your book should, therefore, be professionally formatted and edited, carefully designed, and made completely ready in all ways for that one random bored person in Ahoskie, NC to click the ‘buy’ button and, not knowing you or your writing from Adam, fall in love. Even if this isn’t what you’re expecting–even if you’re just doing it for friends and family mostly–you are still committing to a public endeavour.

Let me recap: THE INTERNET IS A PUBLIC FORUM. See those capital letters? See how intense I’m getting about this?

When I see bad grammatical errors, plaguey typos, and obvious misspellings, tears well up in my well-seasoned reader’s eyes. One look-through–ONE–would have taken care of the worst of these. And readers DO judge you based on these. I know I do. Not because I think you’re stupid or untalented, no. Because I think you haven’t taken the care necessary in creating a final product that is, truly, worthy of the name ‘novel’. If I read your story on Fictionpress ten years ago, I might’ve liked it. If I came across it on Wattpad, I might’ve liked it. But will I be buying the paperback version of something you couldn’t even bother to sort out your lies and lays in? No. Hell no.

A finished novel, especially one you’re proofing yourself or relying on your friends to proof for you, might have a few errors in it. This is fine. I understand this: we all do the best we can. I’m no different. But if, deep down in my crunchy little soul, I am struggling with the urge to grab a red pen and return a proofed copy to you, you quite simply didn’t take the care you should’ve taken in showcasing and preparing your work for what is indeed the big bad world outside your word-processing program.

We all have different ability levels. If we’re all writing novels, I assume we all have at least a decent level of writing ability, we’re all capable of defining simple English-major terms like main character and setting and climax. We are all, likewise, capable of reading over our own work once or twice, or finding someone who is and paying them in money or beer.

I recap: I will not read or review something that is not at least passingly edited, unless it is your unpublished draft and you’re coming to me for advice.

Not because I hate people who don’t have the same grammatical stick up their arses I do. Not because I’m a hateful know-it-all (as was once suggested to me on a writing forum. I mean, I am, but that’s neither here nor there). Because, my loves, if you can’t take the time to make your end product pretty, I can’t take the time to read it. Why should I?

The Internet is a public place. It is, even better, a nest of anonymous vipers who are waiting, waiting, for something to chew up, spit out, and dump on like an overweight starlet after a two-week senna purge. Do you really want to release
something half-assed on this simmering cauldron of hate and violence and, possibly, fandom?

Do your best. Edit like a grown man/woman. People will respect your best, and, for the most part, treat it with all the honor anyone who has done their best deserves. And if they don’t: fuck ’em. You did your best.

A last note–

‘Publish’ comes from the Latin infinitive publicare, to make public. To make public. This is how I always learned it, at least, in school–but looking it up on the Intarwebs, I’m seeing an added definition that never showed up in the back of Wheelock’s, at least as far as I remember. To confiscate.

I want you to sit on your bottom and contemplate that for a second. While I’m not sure of the original meaning or usage beyond that point–the interwebs are short on Latinate answers, and I have a feeling I’m going to be researching this for hours–I think I can make it apply here. When you publish your work, it is being confiscated by the public. It is no longer your own work. It is the property, also, of the reader, and the reader can say what they will and form the opinions they want to form.

So make it ready. Make it good.

Love,
E

PS–Here’s a useful list to get you started. I know my spell-checker is frequently inaccurate, so I just try to spell pretty well in general. I recommend you take up the same practice: and, just so you know, my spell-checker just told me I spelled ‘recommend’ wrong. I didn’t. Other words in this document spell-check is telling me I’ve misspelled: learned, starlet, passingly, crunchy, showcasing, practice, and, hilariously, misspelling. It’s enough to make you very nervous.

100 Most Commonly Misspelled Words

Writing Wednesday: How I Edit

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The first pair of Wrangler jeans was produced in 1947. They now, in 2014, make jeans in over 500 styles. They are, without a doubt, one of the cornerstones of the American denim market–they even offer a one-year warrantee with each pair of jeans. I’ve probably owned a few pairs of Wranglers in my life–not that I look at the brand on my jeans, but we probably all have, just like we’ve probably all had a cup of Folgers coffee, or eaten a bowl of Campbell’s soup.

Why do I mention this, you wonder? Well, simple. To set this up:

I pants harder than Wrangler Jeans.

You heard me.

I am a pantser from here to Ragnarok. I start a novel with no idea–aside from the basics, like ‘here’s a story about a man and a woman who’ll wind up accidentally saving the world’–no idea what’s going to happen in it. I know my characters and am excited about them, in the same way you’re always excited to meet new acquaintances. (‘Oh, so you’re a one-eyed harridan with dirt under her nails and a penchant for cold-blooded murder? How lovely to meet you. I’m Em.‘) As cheesy-cheese crappity-crap as this sounds, the story writes me and not the other way around.

I mention this because my first draft looks shittier than the toilet of a four hundred pound man subsisting on Taco Bell enchiladas. Names are misspelled. Names are changed. The goal of a chapter changes midway through the chapter. Scenes are ended, with FINISH SCENE HERE appended in yellow highlightered text at the bottom of them. Some scenes are missing entirely.

My first draft of Aurian and Jin was, I believe, about 55,000 words. The finished novel is about 95,000. What happened, you might be wondering, in the in-betweens to create that extra novella’s worth of text?

Editing. A looooot of it.

Now, I keep reading around the interwebs that editing is fun. I’m sorry, but no. It’s not. But, much like paying your bills and not doing (too many) drugs, it’s one of those not-fun things that you need to do, and that you can derive a certain amount of smug satisfaction from doing better than your friends. If you’re a pantser like me especially, you need to edit like a motherfucker. Hell, I probably spend twice as long editing as I do writing the damn thing.

I wanted to give you guys a look at my editing process for Aurian and Jin, to give you an idea of what works for me. It might not be what works for you–editing, like writing and dying, is something you have to do alone, and nobody’s going to sit you down and give you the Excel spreadsheet version of how best to do it. But here’s my method, and may it inspire you.

1) Write your first draft. Don’t stop, don’t go back and make sure this scene makes sense with the previous one. Just go with it. If you’ve got an idea, you got it for a reason. You’ve as long as you want to figure out what that reason was.
Note: I’m not advocating not editing in your first draft at all. But I will advocate doing it minimally–just little things that happen to catch your eye here, out-of-place phrasing and typos and such, Leave the big stuff for later.

2) Let it rest. I think this step is necessary. Take a month and start another story, write a few poems about sunsets, catch up on your housework, go out in the sunlight and visit your friends, who are wondering what the hell happened to you. Give that first draft time to fade into the back of your mind, and think about it as infrequently as possible. This way, when you go back to it, you will’ve stopped thinking you’re Faulkner reincarnated, and will be ready to face the surgery you’re going to have to do with some degree of steady handedness and honesty.

3) Read it again. Try to imagine you didn’t write this shit. It helps me to bring it on a trip, or to the beach, or somewhere else I would usually bring a paperback book. Try to judge your own writing objectively–what works here, and what doesn’t? What do you like, what don’t you like? Where are your characters out of character? What scenes–and trust me, there always are these scenes–define your characters?

4) While you’re thinking these things over, go back through and do a cosmetic edit. Is a character Harold on one page and Kumar on another? Fix it. Are the mountains black in one scene, reddish in the next? Fix it. The one that always gets me here is eye color–I went through three full edits before I realized my main character Aurian had grey eyes in some parts of the book and brown eyes in others. (A note: this sort of thing isn’t all on you. You’ll have beta readers later on to catch it too).

5) Now, go back and finish your unfinished scenes. Craft these scenes into a whole–you should have already laid the groundwork for this in your first draft, but here’s your chance to really buttress the leaning literary tower. Does Aurian have a lute in the first few scenes, and do you feel like this lute defines something about him–his settled nature, maybe, his unknown past, his attachment to the only sort of life he’s ever lived, even though he was meant for something greater and more foreign? Now’s the time to bring the lute into the story in a few choice other scenes, when he’s missing home, when he’s doubting the decisions he’s made. Such things are ‘visual’ cues for your reader when they aren’t too strongly handled.

6) This is about the point in Aurian and Jin where I realized there was something missing in my story. It bothered me for weeks, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Eventually, I realized–this was a story that depended almost totally on an understanding of Jin’s past, the past of a taciturn and deeply troubled ex-solider, and I was telling and not showing it the whole fucking time. How out-of-character is that? I added in about 30,000 words to the story at this point, creating a sort of second interweaving novella out of Jin’s backstory. It worked much, much better. The backstory sections are, honestly, some of the best parts in the book, and give it a little bit of the seriousness (as well as Jin’s POV) that was lacking in the first draft. Because of the backstory sections you understand Jin, who isn’t at all a talkative person, much better than you could’ve if she’d attempted to explain herself.

7) Cosmetic edit again. Honestly, I did this at least once a week. Some people bitch about ‘ohmigaaawd, don’t your eyes just kind of glaze over, though?’ No, no they don’t. And if yours do, try harder. Don’t edit like you read. Pay attention.

8) This is about the time you should give your story out to your beta readers. You’ve polished up the loose ends, taken care of the worst of the problems, groomed it for glaring typos and changing names. It’s ready to be read. My personal advice here: don’t tell them to look for anything in particular, unless it’s the cosmetic stuff. You want their raw dog reactions. You want them to read it as though this isn’t a book by their coworker/family member/friendly fellow carpooler.

You also want there to be about twenty of them. What? you say, aghast. That’s twenty people who probably won’t buy my book when it comes out!

Here’s the hard stuff, pretty Polly. These everyday people in your life probably don’t really want to read it anyway, except out of curiosity to see what Auntie Emily put to paper. They’ll buy a copy anyway because they love you and want you to feel good about your sad self-publishing self. And if you choose twenty of them–if you can muster twenty people who fall somewhat into the niche that makes up your possible market–four of them might actually do it. And these are good people. You will love them forever.

9) Edit again, looking at your beta readers’ notes. Did chapter three strike Uncle Bjornsson as a little off? Is it because there’s a real problem with it, or because, as a paraplegic stroke victim, he has a problem with your portrayal of paraplegic stroke victims? If the latter is the case, you might want to listen anyway. The man knows what he’s talking about.

Take your readers’ advice to heart. If they notice a problem, and it isn’t expressed in terms of ‘OMG I just hate Monkshood eolbxff!!’, there’s probably a problem.

10) This is the part where, if you can afford it, you should take your work to a professional. I highly recommend this: however, I also can’t afford to do it. So, this is the point where you hopefully go to a professional, and I go through about ten more times on my lonesome.

11) I tend to go through, separately, for these concerns:
* Are my characters in character?
* Is my writing stylistically consistent?
* Could I say this in a way that’s less wordy? Are my verbs strong, could
I use fewer adjectives/adverbs? (I have a problem with this, and it merits a whole separate edit. You might have similar foibles.)
* Are there any ‘false leads’ in here? Do all the guns in the first act, in other words, go off in the third? Are there perhaps too many guns? Not enough?
* Are my places well described without being overdescribed? Can I picture this place just from reading about it? Do my eyelids dip and flutter during that four page long description of the castle?
* Is there any scene–any damn scene–that does not in some way further the plot of this story, or hold within some type of conflict? Man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself, etc. Delete empty scenes.
* These characters all want something. Am I getting across whatever that is? Do they get it/ not get it?
* Does my rising action build smoothly?
* Does my climax (with resolution) resolve all the major questions asked in the story?
* Can I get away anywhere with showing more and telling less? If I showed here, instead of told, would it be a major block to the flow of action in my story?

And the last and biggest is simply:

* Does this work for me?

12) After all this, you’re about done. Turn your manuscript in, lookit your galleys. Make your last corrections. I just proofed my galleys last week, and d’you know what? I STILL found typos. I STILL changed a few things around in the first chapter.

In fact, all I have left to do is go to fucking print.

I’m not going to lie to you guys. I am happier than a pig in shit. I am HAPPY to finally be done editing. Editing, after all, isn’t fun.

Now, of course, all I have to do is start editing the second one.

But I have to say this about editing. Remember–please Jesus, remember–even if you’re self publishing, you are still publishing. This is your immortal work, a testament to your ineffable genius. So edit it like it is. Make that fucker look beautiful. Take your time. Be meticulous. Get help when you need it. I keep seeing the term ‘over-editing’ popping up around writerly internet habitats, but you know what? There’s no such thing.

I’ll talk more about editing later in this blog, because I think it needs to get talked about, and very rarely does. All writing books have a chapter on it, but it’s usually a sad and thin little chapter, as though this wasn’t where the writer spent most of their goddamn time. The truth is, a lot of work goes into editing, and work just isn’t conductive to the idea of electrifying literary inspiration.

This is because inspiration–the ‘muse’–doesn’t exist.

Editing does.

Work with what you have.

REAL LIFE: Kitty Death

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This is one of those ‘you haven’t been posting, what the hell is wrong with you?’ types of posts.

I’ll be back full-throttle next week, I promise. But on Wednesday night, I had to put my little girl, who I’ve had for sixteen years, to sleep. She suffered a massive stroke that left her completely paralyzed from the neck downwards. I found her after work on Wednesday just lying in the litter box, mewing. We took her to the vet and, short of full kitty life-support, there was nothing they could do. No real chance of recovery. I didn’t want my little girl to struggle on for months or years without being able to eat, drink, or poop by herself. So.

She was eighteen years old, as far as we can figure it. Her accomplishments included silent farting, an old lady meow, and being able to drag the kitchen rug halfway across the house when her claws got stuck in it and I, unable to stop laughing, was a little slow in extricating her. She had a litter of kittens when she was about a year old, before we wound up with her. Until the last few hours of her life she was active, affectionate, and, like all cats, totally irritating. She couldn’t quite make the jump onto the bed anymore, but if she needed me at five AM she would headbutt my hand like a football player going for the touchdown and meow scratchily until I either got up, like the idiot I am, or threw something in her general direction.

She was able to purr right up until the end.

We buried her yesterday out in the woods, hopefully so deep the kids won’t find her and dig her up. We buried her favorite toys and a few treats with her, put a pile of stones over the grave to keep the wildlife away. She was buried in the sad little cardboard coffin they gave her back to me in. Apparently, there’s a company out there that specializes in making cardboard kitty coffins. Which means, somewhere, there’s a cardboard kitty coffin factory.

Anyway.

This is the first time I’ve ever had to put an animal to sleep. And I should add here that ‘putting to sleep’ is a very euphemistic term. What you are actually doing is killing a small creature that depends on you for food, water and affection, without its permission or comprehension. Even if it’s for the best–even if it’s necessary–it feels like betrayal.

It would be easier, I think, to kill a human being. At least a human can understand why you’re doing it. At least a human being wouldn’t purr while they’re putting the needle in.

Just letting you guys know why all’s been quiet on the western front.

REVIEW: Life is a Pirate Ship Run by a Velociraptor

REVIEW: Life is a Pirate Ship, Run by a Velociraptor

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Can I take a moment and say that this is, easily, the best book title I have seen all month? A close second being the ‘prequel’ to this book, which is apparently Life is a Circus Run by a Platypus, which I need to purchase soon. The cover is downright precious too. Lookit that little velociraptor pirate. Lookit.

I finished this one a few weeks ago, and I’ll be honest, kids. I was torn on whether or not to put a review up here. There are places in this one where the writing doesn’t quite hold up for me. Ms. Hawn gets a little lost in her adpositional phrases. There are occasional sentences where a verb has no subject because the prepositions come in and take over, like spiders in heat. It can get a little bombastic. Some of the similies stretch even my vast simile-reaching patience.

But some of them are spot the fuck on. Some of them are hilarious. And I enjoyed this book. In the end, that’s my criteria for what goes up here. I don’t review because someone asked me to and I don’t do it because I know somebody (neither applies to Ms. Hawn). I do it because I enjoyed something, especially if it’s an indie author. Because there’s so much crap in small press publishing that the good guys deserve some recognition. Even if it’s just me, with my shitty little blog and my large cup of coffee. For this reason, I review without author contact. I want to say what I want to say. I try to pick the good guys. Because, believe it or not, I want to say only nice things, and I want to say only the nice things I want to say.

Ms. Hawn is one of the good guys. Well, good girls. You get what I mean.

Life is a Pirate Ship Run by a Velociraptor is a series of short anecdotes from Ms. Hawn’s life, some of which you really have to read to believe. I don’t want to say too much–again, don’t want to spoil it for you–but the phrase “What have I told you? We don’t kiss people we just met!” occurs in the first couple of pages, and it just goes down(or up?)hill from there. These anecdotes are finished by a brief summary/life lesson section, in which you learn occasionally enchanting (teach your kids to read early) and occasionally esoteric (it takes four college students to move a giant rooster) things.
But what I find enchanting about this book isn’t the humor, which, as mentioned, does occasionally fall flat. It’s the way Ms. Hawn writes these little stories. You can almost imagine you’re on the barstool next to her, and she’s just uttered the phrase “something like that happened to me once. See, when I was (insert life period here)…” This book is close, and personal, in addition to being adorable. You get to know the writer as a character.

This is what first person was invented for, folks. If I felt this close to every narrator in a first-person novel, I’d never read a book written in another point of view again. The anecdotes Ms. Hawn tells take a little setup, but the setup is part of the fun. You learn what life is like growing up with a musician parent, going to college in a tiny town, working with disadvantaged youth. You meet friends (and enemies). You meet sloppily dressed transvestites. You meet LARPers with bad BO. And you meet cats. Quite a few of them.

Ms. Hawn is unapologetic, funny, tender, and occasionally very insightful. She does first person the way it should be done, with unabashed personality, even if her sentence structure gets lopsided and her similies overreach. She’s at her best in the depths of explanation, when she becomes unaware of her audience. You get the feeling this is the part of the story where your friend on the barstool next to you would start making a lot of hand gestures. I wish everybody brought this sort of ‘I can’t wait to tell you what happened next’ vibe to memoirs. I truly do.

For this especially I recommend this book.

Writing Wednesday: Five Writing Tips (Plus One)

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Hello.

I’m taking the easy way out this morning. I could give you a whole thoughtful post about character motive or the power of the prepositional phrase, but no. Instead, I am mining my bloggity-blog notebook for five brief tips that will, when properly meditated on, make you a better writer faster.

Because that’s what we want in this century, isn’t it? Stardom without the struggle, success without the loneliness. Hemingway, in short, without the hole in the head. We want to be great, but let’s face it, we’d rather tweet about writing than we would write. We’d rather dress up a substandard book in a beautiful cover, market it in five thousand places, and sit back on our accolades than write a solid fucking novel and edit it to make it the solidest it can possibly be.
What’s that, Emily?, you say. What the fuck? I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil. I want to do this shit up right. I’m already self published, and my ego is fragile and flowerlike enough without you heckling.

My answer: I’m not heckling. Not exactly. Think of me as your middle school lacrosse coach–you know, that creepy guy who chainsmoked in his car and always wore a protective cup to practice. When you finally got up the nerve to ask him why his privates were so attired, he leaned forward and whispered, in breath that smelled like stale coffee and Kool 100s– “because life, little Timmy, always goes for the balls.”

It does, little Timmy. Oh, it does. Here are some tips, however, to keep your story’s backup singers in tune and off of prescription medication. Note–these are not true one hundred percent of the time. Nothing is true one hundred percent of the time. And that’s why we’re starting off with tip one:

1) Don’t Reach. Note: I don’t mean don’t search. But if it takes you longer than thirty seconds to find a word or a phrase that fits, if it takes you five minutes to cook up that excellent ‘zinger’ simile, for the love of the gods, remove it. Your readers can sense when you’re grasping at straws, and they will hate you for it. The exception here, of course, is when you’re searching and that light finally goes on–“ohhh, uxorious! That’s what I meant!” But, if it never goes on, stick with the first thing you came up with. I prefer my prose grey to purple any day.

2) Eliminate excess adverbs and adjectives. You’re pissed right now because I included adjectives in with that writing societal bad boy, adverbs. You like your men tall, dark, and handsome, your citadels white, shining, and pure, and your glasses of wine blood-red, non-reflective, and aged since 1992. Here’s the trick, though–both adjectives and adverbs, while they have their place, are non-essential parts of speech. You could tell a story, if you really wanted to, without a single adjective or adverb. So your question, as you use these parts of speech, should be–do I need this in here? Your glass of wine can just be blood-red. Honestly, it can probably just be red. Or, you can describe while detailing and just say it’s a glass of claret or cabernet sauvignon. A strong verb or noun is worth a thousand adjectives and adverbs.

3) Spare me the word ‘was’. You know what you’re not using if you’re using ‘was’? A host of other dynamic verbs that could do the job twice as well. For instance, ‘the city was on the hill’ could be ‘the city stood on the hill’, ‘the city slept curled on the hill’, or even, if you like explosions, ‘the city exploded upward from the hill’. We like these verbs because they are descriptive. I imagine a city that explodes upward is a very dynamic place, a busy place. A city that sleeps is not. I didn’t even have to touch an adjective to get that across.

This said, you have to use ‘was’ sometimes. If you’re uncertain whether or not you should, refer to rule number one. Not every verb is a winner.

4) Vary your sentence structure and length. If your sentences are all roughly the same length, you will put people to sleep. You want short sentences, long sentences, pedigree sentences, mongrel sentences. You want to vary sentence structure and length according to the mood of the scene–an action scene, terse and fast, should probably feature a lot of short sentences, pared down description, charged verbs. A leisurely scene is the place for adjectives and all those commas you’ve been saving up in the Comma Bank. If you need help with this, I honestly suggest you make yourself some musical playlists for writing–nothing helps implant the mood in you quite like scene appropriate music.

5) Learn to words better. You know how you do that? You read, dammit. You read a lot. You take down notes when you see a word you don’t know. You pause at a passage you like and figure out why you liked it. You see how other writers, writers you admire, use the English language. Do they employ the Oxford comma? Where do they use colons, semicolons? Do you like the way they break up their chapters, agree that the word palimpsest (hello, Mr. Grossman) is totally necessary in this scene?

Speaking of palimpsest (which stuck out like a sore linguistic thumb in The Magician’s Land, but that’s a whole separate story), your vocabulary better be the shit if you plan on writing. Not so you can awe your reader with ten dollar words, no. I honestly think Lev Grossman did NOT need the word palimpsest in his novel, and the use of it, though it is one of my favorite words, took me too far out of the story. After inflation, a ten dollar word doesn’t impress me much anyway. You need to learn and grow comfortable with every single word you possibly can so that, when the situation comes up, you know just the right word for it. Infuriated, livid, and apoplectic, for instance, don’t all just mean ‘mad’, in spite of what I’ve seen around the internets. A synonym isn’t merely a word that means ‘the same thing’ as another word, to be used interchangeably when your grubby fingers graze the thesaurus. Infuriated, a word with Latinate roots, has a vaguely medical/legal sound because of it. It’s not an Anglo Saxon ‘feeling’ word, like mad or pissed. Livid has a touch of the purple prose about it. A king or a duke might get livid. And apoplectic–well. Apoplectic with rage sounds a lot more serious than livid or infuriated to me. Hell, the word even has ‘pop’ in it.

Again, however, I refer you to rule one. Sometimes, a character is just angry. Sometimes, a city simply was on the hill. Sometimes–most of the time, if I had my way–a character just says something.

This balance, between infuriated and pissed, apopleptic and mad, is the place where you have learned how to words. It’s not writing, not exactly. It’s more of a sixth sense. All good writers possess it. And if you want to have it as well–though I’m not sure it’s something that can be learned–you need to follow my bonus tip, tip numer six.

6) Read, damn you. I mentioned this already? Oh, did I? My apologies.

Not.

Read, damn you. Read a book twice–once for enjoyment, as a reader, and once critically, as a writer. And don’t read shit, please. If you read shit, you’ll write shit. Read some of the masters. Read outside your genre. Read Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Read copious amounts of writers who have remained readable for a hundred years or more. Read Ursula K. LeGuin and JRR Tolkien. Read them because they knew what they fuck they were doing. Read the ones you enjoy and leave the ones you don’t. But please, don’t just read pulp fantasy, even if it’s all you write. If you only read pulp fantasy, your writing will only ever be pulp fantasy.

Are there some great pulp fantasy writers out there? Hell yes. But if you eat nothing but carrots you’ll die, no matter how good for you they are, and the same goes with what you read. You need some carrots in your diet, yes, but you also need peas, quinoa, and beer. (Shhh.Yes, you need beer.)

So there you have it. My list, restated for those with short memories:

1) Don’t reach.
2) Avoid excess adjectives/adverbs
3) Spare me ‘was’.
4) Vary sentence structure/length
5) Learn to words better
6) READ.

Hope it helps. Now go out there and write something worth reading.

EXCERPT: Death-Dealer

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Writing, writing and writing. Posting a little bit up here, just so you guys know I’m doing something other than bitching and moaning. Also for the sheep leg. Love the sheep leg. Love it.

In this scene Birdy Sard, the world’s least capable queen, has gone home to visit her village and her Pa. She’s found her Pa missing, and a lot of the village missing as well–the mysterious Women of the Wood have come forth to wreak havoc, and they weren’t counting on anyone having fire to throw at them. Birdy and her semi-trusty lieutenant are surveying the battle’s aftermath.

*****

The field was no longer the lush green field of her childhood. It was blackened, scarred. Smoke rose from it and from the corpses littered about it in dinted bits of bone armour. The remains of the sheep slumped here and there, caving forms covered in ashy wool. Directly in front of Birdy a sheep leg stood, strings of gristle up near the elbow where there should have been a continuation of sheep. The smell was abominable.

“Cor,” Birdy said, awed. “What d’you think could’ve done this, Salveed? Magic? There’s no more magic in these parts. Hasn’t been for years.”

Salveed shook his head, hunkered down and dragged his gloved fingers through the ashes that had once been grass and people and sheep. It wasn’t hot–was mid-autumn, in fact, long after the harvest–but he was sweating, and Birdy was too.

She felt it trickle down her spine behind her curiass, hopelessly out of reach. She debated saying they should abandon the armor, but then again, where would they put it? And they had been through the deep South in it, been through jungles and forests and beaches, by damn. It seemed silly to put it away now. Frivolous.

Also, the scene around them scared her. She wasn’t above admitting it. She had grown used to her armor, would feel naked without it.

Very naked.

Salveed held some ash up to his nose, sniffed it. His nostrils flared like a dog’s.

“Well?” Birdy said. “I hope you’ve got some idea. I’ve got nothing.”

Salveed held up a finger for silence. He sniffed again.

“Damn,” he said. “I don’t believe it.”

“What?”

“I didn’t think they had the rock for it, this far north. You’ve got to find the right sort of caves. Not the sort of cave you usually…”

“Salveed.”

He blinked, coughed. “Erm,” he said. “Sorry, your majesty. Let me think about how to tell you this.”
“Waiting.”

“You know all the metal you use in Karakul, right?”

“I wouldn’t say I’m more than passing familiar,” Birdy said, a bit more tartly than she had intended. “We’re not close friends or anything. But yes, Salveed, I am well aware that we use metal for things in our lovely modern city. Make your point.”

Fear made her edgy, made her snappish and short of temper. She wasn’t used to being afraid. Hadn’t ever had much truck with it, not since she was little: it was by and large useless.

That sheep leg, standing in the middle of the field like a burnt matchstick, was far from reassuring.

“It’s blasting powder.”

“What?”

“How they’re doing it. It’s some form of blasting powder, but…but stronger. A lot stronger.”

“What’s blasting powder?”

Salveed looked surprised. “Really, my lady? You’ve signed royal permission to employ it in the mines at least fifty times.”

“Like fuck I have. Even if I didn’t read the document all the way through before I signed it, Viril and I would’ve heard about this happening.”

“Well.” Salveed, ever-patient, sucked air through his teeth. “I’m from Asatigne, right? Where the river Darking joins the sea, a few hours away from the foothills of the Jerillee Mountains. We do a lot of the mining for Karakul right there. We’ve had to cut deeper and deeper into the hills to find the right ores so you city folk can have your eating utensils and deadly blades and whatnot. Eventually it got to be too much work and too much risk to keep digging as far as the veins extended. So somebody scraped a salt off the walls of the hill-caves, mixed it with fire-coal and a little sulphur, and created blasting powder with it. An alchemist, of course. You find some of the best alchemists in the kingdom in the mining towns; legend has it this one was trying to make a potion for headaches and got a little too excited.”

“Cor,” Birdy said. “We have this stuff?”

“Sort of. The blasting powder we use in Asatigne, it’s–well, it’s just enough to cut into a sheer rock face and save a mining team of twenty a weeks’ worth of work. Which isn’t to say it’s weak. It’s not. But blasting powder that can blast a whole field like this, tear everything in it apart–it’s not magic, but it might as well be. Whoever created this stuff had death in mind, not land clearing and ore.”

“And it works when you light it on fire.”

“Basically. I’m guessing your friend Dap took a lucky shot and hit someone who was carrying quite a bit of it.” Salveed held his fingers up to her. “Smell that?”

“Ugh. Smells like eggs gone rotten, only sharper.”

“That’s the smell of blasting powder. Remember it, my lady. Better than you remember to read all the papers you’ve signed.”

Birdy looked around one more time at the blackened field. “We know how to make this,” she said. She was uncertain if it was a question or an affirmation.

“Yes.”

“Could we make a lot of it? Fast?”

Salveed sighed his weary patient sigh. Though he must have been close to Birdy’s age, he looked very old. “Madam, would you want to?”

The silence of the place was absolute, the desolation absolute. The village with its children and livestock and cookpots and bustle seemed very far away suddenly. All the people seemed very far away.

“No,” Birdy said at last. “I guess I wouldn’t. Let’s go get Pa. Viril can figure the rest of it out–he’s the King, after all.”