Occam’s Phaser: Simplicity in Fantasy

Photo from wikipedia. Text from the sick depths of my soul.

Occam’s Phaser


All right, people, I want you to take a moment and appreciate the fact that, after long practice, I may have just typed the nerdiest letters of my career. Occam’s phaser. Sheesh. Shove me in a locker, somebody, cause I ain’t makin’ it to senior prom.

With that out of the way…

(Occam’s phaser! Hurr!)

I want to have a serious talk.

You guys have all heard of William of Occam, right? Born in…well, probably Occam. A mendicant friar and a logician of the 14th century, who posited, among many logical principals, the idea that the simplest solution is probably the correct one. There’s more to it, but that’s how we non-logicians usually express it.

And a bunch of people took offense to that. Wouldn’t you? I mean, you’ve got this fancy theorem that took you like five years to embroider into factfulness, what business does this punk monk have coming around and going naw, simpler is better, dawg, and then you’re all like my name is Immanuel Kantstopdis, and I think nature is diverse as hell. And then, they see you whip, and possibly nay-nay, and by God–

Okay. Overcompensating. I’m going somewhere with this, I swear. Or I’m trying to.

Occam’s razor is the idea that the simplest solution is probably the correct one. Occam’s phaser, which is my idea, is the same general principal applied to your fantasy novel: the simpler you keep it, the more your story is likely to work.
We’ve all read those epic fantasy novels. You know, those ones. Where there’s a thousand pages of scenebuilding before you get to the plot, where you need the Cliff’s notes to keep up with the list of characters, and where everybody, everybody, gets paired off with either a romantic partner or a small country by the end of the novel.

When you write your Amazon review for this novel, it probably features the phrase ‘excellent worldbuilding’, mostly because, well, somebody did spend a lot of time, and that much literary real estate has to be worth something. Trick is, you can sell an acre of swamp and call it ‘real estate’. You can sell a shotgun shack (doors and windows not included) and it’s still fricking real estate.

But that’s not what you want real estate to be, is it? You want your novel to be in Beverly Hills, to have a midcentry modern dream house on it. You want lights to turn on when you clap. You want Jennifer Lawrence next door, and you want her to bring you casseroles when you move in. (Or organic cruelty-free parsnip chips. Or whatever hip people eat now).

My point is, you only need to:

1) Have a character in your story if that character is necessary to the plot,
2) Describe the setting in detail if the setting is plot-crucial or particularly unique,
3) Add in a plot twist when that plot twist is natural, and doesn’t take a lot of work to fit in.

That’s it, baby. That’s Occam’s phaser.

It’s easy to get carried away with your own descriptive powers whilst in the throes of composition. Problem is, it isn’t readable to do so. We don’t need to know the name of Lord Aston’s squire if this is the only scene she’s in. And a few descriptive terms–surly, for instance, or sunny–will probably suffice, if you need them at all. When you spend a paragraph or two describing this squire, you’ve indicated to the reader that she’s going to be important later on in the story. That’s what description does. And when you make that promise too often, and don’t stand by it, your reader doesn’t know what to pay attention to anymore.

Same goes for settings. As an adult human being, I know what a field of grass looks like. I know what an oven looks like. Now, unless there’s something important about this oven–the main character’s mother has cooked every dinner he’s ever eaten on it, and it represents his sadness over leaving home–or something unique–it’s a magical oven that only cooks children–I don’t need more than a little bit to know what I’m looking at. Woodstove might tell me enough, or gas oven, or big white oveny bastard brooding in the corner.

And plot twists? Oh, Jesus, plot twists. There is nothing, nothing more annoying than an unneeded plot twist. Ask yourself, always: is there some question here that hasn’t been answered by the course of the story so far? If there is, twist the night away. If there isn’t, hold off. It’s just going to throw your reader off balance, and leave him expecting a major shift in the plot…which, since your plot twist doesn’t go anywhere, you’re not going to give him.

So. Only have Bertie the Bertblandished carried off by the dragon if it’s going to change your plot. Does it make him see the importance of fire-proof wizard’s robes? Does he become friends with the dragon, take him back to the castle to help them win the war? Does he realize, uncomfortably, that the dragon is actually his mother, and maybe that’s why everyone he has a burping contest with seems to spontaneously combust.

If it does one of those things, that’s great. But even then, it better do one of those things because that question has been raised in the natural course of your plot. Maybe this annoying wizard-chickie has been harping on him about fire proof robes for the entire story, and now he gets the reasoning, and starts to talk to her more–and it turns out she’s just awesome, an incredible person, and she has a lot of really good ideas for defending the castle, and he winds up marrying her or something. You get the idea: a plot twist has to answer a question and move the plot forward. Otherwise, you’re just wasting everyone’s time going retrograde. Remember Ptolemy? Time waster. Yeah, you heard me.

(If you got that joke, please join me on this schooner full of people who aren’t getting dates for prom. It’s warm here, and we have twelve-sided dice.)

So, when you write, consider the beauty of simplicity and pare accordingly. But remember: even William of Occam didn’t mean something had to be bare bones to be correct. Embellishment can be beautiful and effective, too–as long as you keep it in moderation.

Skin Deep: Beauty in Fiction


Skin Deep: Beauty in Fiction

A NOTE: I talk about women in this post, but a lot of this is true for men too, on a different level. While men in fiction are occasionally allowed to be bald, potbellied, and old, there are still unrealistic standards for them–they tend more towards the static masculine than anything beauty related, but it’s a problem nonetheless. I’ll leave discussion of these to a man who isn’t traditionally ‘masculine’. He’s better suited to the task, for obvious reasons, than I.

I want to take a second and talk to you a little bit about life as an ugly woman.

A note: I don’t want your sympathy pretties. I don’t want to hear about how beautiful I am in a voice that steadily descends in octave to denote sincerity. It’s untrue, and I don’t need the pity. I’m aware it’s untrue, and there is still no lack of confidence in me. Would you tell a man with an IQ of 79 that no,  he was so intelligent, no really?

You wouldn’t. The evidence to the contrary would be right in front of your face. He might be many other things–among them, handsome–which you could compliment, but if he can’t get through his times tables at forty, calling him intelligent would seem like an insult. He might even think you’re being sarcastic. You might, in fact, sting him, and he’s an okay guy, so you certainly don’t want to do that.

On the other hand, there are a lot of women on this earth. If every single one of us were as beautiful as our friends (and the body-positivity movement) tell us we were, Vogue would run out of cover space.

Why–why–is it so important, whether or not you’re beautiful?

Well, because ugly women get the shaft. You’re not insulted twenty-four seven, or often at all–ugliness is such a taboo thing in our society that an ugly woman might go her whole life without ever hearing the phrase ‘ugly’ thrown at her. Don’t be silly, all her friends say. You’re beautiful.

Life as an ugly woman is like life in a zoo with a narcoleptic zookeeper. You’re subjected to a sort of gentle, well-meaning neglect, simply because no one notices you. You can’t count on heads turning when you walk into a room, or the watchful eye of an interested bystander to keep you happy. When you need or want things, you have to ask for them, and you have to be willing to wait the normal amount of time for these things to come to fruition. A lot of us, I think, accept early on that a glossy magazine-style life with expensive accessories and trendy makeup probably isn’t the way to go. There are, after all, no ugly women in the glossy magazines.

It’s–not that bad. It’s just life. You simply have to develop a voice, learn to be a little more aggressive in expressing yourself. You have to let people know, in a way your face and body can’t, that you’re there, and you’re there for a reason. (I feel like, were this lesson taught widely, our self-confidence issues would all but vanish. The cue isn’t to wait for media to bestow the title of ‘beauty’ on you, it’s to go out and express yourself regardless of whether or not you have that title. Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder, so whether or not you claim it for yourself doesn’t really matter. Taught feminine passivity, etc, garbage you’ve heard a million times before).

I could talk a lot about body-positivity, and the way my hackles raise every time I see the phrase ‘you’re beautiful just the way you are’. No, some of us aren’t. It’s hard to accept, because of the importance this culture places on beauty, but some of us simply aren’t. Again–it’s in the eye of the beholder. Time, maybe, to stop clinging to such a passive attribute for validation.

And beauty is, actually, rare. Slightly more common, maybe, than a genius level IQ or Mother Theresa-like kindness, but rare nonetheless. It’s also an evolutionary advantage, much like intelligence or strength, which you can train and sharpen somewhat, but which, in the end, you’re either born with or you aren’t. I want to repeat this, so all my smarts-loving readers understand: beauty is exactly the same kind of advantage as intelligence. Being smart isn’t inherently ‘better’ than being beautiful. Being beautiful isn’t inherently better than being smart. You didn’t work for either one. You received a gift, and did with it what you would.

And yet, if you believed movies (or television, or books–pick your media) this world is populated almost solely by smart attractive people, thirty-five or under, who have picked a variety of interesting professions and lived strange checkered lives.

Being average-looking is living in a majority that is treated as a minority. You’re underrepresented, unacknowledged, in spite of the fact that you make up a large percentage of the population. It’s knowing that when ‘your type’ is cast in a movie–usually as ‘average woman’ or something similar–it will be played by a beautiful young actress in not quite as much makeup. If, in five hundred years, aliens land on our war-scoured and desolate planet, the artifacts they unearth will indicate that average people–real average–simply didn’t exist.

There are ‘unattractive’ women portrayed, of course. The most famous example, probably, is JK Rowling’s Hermione Granger–though even she ‘pretties’ as the series continues, transforming in the dance scene of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire into a mysteriously attractive creature whom even her friends don’t recognize at first.

What I want from fiction–what I think would constitute real body-positivism, and not just the ‘naw gurl u pretty’ sham of it we have now–is more women who are not described head-to-foot, more women who are not attractive, even in makeup and a ballgown. More women, maybe, who don’t give two shits whether or not they are beautiful. More ugly women who don’t feel the need to put lingerie on to assure the world of their worth (a note–every time I see one of these articles bandied about on Facebook, the woman therein is actually just larger, but very pretty anyway). Women who are, frankly, ugly, and who are called ugly, and who know they’re ugly–and who do something important anyway. Women with lazy eyes and huge noses and tiny thin lips, whose lives don’t, not once, feature a hatred of said body parts.

Women who might not be perfect representations of sexual attractiveness, but who nonetheless deserve–and have earned–respect. Because respect, like self-confidence, is a thing earned and not given. And it’s a thing, weirdly enough, you can’t earn from something you simply have, like beauty or intelligence–it’s a think you can earn only through your employment of said traits, the way you conduct yourself in society. And, deep down, respect is what we all really want, and what you need, rather than the much-vaunted ‘likeability’, for a beloved character.

I’d like to live in a world where two people can spot a woman across a room, and identify her: ‘Melanie’s the one with the big nose’. And that’s okay. She does have a big nose, and now we know which one Melanie is. Melanie also takes care of shelter dogs, earned a PhD in Russian Lit, but you can’t see those things, so it’s not how we identify her in a crowded room. Her nose is noticeable, so we notice her by it. No need for discussion.

If we really think feminism and body-positivity are about increasing self-confidence, we’re wrong. Self-confidence can only be increased by one thing–determination to be self-confident. Movements don’t exist to make you feel better about yourself. They exist to increase representation, increase dialogue–increase that respect we talked about. They exist to help you show the world you’re important–no matter what you happen to look like. Feeling good about yourself comes before all that shit. Not after. Not during.

So, next time you’re writing a lady character, maybe step back for a second, and think about self-worth and respect. No, she’s not beautiful anyway. She’s not beautiful no matter what. There’s no chrysalis moment where she slaps on lipstick and a slinky dress and becomes bizarro-world desireable.

But if you want to write her, she matters, right? Maybe attractiveness doesn’t need to enter into it at all. Maybe she, like the vast majority of us, gets stepped studiously around in coffee shops, has to learn to interject opinions into work discussions.

And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe, when casting your ‘average woman’, you should stick to the realism you otherwise so studiously cling to–and represent her as, truly, average.

Not because she’s beautiful, inside or out, but because she, too, is worthy of attention.

I know, I talk about this stuff a lot. But it’s been a while, so here are the most recent thoughts. If anyone’s curious, this post was inspired by this article, which a friend shared on Facebook, and which I found utterly, utterly refreshing: Kaila Prins says you don’t have to care if you’re beautiful, and I think she’s right.

How to Look Like You Know What You’re Talking About


Sorry I haven’t been around so much, guys. Stuff’s come up. Give me about another week of lax posting and I’ll be back, bright-eyed and bushy-arsed.

In the meantime, I wanted to do a post on writerbloggish professionalism, such as it is.


Because I have very meager standards. You know this: you read my blog. However, there are a few things that don’t meet even my negligible criteria, and when that happens, you need to seriously rethink your life and why you’re in it. I don’t post regularly, I curse like a sailor, and I’m mean. I don’t even have my own tidy little domain name. What could be so awful even I’m straight-faced advising you against it?

These things, baby bear. These things.

(A NOTE: This advice is meant specifically for people with craft blogs, not personal blogs. Your personal blog is your business, and you can post that stupid cat video as many times as you want there. But I do expect certain things from a blog that calls itself ‘about writing’. They are, unsurprisingly, that the blog is about writing, and written by a more-or-less expert in said field.)

1) It’s Not Your Emotional Dumping Ground.

You’ve started a blog for the purpose of promoting your book and giving yourself a sort of home base in the writing community. This means that you are writing about writing. You are sharing writing related things. Occasionally, you provide some of your own writing.

And you get off-topic occasionally. Of course you do, and you should. You do things other than writing, obviously, and some of those things are fun and infinitely shareable. When you get married, have a baby, get sick, etc., it’s up to you how much of that you want to tell your readers, and there’s nothing wrong with sharing a little. People want to know more about you.

But here’s the thing, Shareable Sheena. If you are writing more blog posts about the epic repercussions of your boyfriend walking out on you in a Denny’s than you are about writing, this is no longer a writing blog. And you should stop, dear Jesus, stop, using all the writing tags. When I check ‘writing tips’, the first thing I see shouldn’t be a post containing IT WAS ALL FOR U in caps and an Adele video. No. Ain’t nobody got time for that. At least, people searching writing tags don’t, so tag appropriately.

Speaking of having time…

2) Check Your Sources.

You have the internet, obviously. More than likely, you have some sort of smart device that puts it at your fingertips whenever you are, wherever you are. So take the thirty fucking seconds necessary to make sure that it actually was Cortez who stood upon that peak in Darien. Keats had an excuse. Keats didn’t have the internet, and Keats had a meter to think about. You have neither mitigating circumstance. Check your sources.

I know, I know. We aren’t journalists. Except, oh, wait, we kind of are. When you write that bitty eight hundred word article to enlighten the world on proper use of past tense, you are performing a journalistic function, organizing information and life experience for an easily digestible thing people can peruse on their lunch breaks.

So, please, if you make a factual statement, do at least a cursory Google to make sure you’re telling the truth. Even stuff you’ve thought you know your whole life–f’rinstance, the other day, I found out the windward side of a dune is actually the side the wind blows on, not the sheltered side. Been using it wrong my whole life, and I’m from the beach. How’d this happen? I never fact checked. Don’t be like me: someone on the internet will know the truth, and correct you, and there you’ll be, credibility injured.

3) Stop With the ‘Deleting Inactive Friends’ Stuff.

I see this post, more or less verbatim, quite frequently on all social media forms, and it annoys the shit out of me.

Dear Friends,
I’m deleting/blocking a whole mess of you because you’ve never commented on my blog or liked anything. I just can’t stand having all these followers. So if you don’t want to be deleted or blocked, this is a passive-aggressive attempt to draw your attention and get more likes and comments. Thanks!

Okay, so maybe not verbatim. But anyway.

What are you trying to prove with this post? Why do you think the world owes you feedback?

A lot of people have read my book. I’m frequently amazed by the number of people who’ve read it. Not all of them left a review. Not all of them friended me on Twitter. Not all of them even bought a copy: some of them borrowed it from a friend, who maybe borrowed it from their friend, etc.

That’s cool. Books are expensive. And when these people tell me ‘I loved your book’, whether or not they left a comment on Amazon to that effect doesn’t matter. I still get tickled pink. It’s not good manners, from an authorial standpoint, to enjoy a book and not write a review, but these folks aren’t necessarily authors, now are they?

When people leave feedback, they do it voluntarily. This isn’t a test group, and they aren’t being paid for their time. If they want to read your blog silently–or, even, never read it–so what? They’re sure as hell never going to read it if you block them. And, while you certainly have the right to choose who you follow, making a production out dropping followers just suggests you’ve got serious time on your hands publicly.

If you must delete followers, I suggest not mentioning it in the blog itself. If someone asks you, say your feed was too full to follow, and you want to just use it to keep up with your closest friends. Low drama. If this person then unfollows you, there’s not a damn thing you can say about it. It’s not personal, after all: it’s just the Internet.

A note: this also goes for all ‘reblog if you care’, ‘reblog if you’re a real ‘, and ‘I need your help’ type blogs. Yes, you should encourage commenter participation. Of course. But this is not the way, Pamela Passive-Aggressive. And it most assuredly doesn’t look professional: it looks desperate.

4) Grammer I Ammer

Now, I’m no grammarian. I couldn’t give less of a shit whether you employ the Oxford comma or don’t. Matter of fact, when you mention the Oxford comma, my immediate reaction is to find a locker to stuff you in.
However, let’s visit item two again. You have the Internet.

We all make typos and mistakes occasionally, but you should do yourself the favor of reading over your post before you hit publish, and checking anything you aren’t sure about.


Because when your headline is ‘Grammar: Your Doing it Wrong’, people are going to suspect you’re less than expert in your chosen field.

Writers need good grammar. Not perfect grammar: that’s what editing is for. But you need to be able to type a coherent sentence, relatively well spelled and grammarized, fast enough that, before you shuffle off this mortal coil, you’ve produced at least one complete short story. If you can’t manage eight hundred words without a grammatical faux pas sixth graders could recognize, you’re not looking very good on paper.

Which is where, as a writer, you need to look good.

5) Be Cool.

Let Elmore Leonard be your guide. Shoot somebody.

I mean, be cool.

If you’re posting something pissy–an angry rant about a friend, a response to a review or criticism, a reply to an argumentative commentor–take a second to think, before you hit publish. Actually, take three hundred seconds. Take five minutes to go smoke a cigarette, read a few pages, pour yourself a drink, whatever poison calms your nervous system. After you’ve self-sedated, ask yourself these three things:

1) Is my response productive?
2) Is it important that I respond?
3) Will this make me look like an ass to the rest of my readers?

If the answer to the first two is yes, and the answer to the third is no, hit send. If the answer to any of these three isn’t as stated above, don’t.

Your blog is a public space, and it’s one where people will come to learn more about you. Is the fact that you’re a shitty, angry person really what you want them to learn?

Welp, there y’go.

A note: I can’t tell you how to write your blog. That’s your business, and you can do as you please. But I promise you: if you want to look like a professional, these five things are more important than having a domain name or a nice headshot. Professionalism is, after all, a way you interact with others. It’s not just a good suit or an appropriate haircolor. You can have the prettiest web design in the world, but if you post shit all over it, you still aren’t being professional.

So be professional. Minimize your shitposting.

Why Money Matters in Fantasy


One evening, I fell asleep. The next morning, I didn’t wake up.

Well, that’s not quite true. Obviously, I woke up eventually. Just–not by natural means. I woke up with a syringe in my arm and four strangers looking down at me.

The syringe was full of glucagon, and the strangers were EMTs. They saved my life. They were at my house because my boyfriend called 911 when I wouldn’t wake up to his usual morning poking and prodding. I’m a Type I diabetic, and I was having what the fancy folks up on the hill call a hypoglycemic episode: my blood sugar was in the teens (normal range 80-120), and my body had, in an effort to keep me alive, shut down most of its higher functions.

This is, obviously, a serious thing. Four EMTs sort of serious. If a hypoglycemic episode continues long enough unchecked, it can result in brain damage or death. And the worst part was, I had no idea why it happened. I hadn’t been drinking or eating anything unusual the night before. I had taken the right amount of insulin at the proper time. So, when the nice people who just saved my life asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital, I said yes.

Now here’s the part I’m not proud of. Saying yes only happened after I thought about it for a few minutes.

You see, I was pretty broke at the time. And my first thought wasn’t about saving my own life, or making sure that this never happened again. My first thought wasn’t Definitely Not Dave’s peace of mind. It wasn’t even that we were short at work, and my boss would need me (I think I was off that day, actually).

No. My first thought, ignoble though it may be, was:

I can’t afford this.

That’s right. I could have died, and my first thought was about money.

It was horrifying to realize. Just as horrifying: should the zombiepocalypse happen, the first thing I’d probably do is go rob a pharmacy of all its insulin. I’m not an evil person, and I certainly don’t think crime is the proper solution to anything. But when you suddenly need a decade’s supply of an expensive medication or you die, crime starts looking much more viable. You don’t have the money to live, otherwise, and your insurance certainly doesn’t cover extra vials in the event of flesh-eating manbeasts.

Why am I mentioning all this?

Because I want to talk about money in your story. Especially your fantasy story. You see, all those years your parents told you money didn’t matter were cruel, cruel lies.

Money does matter. Money matters more than anything.

It’s one of those unpleasant truths we realize early on in adulthood. Somewhere in your mid-twenties, at the latest, you stop being able to get away with the shit you got away with earlier. You’re no longer young and inexperienced. You’re no longer going to school. You’re no longer living with your parents, paying nominal rent whenever you can afford it and sneaking Mom’s Triscuits out of the pantry when you want a snack. When you get your first three hundred dollar heating bill, you realize why Dad always guarded the thermostat like a national treasure. When you get your first two hundred dollar water bill, you realize why Mom always shed a solitary tear every time you washed your soccer uniform and just your soccer uniform.

Now, my dear, starts a long, grey adulthood. Enjoy plugging all your appliances into the same surge protector so you can unplug them easily when you leave the apartment. Enjoy taking baths and not showers because of the four dollar difference on your water bill. Enjoy not washing your jeans until they stand up without you. Enjoy never visiting your friends in the country because it costs ten bucks in gas just to get there and get back.

Unless you’ve led a very privileged life, some of these things sound familiar to you. Deprivation and conservation are the story of being a grown-up, for most people. You’ll make more money and get out of it, eventually–hopefully. But when you don’t have a lot of cash, your own poverty rules everything you do.

Which is part of why it surprises me–even shocks me–that people in fantasy world never seem to be poor. Even when the author says they’re poor, money just kind of materializes. Stuff just kind of materializes. And the possessions these supposed ‘poor’ people have: well. They don’t always match up to the poverty described.

Consider, for instance, a family of subsistence farmers in a medievalesqe village within a make-believe Arctic Circle. These people obviously have a hard life, and most of it is probably lived in several feet of snow. So, two things they probably won’t be doing, that your silly ass might try to make them do:

1) Living in wooden houses, and
2) Owning horses. 

At first, a wooden shack and a Shetland pony seem pretty in keeping with what we know of a classic Anglo fantasy-type world. But if it’s really cold, you need to think about such things twice before you do them. If they live in wooden houses, where the hell are these trees coming from? Not a lot of timber, within the Arctic Circle. (You might want to, likewise, consider what they’re making fires and tools from. Hint: it’s probably not wood.)

And the horse? What are they feeding this thing? A big animal like that is expensive to keep up and would be difficult to keep warm in a frosty climate. You could trade the horse in for oxen or reindeer, but you’ve still got the upkeep problem. These subsistence farmers more than likely run that plow by themselves, and, for that matter, probably can’t do too much crop-growing anyway. Breaking up the almost permanently frozen ground would be a toughie. Their diet is probably heavily meat based, and they probably have all the health problems you’d expect from that (or would they? Many Inuit cultures didn’t.).

I think the place where we get confused is the idea of value versus actual paper/metal money. Just because a society doesn’t have a lot of gold pieces floating around doesn’t mean things have no value: a cow, for instance, might be worth three gold coins, but in a tiny village on the outskirts of the world, the likelihood of someone having those coins is low. They might, however, have two goats, or thirty yards of fabric, or a winter’s supply of firewood. Therefore, the value of a cow is a little mutable, but oh buddy, it is still value.

So please, when you’re writing a fantasy world, do consider your monetary system. Consider what things are worth and why. Consider that our cow, plenty valuable in green pastureland, might actually be less valuable in a desert or the Arctic, where no one has the necessary resources to use said cow for its true value. And consider that a young person starting out in the world is going to actually need money, and will probably make some decisions based on funding (or lack thereof).

Fantasy has this tradition of treating the mercenary as a figure of questionable moral fiber. But sometimes, my friends, to go on the quest, you need to raise money to buy the horse. And then, once you’ve bought the horse, you need some money put aside for feed, and a good saddle, and a horse blanket, and stable fees. Your peasant-turned-princess doesn’t just need a gown to go to the ball, if she wants to blend in: she needs a footman, and a carriage, and etiquette lessons, and dancing lessons, and a hairstylist, just to name a few.

Money is the blood in the veins of your fantasy world, just as it is in this world. There’s no escaping it, and you shouldn’t try. If your character is of a lower class, you can’t simply forgo the realities of living in that class. People do things solely for money all the time. (Be honest with yourself, boo boo. Why do you go to work every morning?)

Adventures are expensive. If nothing else, you wind up using a ton of vacation days.

(A note: for a great example of how to use money in a fantasy story, check out The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, if you haven’t already. There is, to be honest, a lot I don’t like about Rothfuss’s writing, but this is one thing he gets spot on. And, in spite of having to think about money constantly, Kvothe has plenty of fun adventures. The way he learns to get around his own poverty is, in fact, one of the chief character-building themes in the novel.)

Why It’s Wrong to Motivate Your Villain


Female Villains and The Impossibilty of Motive

(A note: there are mild Star Wars spoilers contained in this post. For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but still care enough about Star Wars to be upset with me: don’t read. Also, quit breathing. Are we supposed to not talk about the damned movie for an entire month while you get your shit together?)

So it was around June or so that I started hearing rumors about the new Star Wars movie–interesting rumors. I was trying to go rumor-free until I saw it, but that proved pretty difficult: if you touched the Internet, the Internet told you something about Star Wars. I’m telling you this to explain how I heard this rumor and then didn’t unhear it shortly after. That’s important, you see, for the story.

Anyway, the rumor I heard, and then cherished, and then never unheard until I set foot in the theatre:

Kylo Ren is going to be a girl.

I felt a warm flush of pride deep in my bloated old-woman craw. What a victory, really, for those of us who grew up wanting the red lightsaber.

That rumor stuck with me for a while. Mostly because, at first, I couldn’t see why I found it so fascinating.

Of course, when I finally saw Star Wars, I was horribly disappointed. We traded the possibility of that for Anakin Lite?

I liked the idea of Kylo Ren a lot better when that masked and looming figure was female. Just because you don’t see it much–a woman villain, power-hungry, under a mask. Not wearing a low-cut lady outfit, not flirting. The sort of villain even boys want to be, because they could be that villain.

The hard truth of it is, it’s tough to find a good female villain. And when you do find one, she usually has one of these motivations:

1) A tragic love affair (in love with the man villain, hero did her wrong, etc.)
2) Revenge (someone wronged her–often sexually–and she goes too far to the other side taking revenge.)
3) A Devastating Trauma (family killed, kids killed, husband killed, etc.)
4) Life Is Just Too Hard As a Woman (so she has to go to the Dark Side to gain ‘freedom’.)

Nothing wrong with these motivations. They’re perfectly decent motivations. It’s just–they all depend on the actions or lives of somebody else. It weakens the perception of a villain, to start with this sort of backstory. And it doesn’t half explain away the evil.

The had truth of it is, as much as you see the advice ‘give your villain motivation’ spattered about online, you can over-motivate a villain. We tend to do this with women especially, since you don’t usually see a girl when you picture a power-mad despot taking over a small South American country. What could lead to that? What made her go from painting her nails with those cute Bonne Bell tiny nail polishes and dreaming about prom to military dictatorship?

It’s tough for us to grasp that a woman could be doing both (or not be into painting her nails in the first place, even weirder). So we overcompensate–we make out Evil Empress a great haughty beauty, we put her in a slinky dress, we make her a good person deep down, no really. (Don’t worry, I’m guilty of this too. It’s a hard taboo to break).

The thing is. Any villain, male or female, has one motivation for being a villain: being a shitty human being.

You might start down the path to the Dark Side because you’re frightened, or lonely, or angry. And there should be a starting point, and you should know what it is. But that’s not what takes you all the way. The one thing that makes you truly evil is being truly evil. Whether you’re a woman or a man, girl or boy, you don’t reach the point where you’re killing every elf in the city because your ex was an elf. You reach that point because you’re a despicable, genocidal person. You do other things that aren’t nice, too: obviously, you’re racist, but you probably also don’t tip. You probably have an inflated sense of your own importance (after all, you’re human, so you’ve got to be pretty decent, right?) and you’ve probably never held the door for one of those awful elves in your life. Actually, you probably make a stink when they walk down the same side of the street as you do. You won’t eat something if elf hands have touched it. When your sister moved into a house near the Elf Quarter, you probably said, horrified: but elves might have lived there. You probably made her move, because you’re also a domineering and forceful person. Or: you burned her house down and made it look like an accident. It’s okay, it’s better for her in the end anyway.

It’s hard, I think, for us to see women in this light. I don’t know why we like to see women as better people in stories (or, at worst, as ineffectual bitches), but we do. Maybe it’s the residual effects of Coventry Patmore and all the rest of those Victorian moralizers, but it’s not a good thing. Women can be shitty people too. We know that from our personal lives–we just have trouble carrying it over into fiction without stereotyping.

And a good villain is a shitty person. That’s what makes him or her a villain in the first place. There might be a tragic story (loss of a loved one, etc) that acts as impetus for the villain’s transformation, but this is not motive. A villain’s motives are hard for a good person to understand, and you want them to be.

Because this is your villain. This isn’t Barney the Purple Dinosaur, it isn’t that chick from your book club, and it isn’t your sister. This is Hitler. This is Stalin. This is Pol Pot. This is an awful goddamned human being. This is someone you want your audience to loathe.

And we don’t understand the people we loathe. When we do–and maybe this in and of itself is a part of your story–when we do, they cease to become villains.

Hitler had to take a dump every once in a while. He was vegetarian. He had a girlfriend, whom he probably loved. He probably had bad hair days, trouble tying his tie right, socks with holes in them, all the things that make us human. Maybe he loved skiing, dogs, relaxing evenings at home reading a book.

We all have these things.

But Hitler was also a genocidal maniac. We can understand why he did the things he did, inasmuch as we can see the logical train from reason to result. But we can’t understand why why. We’re decent people, so there is no great burning truth to us for Hitler’s motivations. It simply doesn’t exist, and the fact that it doesn’t should be immensely reassuring.

Long story short: let women be shitty, too. Shitty, occasionally, without sex and beauty (because sex and beauty don’t make someone shitty, nor do they cover up an innately shitty soul). Remember that your villain is a villain, and make them, regardless of sex, act like villains. A power-mad despot doesn’t have a lot of time for longing after old loves. It’s hard to take over the world when part of your brain is always focused on your dead children. Just let her be shitty. For women everywhere: let her.

A Note: For an excellent example of a villain who is ‘humanized’ without ever once becoming less of a villain, check out John Fowles’s The Collector. This book is one of the great exercises in point-of-view, rotating as it does between the collector and his collected. Read it all the way through, and then read Part I again. Trust me.

Twitter for Nonvultures


Twitter for Nonvultures

I took a Twitter break recently, and it’s gotten me thinking about Twitter. So, a Twitter post.

I’m not one of those people who thinks Twitter is absolutely integral to your success as an indie writer. I think there are loads of ways to be successful as an indie writer, and I can see how Twitter might be one of them, but, well.

What Twitter’s really good for, at least for me, is promoting my blog. A lot of my views come from Twitter, and it’s not a wild coincidence. The Twitter gods haven’t smiled on me, and I haven’t sacrificed my soul for followers (I don’t even know how many I have, off the top of my head. It’s somewhere around 1400. Not a ton. If you’re visiting this blog from Twitter, by the way: heeeeey. This is, like, totally ironic.).

Twitter’s best, in my humble opinion, for promoting things that are serial in nature–a blog, or a Wattpad story published in parts, a weekly paper, etc. That way, you’re giving folks new content every time you link: or, well, you have the chance to vary up your content a little, at least. Most folks who are active Twitter users do, after all, have large lists of followers, and a link travels down their Twitter feed pretty quickly, likely to never be checked again.

Yes, you can promote your book on Twitter. You probably should throw a link to it in there, every once in a while. But if you do the same thing every time you tweet, you sound like a broken bird call, and that’s positively fucking annoying. People will mute you. They’ll unfollow you. And good luck selling your book to an audience that can’t even see you advertising.

So, for new tweeps, here’s my Twitter plan of attack for writers:

1) Make your profile. Put ‘writer’ somewhere in your bio: you are, after all, networking. Be brief. Be funny, Stand out.

2) Immediately–immediately, you hear?–start using Twitter Lists. Make a list for Advertising, a list for Writers, a list for Spammy Writers, and a list for Friends/Family. Basically, make whatever lists make you feel organized and perky, but please please please at least make a list for writers who actually do things other than post spammy book links. As you get followers, check out their feeds and add them to their appropriate categories. It might not seem so important now, but take it from someone who didn’t do this: a thousand followers down the line, your feed will be innundated with shittily photoshopped pictures of half naked women and aliens and other automated bullshit, and you will have no easy way of finding your actual Tweety friends on a list that moves at five to ten tweets per minute. Just because someone’s profile has ‘writer’ in it doesn’t mean you want to see every tweet this person fires off. Some writers spam. Y’hear? Some writers. Spam.

3) Use your hashtags, Junior. Big ones for writers include #amwriting, #writetip, #amreading, #amediting, #1lineWed, #FlashFictionFriday, and genre tags (#fantasy, #romance, etc.). You might want to get into #NaNoWriMo, come November, or peddle your blog on #Mondayblogs. Perhaps you’d like to vent? #writerslife and #writerproblems are there for you. There are better lists of popular hashtags elsewhere (like here: Erica Verrillo went to a lot of trouble to organize this fantastic list.,) but one thing to remember is: hashtags don’t always stay popular. Remember to check your actual hashtag feeds every once in a while (cue: don’t just toss your tweets out into the ether) to see whether or not they’re moving quickly (and, of course, to interact with others, which you were smart enough to know to do already, right.).

Why You Should Care About Hashtags:

Posting under certain hashtags gives folks with larger accounts (your new tweeps) the chance to find your post, check it out, love it, and retweet it. Retweets help you reach a whole new audience, and are the sweet, sweet, Reddi-whip nippled treats of the gods. For best results, I recommend combining a general and larger hashtag (such as #amwriting) with a more specific second (#writetip, genre tag, #indiepub. Etc.).

But don’t make the classic mistake of making a #tweet that is #almost #entirely #hashtags. It looks like an automated bill-pay service just had its way with your tweet. Seriously. 

4) Take your serialized content (your blog, your webcomic, whatever it is), and go to the settings. Make sure every damn post you make auto-posts to Twitter. Want to get more personal? Fine. Make a second tweet later with all your pretty hashtags and a catchy text line. Two tweets isn’t spamming. But keep that first one, because that way, if all else fails, you’ve posted it on Twitter.

5) Remember those hashtags we were talking about? Check them out. Follow people who post to them. Talk to people. Favorite and retweet things you feel your followers would like to see. Retweets, after all, aren’t for you–they’re for the folks who look at your feed. Your follower base will grow.

6) You might want to check out HootSuite, or another similar scheduled social media service. You might not need it all the time–hell, I don’t use it much–but if you’ve got a lot of stuff to post and, say, an actual job, it might help you get things out when you want them out, and not just when you have the time. No, I’m not using it right now. Why? Because I’m an idiot. Don’t be an idiot. Don’t be like me.

A note: I’m not trying to teach you how to have a million bajillion followers here. There are plenty of people far more qualified than I to post about that. These are simple, efficient things to get you started using Twitter–ways to get the most out of it without spending your whole goddamn life stewing in it. Twitter can be a great marketing tool, but it can also be a soulless, heavily-abbreviated time suck.

Trick is, it’s up to you which one you want it to be.

A (succinct) guide to Getting Followers on Twitter, Which Is All Anyone Really Seems to Care About Anyway, Because Engagement Totally Doesn’t Matter, Right?:

1) Post witty things related to your intended network.
2) Use popular writing hashtags. Check out what other people are saying under those hashtags. Friend people who also post witty things in your intended network.
3) Post more witty things. Retweet other people’s witty things.
4) Legasp! It’s undifficult!

Have a nice Saturday, kids. Go pick up a drink and stay the hell away from the internet.

Writing Through the Lens of My Hair


Writing Style

I have never had a bad hair cut.

You’re looking at the screen right now. You just reread that first sentence. You’re wondering what on Earth my lack of bad hair cuts could have to do with writing, or character building, or really anything you read this blog for.

Bear with me, Salisbury. For now.

I’ve had my hair, oh, lots of different ways over the years. First time I cut it short I was nine or ten, and it was short, short as a boy’s. I’ve varied it between long and short ever since. I’ve had bobs. I’ve had bangs. I’ve had boy cuts and stubble. I’ve had weird asymmetrical things. I’ve had mohawks. I’ve had pigtails.

I’ve been called a dyke for my hair. When it’s been long, I’ve been called boring and traditional (‘don’t you ever do anything interesting with it?’ whined a friend who, obviously, hadn’t known me for very long). I have, in spite of being an adult woman with large breasts, gotten sirred by waiters. I once, in my spiky bright pink days, had a psychiatrist ask me, almost as soon as I walked into his office: ‘so. Do you always wear your hair like that?’.

You’re probably making a face right now. And, yes, you’re thinking: well, obviously, there has been a bad hair cut or two in there, Emily.

Here’s the thing, though.

Not to me.

I’ve enjoyed every hair cut I ever had. Even the shitty ones. (Except that one time I tried to bleach my hair after dying it black and fried it. This is simply because I couldn’t get a brush through it. Also, I looked like a purple-haired troll doll.) I like being different. I even like, to some extent, other human beings wondering what the fuck I was thinking. Pshaw! That’s for me to know, buddy. That’s for me to know.

I suppose I wanted (except in the psychiatrist’s case, because, well, no one wants to get tranquilized for a hairstyle choice) to never let other people’s opinions and social constructions rule me. I rather enjoyed being a nonconformist, and the brutal honesty in that is that, yes, of course I cared what other people were thinking. I just wanted something from them other than approval.

I spent over twenty years dressing myself in ways I thought were cool. They were not, needless to say, ways other people thought were cool, heavens no. A floor length silk skirt and a tshirt is, apparently, something people have trouble getting behind as a fashion statement. No one likes leopard print with zebra print except me. That picture in the grocery store of me wearing a crown of flowers and holding aloft a hamsteak probably wasn’t avant garde to everyone else in the supermarket.

I looked in my wardrobe recently: black tees, black sweaters, grey sweaters, black tees. Jeans. Sneakers. Slip-ons. I looked in the mirror at my unremarkable hair.

What changed?

Did I change?

Or did I finally, after a decade, cotton on to the fact that the world is watching me?

Writing is an odd thing. It’s something, professionally, that you do for public consumption: your piece will get criticized, misinterpreted, misquoted, maligned. People–the vast majority of them–won’t ‘get you’. Even the few who really liked it won’t ‘get you’.

But at the same time, to write effectively, you’ve got to do it as though it would never see the light of day. You’ve got to write like Emily Dickinson–as though your poems would be found years after your death in a musty box somewhere, mouldering patiently. Honesty is a thing that can never be manufactured, and it’s necessary for art of any kind. I won’t waste my time telling you why: you either understand that or you’ll never write well.

My point here is: writing is a tough tight rope to walk. You’ve got to like it–I mean, really. You’ve got to. If you don’t, no one else will. But how much? Can you bear seeing your masterwork pulped and pooped out by people who just don’t understand you, whine whine whine?

So. What do you do? Do you bare your soul’s cheetah and lime green interior to the world? Or do you opt out, for the inscrutable black sweaters of concealment?

Or perhaps there’s some in-between here. Because, after all, it’s still you wrapped up in that black sweater–and you can’t have changed too much. Maybe you’re repping that literary black hoodie now because it’s comfortable and it’s finally stretched to fit over your boobs. Maybe there’s a part of you that’s not being dishonest so much as it’s being adult: perhaps it’s recognized, finally, that there are things far deeper and more subtle than clashing patterns to make people uneasy over, and that those things are, by far, the more important ones to pay attention to.

Long story short: write what’s on the inside, yes. But if what’s on the inside is crazy as hell, be ready for people not to like you. You’re not a maligned genius. You’re not a Beat poet with a bottle of wine and a handwritten diary of eastern wisdom. You’re not Oscar Wilde, breathing your last disconsolate de profundis in stifling luxury. You’re just an untried, possibly unpublished, writer with the same dream as millions of scribblers the world over: to write a book that everyone has read. You might have it in you, you might not. All you can do is write it, possibly promote it, and let the public decide. A lot of people want to be writers. I mean, a lot.

It isn’t you, you see, who decides whether or not you’re a genius. It never has been. That’s up to other people, and, curious though you might be, it’s better for your writing if you don’t concern yourself too much with it. Just wear what you feel like wearing, at the end of the day. Write what you feel like writing.

People have advice for you all day: write something the public will like. Write what you think a publishing house will pick up. Write what’s in your heart. Try to find a balance. Fuck everybody, write the damndest thing you can think of.
My advice is, simply: fuck all of them. Do exactly what makes you most comfortable. Individuality, shameless conformity: it doesn’t matter. Write in a way that makes you feel comfortable, and let society sort out whether or not you’re conforming.

In short: stop being a writer and write.


Ten Imagination-Building Exercises


Think Differently: Ten Excercises For a Better Imagination

I don’t have much truck with writing exercises. I think your main writing exercise is, and should always be, writing something. Just ‘doing an exercise’ is essentially giving yourself homework, and it’s giving yourself homework with the automatic assumption that what you’re doing is just an exercise, so it doesn’t really count for shit in the first place.

Success will never be had, in these circumstances. Most of us have a limited amount of time to sit down and write anyway; using some of that time ‘just for exercises’ isn’t helping you. Your aim, every time you sit down to whatever it is you sit down to, should be to create something you can eventually publish.

This is not, I note, the same as saying you should never experiment. Want to try writing a story with no adverbs in it? Be my guest. Want to do one of those cheesy ‘your character writes a letter to X’ things? Letter onwards. But only do it if you have an idea. Only do it if it’s something that strikes a chord with you. No good story was ever begun with the phrase ‘I’m going to write something today that never uses the word ‘said”. It was begun with an idea: ‘hey, what if there was a monk who lost his rosary?’, and then, if you please, you can shout, whisper, murmur, and belt your way to the conclusion.

Had to get that off my chest. The reason being, of course, that I’m about to offer you some everyday writing exercises. Ain’t I a hypocrite?

Not really. Very few of these involve actually putting pen to paper. What I’m offering, instead, are more thought exercises–ways to expand your mind, man. Imagination is key in good writing, and I see few ‘writing exercises’ that flex those particular muscles.

Because, yeah, you need inspiration to write. If you try to just churn it out, what you’ll churn out will be page after page of drivel (if you haven’t been keeping up with my NaNo experiment, I proved this to myself last month).

Here’s the deal with inspiration, though. You can’t just sit there and wait for it to come to you. You have to set out manfully into the West and find your inspiration, and lasso your inspiration, and drag it back to the paddy and break it like the wild motherfucking thing it is. There are a lot of thoughts floating around in your cranium bubble, and recognizing a good one–catching it as it passes you by on its gossamer wings–is a lot harder than all our talk of muses and inspirational writ suggests.

To find your inspiration, you have to start thinking differently. We’re humans–we’re hardwired to focus on our own survival and happiness. And that’s not a bad thing, when you aren’t doing something creative: when you are, though, it’s time to expand your fucking mind. A good idea doesn’t capture some great universal truth, it captures the little daily truths, which, if arranged correctly, might echo something that resonates. It’s why we show, not tell. Which is more powerful: the phrase ‘everyone died but me’, or the lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with five life vests still in factory ties?

These exercises are intended to help you find life’s little truths, the details we miss when we start thinking about How The World Is Today. Imagination is limitless–which is awesome, yeah, but also kind of terrifying. Here’s me helping you use your imagination.

1) What coins do you have in your pocket? Look at them, examine them. Some are old and ugly, some are shiny and new. How many other people have touched these coins? What situations have they been in, to give them the scars they do (or don’t) have? Got an older coin that’s still in shiny shape in there? Why do you think it is that way?

2) Find one thing in the course of your day that doesn’t work. A cooler at the convenience store, an out of order vending machine, that sort of thing. Speculate on why. Speculate on how long it’s been that way.

3) Notice ten people of different ages and backgrounds. Now ask yourself: what kind of underwear are they wearing? If you feel like getting arrested today, go ask and see how close to right you were.

4) Read a book by an author from a different country. The less you know about that country, the better.

5) When you overhear two strangers arguing (and trust me, you will if you pay attention) pick an arguer to side with. Then, justify the point of view of the arguer you disagree with. (Handy dandy note: don’t do this out loud.)

6) When you’re watching TV: pick a scene. Imagine what went on when the camera wasn’t rolling.

7) Name three ways in which you have been lazy today, including why they are lazy. (I’ve already got one for you. I’m all rainsplattered and damp because, in the long run, it was easier to walk in the rain and get wet than it was to use my umbrella. Yes. I am that lazy.)

8) Take the first two words that come out of this random word generator. Now, write an eight hundred word flash piece using both of them. Don’t go over the word limit. (For extra credit, share your creations in the comment section.)

9) Take those same two words and write a second eight hundred word story. Don’t reuse anything–characters, setting, plot, theme–from the first one.

10) When you pass a building under construction, take a second. Imagine the amount of money that went into building it. Who’s putting up the cash? Why is it being built? Did anyone really not want that bulding to be there, and if so, who? Is this building some architecture student’s first job, or some world-weary master’s triumph?

Fantasy Homonyms


Fantasy Homonyms

Starting this blawg with a story. (Do I even know how to actually spell ‘blawg’ any more? I’m just asking because you’re probably asking. The answer is no.)

When I was twelve, maybe thirteen, the first Lord of the Rings movie came out. Was it the only thing that happened that year? No. The Twin Towers fell, and I think I got leg hair. But it was, by far, the most important to me.

(Cue crazed patriotic backlash over opinion statement. Get over it, I was twelve.)

I’d read the books. They were all right. I had always been, and always will be, more a fan of the Hobbit than LotR, but LotR was all right. The scenes in Moria kept me awake at night. I cheered for Eowyn. I was involved.

I did not, however, turn into the screaming, wheezing, mouth-frothing geek I have been ever since until viewing the movies.

To this day, I’m not certain why they struck such a chord with me. Maybe my shabby twelve year old pubescent existence needed heroes and glory. And swords. (It definitely needed swords). And all my friends had something to obsess over, why not me? I was, at twelve, too old for boy bands (in my head, at least,) and too young to go to concerts.

So I obsessed. I read the trilogy like twenty times. I read the Silmarillion and, to my surprise, enjoyed it. I developed a fondness for Feanor and his sons. I wrote poetic and terrible Feanor fanfiction. Surprisingly, I don’t think I had many pimples, but I did have a pretty gnarly set of braces. Eventually, I got a boyfriend. He didn’t share my fondness for terrible and poetric Feanor fanfiction. I was deeply disappointed. Why couldn’t I just live in Middle Earth, where everyone knew who Feanor was. Etc. You’ve been a preteen. You know the drill.

I’ve diverged somewhat from my original point here, which was to talk about a single phrase in what I think was the first LotR movie, which floored me then and still floors me now. It was:

They will raze Minas Tirith to the ground.

Okay. Now, imagine you’re twelve. You’re stuffing your training bra with toilet paper at the school dance; the biggest book you’ve read is Great Expectations, and that was mostly for the Accelerated Reader points, which you hoard like a dieter hoards Hershey kisses.

Raze is not a word that exists for you. It’s archaic: it’s old-fashioned. But you sure as hell know what raise means, you didn’t get all those reader points for nothing. So, just hearing it spoken, it sure as hell sounds like Boromir is saying they will raise Minas Tirith etc. Which is awfully confusing.

You’re an only child, and your friends aren’t out to play because it’s raining and they’re boring, and this is before the internet was a total thing. So you go to a dictionary. And you spend an amount of time adults might call ‘unhealthy’ looking through the RA section.

A light goes on in your dopey little twelve year old skull.

Holy snickers bars, Batman. There are words that sound like other words but mean different things. How can you trust the world now. How can society continue.

These words, you learn during the five minutes of computer lab where you AREN’T mindlessly playing Oregon Trail, are called ‘homonyms’. Or, to be honest: homophones. For more on the potential difference between the two, check out this link here. I’ll use them interchangably, because I can’t make up my mind about anything more than what to have for dinner without planning.

I still think the phrase ‘razing (Minas Tirith) to the ground’ is one of the worst word choices in cinematic history. I guess, in some ways, I’m just as much of an unimaginative pedant as I was when I was twelve.

But the fact is, at least the script had ‘raze’ in it. They knew what they meant and they knew how to spell it. This is not, unfortunately, a thing I see constantly in independently published fantasy novels: I ran across a high fantasy character in a book last week who took a bridal off a horse several times, and I’ve been thinking about that raise/raze moment ever since.

One of the most difficult things about writing fantasy is the fact that, for verisimilitude, some archaic/infrequently used words have to become commonly used for you. Unless you grew up with horses, you probably haven’t had to type ‘bridle’ very often. You might not understand that Aunt Cynthia’s tea cozy horde and the oncoming horde in your novel are different things. And we won’t even talk about affect/effect: the internet has done that for us, often snottily.

So, please. If you’re self-editing, check your homophonic spelling. Make sure you’re using the right word. Because if one more person tells me they’ve hit the motherload on Facebook, I’m going to go batshit crazy.

Here, collected just for your pretty selves, are twenty fantasy-esque homophones that you need to outright master. I’ve seen about half of them wrong in print, and when you put a bridal on your horse in print, children in third world countries starve to death.

If you want to view more shiny homonyms, this is a good list, and includes, as far as I could see, most of the ones I talk about here.

Raze–to destroy, to burn down.
Raise–to build or raise up.

Council–a group of people offering advice.
Counsel–a single adviser, or sometimes the advice itself.

Altar–That thing in the church people worship and get married at.
Alter–to change a course of events.

Load–a portion of something, usually to be carried.
Lode–a source or supply of ore (note: motherLODE.)

Affect–to change somehow.
Effect–the result of that change.

Blonde–yellow haired (female).
Blond–yellow haired (male).

Reign–a rule or regency.
Rain–water that falls from the sky.
Rein–a thing you control your horse with.

Ale–delicious beer.
Ail–to be sick or ill.

Gorilla–large grunty primate.
Guerrilla–non-regulation soldier, often a rebel.

Manner–a fashion of doing things.
Manor–a large house.

Bough–a tree limb.
Bow–that bending motion you make to important people. Also, pronounced differently: that thing with a string you use to shoot arrows at people.

Hoard–a large collection of items, or the act of collecting these items.
Horde–an invading army.

Bear–a fuzzy animal that might kill you. Also: to carry a burden.
Bare–to shed clothing or layers.

Yoke–a holster of sorts.
Yolk–that orange thing in the middle of an egg.

Exercise–something you need thirty minutes of a day, at least.
Exorcise–what you do to the demon inhabiting cousin Clara’s body.

Grizzly–a type of bear. Also–having a weathered, unkempt look.

Capital–the foremost part of something. Raleigh is the capital of North Carolina; moving out of it is a capital idea.
Capitol–a specific type of government building. Psst–there’s one on Capitol Hill.

Bridal–things relating to the woman’s part in a wedding.
Bridle–that thing you put over your horse’s face.

Faint–weak and unobtrusive; to fall down in a swoon.
Feint–a move intended to mislead an opponent.

Fourth–what comes after the third.
Forth–moving forward, going out into the world.

How to Critique II: Who to Listen To


How To Critique II: Accepting Criticism and Who to Listen To

Part I of this series is over here. I don’t know why I’m telling you that: if you scrolled down the page at all/ever you could figure it out yourself.


There’s plenty of literature around the web about handling criticism, especially critical reviews and critiques. I’m not going to get too into that, since it’s been done a billion times before–besides. Realistically, how am I supposed to help you with your anger/self esteem issues? Only you can do that, buddy, and until you decide to do it you’re going to respond to criticism just how you feel like responding, and it isn’t going to be pretty, and you’ll probably lose friends. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like criticism either–I sympathize with you on the ruffled feathers/negativity thing. However:

Adults are polite. Or, at worst: adults are silent. Those are the two options you have: there are no others. Don’t be that person who defends a story decision into the next millennium: listen to your critique partner’s advice. Either take it, or don’t. There you go, dealing with criticism mastered.

A note: if you’re having trouble NOT firing off that hotheaded email about how no, really, Princess Cracklypoof NEEDS to have sex with that two-headed dragon in Chapter Three, take a moment, sit back, and picture how this email looks to people who are not you. Childish and butthurt, yes? Don’t send it.

Something that doesn’t get touched on as much, and probably should, is the governing idea of my blawg here:

Who should I listen to, when taking critique advice?

If you’re part of a critique group, you might have four or five other opinions to take something from. If nothing else, I hope you at least have your mother/father giving you useful advice while simultaneously castigating you over your use of swear words. All these opinions are unlikely to agree, and they certainly aren’t going to agree with you. So: whose advice should you take?

Here are some ideas to help you determine the answer to that question.

1) Is this a majority opinion?

If more than one person is saying your description of the muddy river is unclear, you might want to consider listening (and, perhaps, finding a critique group that doesn’t love puns quite so much). If it’s something more than one person has noticed, chances are, it’s not all of them, it’s you.

2) Do I like this person’s writing?

If you’re in a critique group with other writers, it might be worth it to read something these folks have written, if you haven’t already. If you have two critiques telling you to do opposite things, and you prefer one critiquer’s writing over another’s, I’d recommend listening to the person whose writing you prefer, or at least taking that person’s ideas into higher account. A little elitist? Maybe. But you know what you like. Think of it this way: whose advice would you prefer when asking how to roast a turkey? Grandma’s, whose turkeys are always briny and delicious, or your cousin Meredith, who burned the shit out of the five pound turkey breast she roasted for Thanksgiving that one year?

A note: your acceptance/denial of advice probably shouldn’t include this information. Ever. But you figured that out yourself, I hope.

3) Search your feelings. You know it to be true.

Don’t get all hot n’ bothered just because someone’s trying to give you advice. Some of this advice, if you let yourself admit it, will resonate with you: some of it will have even occurred to you as you were writing. Always take this advice. After all, you’re the end authority, and if you agree, there’s nowhere else to go.

4) Who are you writing this story for?

Let’s say you wrote a story about a Tinder date gone awry. One critique partner, a twenty-four year old girl from Michigan, thought it was hilarious. Another critique partner, a sixty-five year old man from Iowa, found it very confusing.
Sit back and ask yourself a few questions here. Tinder is mostly used by younger people, specifically millennials: is this who you want this story to reach? If it is, you want to listen to your twenty-four year old compatriot more than your sixty-five year old one, as she’s in the age demographic the story is intended for. She’ll get some of the references your older buddy won’t get, and in this case, that’s fine.

(A note: I felt super-ageist after posting that. Obviously, this post is assuming your 65 year old friend doesn’t know much about Tinder. There are exceptions. If he’s a 65 year old Tinder guru, listen to him, of course!)

Don’t get me wrong, you should make you story as digestible for a wider audience as you can. There’s no point in purposefully excluding people who might otherwise like it. But there comes a time when too much backstory causes a plot to suffer, and in the end only you can determine whether an explanation of swiping right ruins the flow of the story or not.

This doesn’t mean, of course, you should discount everything your sixty-five year old friend says. He’ll have some useful advice for you, too. But when he demands you give the website URL with http:// in front of it (‘otherwise, how will people understand this is a website?’) you might want to turn a deaf ear. You’re looking to make this story digestible to the majority, of course, but it’s already about a specialized subject, and you have to accept that it won’t be absolutely everyone’s cup of tea.

If the idea of writing a specialized story bothers you, it might be time to consider making this a generic ‘blind date’ instead of a Tindr hookup. Though that, too, can hurt your story, by taking it into the realm of the general and out of the specific.

Which brings me to my last advice crumb:

5) Why are you debating taking this advice?

Try and be objective, here. That can be hard, if a critique feels extra harsh, but keep in mind what I said in Part I: no one here is trying to hurt you. Everyone has good intentions, and if you don’t assume that, you’re going to go slowly mad. So take a step back and try and consider the advice you’ve received honestly. Ask yourself: do I want to take this advice because it’s genuinely good, or because this person seemed nicer? Or, conversely: am I ignoring this advice because the critique ruffled my feathers?

That second one especially is something to be wary of. Especially since constructive criticism often ruffles feathers, and is, to my mind, generally more honest than endless compliments. Everyone wants to hear they don’t need to change a thing in their story: however, this is almost never true.

There y’go. I actually wrote Part II of this. I’m so proud.