11/4/19

Save the Cat, Marvel Movies, Scorsese and Coppola

Due to travel and a wee bit of exhaustion, I broke the #blogtober chain. I wondered how long I could go, posting something every day. It turns out one solid car trip is enough to break the run.

But that’s okay! I’m not doing NaNoWiMo this year. I’ve got too much other stuff going on. All good things. That means I have more time this year to be active here, so hopefully I won’t disappear for months on end like I have before.

As I mentioned, I spent a good chunk of the day driving from LA to Sacramento. I finished the audio book I started when I drove down to LA on Thursday, and then I listened to music and thought about writing and the book I just listened to.

The audio book was Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. A lot of people rave about it online, and I wanted to see what all the buzz was about. Now that Snyder’s book is in my brain, I have a lot of thoughts I want to share.

Save the Cat – A Summary

Save the Cat is directed towards screenplay writers, spending time not only getting into the nuts and bolts of writing a screenplay, but also touching on the business side of it. The author makes bold claims about how the methods and rules described in the book are the difference between a screenplay being successful or failing in obscurity. Snyder describes success in financial terms, and is very clear that writers should focus on the bottom line more than following their heart. They will still make art, as long as they follow the rules and don’t paint outside the lines.

The term “save the cat” is itself one of the rules described in the book. It refers to a moment in the screenplay where the protagonist does something likable, making it easier for the audience to engage with them. They can save a cat, show mercy to a criminal thug that brought their son to a baseball game, or engage in a conversation about French cheeseburgers before doing a bunch of gun murder.

There are other rules in Save the Cat which I thought were interesting. Pope in the Pool, Too Much Rope, Black Vet… these were all great tips which have direct application in other forms of writing.

Save the Cat – My Reaction

I think the book has a lot of value. I recommend other writers read it, even if you’re like me and have no desire to write a screenplay. I know Save the Cat Writes a Novel exists, but I heard it’s not as good as the original. I may give it a try later when my to-be-read pile is a little thinner.

That said, I had some problems with Save the Cat. For starters, Blake Snyder took issue with movies like Memento and Unbreakable, movies which don’t easily fit within structure described in the book. He also bashed Signs, but I thought that was fair. A movie he didn’t mention is the original Rocky, which would have been ruined by his three act structure methodology.

The overall attitude of Save the Cat is that success is measured in dollars, and if you want to be a successful writer, you must adhere to the structure laid out in the book. The structure is rigid enough that it describes the number and placement of scenes, the emotional curves, and the overall journey of any story. It’s rigid, mechanical, and guarantees that the movie goer is going to get the same basic movie experience every time.

Novels are different, but like I said, I see people online applying the terminology and methods of Save the Cat to novels, and it makes my teeth hurt. I think something is lost. It’s exactly the same as telling a musician they can only write songs using the same four chords.

Four chord songs are extremely popular and successful, but it’s not the only way to write music. The three act structure is handy and reliable, but it’s not the only way to write a screenplay. It is definitely not the only way to write a novel.

Scorsese, Coppola, and The Marvel Cinematic Universe

Recently, Martin Scorsese said that the Marvel movies were not cinema. Francis Ford Coppola joined Scorsese in admonishing the films, going a step further and calling them despicable.

Some people may agree with them. A lot of people disagree. Emotions can run hot because these are very popular movies. If you don’t like Marvel Movies, we can still be friends, but I’m of the opinion that these are some of the finest experiences I’ve enjoyed at the theater for the last decade, and I respectfully disagree with the legendary directors disparaging the MCU.

But let’s take a step back and put this in context. Let’s break apart some of these Marvel movies and examine their structure. Actually, let’s be a little bit lazy and let the more educated and eloquent Lindsey Ellis break it down for us. In the following video, she breaks down 3 act structure and includes Iron Man as one of her examples.

Let’s also listen to Michael from Lessons of the Screenplay’s video, which dedicates the entire run time to analyzing the structure of Marvel movies.

Both of those videos are excellent. If you don’t have time to watch them now, watch them later. They’re worth it.

In the mean time, accept my word when I say that Marvel employs the three act structure, adhering strictly with the rules Blake Snyder describes in Save the Cat.

The Paradox Spelled Out

In case you missed it, here is what I’ve said so far:

  1. I don’t like reflexively applying the three act structure to stories
  2. Scorsese and Coppola don’t like Marvel movies
  3. I LOVE Marvel movies
  4. The Marvel movies successfully use the three act structure as if they’re trying to replace all their toilet paper with dollar bills

Am I being inconsistent?

On the surface it looks that way, but I don’t think so. What turns me off of Save the Cat isn’t the content, it’s the attitude that it is the only way. That attitude is backed up and supported by individuals in the writing community. I don’t actually have a problem with the three act structure itself. I have a problem with the inflexibility surrounding it.

When I constructed the outline for Synthetic Dreams, I used a three act structure as a framework! And as the story has grown, I’ve broken away from the structure a little, organically allowing the novel to take its own form. The tension has escalated in the third act, dropped off, then escalated again. There have been two scenes that could be described as “whiff of death” moments.

And it’s fine. For one thing, I’m not writing a screenplay. For another, I’m not writing a screenplay, so we shouldn’t strictly apply screenplay rules to my novel. If it ever gets adapted to a movie, we’ll have a different conversation about how my story will be adapted.

But let’s get back to Scorsese and Coppola. Are they criticizing the three act structure the way I am?

No, they’re not. Many of their movies, especially Coppola, adhere to a three act structure.

So what are they bitching about? The spectacle? The big budget action thrillers based on pop culture media?

If that’s what their pointing at, Coppola is a hypocrite. The Godfather movies were exactly that, in their time. Moderate budget films based on books that were popular.

Are the Marvel Movies Cinema?

I honestly don’t know what Scorsese and Coppola are saying. They’re geniuses, and they’re entitled to their opinion. It seems like they’re saying that cinema should teach. That the movie goer should leave the theater having gained something.

From Tony Stark, we learned about taking responsibility. We learned that we are more than the legacy we inherited, and that we need to rise up out of the mud when we’ve been knocked down. We learned that sometimes doing the right thing comes with a cost. We saw a man conflicted, dealing with grief and loss, falling into his more base humanity and losing one of his closest friends as a result. In the final movie, after escaping the fight and having a taste of the happy ending he deserved, he walks away from retirement, puts on the suit on last time, and gives his life to save the world, fulfilling the promise of his story laid out across ten years of cinema.

That’s just one of dozens of characters that have compelling character arcs across multiple movies. From Steve Rogers, we start with someone that seems to already have it together, their physical body becoming as perfect as their morality and integrity. But then we see him challenged, force to put down naivety and make difficult choices. Can he just be a soldier when the organization he’s fighting asks him to do wrong? Can he be the man he wants to be without leaving his friends behind? In the end, to be a complete person, he must lay down a little bit of what makes him The Perfect Soldier and simply be The Good Man that the doctor saw in him when he was first chosen. It’s then that he becomes worthy to lift Mjolnir. It’s then that he decides he is worthy enough of the life he always wanted, full of love and joy with the woman that fell in love with him before he became a living Adonis.

This is cinema. This is story. These are characters that we can love and learn from. And thanks to Marvel, we can have a damned fine time doing it.

Parting Thoughts

I want to reiterate that I do not have a problem with the three act structure anymore than I have a problem with four chord songs. Media made with these structures in mind can still move me. And sometimes, I am inspired to make my own stories that adhere to this structure.

One of the jobs of the creature is to be true to the characters, and speak truth through the characters. Truth, in this case, is not the same as facts, and it may not be the truth according to the author. An optimistic writer can include a nihilistic protagonist, and the truth of the character is different the truth of the person that created them.

If you find yourself forcing a character to act against their truth in order to adhere to the three act structure, you are probably doing something wrong. Characters are the story. The three structure is just one of many delivery mechanisms.

11/2/19

A Great Day at World Fantasy

It’s Saturday, my third day at World Fantasy 2019, and before I get too far into the day, I want to talk about yesterday. Yesterday was a really great day.

To Panel or Not To Panel

When I first started going to conventions, I’d take out my laptop and take judicious notes. I mapped out my schedule to maximize the efficiency of my day, going to panel after panel, filling my brain with the wisdom of the panelists. I did this several times a year for several years. For a while, I even posted my notes to this blog.

Over time, the efficacy of the panels began to wane. I started to hear more and more repeat information. I kept taking notes, but I was writing down the same thing I’d written before. The faces changed, the words changed slightly, but the content remained the same. Learning stopped happening, and I stopped enjoying panels. It felt like being a college student taking the same courses over and over and never advancing. A waste of both time and money.

I went to a panel early in the day yesterday about ways to make sure your manuscript isn’t dead-on-arrival when it reaches an agent or editor. I took out my laptop, prepared to take notes as usual. I listened attentively the entire hour, then left. Outside the panel, I ran into someone that arrived late.

“Oh, I can fill you in on what you missed,” I said. “Here it is in its entirety. In order to make sure your manuscript has the best chance of landing, do the following two things: 1) Do your research. 2) Be professional.”

The panelists didn’t say that in so many words, but everything they did say fell into those two categories.

That’s when I realized I wasn’t going to worry so much about panels at cons like this. If there are people on the panel I like listening to, I’ll go. If there’s nothing better for me to do, I’ll go. Otherwise, my time is better served hanging out with friends or writing. That’s what I did most of the rest of the day.

Writing! Getting to The Sweet Stuff

A week or so ago, I talked about how I felt stuck in my writing. The words were coming, but they were slow. I had to really work to get through a part of my manuscript, and frankly, I felt depressed that I was going to miss my goal of completing the first draft before November.

Yesterday, I wrote over 8000 words, and it felt great. The words were easy. The scenes were clear. I like what I wrote, and I’m finding greater depth in the story than what I originally envisioned. The themes I wanted to include are there, but there are others that are popping up I hadn’t consciously intended, and I love it.

Some of this is because I’m relaxed. I probably put too much pressure on myself before November to finish, which caused me to clench.

More importantly, I’ve reached scenes I’ve been looking forward to writing for months. These are fun, pivotal scenes, where everything is coming together. The tension is ratcheting up as we get closer and closer to the climax. This is the Sweet Stuff. I’m fulfilling for myself the promises I made when I set out to write this story. These aren’t necessarily the same promises the story makes to the reader, but there is overlap.

I understand the appeal of writers that are able to jump around in their manuscript. I’ve always written chronologically because so much of the interesting stuff happens during discovery. I can’t write a call from chapter 30 to chapter 15 if I haven’t written chapter 15 yet. Non-chronological writers work the callbacks in during revisions, sure, but I like to include them as I go.

It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know

So, if I’m not getting much from the panels at this convention, what am I doing here? I could just write at home, right?

The real value of cons is the networking. It’s meeting peers and business associates that are working in the same field. This isn’t just predatory or transactional. In fact, I advise against trapping an editor or agent into a conversation, because that’s the worst possible impression you can leave.

Conventions are full of people, so the main benefit of attending is meeting people. You can meet some people at panels, but the real opportunities happen at the parties (if they have any) or at the bar. BarCon is real. We would not have The Dresden Files if not for BarCon.

The problem for me is that, while I can maintain my end of a conversation once I’m involved, I have a hard time meeting people. I’m shy, introverted, nervous, anxious… I approach the noise and chaos of the crowds near the bar, and I feel the blood drain out of my face. I don’t know how to engage. Several times last night, I stood at the edges looking in, seeking a familiar face or an invitation. When I didn’t see an opportunity, when I felt tired from the efforts of trying to engage, I retreated to my room and worked on my novel.

You’re starting to see how I wrote 8000 words in one day, aren’t you?

Fortunately, my buddy Michael didn’t let me off the hook. He found me in my room, talked me into going back to the bar, and helped me find ways into conversation. And then I was fine. I met some cool people and I had a good time.

Parting Thoughts

I’ve spent the morning near the bar at a tall table meant for people with laptops. Several people have approached, often delighted by my keyboard, and I’ve been able to engage in conversations. I have also managed to write several hundred words and this blog post.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. Do, or do not. There is no try.

Whatever cliché or phrase you want to use to describe it, the trick is to not give up and to keep doing what you can do. I’m seeing incremental successes. And at this moment in time, I feel like I have what it takes to have a career in writing.

Speaking of… CHECK THIS OUT!!

11/1/19

NaNoWriMo 2019

Blogtober is done, and now it’s time for Nation Novel Writing Month. Most years, I stop posting to my blog and just focus on getting 50,000 words finished before November 30th. I’m not quite ready to do that, yet.

For starters, I’m probably not doing Nano this year. I can’t work on two first drafts at the same time, and I still haven’t quite finished Synthetic Dreams. Would I have finished if I hadn’t written all those blog posts? Maybe, maybe not. I reached the most difficult part of the book during October, and it took me a while to see my way through to the other side.

I’m over the hump and the words are flowing into that story, so I’m going to remain focused on that. If I manage to finish the first draft by November 7th, I will start Nano on November 8th and see if I can do it. I wrote 50,000 words in 19 days last year, and that story was more challenging than the one I’m looking at next.

I will probably also keep posting here daily while the habit is still with me. I think I’m done doling out writing tips for a while. I’ll probably just talk about what’s going on with my writing, the successes, rejections, and prospects that make up my writing life.

Currently, I’m in a hotel room in Los Angeles. I came down for World Fantasy 2019, and it’s been pretty great so far. I’ve met up with several people I only see once or twice a year.

NaNoWriMo

If you’re doing Nano this year, I want to encourage you! Let me know what you’re working on. Share with me your victories so I can sing your praise! Tell me your dilemmas so I can provide appropriate encouragement, even if that’s just being a listening ear.

I’ve seen some people bashing Nanowrimo on Twitter lately, and I get it. The focus on word count is not necessarily healthy, and producing pages and pages of unprintable garbage isn’t doing anyone favors. These are reasonable criticisms.

However, NaNoWriMo for me isn’t just about the word count. For me, it’s an excuse to make writing my top priority for thirty days. It’s also about sharing the experience with the larger writing community, because we are all writers defeating the monster that is the blank page. It’s through NaNoWriMo that I found #WriteFightGIFClub on Twitter, which is still a fantastic online community.

If the word count is stressing you out, let it go. It is just a metric for measuring progress, and since it doesn’t take into consideration the quality of the words being counted, it doesn’t mean that much. If you only write 500 words a day, that’s still incredible, and I celebrate that victory with you. If you write 3000 words a day and it’s all terrible, I also celebrate that victory with you, and I look forward to reading your story once you’ve gone back and taken the time to revise it.

Parting Thoughts

In 2011, after WorldCon in Reno, I decided to take my writing more seriously. Since then, I’ve been doing what I can to make sure that writing is a larger part of my life. I changed jobs, scheduled time, connected with writing communities, and I’ve submitted my work for publication.

NaNoWriMo is usually the one month in the year where I get to pretend I’ve made it, and that I need to write for a purpose. It’s not just a hobby or pastime. I get to pretend that my writing is actually important, and I get to assume a deadline that isn’t just self-imposed.

These are the reasons I enjoy NaNoWriMo. If you are on the fence with participating, you can use my reasons as your own. You have my permission to pretend to be the writer you’ve always wanted to be, even if it’s for only a month.

Good luck, and let the words flow ever in your favor!

10/31/19

Nano Project: A Clean Slate

This is it! The final post of Blogtober 2019, and the day before the start of National Novel Writing Month.

Today I’m going to talk about what I planned to write for Nanowrimo 2019, focusing specifically on the preparations I make before launching into such an endeavor.

Am I Doing Nano This Year?

As I stated a few posts ago, I’m writing this post early in an effort to give myself a greater chance to succeed at finishing Synthetic Dreams before November. I do not want to be working on two first drafts at the same time, and as I described in yesterday’s post, I’ve already lost Synthetic Dreams at least once before. I don’t want to go through that again.

As of the time of this writing, I have just under 20,000 words left in Synthetic Dreams. That’s a ton to write in just a few days, and it is highly unlikely I’ll be able to do it.

On the other hand, it’s the end of the first draft, and I have a history of getting really excited and becoming extra productive once I hit the home stretch. With The Repossessed Ghost, my first successful Nanowrimo, I wrote around 25,000 words in three days, with 12,300 words written on the very last day.

It is possible, but unlikely. If I don’t finish by November 1st, maybe I’ll just start Nanowrimo later in November.

As they say, “Never give up! Never surrender!” The word count for all of the posts I’ve writing for this buffer comes out to close to 12,000. That’s all in one sitting, on a Saturday afternoon. We’ll see how tomorrow goes.

A Story, Recovered

Yesterday, I talked all about recovering stories that have been lost. A Clean Slate falls into that category, but the preparation I’ll be doing for Nanowrimo is the same as if it were a brand new story.

I can find all the prose I wrote for the first Nanowrimo attempt, and I can find the first few chapters where I tried to rewrite it out of band. I’m not going to use anything from either document. I’m starting over from scratch.

The Basic Idea

Imagine a cross between The Bourne Identity and Glen Cook’s The Black Company. A band of adventurers are awoken from stone and set on a grand adventure to save the kingdom from evil doers gathering on the border. This group of heroes remembers how to fight and how to use magic, but they don’t remember who they are or how they came to become statues in the first place. They set out with good intentions, but discover along the way that they may not be the heroes their liberators intended.

That’s the idea. There are bunches of other details, including a race of magical constructs which feed on human emotion and strike strange bargains, such as securing rights and access to wear human faces once a person has died.

The story deals with forgiveness, the right to bear arms, and whether or not the ends justify the means. There are some Big Ideas in the story, and I think I can make it into something special.

Why This One? Why Now?

My first novel was an urban fantasy. My second and third novels were both SciFi. I want to write a fantasy and make sure I actually have a taste for it.

I read fantasy stories, and I enjoy them, but I’ve never actually finished a non-contemporary fantasy story of any substantial length. I think my particular authorial voice will make a fantasy story interesting, and I’m inspired and excited about the idea I described.

I want to write stories with Big Ideas, and A Clean Slate has the potential to be such a story. I’ve been thinking about it for months, and I think it’s time to breathe life into it, once again.

How to Prepare

The first thing I’m going to do is write an outline.

If you’re a discovery writer, relax. I’ll talk about discovery writing your way through Nanowrimo in a moment. For me, in order to start this story and see it through to the end, I need a road map. That means writing an outline, even if it’s very loose and barebones.

The first time I tried to write this, I wrote it as a pantser and I fell on my face. I wrote about 11,000 words that whole month. My daughter participated in Nano with me that month and wrote around 45,000 words. Neither of us knew what we were doing, and neither of us had an outline. If we had, we might have finished.

You don’t need an outline in order to succeed at Nanowrimo. I did not use an outline when I wrote The Repossessed Ghost, and that was a Nano success. It was more stressful than it needed to be, though, because I wound up having to write half of it in the last three days.

For A Clean Slate, I need an outline because the story I have in mind is a little bit complicated. I need to work out some of the details in advance so that I don’t flounder when I get to them.

Preparing for Nanowrimo as a Discovery Writer

Since today is October 31st, my advice on preparing for Nanowrimo as a discovery writer is timely. Unlike plotters, you don’t have to take the time to craft an outline. You scoff at outlines! Your way is to sit down and let the voices of your characters carry you through the narrative. Like Stephen King, you find the story the way an archeologist unearths a skeleton, or the way a sculptor finds the artwork in a block of stone.

There are some things you can do to prepare, however. Since you are carried by the voices of your characters, it helps to get to know your characters in advance. This could mean writing up character sheets for them, like you would for a roleplaying game. It might mean writing some experimental flash fiction, where you can test to see what the characters sound like. This is virtual throat clearing, and it will make the writing on November 1st feel natural and easy.

In Damn Fine Story, Chuck Wendig describes the plot of a story as river, which cuts through bedrock, bending and winding its way around. It’s these twists and bends that slow me down when I try to discovery write a story, so my advice for pantsers in November is to carry a flashlight. When you get to the end of a chapter or a scene, shine the flashlight into the darkness. Try to get an idea as to whether a bend in the river is coming or not. This isn’t outlining, and you don’t have to make notes of the things you see up ahead. It just helps you get mentally prepared to write what’s next.

Parting Thoughts

Happy Halloween!

Thank your for sticking with me through this month of writing advice. When I started this month, I didn’t think I had it in me to do this. I knew I’d be able to finish Blogtober because I’ve done it three times before. But a solid month dedicated to nothing but writing tips? That sounded preposterous.

I’m not sure what comes next. I’ve enjoyed breathing life into my blog again. I like posting my thoughts, even if there’s just a few of you reading along. I might keep going.

If you’re in Los Angeles for the World Fantasy convention, I hope to see you there!

10/30/19

Recovering a Lost Story

The penultimate Blogtober post is upon us, and today’s topic is one I’ve been looking forward to all month. I have lost several stories over the years. I also have managed to recover several of them.

Today, I’m going to go over four examples of stories I lost and recovered, and the different techniques I used to bring them back to life.

Unclaimed Goods

The first example is my short story, coming out TOMORROW in The Goldilocks Zone by Flying Ketchup Press. I don’t have a link to the book yet, as I’m writing this post in advance. The Goldilocks Zone is an anthology of short stories, and is my first success in publishing.

I first wrote Unclaimed Goods with the intention of sending it to Sheila Williams at Azimov’s. The idea for the story came to me while I was in an airport, on my way to WorldCon in San Antonio. After attending a meeting with Sheila, I knew I had to write the story. Shortly after returning home, I sat in a Starbucks on a Saturday morning, and completed the first draft by that afternoon.

The short story went through two professional workshops and my writer’s group. I received a lot of positive feedback and a few ideas for how to improve it, but nothing substantial. I never did submit it to Asimov’s. I sort of abandoned it and moved on to other things.

Several months ago, when I saw the opportunity to submit it to Flying Ketchup, I opened Unclaimed Goods and looked at what I had. The story was good, but I saw a few places I could make it better. I made some minor changes, broadening the scope and tightening the prose. I submitted the story, and they loved it.

Unclaimed Goods was lost only in the sense that I’d given up and forgotten about it. Recovery was as simple as remembering it existed and applying the skills I learned since writing it.

Spin City

Like Unclaimed Goods, I knew where the story was. I could go find it. I even had printouts. The problem was that I first wrote it when I was a teenager, and it was kind of terrible.

Originally called The Arthur Kane Stories, it was three short stories fused together, covering the three most important cases in the private investigator’s life. I had some good ideas, but I didn’t know what I was doing when I wrote the stories, and I put too much of myself in the main character.

For years, I had trouble moving on. I kept wanting to go back and fix this one story. I told people I was a writer, and that I had this finished novel, but I stopped sharing it because I knew how bad it was. The voice in my head would yell, “But still! I’m a writer, damn it! I wrote a whole book! I just need to FIX it!”

Two years ago, I fixed it. This was after I’d finished The Repossessed Ghost, so my first novel became my second. I lifted the names and some of the events from the old story and dropped them into a fresh outline. I changed the narrative from third person to first person, and I leaned into some of the noir elements I accidentally included in the original draft. Sherlock Holmes and Harry Dresden influenced me, and for Nanowrimo 2017, I wrote the first 50,000 words of Spin City.

The story was lost in the sense that it only ever existed in larval state. Once I grew enough as a writer to give the story the treatment it deserved, I rewrote it. I opened a new project and started from scratch, placing a few of the old bones in a new body. I recovered Spin City by recreating it, fresh and new.

Synthetic Dreams

As of this writing, the first draft of Synthetic Dreams still isn’t done. I’m working on it. For a while, I had to put it down, and I was afraid I would need to abandon it.

The summer of 2017, before I dove into Spin City, I had this brief idea for a story set about a hundred years after The Singularity. The idea was small, but the scope huge. In July or August, I tried writing a couple of chapters. I didn’t have an outline and I didn’t know what the story was really about. I just had the idea, and my test chapters worked. I thought I might be able to turn it into an entire novel.

Then I had to focus exclusively on Spin City, so my initial idea for Synthetic Dreams got filed away. I spent most of 2018 finishing the first draft of Spin City, completing the first draft just before heading to New York City for the Writer’s Digest conference.

On the Writing Excuses Cruise in 2018, I was working on a novelette, The Exorcism of Jack Evans. As an exercise for the cruise, I wrote a full outline for Synthetic Dreams. Out of the blue, the idea became real and I knew I had to write it.

For Nanowrimo 2018, I wrote the first 50,000 words of Synthetic Dreams in around 19 days. Going into it, I didn’t think I could write that fast, especially this weird third person story about genderless non-humans.

In 2019, I needed to work on the next draft of Spin City. Twice, I had to stop working on Synthetic Dreams so I could focus on the other story. I went so long without working on it that I forgot how to move forward.

The vision was gone. My ideas left me. I wrote half a novel and I didn’t know the characters anymore, or where they were going. I no longer knew how they were going to solve the mystery. I lost the story. It was gone.

I still had my outline and a bunch of notes. I poured over all of the material I had, but I struggled to get the flavor of the story back in my mouth. I didn’t know what to do.

I wound up going back to the beginning and revising with fresh eyes. The story wasn’t finished, but I had 50,000 words I could edit. The exercise forced me to read the story critically. The process rewired my brain for the story I wanted to tell.

When I reached the point in my story where the words ended and I needed to keep going, I was on Writing Excuses Cruise 2019. To my shock and amazement, the words flowed. It felt slow and clumsy at first, but I found the story inside me after all. I picked up the threads and moved forward.

I lost Synthetic Dreams through time and distance. I recovered it by immersing myself in the story I still had, trusting myself as a storyteller to be able to fill in the blanks and keep going when I ran out of material. I wound up having to rewrite some of the outline, but that’s okay. I went through the same thing when drafting Spin City. There’s something about the 3/4 mark of the story that throws everything out of whack.

A Clean Slate

My last example of a story I’ve lost is actually the subject of my post for tomorrow, so I’m not going to get too much into it today. It was my first Nanowrimo attempt, and I still think the idea is worth writing.

The recovery of A Clean Slate is going to take elements from all the previous examples. It’s a story that’s sat in my head for years, similar to The Arthur Kane Stories. It’s one I’ve lost the threads for, like Synthetic Dreams. My plan is to try it in Nanowrimo again, this time with an outline so I don’t get lost along the way.

Parting Thoughts

I have other stories that I started and abandoned that I may never try to recover. There’s one about an order of mystical knights that celebrate the day, that must grapple with the idea of a demon finding redemption. There’s another story that’s inspired by a song, which involves a dancer becoming the warrior her people need in order to throw back a monstrous horde.

I said earlier in the month that ideas are cheap, and they are. I have lots of ideas and I can make more. There is no end to the number of stories I can tell. The only thing I’m short on is time.

10/29/19

How to Revise a Draft

We’re in the home stretch. This is the 29th post in a row, and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I’m feeling a little bit time displaced with this one, because I came up with all my topics about a month ago, and I’m writing this essay a few days before posting it. With my upcoming travel to L.A., it seemed a good idea to get the rest of the posts written in advance. That way, the rest of my writing time this month could be dedicated to Synthetic Dreams.

All of this is to say that, here at the beginning, I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to say on this subject. It’s exactly the same experience as writing a novel, where the real writing happens during revision.

Know When to Revise

Before you crack open your freshly minted manuscript, determine if it’s time yet to touch it. If you just wrote “THE END” on your 100,000 word SciFi novel, it’s too early. Give the story some space. Let it breathe. Go work on something else.

On the other hand, if the novel has been sitting on your hard drive or in a drawer for the last several months, and you can barely remember how you even started the blasted thing, you might be ready. The best you can do is approach revisions with fresh eyes. If you just spent the last 3 to 6 months staring at the same words, you will be blind to your mistakes because you needed the blindness in order to reach the end.

Having time and distance between yourself and your novel applies even if you’ve already received feedback from your critique group. They are going to be bringing their own unique perspectives, and if you haven’t had a chance to wash the story out of your hair yet, you’re going to argue from the position of the early draft, reinforcing your mistakes rather than acknowledging them.

Before you revise, go on a vacation from the story. It’ll still be there later, and you’ll be better equipped to give it the kind of attention it deserves.

Revise for a Purpose

It may be that you are fully aware of a recurring problem in your drafts. Perhaps you are like me, and you use a lot of distancing language or extraneous blocking. It is purposely acceptable to declare, “during this revision, I’m only focusing on tightening the prose.”

Perhaps your critique group has helped you find a deep flaw in the manuscript that can only be resolved by making major structural changes. That is a perfect time to limit the scope of your revision to only focus on the parts of your manuscript pertinent to that change.

There is nothing wrong with taking multiple passes. Writers have a lot to remember. You don’t have to juggle all of the ideas at the same time while drafting or revising. Take each pass one at a time if you have to. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

Pay Attention to Your Emotions

Sometimes while drafting, I feel like the greatest writer in the world. In my head, I’m laying down an award worthy story that is bold, interesting, provocative, and brilliant. I experience the fantasy of being a great writer while writing the fantasy that is the story of my characters.

During revision, cold reality creeps in. For the first time since I started the first draft, I’m seeing past my bullshit and experiencing the story as it is, rather than as I wish it were. Sometimes, it IS brilliant! And sometimes it is not.

This is a dangerous point, because this is where we see how far away the story is from being done. We typed “THE END” with the secret hope that we actually stuck the landing and won’t have to work it anymore. We emerge from the tunnel of creation into daylight, only to be presented with another tunnel of unknown length and darkness.

When you get feedback from your critique group, or when you start consuming your story for the next draft, pay attention to how your feel. If it’s good, celebrate! Pump your fists and cheer because at least part of your story works!

On the other hand, when you see the parts of your story that don’t work, be kind to yourself. Try to find the positive joy in the prospect of making the story better. Forgive yourself the mistakes you made, and look ahead to where you can make amends and turn the story into something that satisfies your vision. It’s during revision that you truly demonstrate your artistry, so the mistakes you find are opportunities to shine.

Techniques for Revision

There are lots of different ways to revise, so I’ll go through some of the techniques I use.

Read it out loud

In order to read a story aloud, you have to pass the story through different parts of your brain. There is a mechanical process as you work your jaw and your lips to form the words. You’re also forced to slow down a little, as you probably can’t talk as fast as you can read in your head. Also, your ear will hear things that your eye skips over.

One of the first things I do with each story is read it to Melissa. She likes me reading to her, and I like making my draft better by clearing up the simple mistakes revealed by simple vocalization.

Change your font

I draft in Scrivener, but I critique in Word. In Scrivener, I’m using 12pt Courier New. In Word, it’s either Times New Roman or Calibri.

Changing the font changes the shapes of the words and the spacing, which helps me see the work with different eyes.

I’ve heard some people swear by drafting in Comic Sans, but I’m not ready for that type of insanity yet. I’ve never been so blocked that I needed to punish my eyes with that font.

Find critique partners or Alpha/Beta readers

For both of my last novels, I wound up sharing first drafts of my story with people. I didn’t know any better with The Repossessed Ghost, and I didn’t realize that Spin City was still first draft when I sent it to my friends.

I am not going to share Synthetic Dreams with anyone until after it’s gone through a second draft. I do not enjoy sharing first draft pain with my friends. That’s a bad experience for me. You might feel differently, and maybe your first drafts are cleaner than mine.

Also, when you find early readers, make sure that you know what you’re getting into.

Parting Thoughts

Your story needs more than one draft. It’s possible you knocked it out of the park on the first draft, but it is highly unlikely. Do not deny your humanity. You will make mistakes, your perspective will change, and your original vision will change. The best thing you can do for your story is give it all of the time and work it deserves.

People talk about revising as they go. That is valid. I do it to a degree, because if I write something that really doesn’t work, it’s difficult for me to move on until I’ve cleared the jam. I don’t consider that a revision, though. That’s just fixing an early mistake. It might mean that my first draft is cleaner when I get to the end, but it will still be a first draft.

Tomorrow, I’m going to talk about salvaging a lost story which gets a little bit deeper into the idea of revising as you go.

10/28/19

Tone and Voice

We’re getting towards the end of Blogtober, and I’m still shocked I’ve been able to come up with writing tips every day this month. Not all of the posts have been absolute winners, but I think I’ve been able to convey a lot of useful information. The tips and insights may even be valuable. It’s all information I wish I had when I was younger.

Today’s topic came from a suggestion from my online writing community. Someone suggested I write about the difference between tone and voice.

This might wind up being a really short essay.

What is Tone?

With respect to stories, tone is the general feel and attitude of the narrative. With Halloween fast approaching, we’re exposed to more spooky, scary, or disturbing tones than other times of the year. Tone can describe the emotional feel, the amount of humor, the level of affluence, the degree of seriousness… tone is what the story tastes like.

We create the tone of our stories through our imagery and word choices. Here are a few examples:

Spooky

The full moon shone silvery light upon the foggy graveyard, its headstones protruding from the muddy earth like jagged, stony teeth. A gnarled oak, its twisted bare branches reaching towards a cold and uncaring sky, gave witness to the crack and groan of the ground as the eldritch horror broke free of its subterranean prison, reaching and clawing its way up and out through an open, hollow grave.

Somber

The pallbearers marched along the stony path, their heads down as they bore not only the mass of the coffin, but the weight of the loss of their friend. Funeral goers, dressed in black, some with gauzy veils, stood together in a small cluster, watching the last procession of their lost father, brother, friend. A gray sky full of thick clouds held back the warm comfort of the sun. Only the leaves from the nearby great oak offered any hint of the triumph of life, with its still green leaves lingering longer than usual into the deep, cooling months of fall.

Sultry

Mary took his hand and led him down the stony path, her eyes dark and shining, striking sparks every time she looked over her shoulder into his nervous face. He questioned the location she chose, but his protestations diminished every time she swayed her hips, each time the strap of her short black dress slipped from her shoulder. She slid the material back into place, slower each time, her mask of chastity and propriety slipping. She stopped near one of the headstones, no different from any of the others save for her mother’s name etched into the weather-worn stone. His hesitation evaporated when she pulled him down next to her on the cool grass, her slow smile playful, intoxicating, inviting.

All three of these scenes are set in a graveyard, and they all have different tones. In the first, I relied on typical Halloween imagery: fog, full moon, teeth, and headstones. The second has some similar imagery, but the sky is gray instead of black, and there is some contrast at the end with the green leaves.

The third one is about Mary Shelley.

What is Voice?

In regards to writing, voice refers to the unique diction and style the writer brings to their stories. It refers less to the content of the story and more to the way the story is told.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote with a very dense style of prose, packing each sentence with complex ideas. Stephen King relies on sharp imagery, the characters occasionally exaggerated, the prose punctuated with crass or shocking language. Tom Clancy wrote with firm, stoic language, with dry technical references giving credence to the realism of his military fiction.

There may not be any more new stories, but there are new and unique voices which make the stories fresh. A good example of voice is Chuck Wendig. Here is a tweet thread where he’s talking about apples:

When Chuck writes, he uses words that are tangy and crunchy, similar to his heirloom apples. He isn’t afraid to take wild swings in tone, from biting political commentary to silly asides with Myke Cole and Sam Sykes. If you follow Chuck on Twitter, you will recognize his voice when you pick up Wanderers or Damn Fine Story.

People talk about writers and their voice, but it’s not something the writer has full control over. They can pretend to write like someone for a while, and they can shift their voice over time, but voice is something that just develops with experience, as unique as the way a person walks.

Voice is one of those things your critique group may try to smother, by the way. If you are attached to a particular word choice which is accurate, but your critique group is urging you to use a different word, give the recommendation appropriate consideration, then go with your gut.

The Difference Between Tone and Voice

Tone is the content, and voice is the way the content is delivered. There is some overlap between tone and voice, and some voices are more suitable for delivering a particular type of tone. I can’t imagine reading a horror story written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example. Now that I’ve said it, I’d be fascinated to see what that’s like. But the density of his speech doesn’t lend itself to the way horror draws out tension, delivering bits and pieces of information over time.

The three examples above, written by me for this essay, all have different tones. But if you’re familiar with my writing, you can probably recognize my voice in all three. There are patterns of speech and word choices I rely on that are my hallmarks.

Parting Thoughts

Well… I guess this one wasn’t short, after all. I didn’t know I had so much I could say about tone and voice. Tone is intentional, while voice is integral and automatic. You can change the tone and you can mask your voice, but the former is easily mutable while the latter can be painful to simulate, like trying to imitate Christian Bale’s Batman voice for hours on end.

10/27/19

Writing a Compelling Character

Yesterday, we talked about world building and how it is important to only include details that are pertinent to your characters. Today, we’re going to talk about building characters that are worthy enough to have worlds of words dedicated to them.

What makes a character compelling? There are lots of answers, so we’re going to cast a wide net and look at several examples of compelling characters in popular media.

Also, let’s start with a definition. A compelling character is one that the reader is interested in enough that they will follow them through an entire story. The reader does not necessarily need to like the character in order for the character to be compelling.

Driven?

I’ve heard it said that a good character, one that a reader will be interested in reading, is one that is deeply motivated. Looking back through history, this is a quality shared by people like Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Alexander Hamilton, and Amelia Earhart. These were all individuals of exceptional drive and motivation, and we get swept up in their story as they push to change the world.

Drive can transform a character into a compelling protagonist, but it’s not strictly necessary. I would not describe Harry Potter or Bilbo Baggins as particularly driven. They are occasionally motivated to do more than they think they can, but drive is not what defines these characters or makes them compelling.

Competent?

Characters like Sherlock Holmes and Greg House (which are really the same character) are compelling because of their overwhelming competence. Historical examples of competent people making their mark on history include Nicola Tesla and Albert Einstein. Thomas Edison could also fall into this category, though these days, his talents in marketing and spin outshine his technical prowess.

Some of the people I just mentioned are not particularly likeable. Their proficiency in a field is enough to make us want to follow them, because seeing an expert doing something well can be fascinating. It tickles our own fantasies of being the best in a field.

Relatable?

I already mentioned Harry Potter and Bilbo Baggins, and they’re sometimes referred to as “everyman” characters. They may rise up to the challenge to do heroic things, but they do not start as heroes, and they may spend most of the story being just regular folk.

Of the qualities I’ve mentioned so far, I think relatability is the most important, but it is not a silver bullet answer. There are characters I find compelling that I do not relate to.

Buffy Summers and I do not have much in common. I am a normal human male with some technical skill and a desire to be the best writer I can. Buffy is the chosen Slayer, a young woman struggling to have a normal life while also combatting vampires and demons spewing out of the hellmouth her home was built upon. I don’t really relate to Buffy or the problems she faces, but I could easily follow her through years of stories.

I look for ways in which I can relate to a character, but it’s not a deal breaker if we’re not the same. Sometimes, I enjoy the differences. Sometimes, it’s another quality of the character that keeps me coming back for more.

Some Combination of Factors

Superman is an iconic, invulnerable alien whose only weaknesses include rare green meteor rocks, magic, and his own intrinsic humanity. In my opinion, the best Superman stories are less about tricking him into proximity with Kryptonite and more about forcing him to make moral decisions where none of his strength and speed can actually help him.

Batman is an iconic billionaire ninja that dresses up as a nocturnal flying rodent in order to intimidate villains. Without any actual superpowers, Batman employs creativity, technology, and wit in order to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with godlike beings and win the day against deadly foes.

Commander Data of the Starship Enterprise is an android, built with superhuman strength and intellect, but lacking the ability to feel simple emotions. He serves with humans, observing them, supporting them, all while longing to be one of them. The best stories about Data are the ones that explore what it means to be human.

All of these characters are a mixture of some of the qualities I mentioned before. Batman and Data are both highly driven and highly competent. Superman and Data are both extremely strong while retaining personality traits that could be described as naïve or innocent. All three are orphans, from a certain point of view. For these characters, it is the combination of several factors that makes them compelling, giving them depth for the writer and reader to explore.

How Do We Create Compelling Characters?

There is no single approach or one right answer for creating a compelling character. For the three main characters of my three novels, I took different approaches.

Mel from The Repossessed Ghost started with a voice. I could hear him clearly, and I knew what he was like before I gave him his own story. He started as a character in a roleplaying game, and while he changed significantly between mediums, the core of who he is remained the same. He is something of an everyman, reluctant but with a heart of gold. He isn’t particularly competent, but he has qualities that make him endearing.

Arthur from Spin City developed over the course of decades. When I first wrote him, he started as a copy of me. Over time, I gave him different strengths and weaknesses. For a while, he was my take on Sherlock Holmes, hyper-competent and driven. For Spin City, he is a man struggling with alcoholism and depression. My hope is that he’s relatable and interesting, but in the end, he may not be any more compelling than I am.

Dee-ehn from Synthetic Dreams is an introvert that’s a bit neurotic. Dee-ehn is afraid of death and spiders, is deeply spiritual, following a religion called Purity, which dictates that its members avoid networking and engaging in other activities which may pollute their base code. All of the characters in Synthetic Dreams are non-human, artificial beings, but my hope is that they are all relatable because of the ways in which they are human. They experience emotions, including love and fear, and just like the rest of us, they grapple with the question: why am I here?

Parting Thoughts

What makes a character compelling for one reader won’t necessarily work for the next. Some readers are drawn to the emotional struggles, and could care less if the character can bend steel bars with their bare hands. Some readers are in it for the spectacle, and want to experience the story through characters that can hold themselves in a fight.

It may be easier to describe how NOT to make a character. An uncompelling character is apathetic, neither weak nor strong, living an uncomplicated life with neither highs nor lows. An uncompelling character is inert, neither pushing the world around them nor being pushed in return. They do not have a strong moral code, and they are not compelled to reach beyond their current station in life. They are neither rich nor poor. They have no interesting opinions on condiments. Even a bland nobody that thinks ketchup is too spicy sets themselves apart in at least one area.

10/26/19

World Building Pet Peeves

Yesterday, I mentioned how profanity can be an opportunity to do some world building. When the writer thinks about what is secret, holy, or unpleasant in their world, then use those things to craft the world’s profanity, the effect can be colorful realism which grounds and supports the rest of the narrative. It can be subtle, clever, and fully realized in the writer’s story.

Today, we’re going to talk about world building in the way writers get it wrong, and what they can do to be more efficient.

A Darling that Refuses to Die

Sometimes, writers (and gamers!) get caught up in some aspect of the world they created that doesn’t serve the larger narrative. The writer will spend some amount of time working out all the details, imagining it, maybe drawing diagrams and writing lore to accompany it.

For example, let’s say the writer has come up with an amazing and elaborate church. They can see it clearly in their mind. They draw it, write history for it, craft an entire religion and pantheon to inhabit it. The stained glass windows, crafted on the sandy beaches of the Hawani, the enemy nation, underwent a journey all their own to arrive at the church grounds, and have been given prominence such that when the morning sunlight shines through its center, its as though a finger of the god of tears and laughter has–

This can go on and on, and it might be really interesting and fun! But then in the story, it turns out the main character is an atheist that doesn’t even go inside the church. They just camp along the edge of the yard one night before packing up and moving on.

The writer is torn, because they LOVE this piece of the world they’ve crafted. They want the reader to love it, too, and how else is the reader going to enjoy all this luscious world building if the details aren’t included in the prose?

The advice is “kill your darlings,” and this church is one of them. It doesn’t serve the story. It doesn’t have anything to do with the characters. It is detached from the plot and the struggles on the page, and when the reader lands on this huge block of beautifully constructed masonry and glass, they’re pulled out of the immediacy and needs of the characters.

Chilling Your Drink with an Iceberg

How did the writer come up with this church in the first place? Why do they have it sitting in their notes, ready and waiting to drop into the narrative?

My second pet peeve around world building is that sometimes writers build way more than they need. The story demands a scaffolding, an impression of depth that makes the reader think that there is more than the immediate environment surrounding the characters. What some writers will do is build a city when all they needed is a wall.

This is different than the “kill your darlings” peeve. When the writer drops a detail into the narrative that doesn’t serve the story, it is a problem for the reader as well as the writer. It’s there on the page for all to see, taking up space and altering the pacing in ways the writer may not have intended.

Overbuilding the world is a different problem, in that the reader can be completely unaware of the undertaking the writer endured. These are the details that only appear in the writer’s notes. The story remains the same whether or not the writer went to the trouble of creating all these extra details.

Why is this a pet peeve of mine? The story is a journey, and the characters and the world are the vehicle by which the writer carries the reader. The larger the vehicle, the more unwieldy it can be.

Let’s use the church example from before, but let’s say the writer doesn’t include it in their story. They give a little bit of a description of the church from a distance, and the characters move on like they were supposed to, allowing the story to unfold naturally. Everything is great so far, but what happens when the writer needs another church or religion?

The writer has to make some choices and do some work. Their notes include all these details they already crafted in this other part of the world. They could just lift the details and drop it in where it makes the most sense to the story. However, they’ll need to check to make sure it still makes sense in the new location. They’ll need to walk through it, making sure it lines up and doesn’t feel disjointed. If the pantheon includes a fish god, it won’t make as much sense if the new setting is in a desert.

If it looks like the church won’t work in the new location, then they have to build a new one. The writer has now doubled the amount of work they needed to do for the story, and the reader’s experience has not been doubly enhanced.

Some writers really love world building, so it’s not a big deal to them. They don’t see it as work. I think world building is okay, but I’d rather spend my time working on the characters and the specifics of the prose.

World Building Classes Encourage Inefficiency

My first peeve was about writers including details that they shouldn’t, which comes from my second peeve, which is about writers building more than they should, which comes from my third peeve: world building classes and panels encourage writers to overbuild.

I have attended dozens of panels on world building, and they usually focus on a specific aspect of the world. Animals, magic systems, religion, geography, language… you name it. These classes focus on one facet and talk about how writers get the details wrong, and how the audience can work to do better. They talk about research, and they’ll include details about the area of focus that are interesting and tantalizing to include in a story.

Friends, if your characters are not interested in horses, you do not need to focus on the equine details of your world building. If your characters know nothing of boating or bartering, you do not need to plot out the entire trade route of the ships and vessels that roam the high seas and up the rivers and along the coast line.

If the plot of your story involves the specifics of language and religion, then it’s important that at least one of your characters has an interest in those subjects, which means that you’ll need to do the appropriate amount of world building for those details.

I still attend some panels and classes on world building because I think they’re interesting. I go for the fun. I have yet to attend a panel that talks about world building in a way that is actually helpful to the writer.

What You Need to Know about World Building

If I were to run a class on world building, it would be brief, and it would start from one simple rule: only build the parts of the world that your characters care about.

If you follow that rule, you will be efficient, nimble, and less likely to include details that are not relevant to your story. You will not be anchored down by the weight of your notes or tempted to include beautiful details that add nothing but bloat.

Readers connect with and care about the characters. If the characters care about aspects of the world, the reader will also care about those aspects.

Also, world building according to the needs of your plot is fine, but the plot of your story should be relevant to your characters as well. If you’ve crafted a plot that is completely tangential to your characters, I’m not sure how you’re going to make the story work as a whole.

Parting Thoughts

If I wasn’t clear, I don’t hate world building. My pet peeves are more about being inefficient, or doing things in the writing process without intention. If there has been a theme this much, it has been: write with intention.

10/25/19

Profanity and Other Ugly Language

By St. Boogar and all the saints at the backside door of purgatory! It’s time to talk about swear words, slurs, cusses, profanity, and other ugly language. There may be some blue words in this post, so if you’re one of delicate sensibilities, you might want to give today’s essay a pass.

But we all know what you’re here for. You’re reading this to get the real balderdash and codswallop. So let’s dive right in!

Why Use Profanity?

As the writer of your story, you get to choose every single word that lands in the narrative. You have complete control, so why might you choose to dirty up your story with offensive words, consarn it?

Sometimes your characters demand saltier language. Even the most pious or taciturn individual will be moved to blast the heavens with the most explosive expletive after stepping on a Lego or smashing their thumb with a hammer. The gritty protagonist, finally face to face with the one that murdered their parents, might tell their foe to go sard themselves. And some characters are just naturally profane. Those individuals don’t require powerful motivation to let off a hearty “Zounds!”

Being true to your characters and their voices may mean using less clean language. If your characters start using words you wouldn’t normally use, that’s okay! It’s great, in fact! You should want your characters to sound different from one another, and different from you.

Allowing profanity in your story can give it a level of reality that helps immerse the reader. If it feels natural to you when writing it, it will feel natural to the reader when reading it.

Going back and smudging out the provocative words describing copulation and fecal matter will make your prose as unnatural and strange as this sentence.

The Intention of Offense

Let’s say you’re writing a scene and you have an opportunity to drop a slur into the dialog. Maybe one of your characters is a racist and they’re talking about another character that is of the race they are prejudiced against. You can imagine writing the dialog with the racial slur, and you can also imagine writing it without. Either approach seems like it would work. How do you decide?

The very presence of some words will offend or hurt some readers. For some people, the context does not matter. This is a danger for all profanity, but racial slurs are especially damning.

You have to decide your intentions. Is the narrative you’re constructing worth offending some portion of your readers? I don’t know if there’s a right answer to this question. To me, context matters, but I’m a cis white male. My perspective is from a position of social privilege.

I disagreed with the banning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which probably tells you everything you need to know about my stance on this subject. There are other viewpoints and perspectives, so you have to decide your intentions on your own.

Note that it is entirely possible to include a racist in your story without resorting to racial slurs. There are options, and sometimes the subtle ones are more effective.

Profanity as World-Building

We already touched on how profanity can reflect on character. It can also say a lot about the world the characters live in. The profane words of one society are different than those of another. Cripes, I’ve been using profanity throughout this essay, but they probably don’t register as naughty words because they’re from a different era. Cuss words are not static. They change over time.

I don’t want to get too deep into what turns a word into profanity. Swear words usually pertain to what is considered private, sacred, or unpleasant. “Zounds” from earlier is a shortening of “God’s wounds.” “Cripes” is a minced oath, taking the place of “Christ.” You already know the modern words we use for excrement (unpleasant) and fornication (private).

In other words, if you’re writing about a world that is different than our own, you can infer what is private, sacred, or unpleasant in that world by turning those things into swear words.

I have two examples from my current work in progress, Synthetic Dreams. The first is “frag,” which is used like our F word. I’m sure I’ve seen it used in other stories the same way, but it makes a lot of sense in Synthetic Dreams because all of the characters are synthetic life forms, and “fragmentation” is lifted straight out of regular tech speak for a file system becoming less ordered.

The other example from my novel is “mud pounder.” In my story, there are two main physical builds of synthetic people. There are the administrators, which are smaller and generally more graceful. Then there are the laborers, which are larger and generally stronger. “Mud pounder” is a slur in my world applied to laborers, implying that they’re big, dirty, and dumb. Without doing any other work, you already get the sense of the race/class disparity between administrators and laborers.

Parting Thoughts

If your first instinct while writing is to use a swear word, do it. In my opinion, it’s better to stay true to the story and to your character’s voice than to worry about offending a potential reader.

It’s important to remember the difference between offending someone and hurting them.

Don’t be afraid to create your own profanity, especially if you’re writing for a different time or a different world. The real world is constantly attempting to create new swear words. I’ve personally been called a traitor cuck to my face, and probably a soyboy, NPC, or snowflake behind my back. You get the idea. We naturally throw words at each other like weapons, trying to bludgeon and cut. Having your characters do the same in your stories will give it an extra dimension of realism.