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.

10/24/19

Online Distractions

The topic I was supposed to write about today was “Marketing and Writing to a Target Audience.” Why did I think I could write a full essay on that?

Here is what I know about marketing. The cover is ridiculously important. There’s an entire career dedicated to the marketing hustle, and I’m not skilled in it. In fact, the closer I get to it, the more uncomfortable it makes me.

Here is what I know about writing to a target audience. Uh… not much? I write stories that I want to read, so I suppose my target audience is me. Anything else would feel dishonest, and I question the quality of the stories I might produce if I tried writing something I didn’t want to read.

So there’s my abbreviated take on “Marketing and Writing to a Target Audience.” Now let’s talk about online distractions, which lines up nicely with the topics from the previous two days.

Identifying the Distraction

There’s nothing wrong with visiting social media or YouTube or Reddit. Whatever your favorite flavor, it’s fine, as long as it’s not out of control. When it comes to these sites, how can you tell the difference between a revitalizing break and a productivity sapping distraction?

First, pay attention to how much time you spend with your eyes directed at a site. Compare that to how long you’re working on your manuscript. You must determine if the ratio is healthy or not. Ideally for me, for every hour I set aside for writing, I don’t want to be looking at the internet for more than 10 or 15 minutes. Basically a 3 to 1 ratio, which is honestly probably too generous.

It’s possible for you to be looking at your manuscript but not actually writing. This happens to me from time to time, where I want to write, but I’m too busy thinking about something I read on social media or in the news.

Different writers have different needs. To determine if your online behavior is benign or destructive, you must be honest with yourself and what your needs are. The 3 to 1 ratio might be great for me, but maybe you need 2 to 1, or 10 to 1. Just remember to be honest and be kind with yourself when you’re doing this kind of evaluation.

Dealing with the Distractions

You have taken a long, hard look at your writing and online activities, and you’ve identified a problem. You’re spending too much time on one or more sites. What do you do about it?

The obvious answer — close your browser — works. It’s a fine answer, and it’s as far as some people need to go. With the might of their willpower, they can close the valve on the source of the problem and dig right into their manuscript. For everyone else, it’s like trying to stay on a diet. If you’ve ever struggled sticking with a plan, you may need to try some other techniques.

Something I like to do is turn my distraction into a motivator. If I’m spending too much time on Twitter, I start a writing sprint on Twitter, inviting my friends to participate. In one move, the distraction is now an accountability vehicle.

If the distraction is something else, like YouTube or Netflix, I’ll turn it into a reward. I’ll give myself a reward trigger, such as “once I’ve written X number of words, I’m allowed a video.” Or “between thirty minute sprints, I’m allowed to watch something as a cool down.”

Often for me, the distraction is the news. There is so much wrong right now, I find it difficult to think about anything else. This is a type of distraction I don’t have much of an answer for yet. Some might say, “stop reading the news.” I can’t. The train is moving at full speed and the bridge ahead is broken, and I can’t close my eyes and look away. Not knowing makes the terror worse.

Change Environment

My last tip, which falls more in line with the “just turn it off” crowd, is to change where you’re writing so that it is more difficult for you to become distracted.

I do most of my writing on a Microsoft Surface. This is a fine device that doesn’t have a ton of horsepower. I can’t really play many games on it, and I refuse to install software development tools on it. There is Scrivener, Office, and that’s about it. By only putting my productivity software on my Surface, I limit the amount of distractions I can fall into.

Then I change where I write. Sometimes I’ll go in the backyard. Often I go to Starbucks. I’ve even been known to write in restaurants during November. By changing my physical location, I’m altering how much access I have to the internet. The wifi is crappy in my backyard, limited at Starbucks, and non-existent at the counter at Denny’s. Also, when I’m out in public, I’m less likely to watch a video because I rarely have headphones and I don’t want to broadcast and disturb other people.

Parting Thoughts

I mentioned mental health yesterday, and that changes the dynamic of online distractions. If you suffer from depression as I do, it’s possible the online activity you’re participating in is less a distraction and more of an escape. Sometimes, all a person can do is put on reruns of Star Trek:TNG and play some solitaire while they wait it out.

Most of the advice I offered in this essay can only be applied when you’re in good mental health, and the distractions are coming from a place of desire rather than a place of pain.

If you’re healthy but finding it difficult to put away the online distractions, look at my previous two pages in regards to Staying on Task and Handling Writer’s Block.

Above all, treat yourself with honesty and kindness, just as you treat others with the same honesty and kindness. This is a marathon and not a sprint. Treat it and yourself accordingly.

10/23/19

Handling Writer’s Block

Considering what I’ve been going through the last few days, writer’s block is a really appropriate topic for me to cover right now. Tonight we’re going to define writer’s block, the various ways it can manifest, and one or two approaches for getting past it.

Is Writer’s Block Real?

I have at least one friend that will tell you that writer’s block isn’t real. When a journalist gets up in the morning and they have a deadline, or when a grad student has an assignment, they get to work. They don’t have the time or leisure to entertain writer’s block. By that argument, according to my friend, writer’s block doesn’t exist.

Other friends talk about writer’s block like it’s some kind of disease. Something they may or may not be able to treat. When asked how they’re doing on their manuscript, they might answer simply, “I have writer’s block” the way someone might say “I have pink-eye.”

Writers get blocked. I think it happens to fiction writers more than non-fiction, but it can happen to anybody. As a term, “writer’s block” might be loaded and misused the same way “kill your darlings” is sometimes misunderstood. When a writer is unable to produce, it is accurate to describe that condition as writer’s block. It is accurate, but not very helpful unless the reasons for the block are examined.

Why do Writer’s Get Blocked?

Fear can block a writer. Fear of failure, of success, of getting it wrong… fear can freeze a person like a possum playing dead. Fear is insidious, because it disguises as other emotions, and it can be subtle. Fear can keep us from submitting our work or sharing it with friends. It can also keep us from completing our work. If you never finish the story, you never have to submit it, right?

Uncertainty or ignorance can also keep a writer from being productive. You can be moving ahead with the story at full speed, then hit a wall. How will the character get out of this one? How do we span the gap between what I saw in my head and what is appearing on the page? What do I write to fill in this gap in the outline? Not knowing what’s next can make a writer hesitate. Fear of getting it wrong can keep the writer frozen, unable to take the next step forward.

External factors can also block a writer. Creating fiction, finding the right words and putting them in the correct order on the page takes time and energy. If the writer has a full time job, maybe working overtime, they might find some days they don’t have the energy at the end of the day to make the words happen. In a previous post, I said healthy writers having more stamina. This is one of the places where it helps. But even the most industrious writer runs out of steam eventually, especially if they’ve been pushing themselves hard for a long time.

There are many other reasons a writer can be blocked, but the last I’ll mention here is depression. Mental health impacts everything we do, and not just writing. Someone like me, a programmer and a writer, might find themselves in a predicament where they can’t product code or fiction. That failure to act compounds, adding extra internal barriers to productivity on all fronts.

What To Do About Writer’s Block

Before a writer can handle their writer’s block, they must determine the underlying cause. Writer’s block is a symptom of some other problem. The only way to treat the symptom is to address the underlying cause, which takes time and introspection.

If fear is blocking you, take some time to build up confidence. This could mean writing something else that’s light and fun. Or, it could mean sharing some of your writing with someone that’s supportive, that enjoys reading your work. Fear is tricky, but once seen, it disappears like a shadow at noon.

If the reason you can’t write is because you don’t know what comes next, take a step back and figure it out. Go for a walk and think about the story. Try expanding your outline. If you’re a discovery writer that eschews outlines, try making a tiny outline, just for this next part. Or, try some flow of consciousness free writing in a separate text editor. Free writing can often prime the pump and get things flowing again. It’s remarkable how effective it can be.

If you’re just exhausted or depressed, the best thing you can do is forgive yourself. Be honest and kind to yourself. Don’t push yourself into unhealthy behavior. If work is consuming all your time, then it’s not time to write.

Depression is common among all the writers I know. I don’t see any of my coworkers succumbing to it, but I see it in my writing communities all the time. Some very famous writers are open and clear about their mental health issues.

As a society, we need to get past the stigmas surrounding mental healthy issues. A wound in the brain is just as serious, or more so, than a wound in the flesh. It is unhealthy and painful to walk on a broke leg. It is equally unhealthy to ignore depression, something I’m guilty of all too often.

Parting Thoughts

The last few days, I’ve struggled. I’ve been blocked. It hasn’t impacted my ability to write these essays, but it has kept me from making meaningful progress on Synthetic Dreams.

Why am I blocked? It’s a bit of everything I just described. I thought it was just a funk, a bit of depression keeping me from moving forward. A couple of nights ago, I figured out that I was trying to make a scene work that could never work, because it didn’t line up with my notes. The main characters went some place looking for a connection that didn’t exist, and I kept trying to will the connection into being. Ignorance of what comes next stopped my forward progress.

Then there’s the pressures from work, the constant fear of failure… I show up every night, open Scrivener, put the words in front of me and my hands on the keyboard… and I can’t make the words materialize.

It’s easy to just describe this as writer’s block, but that does nothing to address the underlying problems. I figured out what I was doing wrong with the scene and correct that problem. I’ve written some more notes, expanding that part of my outline that looked murky. Now I just need to move forward.

When next I try to work on Synthetic Dreams, I need to go with care. I haven’t been able to program at work, either, which is a sign that it’s not just writer’s block. I’ve got other issues to contend with, so I need to remember to be gentle and kind with myself, and not try to push too hard.

At the same time, I do need to continue showing up and being ready to do the work, because that is also a form of kindness to myself. To succumb to “I have writer’s block” and let that be the excuse why my novel is unfinished… I know how unhappy that will make me. So I’m not going to do that.

10/22/19

Staying on Task

I’m participating in Blogtober, and this is the 22nd post in a row. We’re also approaching Nanowrimo, where many people across the world will set themselves to write 50,000 words in 30 days, a feat I’ve succeeded at three times. Suffice it to say, I know a thing or two about staying on task, which is the subject of today’s essay.

Will Power

Let’s start with the first tool in my toolbox, which is sheer force of will. When I want to get something done, I set my mind to it and dig in like a mule. It’s a strength (and sometimes weakness) I’ve cultivated over the years.

How do I apply my will? Personally, I tie it to my wants and desires. When I want something bad enough, and it’s within my control to attain it, I push towards that goal.

For example, this month, I want to complete Blogtober, because every time I’ve succeeded at that, I’ve succeeded at Nanowrimo. My desire is great enough that I can overcome my usual difficulties with blogging, which include distraction and a fear of not knowing what to say. The benefits from completing this month-long task are enough to get me to schedule time each day.

I can turn the desire around to avoid doing things, too. I want to maintain my current weight, so I won’t eat the doughnuts that appear in the break room at work. I want to finish my novel, so I won’t play a bunch of computer games when I get home. From the outside, it may look like I’m capable of resisting temptation, but really it’s just focusing on my greater desire over the lesser.

Scheduling and Time Management

For short tasks, will power can be enough to get from the beginning to the end. Longer tasks, on the other hand, usually require time management and prioritization.

Looking at Blogtober as the example again, it’s not enough for me to just say, “I’m going to write a blog post every day this month.” In order for me to maximize my chances of staying on task, I needed to break the large task into many smaller ones. One for each day. Not only did that make the overall task easier to comprehend and manage, it laid out for me what I needed to do and when I needed to do it to achieve my goals.

Even smaller, short-term tasks can get a boost from a time component. Often, I will bring up a stopwatch when I’m writing and do sprints. The task then becomes, “write as much as possible while the clock is running,” which puts me in a different frame of mind. It gives me permission to silence my inner editor. It lets me shut out all my other cares in the world, for during those 20 to 30 minutes, the only thing I need to do is write.

Accountability

I’ve talked about the importance of community and family when it comes to writer support. They can also be a great resource for helping you stay on task in the form of accountability.

They don’t have to be active to keep you accountable. Just telling a friend that you’re going to do something sets up a promise between yourself and another person. It makes the task more real when you put it out in the open, and not something just floating in the recesses of your brain.

Friends and family can be active accountability buddies, though. When I go to the garage to write, my wife will sometimes come out and check up on me to make sure I haven’t slid into the land of YouTube videos or solitaire. If you let your friends and family know you can use some help staying on task, chances are good they will help.

I mentioned sprints before, and that’s another place where your online community can help keep you accountable. On Twitter and on Discord, my writing communities perform together in sprints, all racing against the same clock. We’ll share word counts and favorite lines, sometimes.

Forgive Yourself

Sometimes, you set yourself up to try and eat the whole elephant. Sometimes, factors beyond your control intervene to keep you from staying on task. Sometimes, you’ve had a bad day and it’s much easier to eat the doughnut than stay on your diet.

It’s okay.

Don’t let minor slip-ups get you down. Forgive yourself, then get back on task.

All too often, it feels like a break in the pattern or rhythm throws everything off, and it seems impossible to keep going with your goal. Setbacks suck. They feel bad. But setbacks happen, and it’s how we deal with them that makes all the difference.

Parting Thoughts

I might not participate in Nanowrimo this year, even if I succeed at Blogtober. This is because I might not finish Synthetic Dreams before November as I planned. I hit a wall a few days ago, and I kept trying to write a scene that wasn’t working, that would never work. When November rolls around, I don’t want to start a new first draft if I’m still working on an old one.

If I don’t participate in Nanowrimo, it’s okay. The task I’m setting for myself is to write novels. Nanowrimo is just a tool I use to help me stay on task. In this case I’m stepping back and looking at my priorities and my desires. Whether or not I write 50,000 words in November, I’m staying on task.

10/21/19

Writer Support

With a few exceptions, writing is a single person activity. It’s one person with one writing instrument, conquering the blank page one word at a time. Even cowriters take turns during the drafting period. I don’t believe it’s controversial for me to describe writing as a solitary activity.

Writers can get lonely and feel isolated while writing. Stay too long in the isolation chamber of the writer’s imagination and you go crazy. That’s where good support becomes necessary, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Friends and Community

I imagine at a certain point in a writer’s career, the audience becomes substantial enough that the writer generates their own community of fans celebrating their work. I haven’t reached that point, and realistically speaking, I’m not sure I ever will. As I’m writing this essay, I’m feeling particularly despondent over the prospect of my writing career taking off.

Discouragement is part of the writer experience, and one way to deal with the negative emotions is to become involved with a writing community. Struggling to make the story the best it can be, suffering through setbacks, quailing at the prospect of pitching or submitting queries, wallowing in the mountain of rejections… this is what writers go through, and the writing community is full of people that are both understanding and sympathetic.

I’m recommending you become involved in your writing community, but I’m not telling you to go whine at them. Don’t be a sponge. The best way to engage is to cheer people on in positive ways. They will appreciate your support, and the process of trying to lift someone else up has a tendency to uplift the lifter.

Once you’re a positive part of an active writing community, your friends and acquaintances will support you, and you’ll find strength to persevere. This isn’t a quid pro quo situation where they’ll only help you if you help them. Supporting and being supported by your writing community is about strength in numbers.

When you engage with your writing community, be honest with them and with yourself. If the support is only one way, either way, the relationship isn’t going to work out.

Family

I am extremely fortunate in that my whole family supports my writing life. My wife comes with me to conventions. My daughter joins me for Nanowrimo sometimes. My son isn’t interested in the writing so much, but he offers vocal support and sometimes even brings me a coffee when I’m head down in a project.

Not everyone is as fortunate as I am. If you and your spouse are at odds over your writing career, it is important to find compromise, otherwise you’re going to lose one or the other. Compromise can mean scheduled time, where the writer gets to write uninhibited certain hours of the week, and the spouse gets to work on activities during that time that make them happy.

If you have a spouse that is vexed by your writing career, work with your spouse to determine the specific aspect of the activity that is giving them a problem. Is it a time management issue, where your spouse is feeling neglected? Is it monetary, where they feel like you’re spending too much money on writing related activities? If you can pin down where the friction is happening, it will help you find the best places to compromise.

Personal Care

External support is great, but the writer must take care of themselves. This means making good decisions around diet, exercise, and sleep.

A healthy writer outperforms an unhealthy writer. They have more energy and stamina. Their mind focuses more clearly and they have a greater ability to find the words when they reach for them. The stereotype of an artist suffering for their work is an over-exaggeration at best, a straight up lie at worst.

You don’t need to drink alcohol to write. If you’ve convinced yourself that you need to drink to produce great art, you have been deceived and you have a problem. It’s fine to have a drink every now and then to help relax into the work, but please make healthy choices.

The world is full of distractions and noise, but we still have to live in it. When the distractions get to be too much, turn them off. If the noise drowns out the words you’re trying to form in your head, seek a different venue.

Personally, I get bogged down on Twitter and reading the news. It’s difficult, but sometimes I just have to turn it all off so I can listen to the voices in my head, which are quietly and desperately trying to talk to me about my story. Unless I get away from the distractions, I can’t hear it clearly, which adds an additional distraction of feeling guilty and unfulfilled.

Parting Thoughts

Live your life. Go for walks, talk to your family, eat nice food, and make healthy choices. Engage with your friends, share your interests, and don’t be afraid to be excited about the story you want to finish writing.

Then write.

It’s okay to feel lonely or discouraged from time to time as a writer. In this moment, as I’m typing these words, I’m feeling both. But I know that I have people that love and support me, and I know that this funk is temporary. I’m working on a great story, and if I keep making good choices, my great stories may some day be available to other people.

10/20/19

Killing Characters

It’s a beautiful autumn day, with clear skies and a light breeze. The chores of the week begin tomorrow, so today I will sit in a Starbucks. I’ll have an egg and some coffee. It’s Sunday, a holy day. A writing day.

A perfect day to talk about killing characters.

Kill Your Darlings?

Before talking about the wholesale slaughter of your fictional people, I want to disambiguate the idea of killing characters from “kill your darlings.”

When you hear the advice “kill your darlings,” they are not necessarily talking about killing characters. A “darling” in this case is any part of the story the writer loves that does not service the story. This can be anything, from a scene that goes nowhere, to a block of text representing the author’s research, to a chunk of dialog that carries no emotional weight. It can be a character which adds bloat and no substance.

If you are told to kill your darlings, that does not mean to take your favorite character in your story and put them to death. That’s a quick way for a writer to begin hating their story.

On Killing — The George R. R. Martin Section

As soon as I mentioned killing characters, I bet you started thinking of a writer like George R. R. Martin. He has a reputation for slaughtering his imaginary people, carving through them and blotting the page with their inky black blood.

What if I were to tell you that George Martin doesn’t actually kill that many characters? What if I were to tell you that a different George — George Lucas — has killed way more characters on the page than George Martin? That’s a bold statement, and I’m ready to back it up.

When Luke put away the targeting computer and used the Force to destroy the first Death Star, in one stroke, George Lucas slaughtered way more characters than George Martin. Do you know how many people it would take to operate such a space station? Hundreds of thousands, probably. Maybe millions. And that’s a fraction of the number of people killed when Alderaan was destroyed.

The reason we think of George Martin instead of George Lucas when it comes to killing characters is because we don’t care about most of the people Lucas annihilated. These nameless billions are consigned to their fate, and we forget about them almost as quickly as they were destroyed.

We think of George Martin because we care about all of those he killed. Martin takes the time to build empathy between the reader and the characters. Once we have an emotional connection, the character is elevated from the page and begins to live in our hearts and minds. When they’re killed, it’s like a part of us dies with them. It’s painful, memorable, and emotional.

I’ll quit talking about George Martin now, and instead link a video that does a much better job of explaining Martin’s craft:

When to Kill a Character

Characters are story. They are the fuel that keeps the narrative going. They are the channel through which the reader finds an emotional connection. Characters operate as a vehicle by which the reader is transported to a fantastical world, and sometimes, the vehicle runs out of fuel. What do you do, then?

Let’s look at Snoke in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. He’s set up as the big bad villain in the previous movie, a mentor to our tragic antagonist, Kylo Ren. So what happens when the grooming is finished, and it’s time for Kylo to chop down his mentor and take his rightful place at the head of The First Order? It’s time for Snoke to die.

The Last Jedi gets criticized for the way it handles Snoke — it gets criticized for a lot of things — but I think Snoke was handled perfectly. As story fuel, he was there to spur on our real antagonist, Kylo Ren. There is no relationship between Snoke and our main protagonist, Ray. Snoke is scarred and scary and talks funny, but that’s all he is. Ray and Kylo, on the other hand, have a relationship. It’s been built up and has many facets. In the second movie of our third trilogy, it’s not time for either Ray or Kylo to die, which means there’s no more room in the story for a character like Snoke.

When Snoke is killed, we have an emotional reaction, and not because we know him. It’s because we’ve been getting to know Kylo, the one doing the killing. We feel something because Kylo feels something, and we’re on board.

All of that was to say that when a character no longer serves the story, it is time to remove them. Sometimes this means retiring them, taking them off screen for the remainder of the narrative. Sometimes it means killing them, providing an emotional reaction to the characters, which in turn provides an emotional reaction to the reader.

Killing Characters — Emotional Distance

It is important for the writer to consider the effects and the intention when a character dies. When you kill a character, it’s like setting off an explosive. The distance between the reader and the character is important, so measure the distance before you set it off.

For example, imagine a character like John Wick moving through a scene, squeezing his trigger and dropping nameless thugs while moving through an office building. It’s intense, and we care about John Wick, but we don’t really care about Nameless Thug27, even when Nameless Thug27 has the back of his head blown out in a fine red mist.

There’s enough emotional distance between us and the thugs that the explosion doesn’t impact us. We see it, and we move on, riding along with John Wick, hoping our hero doesn’t get too hurt even as he’s doing all this gun murder.

Now imagine John Wick slowly creeping up on a pair of guards he needs to get past. Before John rounds the corner and fires his weapon, we get the following dialog:

“Bill, did you catch the game last night?”

“Couldn’t. With money stretched so thin, Vanessa and I had to sell the TV. Money’s been so tight lately, I’m not sure we’re going to be able to make our mortgage this month. Plus with the kids in school–“

* BLAM *

* BLAM *

John just killed these two guards, and it’s completely different because the emotional distance between the reader and the murdered characters has been closed. It only took one line of dialog, and now we’re having a harder time rooting for our protagonist. We’re forced to contend with the monstrosity of his actions.

Killing Characters — The Death Toll

We can get behind John Wick killing characters, even when the emotional distance is short between us and John’s victims. John is properly motivated and acknowledges on some level what kind of monster he is. That doesn’t hold true for all characters.

For example, if you replace John Wick with Batman, things go off the rails. It’s not because Batman doesn’t have the skills. It’s because a core aspect of his character, the line he draws that keeps him from being as bad as the rest of his rogue’s gallery, is that Batman does not kill. You can write a compelling story about Batman killing, but you have to do the work. You have to pay attention to the toll on the character and how it affects them.

If you’re writing a YA, and your teenage protagonist just kills someone, accidentally or intentionally, you might want to spend some time dealing with that kind of trauma. Maybe they’re despondent. Maybe they feel a thrill like they’ve never felt before. It’s possible they feel nothing, but then you have to do the work to make the reader care about following a psychopath.

Parting Thoughts

I thought I’d be killing a character in my current work in progress around the same time I’m writing this post. I’m a little bit behind on that story, but even if I were keeping up, I’m not so sure I’m going to kill that character after all. Considering all the things I’ve already talked about, I’m not sure killing this character is actually a good idea.

Some stories are not well served by setting off the explosion that is a character death. It can be a cheap, momentary punch to the reader’s gut, which can leave the reader resenting you for the unexpected pain. It can be a motivation for the characters in your story, but then you’re skating close to the problem of fridging.

Whatever you do in your story, you should do it with intention. This includes killing characters. Know what you’re doing when you put a character to death, and consider the effects it will have on the remaining characters as well as the reader.

10/19/19

Handling Early Feedback

Once a writer has finished a story, they probably want to put it in front of other people for feedback, especially if they’re trying to polish it up for submission. Writing groups, beta readers, and critique partners are excellent for this. If you have a great friend with an MFA in writing, he may also be a wonderful resource. However, if you want to preserve your relationships, you need to know how to handle the feedback you receive.

Quick note: Not all of the following advice is applicable when dealing with feedback from a professional editor. That’s different, and deserving of its own post. As soon as I have more of that particular experience, I’ll be sure and write it up.

You are Not Your Work

The first step is to put some emotional distance between yourself and your story. Early drafts have problems. The quote is “the first draft of anything is shit,” but there’s actually quite a bit more to the quote. I’ll leave the rest of that advice to Hemingway.

When someone tells you there’s something wrong with your story, it hurts. You put a lot of time and energy into your writing. You made sacrifices. You did the research. The story represents days of your life you will not get back. What monster would not flinch when a part of their life is attacked?

First off, is it so bad if there’s something wrong with your story? There are lots of very successful novels with numerous flaws. Perhaps they are all flawed. As much as you may want your story to be perfect, it never will be.

This doesn’t mean you need to settle, and while it takes some sting off the criticism, let’s not stop with the defeatist notion of inevitable imperfection. A more positive lesson, even if the story you created is a part of you, it only represents you in the moment. If you learn from the mistakes you made writing that story, you’re less likely to make the same mistakes in your next story.

We Learn Through Our Mistakes

Think of anything you first started doing as a child that you still do today. Anything at all. When you first started, your efforts were clumsy and you probably had to work harder at it for lesser results. As you grew in skill and confidence, you grew in ability . What once was difficult is now routine.

You can always get better at writing. The greatest leaps in skill you will enjoy happen after overcoming mistakes. If someone points out one of your mistakes, it’s an opportunity to improve ALL of your stories.

Critique on an early draft is awesome because it gives you something concrete to work on in your revisions. It’s an opportunity for you to take something initially perceived as broken and turn it into something beautiful.

Processing the Feedback

Now that you’re emotionally and intellectually ready to receive your feedback, let’s talk about what you do with it. You gave your story to your buddy or your critique group, and after 1 or 6 months, they deliver the good and bad news.

First, thank your critics. They just spent a bunch of time with your story and put some effort into trying to make it better. It is unlikely they’re receiving any kind of compensation for their time, so whatever they’ve given you, they’ve done you a favor. Thank them. Maybe buy them a coffee, if you can.

Next, read straight through all the comments. Put it all in your brain without analysis. This will eliminate surprises when you begin to properly digest the feedback. It will help you gain some perspective on their perspective.

When you get deeper into the comments and criticisms, start with the assumption that the person giving you the feedback is right. This is important. If you just went through an entire chapter where they lambasted your pacing, characterization, over-use of blocking, poor dialog… whatever… you may find yourself closing off to future advice because it all stings. The counter to this is to always start with the assumption that they’re right.

They may be completely wrong, laughably so. That’s a bad starting place, though. If you begin with the assumption that they’re wrong and they JUST DON’T GET IT… you wasted your time sending them the story, and they wasted their time providing feedback. That’s a tragedy for everyone involved, so don’t do that.

Don’t get defensive or argumentative as you go through the feedback. The defense is the story itself. It’s the prose you put on the page. If it didn’t land, it didn’t land, and the best thing you can do is revise and make it work.

Also, if you get argumentative with the people that are offering feedback, they will be less inclined to offer honest feedback in the future.

Once you have given a piece of feedback due consideration, it is okay to dismiss it if it is realistic to do so. For example, if you gave someone an adult scifi story and you know they don’t like either adult or scifi, and the things they are complaining about are pillars of the genre, it’s okay to let that go. But again, don’t assume it’s wrong, and certainly don’t start with the assumption that the one providing the feedback is incorrect simply because they don’t read your genre.

That last example happened to me recently with Spin City, and I bring it up because, as difficult as it was processing feedback from someone that really didn’t like my story, I learned valuable lessons from the experience. They pointed out things I did all the time. I had no idea until she pointed it out.

Parting Thoughts

Everything I’ve talked about today I learned through direct experience. I’ve burned through writing groups trying to learn these lessons, and I’m still not sure I’ve learned enough.

One of the things you can do to avoid pain, both for you and for the people critiquing your work, is to be honest with yourself and with them about what you’re looking for. If you aren’t actually trying to improve the story and you just want a pat on the back, acknowledge that. It’s okay.

Having a conversation about the kind of feedback you’re looking for will help set expectations and make the time spent valuable. Maybe you’re not interested in a particularly type of feedback, or maybe you’re looking to see if one specific aspect of your story delivers. You are more likely to get what you need if you have that conversation with your critique partners.

10/18/19

Trusting the Reader

Writing is communication. The content of the communication changes, and as a SciFi and Fantasy writer, I’m usually commuting fantastical fiction. But communication involves a sender and a receiver, a writer and a reader.

It’s usually easy to gauge whether or not your message is being received when you’re talking to someone face-to-face. Even on a phone call or via text, it’s possible to evaluate feedback offered by the other person in the conversation.

One of the challenges a writer faces is a matter of trust. They have to trust themselves to convey their message clearly, and they have to trust the reader to receive the message and see the story in their mind.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a short story as a Christmas give for Melissa. I ran into a time crunch so I asked my friend Jennifer Brozek to take a quick look at it for me. I wanted the gift to be special, and I wanted my story to be the best I could make it. Jen went above and beyond and in the process, taught me something about writing I needed to learn.

She said, “You really need to trust the reader┬ámore. Some of the details you gave were toooooo much.”

And she was right! After she mentioned it, I started to see all these places in my stories where I was trying so hard to get my ideas across that I was hitting the reader over the head with repetition and an overabundance of details.

I learned my lesson, but it’s something I still struggle with. I’m desperate to get the vision in my head onto the page. That desperation leads to over-describing. It’s something I watch for now during revisions.

In my case, it isn’t so much that I don’t trust the reader. I don’t trust myself. My confidence ebbs and flows when it comes to my writing. Sometimes I feel like I’m on top of my game, but most of the time I wonder if I’m just shoveling manure with my keyboard. Not trusting myself to tell the story is effectively the same thing as not trusting the reader.

What it Means to Trust the Reader

Trusting the reader means allowing them to fill in the blanks. If you go overboard with your descriptions, you don’t leave room for the reader to be an active participant in the story.

This is an important point, and one that I think a lot of writers may not realize. It goes back to what I said at the beginning, which is that writing is communication. When someone reads your story, they are participating in the event, and they are active.

A reader’s imagination is the place where the story takes place, and as such, the reader has control over all the details the writer leaves blank. The reader becomes attached to their contributions and may even swear up and down that these details were in the story all along.

As an example, let’s look at Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. The magic wielding ladies from The White Tower are called Aes Sedai.

What did you just hear in your head when you read “Aes Sedai?”

Unless you went to the glossary at the back of one of the books like I did, you probably heard something along the lines of “aze seday.” The author’s intention, however, is that it should be pronounced: EYEZ seh-DEYE.

The sound of an author’s made-up words only scratch the surface. Other details, visual, auditory, and tactile, are filled in by the reader naturally and readily. This is a good thing, because these added details give the reader a stake in the story and makes them more invested. Sometimes, the things they imagine are even greater than what the author envisioned.

Be Intentional

When describing a character or setting or some action, pick the details that are important and put them on the page. Pick just enough to get the point across. Everything else is for the reader to fill in on their own.

Here’s an example from the very beginning of Spin City:

The stench of stale beer and old cigar smoke rolled over me as I ducked into the bar. Broken lights and motionless ceiling fans made shadows that pooled at the feet of empty tables. A mechanical server stood behind a counter, its single optic directed towards me like an accusation. A perfect place to meet a client that wanted discretion. Also not a bad place to get drunk alone.

It’s obviously a dive bar. Do you see it clearly? I’ve provided the smell of smoke and beer, and I’ve set the lighting. I also included a “mechanical server,” whatever that is. It sounds like some kind of robot, and it helps tell the reader that we’re probably in the future. Everything else about the bar, the reader makes up in their mind.

What sort of things did you add to the description? Did you imagine the floor feeling a little bit sticky under foot as the main character walked deeper into the establishment? Were there pictures on the walls? Was there a jukebox?

I don’t know exactly what you see in your head when you read that paragraph, but I trust that you see enough of it that we can enjoy it together.

Parting Thoughts

Yesterday, I talked about sensitivity readers, and I think tonight’s topic dovetails with it in an interesting way.

With characters, if you don’t mention the race and gender, the reader is usually going to assume white and male. It does not seem to matter if the either the writer or the reader are white males. That seems to be the default given to any character that is not described otherwise.

The default can be shifted during the course of the story, but it all still comes back to writing with intention.

Let’s close with an example of dramatic storytelling where the story teller, in this case Matthew McConaughey’s character in A Time to Kill, uses everything I’ve just been talking about to create a powerful scene.

10/17/19

Sensitivity Readers

Tonight we’re going to talk about what sensitivity readers are and why we need them. When I was talking about my topics this month with the rest of my writing community, I discovered that people are… well… sensitive… about the topic of sensitivity readers. We’ll touch on that as well.

What are Sensitivity Readers?

In short, they are people representative of the culture, ability, gender, or disadvantaged social category you have tried to capture in your story. A sensitivity reader will read your work and offer critique from the perspective of their intersectionality.

If you are a cis white male (like me) and you’re only writing about other cis white males, you don’t need a sensitivity reader. On the other hand, if you’re a cis white male writing about someone that is blind, or gay, or black, or all of the above, a sensitivity reader will help keep you from relying on stereotypes to describe your characters. Sensitivity readers will keep you from accidentally writing something deeply hurtful.

Though the term “sensitivity reader” may be relatively new, the concept is not. Back in the day, they just called it fact checking. It was not uncommon for publishers to hire what were effectively sensitivity readers to give the story a degree of verisimilitude.

Being Offensive

None of this is about policing writers or trying to bleach their work with a politically correct rinse.

If you’re intention is to be offensive or write offensive characters, that is your prerogative. Having a character be intentionally racist or bigoted can be very effective.

Just note that there’s a difference between offending people and hurting them.

A sensitivity reader is there to help keep you from doing something unintentional. Writers use spell check or grammar checks to make sure they get the diction correct. Using a sensitivity reader is like that, only it keeps you from cutting a stranger’s heart with your razor sharp words.

Appropriation

You are an individual. I don’t know who you are or if you already know what appropriation feels like, so bear with me while I try to explain this for everyone else.

As an individual, you have your own personal stories. Some may be exciting, others dull, but it’s your history and your life. Take a moment to look back over the splendor of your life and your favorite memories.

Now imagine you have a talented stalker that’s been recording your life and posting it online for others to read. That’s bad enough, but imagine how much worse it is when they get the details wrong. You went to Disneyland this summer, but they say you went on a tour of Alcatraz. You have a few really close friends, but they say you’re a struggling loner. They document your life online, getting all of these details wrong, and people read these lies and believe them.

What is your recourse? You can post your own version of your history, but you’re fighting the weight of first impressions. And for some reason, this weird stalker has a wider reach and more people listening to them than you have listening to you.

Cultural appropriation is a bit like that.

This is also something a sensitivity reader will help you avoid. Also, this is different than offending someone. Cultural appropriation does actual harm, because it chips away at the actual truth of an entire people, wiping away their history with misconceptions and false assumptions.

Resources

So how do you find a sensitivity reader?

I used to be able to point at Writing the Other, but they took down their searchable database. I think I heard that someone abused it, which absolutely sucks.

You should still visit the site and make use of the resources, and if you get a chance to talk to K. Tempest Bradford, she is extremely helpful and eager to talk on this subject.

One thing Tempest will emphasize, which is very important, is that you should pay your sensitivity readers. They are subjecting themselves to real, potential pain by reading your work. They should receive hazard pay. The service they are doing for you is valuable, and so is their time, so pay them appropriately.

I have not found it particularly difficult to find sensitivity readers. Ask in your writing communities. When you go to writing conventions, ask your peers.

There are online and in-person classes on Writing the Other, and they usually have resources for helping you find a sensitivity reader.

Parting Thoughts

Obviously, you can skip everything I’ve just said and just do your own thing.

However, if you’ve spent a bunch of time doing research, and even more time drafting and revising and trying to make your story as polished as it can possibly be, why wouldn’t you take the extra step to make it even better?

Your mission tonight, should you decide to accept it, is simply to visit the Writing the Other website and check it out. Look at the classes and resources.

10/16/19

Time Management

It is the 16th day of Blogtober, and the first day of the last half. Last night’s post proved short, and tonight’s will probably be even shorter. That’s a good thing, because I’m behind on Synthetic Dreams and I want all the time I can grab to gain some ground.

Tonight’s topic was going to be “Overcoming Distancing Language.” But it turns out, I haven’t actually learned that lesson well enough to articulate it. I learned something, and my experience with Spin City improved me as a writer. However, when I went to describe distancing language and find examples in early drafts of Spin City, it proved challenging.

So let’s talk about time management instead, which is more broadly useful.

Prioritize

The first step in time management is prioritization. Managing your time is like creating a budget, only the resource you’re managing is chronological rather than financial.

I can already hear one of you shouting “TIME IS MONEY” and you’re not wrong. But money you can save. If you do absolutely nothing, it’s possible for money to remain stagnant, or even accrue. In regards to time management, if you do nothing, the time is lost.

When you’re creating a budget, you list all the items you need to buy or pay for, listing it in order of importance and cost. With time management, you list the activities and projects you want to accomplish in order of importance, slotting some items into immovable slots.

For example, you may not want to budget for sleep because there’s just so much you want to do. However, you must budget for it because you’ll die without it, and it has to happen during a particular set of hours. So don’t forget sleep. A “real job” might also fit into this category.

List the important things first and be honest with yourself.

Pad for Your Humanity

When you’re building yourself a schedule, remember that you are a human being and not a robot. You are a complicated creature with needs you may or may not be able to articulate. There may be times when you need to stare at a screen for an hour and a half playing solitaire, and that’s all you’re going to be able to accomplish during that time.

Also, being human, you’re going to make mistakes, so pad your time out to allow for that. Sometimes mistakes mean unfortunate setbacks, and those setbacks and cost minutes, hours, or days. Make allowances in your budget for those kinds of unexpected occurrences and they won’t break your time budget.

You may think that you’re capable of writing 30,000 words in 3 weeks because you’ve done it before. You’re human. Give yourself 4 weeks. If you finish early, you can use the extra time to do something fun. You’ll thank yourself when you hit a plot wall that stops you in your tracks.

Write It Down

Something happens in your brain when you write down your schedule. Endorphins are released each time you tick off an item. By writing down your schedule and not just keeping it in your mind, you create a sense of accountability.

Also, having your schedule written down makes it easier to check and know during times of stress.

Digital Tools

If you don’t want to write your schedule down using pen and paper, you can use a calendar program like Outlook or Google Calendar to document your schedule. The added benefit of using a tool like this is that you can put alarms and reminders on the most important items.

Do as Little or as Much as You Need

When building your schedule, go as granular or as abstract as you need to. Some people need to get down to the minute level. Other people feel confined and trapped by that kind of micromanagement, and just need to put down the things they want to accomplish in the day.

As for me, I’m a little bit lazy, so I tend to make my schedules a little bit more abstract.

Here is my basic schedule for this month:

Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday:

  • Regular job
  • Write blog post
  • Spend at least an hour on WIP

Wednesday

  • Work from home
  • Go to Starbucks in the afternoon
  • Write blog post
  • Spend at least 2 hours on WIP
  • Maybe clean litter box

Saturday

  • Write blog post
  • Spend at least 4 hours on WIP
  • Clean litter box

Sunday

  • Go to Starbucks
  • Write blog post
  • Spend at least 6 hours on WIP
  • Do laundry

That’s fairly loose, but it’s also full. My time crunch this month is not as critical. Next month, instead of assigning time, I will assign myself daily word count minimums.

When I was in two bands as well as a couple of committees, it made my writing schedule even more difficult to manage.

Parting Thoughts

The difference between a goal and a dream is planning. If there something you want to accomplish that doesn’t have a clear end in sight, start it by assigning it time in your schedule. Give it some priority so that all the encroaching minutia doesn’t crowd it out.

Sometimes, wanting to finish a project, like a book, requires cutting other parts out of your life. It’s what I had to do with band. It might be what you have to do with online gaming, or social media, or some other distraction that keeps wiggling its way onto your clock.

Your missing, should you decide to accept it, is to write down your own weekly schedule. Get as detailed as you’re comfortable with. Then see how well you can stick to it.