Jun 21 2008

Writing Without Gimmicks

Published by at 1:16 am under Writing Articles

This article will help you identify and eliminate potential gimmicks in your writing. For example, Gadsby was written without the letter ‘E.’ This is the ultimate gimmick, an attempt by an author to try something new that ends up rubbing readers the wrong way. Remember, you’re writing a book, not playing Scrabble.

If you have a “cool” idea for how to write a book or story, ask yourself whether the idea’s value is worth the intrusion it will impose on readers. Try to make the pitch to a potential reader. Will they appreciate the novelty? “I’ve got a story that’s told from the supervillain’s perspective!” is probably going to interest readers more than “I’ve got a story without the letter E!”

One area of writing that’s particularly prone to gimmicks is the use of characters and narrators.

In narration, many authors have attempted to write stories from the perspective of someone that’s dead, hasn’t been born yet, or is in a completely different time period than the action of the story. When you decide your narrator(s), you must ask yourself what does this add to the reading experience? What will readers get out of reading a book that has X as a narrator or Y as a stylistic choice? If your answer even hints at the word “new” or “fresh” or “cool” or (worst) “neat” you probably have a gimmick. A genuinely wise style choice is typically sound because it somehow adds to the reading experience, not because it is new.

For example, I think that writing a story from the supervillain’s perspective adds something because because supervillains are generally more three-dimensional than the heroes and they are always the ones who control the plot (it’s always Superman responding to Lex Luther rather than vice versa). Also, giving us the supervillain as the main character virtually guarantees some degree of moral complexity.

17 responses so far

17 Responses to “Writing Without Gimmicks”

  1. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 17 Oct 2008 at 4:41 am

    How could anyone write without Es? Avoiding words with E in them? Or just cutting thm out so it nds up looking lik this?

  2. B. Macon 17 Oct 2008 at 10:15 am

    I vaguely remember that the author did an interview with a writing magazine about how he avoided the words “the,” “he,” and “she.” He took his typewriter and taped down the E button so that he couldn’t let one slip in.

  3. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 06 Nov 2008 at 3:43 am

    What if someone tried to write a book consisting of only punctuation? That would be REALLY annoying. For example:


    “…” , .

    ” ‘ .”


    “You smashed my favourite vase,” said Martha.

    “Sorry…” answered Raphael, looking at his feet.

    “That’s okay.”

  4. Bretton 20 Nov 2008 at 6:52 am

    Ok. Aside from this book I am now working on, I am also writing down other ideas to occupy my time when I get writers block. Here’s a couple of titles I’ve come up With:

    Series Title: Imaginings of the Lost Kingdom

    Part One Title- Palace of the Gryphon: The Lion’s Roar

    This story is a twist on the standard “children bumble into magical world” plot (e.g. Narnia). The story is about a 12-year-old boy named Conleth Lowe who keeps having déjà vu at his boarding school. He recognizes people he has never seen before and they also recognize him, but don’t know why. Conleth’s friend Blake then runs away from school.

    Conleth looks for him and inadvertently travels through a magical doorway and discovers the mystical Lost Kingdom. He meets the weakening sage Wasimlan, who tells him that his true identity is Prometheus, the king of the Ignisian Province and one of the Four Royals. He and the other three disappeared from the land after a climactic battle with the demon Chernobog. Although they successfully imprisoned him inside his own castle, the magical side-affect transformed them into infants and sent them to earth, where they grew up without knowledge of themselves. They were sent to an orphanage, and eventually to that Boarding school.

    The people that Conleth recognizes are the other three Royals. The four are needed because despite their victory, the Negasi savages (kinda like goblins/orcs) have ravaged the kingdom under Chernobog’s banner and Chernobog himself has left his magical confinement. Though he himself cannot leave the castle, he has possessed the mind of a human who can: Conleth’s friend Blake. Conleth must bring back the other Three and restore their memory in order to save their kingdom.


    Conleth aka Prometheus. Bears the titles of The Golden King, Sovereign of the Flame, Ruler of the Ignisian Province and High King.He can also manipulate fire and (sometimes) read minds.

    Kalani aka Gale, Conleth’s best friend who is revealed to actually be his wife. (LOL) Bears the titles of The Wingrider, Lady of the West Winds, Ruler of the Soran Province. She can manipulate air currents (which gives her the ability to fly) and teleport.

    Nerissa aka Virva. Bears the titles of The Wavequeen, The Stallion Princess, Ruler of the Nerean Province. She can manipulate water in all forms, and has healing abilities.

    Adam aka Miltiades. Bears the titles of The Earthwarder, The Taurus Lord, Ruler of the Avan Province. He is capable of geokinesis, can lift impossibly heavy loads, and crush seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

    Wasimlan The Sage of Brisgonjur, Messenger of The Invisible, and Proclaimer of His Will. Can wield magic and predict the future.

    Possessed Blake aka Chernobog the Faceless.
    True Blake is actually Wizarcolt, son of Wasimlan. (Is this too much of a secret origin? Technically, they’re all secret origins, but I think we can make allowances because of the revelations made.) Chernobog can only be defeated with his help. A problem because he is being controlled by Chernobog in the beginning.

    True Chernobog: an evil being who has been enemies with The Invisible from the dawn of time.

    Title: Three Men Versus the World

    This story is set in a near-future dystopic America in which human rights are sacrificed or ignored in order to promote national security. In opposition to this, there have been a string of terrorist attacks and murders by a man identifying himself as The Outsider. The strange thing about the attacks are that very few people have been hurt or killed in them, and the only ones who have were government agents. Furthermore, the attacks would require government intel to operate effectively. Also, the string of cold-blooded killings have consisted entirely of crime bosses and gangsters. Both the government and the mob are hunting this guy, but can’t find him. The Outsider is actually the leader of a anti-government, anti-crime conspiracy involving himself, America’s top crime boss, and (get this) the President of the United States, all of which hate what their country has become. The question is, can they conceal their conspiracy from both the mob and government agents? Will they succeed? Will they go too far?

    I’ll update you with the men’s origins when I get back, but I gotta run 2 class now.

    Your thoughts?

  5. B. Macon 20 Nov 2008 at 7:13 am

    I have a few general thoughts about Imaginings of the Lost Kingdom.

    –I think the inciting events of the story (the boy having deja vu with the other students, and then Blake disappearing) are pretty fertile. By the way, I love the name Blake and Conleth is also pretty strong. You might find it helpful to spend a bit of time making a smooth transition from Blake’s disappearance to Conleth’s appearance in the Lost Kingdom. For example, he was supposed to meet Blake at Blake’s house and something is obviously wrong. Blake is gone and there may be strange footprints. Conleth thinks that Blake might have wandered off and goes to make sure that he’s alright. (He follows the footsteps back to the portal).

    –As soon as he gets to the lost kingdom, I think the story begins to feel more like the Chronicles of Narnia and other kids-enter-fantasy-realm stories. I feel that some twist would help here. Something big, hopefully… it’s a crowded field.

    –The other names strike me as a bit flamboyant, particularly the fantasy aliases (Prometheus/The Golden King/Sovereign of the Fire/etc.) I’d recommend keeping each character to one alias, if that. But I think that it would work just fine if you wanted their fantasy names to be the same as their real names. He could be King Conleth, right? (Then you’d just have to explain how the people that adopted these infants in the real-world knew their fantasy names. “Conleth” might have been embroidered on his clothes or something).

    –The ability to sometimes read minds feels a bit arbitrary. If there’s an external and concrete parameter (like you can only read the minds of people that are asleep), that’s probably fine. If it’s more flexible (his powers only work from time to time), then it might be more problematic.

    The characters have superpowers that are pretty conventional for superheroes. I’m not sure if they’ll feel like they fit into a fantasy novel. That’s a matter of execution, so I don’t have an opinion on that yet.

  6. Bretton 20 Nov 2008 at 7:42 am

    What do you think of Three Men Versus the World?

  7. Bretton 20 Nov 2008 at 7:45 am

    Also, the story opens with the memory-erasing battle and then shifts to conleth at school. That’s why I wanted his fantasy name to be separate. Of course, It shouldn’t take too long for us to discover Conleth and Prometheus are the same person, so that might not be an issue. Unless I don’t name the King in the intro. Hmmm…

  8. Bretton 20 Nov 2008 at 10:04 am

    Orgins for the Conspirators:

    The Outsider, aka Joe Johnson. A brilliant mathematician and scientist specializing in the areas of ballistics, heavy arms manufacture, biochemistry, explosives, and accounting. He has several different aliases that he maintains, but his most frequently used (and most low key) alias is Joe the Accountant. He is a genius who can grasp many aspects of a field simply by reading about them. He is the son of Senator Michael Richter (so obviously Johnson is not his real name). Senator Richter was an abusive father, corrupt politician, and a New York crime lord. This fostered Joe’s hatred of both politicians and criminals so that he eventually orchistrated his own father’s downfall, having him sent to prison for life. He then contructed his multiplicity of aliases after graduating from Harvard at age 19.

    President Malcolm Legasi, the second conspirator. He is a relatively young President, in his late 30’s. He is idealistic and only pretends to go along with the supression of human rights by the government. From his days in high school he wanted to be president so that he could change the ourse of the country. he kept his radical views hidden however, because he knew they would hurt his election chances. (elections are no longer decided by the people, but by government delegates.) He met Joe the Accounting when filing his taxes, and Joe sensed there was more to him than met the eye. After confiding in Joe, the two began to plot their new vision for America.

    Mob Boss Cole Aspen, aka Father Sprite. The third conspirator was a childhood friend of Joe because their fathers were in “business” together. Instead of hatred, Cole embraced the “family” business. Despite this, the boys remained friends. As Cole eventually grew to become America’s top boss, he found that things were getting harder under the new totalitarian government. as a result, the “honor among thieves” concept had been all but lost. When his old friend Joe contacted him about the Plan, he was all too eager to accept.

    Villains may include government officials, maybe the VP who wants Malcolm asassinated so he can take over, mob underlings, investigators, the Bureau of Criminal Persecution (Yes, that is PERSECUTION, not PROSECUTION. The BCP is an unholy amalgam of the CIA, FBI, NSA, and the IRS).

    Your thoughts?

  9. B. Macon 20 Nov 2008 at 10:59 am

    I’m not very useful when it comes to reviewing politically-themed fiction. Normally, I think I’m pretty good at anticipating how a typical reader or a typical publisher’s assistant will react to a manuscript. But I’m much better-versed in politics than the average PA or reader, so that’s one reason it’s harder for me to anticipate what they will think. Also, politics is pretty unique in that conservatives tend to respond poorly to liberal works (and vice versa), so my political views may suggest to me that the work is unlikable when in fact the target audience would like the political message just fine.

    OK, with that caveat, I will gingerly try to say that readers may find it unrealistic that a President would collaborate with a criminal gang when he has so many better legal and extra-legal (*wink*) resources at his disposal. I find the idea of the President pulling hits on government agents strangely innovative, but again a lot of readers might find it unrealistic and extremely unlikable. Who’s supposed to be the protagonist here? Who can we relate to? What are we cheering for?

    The Office of Criminal Persecution strikes me as too campy. I think a euphemism would feel both chilling and more realistic. (IE: The Office of Extrajudicial Threat Management. The Peace and Tranquility Office. The Bureau of Liberty-Management. Etc.)

  10. B. Macon 20 Nov 2008 at 11:06 am

    Heh heh, I like that the IRS is listed as one of the sources of the BCP. One of the things I like about the IRS is that Americans of every political stripe know it and hate it. I think that bagging on any other government agency would raise some combination of apathy/ignorance (what does the Interior Department do again?) and annoyance/anger (you’re criticizing my heroes and mocking my dreams!) Never in the history of the United States has a child dreamt of becoming an IRS agent.

  11. Bretton 20 Nov 2008 at 11:27 am

    Haha. The idea isn’t really meant to convey a political message. Its just that one day I thought to myself, “What could I come up with for a book entitled Three Men Versus the World?” This is the result. I’m not too much of a political activist. I can’t even vote yet. I don’t think I’d classify myself as Liberal even though I did support Barack Obama. I was just going for something along the lines of V for Vendetta or Watchmen. Of course, those books do have political overtones. Suppose I wanted just to make this a standard non-political intrigue book? How could I tone down the politics while not losing the Uber-cool “President betrays government agents” thing?

    America has become a shattered dream, a dark shadow of its former glory, a twisted reflection of what it was meant to be. In order to restore peace and liberty, three men will do the unthinkable- destroy it. Treason, deception, terrorism. All in the name of truth, justice and the Old American Way.

  12. B. Macon 20 Nov 2008 at 12:19 pm

    OK. Let’s say that there’s a clear villain within the government, like a splinter faction trying to take power for whatever reason. (Ideally, the reason won’t be clearly identifiable with either conservatives or liberals). The President realizes that the country is on the verge of splitting apart. Taking his cues loosely from Abraham Lincoln, he decides that he has to bust shit up to save the day. After a mole in the Secret Service attempts to kill him, he’s not sure who he can trust and he turns to the last group that the faction would have thought to infiltrate: the mob.

    OK, that’s still pretty outlandish, but I think that it casts the President in a much more positive light even though he’s still working with the mob. That’s not totally outlandish, though. I think JFK cooperated with the mob to kill Castro.

    What do you think?

  13. Bretton 20 Nov 2008 at 12:33 pm

    I thought about making Joe the Accountant out to be the everyday guy, and then slowly reveal that he’s not so ordinary. The Conspirators are definitely the protagonists, but maybe not heroes. (One of them is a terrorist).

    What do you think if I restructured it so that rather than America becoming essentially the USSR, suppose a criminal splinter cell founded when the IRS schismed from the US government has been slowly corrupting the entire system, and these three guys are trying to stop them at all costs? Instead of America’s top Crime boss, I could make the third guy an MI6 agent who thinks the Splinter Cell could spread to Britain, or maybe a rogue FBI agent who was framed for treason because he got too close to the truth?

    Oh, and this was my shot at a blurb:

    America has become a shattered dream, a dark shadow of its former glory, a twisted reflection of what it was meant to be. In order to restore peace and liberty, three men will do the unthinkable- destroy it. Treason, deception, terrorism. All in the name of truth, justice and the Old American Way.

    Your thoughts?

    Note: this does not mean I am abandoning my current project. Far from it.

  14. B. Macon 20 Nov 2008 at 12:46 pm

    It’s a very dark-sounding blurb. I feel that my political leanings — which I hate talking about for fear that people will feel that I’m pressuring them to adopt my views — would push me towards casting the story in a slightly more positive way. Erm, I don’t think it’s much of a secret that I’m wildly pro-American.

    Rather than focusing on the element of destruction, it may make your marketing easier to focus on redemption or possibly cleansing. I’d also recommend taking out terrorism from the list of actions that they’re willing to do to save the American dream. I think treason is a more precise and sympathetic term for what your anti-heroes have in mind. Alternately, if you’d like to really push the envelope, you could use a criminal term like murder in place of terrorism. Murder’s a serious sin, but terrorism can only be committed against innocent victims (usually civilians and often kids). Ick.

  15. Bretton 20 Nov 2008 at 3:26 pm

    I meant terrorism more literally.
    (e.g. Batman’s tactics could be classified literally as terrorism. He scares and intimidates the living crap out of people.) But I see your point. What are your thoughts on my modifications? (I could cut the crime boss out and make it less political. see above)

  16. Rosalindon 08 Feb 2015 at 5:38 pm

    I’ve started writing in second person fairly recently and was wondering if it would count as a gimmick or something that I should avoid. While it’s true that I first started experimenting with it because it’s so uncommon, I continue to use it because I enjoy writing in it and because it meshes well with my writing style. I realize that there haven’t been any comments on this article since 2008, but it got me a little bit worried.

  17. B. McKenzieon 08 Feb 2015 at 8:21 pm

    Generally, I’d only recommend submitting a story to publishers that have shown that they’re comfortable working with similar stories before. However, there are so few publishers that regularly publish second-person stories that I feel you may be limited to publications that are into experimental fiction. Unless that was already part of your plan (e.g. the story is experimental in other ways), I think you’re paying a pretty heavy cost for 2nd person.

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