Archive for May, 2009

May 31 2009

Common Writing Mistakes: Unstylish Punctuation

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

1.  Please don’t use multiple exclamation points or question marks. It’s far less likely to suggest that the character is really surprised than that the author is really inexperienced.  It’s cheesy.

  • REJECTION:  “I hate you, Martha!!!!”
  • REJECTION: “How could you do that to me??”

2. I recommend against giving the narrator exclamation points. “John turned around.  Then a ninja burst through the ceiling!”

3. Smiley faces are generally a poor choice in professional communication. If your novel manuscript, query or proposal use any kind of emoticon, I’m guessing (X_X).

4. Please use exclamation points sparingly. Strings of exclamations are generally disorientating and hard to process. “I’m surly! You’re not listening to me! That is unacceptable! I’m getting even surlier!”   If you use exclamations too often, they will become diluted and lose their zing.

5. Please be REALLY careful about capitalizing sentences for emphasis. “AND NOW YOU DIE, MR. BOND!”  I wouldn’t even consider doing it more than once or twice per novel.  And even that might be unnecessarily risky.

13 responses so far

May 26 2009

How to Sell a Magical Superhero Story

Magical superheroes are rare and haven’t sold very well since the Silver Age of comics (late 1950s and 60s). Here are some tips to help you write a magical superhero story that a publisher might take seriously.

1. Do it as a novel, not a comic book. Comic books depend on male readers aged 13-25. The problem is that the people that are most receptive to magical superheroes (kids and women) generally do not buy comic books.  This is one reason that magical superheroes are very, very hard to publish as a comic book. The magical superhero stories that tend to sell even remotely well tend to be TV shows (Sailor Moon or Jake Long) or novels (Dresden Files).

2. If you are absolutely dead-set on a comic book, I recommend using Japanese-style art. American teens are somewhat more tolerant of magic in anime stories like Sailor Moon than they are of American-style stories like Dr. Strange or Zantanna.

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51 responses so far

May 25 2009

Psycho Child’s Review Forum

Published by under Review Forums

I’m writing a fantasy manga. It’s mainly about three teenagers named Cyrus, Wes and Logun.  They join a school to acquire and develop their own special techniques.  As these boys advance though the ranks of this school, they will find out the dark secret of their rival school, Theta C Academy.  This school only accepts students that already have their etching power.  This manga will have action, drama, betrayal, love and hatred.

9 responses so far

May 25 2009

Mental Conditions in the Workplace

Published by under Writing Articles

I’ve been getting a few questions like this, so I think it might be worthwhile to offer some untrained advice. For the love of God, please do not use this in lieu of professional advice from a medical professional.

Hello, B. Mac. I suffer from [mental condition X.] How will that affect my writing career?

1. Get yourself diagnosed and treated by a professional… self-diagnosed conditions are not credible. If you really believed that you had something, you’d be an idiot not to have it looked at. If you tell a coworker that you have a self-diagnosed condition, you’re pretty much admitting that you’re idiotic or dishonest. (If money is an issue, the good news is that professionals tend to be pretty accommodating of financial need).

2. Your medical history (including psychiatric conditions) should be provided only on a need-to-know basis. Telling your boss or coworkers more than they need to know will create barriers between them and you, particularly if they don’t know you very well. It could also creep them out.

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7 responses so far

May 25 2009

Overheard at a Mexican restaurant in Japan…

Published by under Comedy

“Please enjoy our authentic tapas.  I am afraid they are not like that Taco Bell stuff you Americans like so much, sir, but if you want I can smother them in sour cream and you will hardly be able to tell the difference.”

Hat-tip to our Japanese correspondent.

One response so far

May 23 2009

Burnsauce Johnson’s Review Forum

Published by under Review Forums

Please see the comments below. Thanks!

4 responses so far

May 23 2009

Trollitrade’s Review Forum

Published by under Review Forums

Please see the comments below. Thank you.

23 responses so far

May 23 2009

A delightfully cheesy book trailer

Published by under Art,Comedy

I found this dangerously amusing. “Ah, excellent. Simmering sexual tension is my specialty.” Please look past the awful production values; they’re part of the humor.

3 responses so far

May 22 2009

Useful Publishing Blogs

Published by under Research and Resources

  • Query Shark: Condensing a 300 page novel into an intriguing page is difficult, but this site provides excellent advice about how to write queries effectively.
  • Pub Rants.  The author of this site is friendly and patient.  That’s a refreshing change of pace for the publishing industry.
  • Evil Editor.  This is maybe a bit more humorous than helpful, but it’s quite entertaining.  Written by the author of Why You Don’t Get Published.

3 responses so far

May 21 2009

Unsolicited manuscripts almost always get rejected

Patricia Chui did an article for Salon about her experience reading unsolicited manuscripts.  Here are some choice excerpts.

To our credit, we readers did give every single submission, no matter how ludicrous, a fair and honest appraisal. During my reign as slush handler, a few projects garnered further consideration from our editors; one was even published. [emphasis mine] …

The slush pile [is] a teeming smorgasbord of mediocrity sprinkled with healthy doses of the awful and the insane. Fair or not, there’s a kind of self-selection process that governs the pile, the perception being that good writers are the ones who manage to stay off of it in the first place. The job of our readers was to sift through the pile and find the exceptions to the rule. It was a Sisyphean task at best. Every day, boxes of self-help, pet-inspired wisdom and near-death experiences would cycle through my office to be read and rejected in what seemed a never-ending stream of futility. Being on the slush pile was the literary equivalent of being on death row…

It was the phone calls that were the bane of my existence. Most of those who called were probably hardworking folks who showed courage just by picking up the phone. By God, I hated them…

The callers who irked me most were those who hadn’t done their homework and were using me as some sort of research tool. They asked me how to publish a book, how to get an agent, what kinds of books we published. One gentleman inquired, “When you publish my book, how much will you pay me?*” Another wanted to know, “How many copies of a book do you usually print?**” (When I said it depended, he countered, “So, what then? Millions?”) I was astonished at these questions; I couldn’t imagine dialing the general number at Miramax and asking how to make a movie. There’s a place you can find this information, people. It’s called a bookstore. Look into it.

*– It depends, but Tobias Buckell found that the typical first-novel earns a cash advance of around $4000. Around $5500 if you have an agent.

**-Again it depends, but most novels get an initial print-run of a few thousand copies.

No responses yet

May 21 2009

A brief review of Gigantic #1

Gigantic #1 is an issue that starts out spectacularly. I can’t think of any series that are as immediately engrossing. But, aside from the beginning, it was a disappointment. The main character has to be likable and stylish, and Gigantic is neither.

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5 responses so far

May 21 2009

Business trip!

Published by under B. Mac

I have a business trip to the East Coast this week.  I’m very excited!  I will probably be less active than usual this week.

8 responses so far

May 20 2009

A Writer’s Review of Invincible: What Went Right

Invincible is an ambitious and wildly uneven superhero series.  A lot of it is awful and a lot of it is incredible.  If you’re interested in what went horribly wrong, please see this separate review.

The plotting is generally quite good. The plot progresses in a natural and even way, which is almost unheard-of for an ongoing series. Most ongoing series pace themselves something like this: plot point! Filler arc! Filler arc! Plot point!

 

There is filler material, but it’s generally well-integrated with the recurring threads. Although characters are interrupted frequently by random events, it rarely feels like a “creature of the week.”

 

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2 responses so far

May 18 2009

A Writer’s Guide to Invincible’s Flaws

I’ve read the first thirty issues or so of Invincible.  A lot of it is awesome and a lot of it is an absolute trainwreck.  Here’s what I think went wrong.  (I’ve detailed its positives here).

 

Especially by issue 20, the story felt like it had ADD. The story flits around a lot; a character might be introduced for a few pages in issue 15 and he might make his next appearance a few issues later and actually matter a few issues after that.  This storytelling style is often effective, but it can get grating.  Let me demonstrate that by doing this review as a random series of paragraphs.  Take that, transitions!

 

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11 responses so far

May 17 2009

Six Superhero Plots That Need to Die

1. Shrinking. First, this is a horribly cliche type of one-off story.  Second, it is pretty much impossible to do anything fresh with it. The characters get shrunk, deal with some tiny obstacles (usually including a cat or some other suddenly dangerous animal), and then get their size back. What else could you do with it?

How can I do it right? Have the character stays shrunken for longer than just an issue.  It’ll push you to develop the formula in a fresh direction, and hopefully one more fertile than “and then they discover a microscopic civilization!” E.g. it seems to work fairly effectively in Ant-Man, where the character spends most of his time full-sized.

2. Body-swapping. One character switches bodies with another, usually involuntarily.  The drama usually comes from the characters having to survive despite having different powers or different roles than they’re used to.

How can I do it right? This isn’t necessarily bad, but it has been done extensively.  It tends to work best if the characters have to keep their identities secret.  If Jim and Luke can just tell everyone that their bodies have been swapped, it’s not really an interesting obstacle.  But if Jim and Luke can’t talk about magic or the supernatural hijinks they’re involved in, then body-swapping makes it that much harder for them to maintain the masquerade.  Give them difficult situations they can’t duck.  For example, “Luke” suddenly has a piano concert and “Jim” is now the starting defensive tackle.  The only way for them to protect the secret is to learn (or feign competence in) something totally new.  Good luck!

3. Age change. The villain or an accident causes a character to get drastically younger or older (usually younger).  This is even worse than shrinking because a hero turned into a baby is no longer a character so much as a prop.  Also, these episodes/issues tend to be overwhelmingly cute.  Ick.

How can I do it right? I’d recommend trying it like Big or Thirteen Going on Thirty or Seventeen Again. The story follows the character as he enters another stage of life. How does he handle his new predicament?  That’s an interesting situation.  In contrast, babies can’t do anything but cry.

4. World War II time travel. Time travel is not a problem in series that have been built around it, but “let’s do an issue set in World War II!” is shoot-me-in-the-face bad.  The villains are one-dimensional, there’s no chance the writers will let the heroes lose and it’s cliche.

How can I do it right? Realistically, you can’t and I wouldn’t recommend it.  However, if you’re dead-set on trying anyway, maybe try something more creative than sending the villain back in time to help the Nazis.  One alternative would be having the heroes try to stop a well-intentioned “antagonist”–say, somebody who lost his family in the Nazi death camps–from going back in time to kill Hitler because killing Hitler might lead to Germany winning the war with a competent leader.  This setup is stronger because the villain is more morally complex and because sneaking in to guard a hostile target is inherently more dramatic and challenging than an all-out assault.  Also, the outcome is less guaranteed/predictable, particularly if the story is set towards the end of the war.  Perhaps the story ends with the heroes and assassin agreeing to stage Hitler’s murder as a suicide, but only when the Allies’ victory is guaranteed.

5.  Underwater adventures, particularly with Atlantis. It’s very hard to do an interesting aquatic tangent.  Have you ever heard anyone wish that Aquaman or Namor would show up?  Me neither.

How can I do it right? I think your best bet is to set most of the story in a sealab or a sealed city under the waters.  The less time the characters spend in submarines or swimming, the better.   Also, this kind of story might work better as a series focus than as a tangent.  It’s not that aquatic stories necessarily suck (please see Finding Nemo or The Little Mermaid), just that an aquatic setting is usually a waste of time for land-bound heroes. Additionally, few land-bound heroes have powers well-suited to interesting underwater fight scenes, so it might help to have the climactic battle in a sealed environment like a domed city or in a coastal city above the water.

6.  Saving helpless women. (Hat-tip to commenter Heather).

How can I do it right?  At the very least, if she’s going to get herself kidnapped or otherwise endangered, maybe it’s because of something she did besides dating the hero?  For example, in Iron Man, Pepper Potts endangered herself by sneaking into the villain’s office to steal his computer files.  Sometimes Lois Lane is a competent investigative journalist.  Give your characters a chance to be something besides just The Screaming Girlfriend.  Maybe even you have some female characters that aren’t love interests!  (A revolutionary concept, I know).

UPDATE: If you’re interested in plots that don’t need to die, I think this list of stock plots might help.

205 responses so far

May 17 2009

Sax Man’s Review Forum

Published by under Review Forums

Please see the comments below.  Thanks.

5 responses so far

May 16 2009

Which comic books should a comic book writer be familiar with?

What do you think?  Which comic books or graphic novels should a comic book writer be familiar with and why?

9 responses so far

May 15 2009

This makes me want to buy a ticket…

Published by under Comedy

One response so far

May 14 2009

Do superheroes sell better in recessions?

CNN published an article titled “Superheroes rise in tough times,” which claims that superhero stories are most popular during rough economic times.  It’s a plausible theory, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

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2 responses so far

May 12 2009

Mack’s Review Forum

Published by under Review Forums

Please see the comments below.  Thanks!

No responses yet

May 12 2009

How to Create Intense Fans With Your Blog

Chris Garrett has some intuitive ideas about how to turn readers into intense fans that will spread your message and convince other people to check out your material.  I agree that this is a very important goal, but his suggestions are very skeletal.

  1. Provide value and delight your audience.
  2. All of your posts and interactions with readers should be professional.
  3. Be genuine, approachable and friendly.
  4. Let your readers know that you appreciate and value them.

Except for #1 (which is too vague to be useful), these focus more on how to treat your fans than how to create content for them.  So how do we create content that will attract and build enthusiastic fans?  Here are some ideas.

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10 responses so far

May 11 2009

How to Do Multiple Narrators and POVs with Style

1.  Make it clear who’s narrating which chapter. The biggest problem with multiple narrators is that it’s hard to keep track of who is narrating a given chapter.  One way you can fix this problem is by placing the character’s name below the chapter heading.  Or you can use blatant demographic cues.  (For example, someone that starts a chapter by saying “Damn, I hate high-heels!” is probably not a male).  Some publishers even sign off on a tiny picture of the character below the chapter heading.  Do whatever it takes.

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49 responses so far

May 11 2009

I’m back!

If you’re a blogger interested in accumulating a large audience, it’s really important to do posts as regularly as you can.  But life sometimes gets in the way.  Anyway, I’m back!

9 responses so far

May 07 2009

Writing Tip of the Day: No Guardian Angels!

Published by under Writing Articles

Your hero should be accountable for his actions.  If his actions don’t have consequences for him, the plot will be much less satisfying.

 

Guardian angels are characters that remove accountability and make the hero’s actions meaningless.  For example, Heroes’ Claire had at least three guardian angels (Noah, Peter, Nathan and possibly her mother).  That’s really undramatic.  By giving your character guardian angels, you remove opportunities for them to deal with the repercussions of their decisions.  That usually makes them boring and less impressive. For example, when the feds come to lock the mutants up, Nathan has Claire removed from the wanted list.  Repeatedly.  If Claire is meant to seem like an interesting, proactive hero rather than a helpless damsel in distress, it would be much more compelling if she solved her own problems.

 

Another problem with guardian angels is that they tend to sideline the hero.  Children protagonists are particularly vulnerable to this. If the parent swoops in to solve the kid’s problems, why are we reading about the kid?  No one wants to read a parentis ex machina, especially young readers.

 

When a protagonist requires assistance, here are some suggestions to make it more dramatic than just having another character solve his problems:
1. I recommend making sure that the help creates some sort of problem or price that needs to be paid back later. For example, perhaps the helper expects some sort of payback and/or opens up another major problem. For example, in Breaking Bad, the main character (spoiler) allies with one drug lord to protect him from the drug cartel that previously employed the main character. The relationship with the new drug lord creates its own set of problems, and the new drug lord is not able (or willing) to protect everyone the main character cares about from the cartel.

 

2. I’d recommend keeping the assistance as limited as possible. For example, in The Matrix, the first scene between Neo and Morpheus is a lot more interesting because Morpheus isn’t there to personally escort Neo to safety. He’s just talking to Neo over the phone, which makes Neo’s actions in the scene a lot more interesting than if Morpheus did all the work himself. Please don’t let your main character(s) get sidelined.

 

3.I’d recommend putting the helper at serious risk.I think this is helpful because it will make the assistance more high-stakes, whereas someone who can save the main character by flipping a switch will probably not create an interesting scene.

 

4. I’d recommend murkying the waters — altruism is not your friend here. If Character A saves Character B from a major problem, it’s easier to build upon that moving forward if A acted out of self-interest and/or any other motive which suggests that it wasn’t just a free favor. For example, a self-interested character might expect Character B to help in problems of his own, involve Character B in a new conflict, or have Character B do something he might not otherwise want to). Alternately, Character A might be helping Character B because B is useful to him now but there may come a time when A and B conflict or when A could benefit by throwing B under a bus. For example, a criminal might help a detective put away a rival criminal, and later use the detective’s trust to feed the police misleading information in a case against someone the criminal wants to protect. (Alternately, in Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter was a convicted serial killer that cooperated with police to find another serial killer in exchange for being transferred to a less secure facility, which allowed him to escape).

10 responses so far

May 06 2009

The Onion reports: the new Star Trek movie is unfortunately good

Published by under Comedy

Also, I like that they casted Zachary Quinto (Sylar from Heroes) as Spock.  Except for  James Lee (Ando), he’s the only Heroes actor that strikes me as remotely talented. However, Quinto will probably go farther in Hollywood because he has the crucial advantage of being non-Asian.  Nobody’s Asian in the Movies, except for kung fu stars and ninjas. 

6 responses so far

May 06 2009

10,000 comments!

Published by under Navel-Gazing

We just got up to 10,000 comments. Congratulations to Holliequ.

8 responses so far

May 05 2009

How to Do Superhero Gadgets Well

1. A hero’s gadgets are only interesting when he uses them in an exciting and/or unexpected way. No one will say “Wow, he had shark repellent!” But they will be impressed if your hero comes up with a clever way to apply a general tool. Versatile, general tools tend to be more interesting than gadgets that are only useful in a particular situation.

2. Narrow tools may force you to write an Eigen plot. Eigen plots are contrived set-ups where the superhero gets opportunities to use gadgets and/or superpowers that are typically useless. Eigen plots typically come off as cheesy. When the hero catches a golden opportunity to use his shark repellent, it won’t make him look good… it will probably just make you look bad.

3. Tools tend to be more creative and versatile when they draw on the scenery. For example, a grappling device lets the hero use the setting and scenery in ways he couldn’t before. He can set ambushes, try alternate entrances and exits, etc. A cutting tool can do many things depending on the situation. The hero may be able to cut through doors and other hard obstacles, or fashion bandages out of a shirt, or maybe even knock a streetlamp onto an enemy.

4. I recommend sticking with gadgets that are easy to understand. Gadgets that are really high-tech may require more explanation.

60 responses so far

May 05 2009

How to lay out a proposal: sell the strengths, address the weaknesses

Your proposal needs to accomplish two main goals:  1) show that there are readers out there and 2) show that you are well-poised to grab them.  First, sell your strengths, the factors that make your concept more likely to succeed.  Second, cover your weaknesses.  There probably will be some, particularly if you’re a first-time author.

To get you started, I’ll run you through how I would go about planning a proposal for a nonfiction book about how to write fan-fiction. (If you’d like to write such a book, go for it).

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One response so far

May 04 2009

Writers are dispensable; readers are not

If you’re looking to get a novel published, I think that understanding the Boston Globe’s difficulties will help you.

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No responses yet

May 04 2009

What I’m reading today

Published by under Writing Articles

  • Why Supervillains are Sexy— there’s actually a neurological explanation for this.  [This explains so much– Jacob].
  • Why You Shouldn’t See the New Wolverine Movie— poor action, worse writing.
  • Writing Prompts— Writer’s Digest provides a list of prompts to stimulate your writing processes.
  • The Teen’s Guide to Getting Published. It’s well-written and professional, but poorly-aimed and unfocused.  My book about how to write superhero stories has to be better.

2 responses so far

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