Archive for the 'Writing Articles' Category

Aug 09 2012

Character Questionnaire: How Would Your Characters Handle These Situations?

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.

Shannah McGill has a character questionnaire based on character actions rather than character traits.

 

I would add the following situations:

  • The character’s lover or trusted friend does something which raises questions of fidelity. The Incredibles, for example.
  • The character’s main goal is irrevocably lost. See the first ten minutes of Up, for example.
  • The character is badly failed by the legal system and/or is involved in a situation where the legal system badly fails another character. See Gone Baby Gone and The Incredibles, for example.
  • The character is in a situation where his preferred approach is totally unworkable. For example, if someone like The Hulk were facing a hostage situation with multiple gunmen, running in will get a lot of civilians killed.
  • A movie or reality TV series is made about the character.
  • The National Enquirer publishes wild (and perhaps mostly-accurate) stories about the character.
  • A disgruntled ex goes public. Bonus points if the ex was driven away by a major decision of the main character (or vice versa), rather than the ex just being generically crazy and/or vengeful.
  • The character is forced to deal with two extremely urgent problems at the same time.  Bonus points if he deals first with the problem that most readers wouldn’t.
  • A competition begins with a much more competent rival.
  • The character is abducted by Canadians and/or aliens.
  • For social and/or career reasons, the character has to fake enthusiasm and/or knowledge during a high-stakes situation. (For example, the character is excited when ESPN offers him a commentating gig, but it’s an ESPN2 program on melon-tossing, synchronized shuffleboard, or soccer).
  • The character sees three police cruisers parked outside of his house. Or a tank.  Bonus points if his/her response is not to immediately turn around.
  • The character has to offer advice in a field where he/she is extremely unqualified. For example, helping a child with homework in long-forgotten subjects or providing life advice in an area where the character has been unusually unsuccessful. “Don’t get cocky, kid.”  Bonus points if the character does not immediately realize he is in over his head.
  • The character faces opposition from a totally unfamiliar sphere. For example, someone like Spider-Man facing off against a super-commando or someone like Wolverine facing off against a journalist.
  • A parent commits adultery. (Hat tip: CW in the comments).
  • Finding out that the true enemy is someone that has been relatively close. (Hat tip: CW).
  • The character is hunted by a supernatural police group. (Hat tip: CW).  Alternately, perhaps the character gets involved in the supernatural equivalent of a lawsuit, a custody case, marital/family counseling, conscription/drafting, the Inquisition, a court-martial, a divorce, an election or caucus, a citizenship/immigration issue, jury duty, a neighborhood spat that starts with something random like dog droppings and gets really heated, a predatorial lender trying to collect on loans or library late fees, a strike, bounty-hunting/subpoena-serving, or the mother of all speeding tickets. (The space police and/or Bureau of Dragon Licensing can ticket me all they want, but they have to catch me first–giddyup, Smaug).
  • The character needs to remove himself/herself from consideration for a promotion or assignment without damaging his/her position at the company.
  • The character does not know why (and preferably has trouble figuring out why), but a really respected and/or feared person has suddenly turned on him/her in a major way. This is one way of fleshing out unforeseen consequences to the main characters’ decisions–they might antagonize characters for whatever reason (e.g. arresting one minor villain might anger superheroes working a much bigger case against an elite villain). Bonus points if the decision was intelligent when it was made.
  • The character has a burning desire to accomplish a goal tragically and/or hilariously at odds with his background, like a rat dreaming of being a 4-star chef, a deaf-dumb-and-blind kid ravaging the pinball scene, or Dan “Potatoe” Quayle/”Mojo Slow Joe” Biden running for President. Bonus points if the character’s limitations are depicted in at least a semi-realistic way–the character’s triumphs and defeats will be more satisfying the more we see him/her struggle.
  • The character needs to leave a company or organization without nuking bridges there, but the company is very concerned about loose ends. What does the character need to do to reassure them? Does the company put any restrictions in place (e.g. the supernatural equivalent of a non-compete clause)?  Does the organization have methods other than killing and/or threatening to kill anybody that wants to leave?
  • The character used to be great at something, but is declining (preferably in a long-term situation not easily undone). For example, it is exceedingly rare to see superhero stories seriously deal with aging*–For one alternative, I really like Batman Beyond’s take. (Alternately, perhaps the characters aren’t notably old, but their capabilities fade. “House of M,” for example). *99% of superheroes embody youth and stamina–it’s part of the fantasy appeal.

26 responses so far

Aug 01 2012

Learning Writing Skills from Hancock

1. Hancock’s personality and interaction with other people made for some interesting conflict. The train scene with Hancock, Ray, and the other people at the intersection is a great example of Hancock’s alienation and anti-social nature. He’s one of the few superheroes that people generally hate, as opposed to, say, Superman.

 

 

2. The mechanics of Hancock’s superpowers were very fascinating. When he kicks off the ground to propel into flight, it yanks stuff up out of the ground. His invincibility could be cliche, but was used creatively (the shaving scene was a kickass example of that). The physics behind the powers was believable. In contrast, Superman has to use special Kryptonian razor blades when he has to shave (ugh!).

 

3. Superheroes can commit crimes, and they can get in trouble for it. Hancock went to prison because of the way he used his powers. He had several crimes hanging over his head: aggravated assault and battery, destruction of property, reckless endangerment, and even endangering the safety of a minor (the French bully he launched into the sky). This is very refreshing—in most superhero stories where the police are antagonists, they don’t actually add significant consequences to the characters’ actions. (For example, Batman might have a chase scene or two with the police, but it rarely actually costs Batman anything).

 

4. Hancock’s significant other was an interesting twist, but could be confusing and contradictory. During the major fight scene with Hancock and his “wife,” she keeps screaming that she hates him, and that she’d never forgive him for what he did. What did he do? They never explain what he did, and they gave no reason for why she’d hate him. Then, in the hospital scene towards the end, she explains how he always saved her over the centuries, and how he was meant to be humanity’s hero. But didn’t you say earlier that you were faster, stronger, and smarter than him? Lady, you’re confusing me!

 

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10 responses so far

Jul 24 2012

Common Pitfalls and Cliches for Superhero Teams

1. Superheroines who only serve as a love interest. Do this thought experiment: if you had to cut all of the romances in your book, are there any characters you’d want to remove? If so, I would recommend that you give those characters more to do and flesh out their conflicts, personalities, and goals/motivations. Giving the character some unique purpose independent of romance will make the character a more compelling love interest and, more importantly, a more compelling character. I’d recommend checking out Mystique, Black Widow and Elastigirl here.

  • RED FLAG: The character doesn’t talk about things besides romance and/or have a notable effect on how the main characters approach the central plot. (For example, a three-dimensional character might have conflicts with other characters about a major goal, whereas a trophy love interest usually goes along with other characters on how to deal with the supervillain).

 

2. Characters with one-dimensional personalities. If 90%+ of a character’s personality can be summarized in a single idea (e.g. “super-soldier” or “nice guy” or “angry/vengeful”), I would really recommend going back to the drawing board and making the character unexpected in some way. For example, Tony Stark isn’t just another super-scientist. Yes, he’s brilliant, but he’s also charming and his main flaw is a lack of restraint. That makes him more memorable than another brilliant-awkward-meek scientist.

 

3. The tank. If a character’s main role in combat is rushing at the enemy, I would recommend mixing in at least some minor powers so that the character’s fights will be less monotonous.

 

4. The brat. This character, possibly a child, rarely has much impact on the plot besides complaining, getting kidnapped, and/or drawing the useful characters into trouble. If you have a character who exhibits these negative/annoying tendencies, please balance it with something useful he brings to the table. For example, the Incredibles’ Dash actually helped out in fights, required little hand-holding from adult characters, and made fewer grossly stupid/irresponsible decisions than, say, Hal Jordan in Green Lantern. In contrast, Scrappy Doo was inept comic relief largely unable to contribute to the team accomplishing its goals. In The Taxman Must Die, the intern* is a bit more morally and legally flexible than most of the main characters (federal agents), and a budding Moriarty can find a role in a story about superpowered shenanigans.

*He’s also the nephew of a main character, but the nephew vehemently denies that this is relevant to his landing a federal internship in grade school.

 

5. I would recommend against individual capabilities which overlap too much. For example, it’d probably be easier to find a distinct role for Robin if he had some capabilities that Batman didn’t.

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43 responses so far

Jul 21 2012

Tips on Writing a Superhero Team

1. I’d like to see each of the following from ideally every superhero on a team:

  • A personality, including at least one notable flaw.
  • At least one unusual decision, ideally one which reinforces something unique about the character. For example, Stark is less socially restrained and more curious than anybody else on the Avengers, so it makes sense that he cattle-prods Bruce Banner to test whether Banner will turn into the Hulk. If you’re having trouble giving characters unusual decisions, the characters probably do not have sufficiently distinct personalities yet.  Additionally, each unusual decision should have some consequences for the plot and/or character development. Cattle-prodding Banner creates conflict between Stark and the more polite Captain America and helps develop Banner’s limits.
  • Individual goals and motivations. Hopefully, these contribute to some protagonist-vs-protagonist conflict. For example, see Beast-Mystique and Magneto-Xavier in X-Men: First Class.
  • A notable relationship with at least one other team member and ideally some effect on a relationship between two other team members. (For example, Magneto’s relationship with Mystique drives a wedge between Mystique and Beast and Bruce Banner’s treatment at the hands of Tony Stark builds a conflict between Stark and Captain America in Avengers).
  • Some role in the story besides just 1) superpowers and/or 2) being a love interest. If the only thing the character brings to the story is his superpowers, you’d probably be better off either fleshing out the character’s personality more and/or moving the superpowers to a character that’s actually interesting.

 

2. It’s not necessary to cover individual origin stories or the formation of the team, as long as we see motivations and character development elsewhere. Some common setups here:

  1. The members develop superpowers (usually because of the same cause) and/or form the team (usually because of a common threat/enemy, opportunity or interest)–e.g. most superhero movies.
  2. A single character (usually the main character) joins an already-established team–e.g. Soon I Will Be Invincible.
  3. The team is already established and we instead start with a new mission or problem confronting the team.
  4. The main character interacts with the superhero team, but isn’t actually on it–e.g. Bob Moore: No Hero.

 

3. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of writing a superhero team is space considerations. Here are some ways to save space.  
  • You will probably have less space for side-characters outside the team. In the interest of saving space, I would generally recommend versatile side-characters that can interact with most of the teammates rather than side-characters that are limited to interacting with just one or two of them. For example, how many interesting moments has Alicia Masters had with anybody besides the Thing?
  • Giving antagonists less screen-time and relatively simple schemes will probably help. If you’re deadset on major antagonist-on-antagonist conflict (a la Dark Knight), I’d recommend going with 1-2 superheroes.
  • Splitting a large superhero team into separate squads can make scenes more efficient.
  • Eschewing secret identities. With really large teams, I’d be careful with alternate names altogether (even if the second name is public, like Ben Grimm and The Thing). If you have 10+ names for 5+ characters, it will probably surprise you how many of your readers cannot reliably remember who is who.

 

4. Unless you’re very confident in your ability to quickly develop a large cast, I’d recommend using 2-4 superheroes on the main team. The most common problem I see with superhero team stories is that the characters are too one-dimensional. Eliminating and/or merging characters will help buy you time to develop the remaining characters and make them more interesting. If you are absolutely sure you want more, make sure that each character contributes enough to the plot to warrant his/her space.

47 responses so far

Jul 21 2012

Writing Prompt of the Day

Published by under Writing Exercises

Prompt 1: Start a story with this line: “Nobody ever complimented [character] on [fill in the blank], and he/she wanted to keep it that way.”

 

Prompt 2: Start a story with the main character acting proudly about something which most people would regard as a failure or a point of shame.

2 responses so far

Jul 16 2012

Learning Writing Skills from Green Lantern

(Please see the movie before reading this review).

 

1. The two minutes of voiceover/narration should have been cut. First, do we really need to start the story with the backstory of the Green Lantern Corps? It would probably have been more natural (and less pretentious) to cover this in a conversation with Hal Jordan (probably when he meets up with the Corps on Oa). As it is, I think this information is a distraction from Hal, contributes to a disjoint between what the aliens are doing and what Hal is doing over the first 30 minutes, and is redundant with the two other scenes recapping the purpose and history of the GL Corps.

1.1. When you’re introducing a character and/or organization to readers, I think it’d be more effective to show them in their element rather than through lengthy exposition. We’re later told Abin Sur is a “great light” of the Lanterns, but we never actually see him do anything impressive. Similarly, rather than introduce the GL Corps with a speech, I’d much rather see them doing a typical-but-interesting job (the GL equivalent of a hostage situation or a high-stakes bank robbery). Since the defining characteristic of the GL is supposed to be fearlessness, it’d be better to have them do something memorably courageous than to show them panicking as they face Parallax. Fleeing isn’t the most intuitive way to establish a corps founded on bravery. Moreover, we don’t actually see much fearlessness from the Lanterns over the course of the movie.

 

2. The relationship between Hal and his father was one-dimensional and did not help develop Hal or the plot. This felt like a very forced way to work courage vs. cowardice into the plot. “You’re not scared, are you, Dad?” “Let’s just say it’s my job not to be.” Ick. Here are some more effective examples of family cameos.

  • Ellie, the main character’s wife in Up. In just a few minutes, each character shows how much they mean to the other. (Spoiler): When she dies, viewers really feel the main character’s loss, whereas Hal’s dialogue with his father is so lifeless that there’s no emotional heft. In contrast, Up’s Ellie-Carl scenes help develop why the main character is lonely and surly for most of the rest of the movie and helps set up some of the immediate conflict between the grouch and the cheerful Boy Scout he gets trapped with. Speaking of which, the Boy Scout’s relationship with his family is also emotionally effective—I’d really recommend seeing this movie if you haven’t already.
  • Batman’s relationship with his father mixes respect and conflict. Ra’s al Ghul points out that Bruce trained to become something like the opposite of his father—if the father had been as physically tough as the son became, they all would have survived Joe Chill. This is more interesting than JUST having the character try to fill his father’s footsteps (a la Hal Jordan). I also like that various other characters try pulling Wayne’s legacy in different ways (e.g. Ghul accuses him of being useless and mocks his philanthropic work, Joe Chill falsely claims that he died begging for his life, Batman risks disgracing his father’s name by cutting himself off from high society, and Joker implicitly disagrees with the elder Wayne about whether Gotham is worth saving, etc).
  • The mother of Kick-Ass has an aneurysm and dies while eating breakfast. This adds some ghoulish comedy and helps reinforce that the main character is lonely and sort of messed-up. It also plays on the comic book trope that the character’s parents will always die in some plot-relevant and meaningful way. Not bad for ten seconds of screen-time.

 

3. Main character Hal Jordan makes his first appearance 6 minutes into the movie. While I think it’s generally interesting to try scenes without the main characters (e.g. Dark Knight’s ferry scene), focusing on minor characters to the exclusion of the core of the story is probably unsound. I can’t think of any reason to start with the aliens here rather than either 1) starting with Hal and covering the information about the aliens later, probably when Hal meets the aliens or 2) starting with the aliens doing something which directly involves Hal. For example, it might make sense to start with Abin Sur as he’s looking for a Green Lantern—this would help develop what was so impressive about Hal that he caught Abin Sur’s eye.

 

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53 responses so far

Jul 12 2012

Learning Writing Skills from X-Men: First Class

(Please see the movie before reading this review).

 

1. A lot of the relationships really work, but the characterization would likely have been stronger if several characters had been removed. In particular, I think Xavier-Magneto and Hank-Mystique-Magneto alone were worth the price of admission. In the ten-minute training sequence, we see some really interesting threads, but they aren’t explored as fully as they could have been–for example, there’s a hilarious bit where Xavier and Hank only barely trust Havoc’s accuracy, but nobody ever mentions his accuracy again after that. Instead of having him prove his accuracy by shooting down Angel later on, it might have helped to force him to try a highly-dangerous trick shot to save an ally. Havoc gets a few lines being an ass to Beast, but again it didn’t really go anywhere. Cutting some of the minor characters might have helped buy more time for these plot threads to develop. Between Darwin, Angel, Havok, Banshee, Riptide (the unnamed tornado villain), Azazel (the demonic villain) and maybe Moira, 4-6 could have been easily removed.  In particular, introducing Darwin just to kill him immediately strikes me as a waste–he didn’t make enough of an impression for people to care about his death.

 

2. Notably, action plays a secondary role to character development. If you’re writing a superhero story which isn’t mainly about combat, I think First Class is probably the most helpful example from Hollywood so far.  I would definitely look at how the characters interact, how character traits are developed, and whether you would have subtracted and/or added characters.

 

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20 responses so far

Jul 12 2012

Great Reasons to Consider Skipping Over a Superhero Origin Story

Here are some signs it might be best to spend 0-2 sentences covering an origin story (how a character becomes superpowered and/or why he becomes a superhero).

 

1. The origin story doesn’t do much to develop characters, conflicts or the setting. For example, Superman’s origin story doesn’t do much to build up his distinguishing traits. Additionally, in most cases his backstory doesn’t do a great job setting up the conflict. In contrast, it’d be relatively difficult to tell a story like X-Men unless we had some idea what mutants were.

 

2. There are many superpowered characters and developing each individual origin would be too inefficient and/or incoherent. If you were inclined to, you could do a mass origin (e.g. X-Men or Wild Cards) and/or describe how the team forms rather than how the characters developed their superpowers. Neither of these alternatives is necessary, though—if the teammates’ interactions in the present develop the characters and establish their motivations, we don’t need to know the events leading up to them becoming a team.  (Similarly, in most stories about police departments and military units, most of the teammates have been teammates for some time).

 

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7 responses so far

Jul 10 2012

Learning Writing Skills from The Avengers

As always, please see the movie before reading this review.

 

1. The conflicts within the team and between the teammates and Fury/SHIELD were impeccable. One aspect which lends depth to the conflicts is that most of the character have intelligent reasons to disagree and the writers don’t push viewers to side with one protagonist or another. In contrast, the Fantastic Four’s squabbles are usually driven by someone (or everyone) being an idiot, which mainly leaves me wanting to punch everyone. The scene where the Avengers confront Nick Fury over what he’s been holding back from them is vastly superior to anything in the FF movies.

 

2. The writing was very fresh and clever. The arc where Loki allows himself to be taken prisoner in an attempt to provoke Bruce Banner into going crazy is a nice play on the (sort-of-tired) trope where a supervillain breaks out of captivity. Additionally, the scene where SHIELD tries to contact Black Widow (who is being interrogated by Russian smugglers) is hilarious.

  • BLACK WIDOW: “This is just like in Budapest.” *She stabs an alien in the head.* HAWKEYE: “You and I… remember Budapest very differently.”

 

3. I believe the main weak point of the movie was the selection of Loki as the main villain—he wasn’t as cost-effective as more limited, terrestrial villains like the Joker, Green Goblin or Obediah Stane. He got better characterization than, say, the alien antagonists in Green Lantern or FF: Silver Surfer, but I don’t believe the movie would have been much worse if all of his lines of dialogue had been cut out. In particular, a character that is based on deception and trickery should develop the plot and characters more with his dialogue than he actually did.

 

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52 responses so far

Jul 07 2012

Learning from Amazing Spider-Man

(As always, please see the movie before reading this).

 

1. To the extent that you cover a superhero origin story, I’d recommend focusing on things and approaches we haven’t seen much of before. I think it would have helped to either spend less time covering the origin story or make it more different than Spider-Man 1. That said, I thought ASM’s approach to the death of Uncle Ben was smoother and more thematically effective–when Peter has the opportunity to stop the robber, there’s a plausible and immediate threat to bystanders. Peter declines and Ben gets killed seconds thereafter. This makes Peter’s motivation for a life-changing decision (becoming a superhero) more plausible.  In contrast, in Spider-Man 1, Peter gets torn up because he doesn’t get involved in a relatively minor situation with a police officer present, with only a faint connection between Peter Parker letting the robber go and the robber killing a civilian.

1.1. Peter plays a more active role acquiring superpowers. He was only in the laboratory because he stole an ID and figured out how to thwart a keypad. I think the scene develops him more than just getting lucky at the science fair in Spider-Man 1. (Likewise, he makes his own webslingers instead of getting them from the spider-bite).

 

2. Beware the idiot ball–make sure there are believable consequences to actions. Peter Parker displayed his superpowers in public so many times that I think his classmates would have to be idiots not to notice something was amiss. (For example, the NBA-caliber dunk? Or breaking a goalpost with a football? Or lifting enormous Flash Thompson by the neck?)  When characters make decisions, there should be consequences. For example, if the character is reckless with his powers, maybe other characters come closer to figuring out what’s going on. Or at least start asking difficult questions.

 

3. Speaking of consequences, I thought the crane scene was kind of cute. (Peter saves a construction worker’s kid and the construction worker later pulls in favors at the climax to help Spider-Man).  It helps build a contrast between Spider-Man’s decidedly limited means and, say, the lavishly-funded Avengers or X-Men. I think it’s also a more subtle and effective way of showing he’s more of an everyman hero than we saw in previous Spider-Man movies (e.g. subway passengers throwing themselves between Dr. Octopus and a crippled Spidey felt sort of hokey to me).

 

4. I thought it was a bit contrived that Peter Parker just happens to find the love interest working for the villain he’s trying to find. One way to clear out this contrivance would have been to make the two more causally connected. For example, maybe Peter Parker’s trying to figure out how to get to the villain, so he introduces himself to the assistant in the hopes that she’d eventually bring him to work. (This would make the relationship seem a bit more manipulative at the beginning, but he could probably come clean sooner rather than later. I think it’d help that he reveals his secret identity to her relatively quickly–he’s more upfront than most superheroes are).

 

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25 responses so far

Jul 06 2012

Learning Writing Skills from The Dark Knight

(Please see the movie before reading this review).

 

1. The conflicts really help make the relationships memorable. One element which worked out unusually well was the depth provided by protagonist-vs-protagonist conflicts (e.g. Gordon conflicting with Dent over who blew a case, Dent respecting Batman but hating Bruce Wayne, Lucius vs. Batman over libertarian issues, cops pressuring Dent to surrender Batman to Joker, Batman vs. Dent over threatening to kill a deranged patient, Dent angry that Batman saved him rather than his girlfriend, Batman vs. a misled SWAT team, Gordon suspecting most of his own unit of possible corruption, etc). The plot has a lot of angles, but each of these conflicts is very easy to follow and is consistent with the character development. I think that the protagonist-vs-protagonist conflicts help give all of the characters something to contribute to the plot. In contrast, if (say) the Thing were cut out of the Fantastic Four movies or Violet were cut from The Incredibles, I don’t think the plot would change much.

 

1.1.  Few, if any, superhero movies have accomplished as much with antagonist-vs-antagonist conflict. For example, Joker orders a hit on Coleman Reese, Joker fights with mob leaders, Joker turns on his own goons, and turns Dent into Two-Face (both physically and morally). One reason that the bank heist at the beginning of the movie is so memorable is because all of the antagonists involved are criminals—in contrast, many superhero movies have the superheroes warm up by taking down faceless bank robbers who receive no development.

 

2. The characters generally have complex motivations. Probably the most notable example here was Joker trying to prove that everybody is fundamentally as crazy as he is (and that people are only as moral as conditions allow them to be). It made him much more interesting than just another villain trying to make a ton of money or accumulate power without any particular agenda in mind. I’d also recommend checking out how Batman and Gordon conceal Two-Face’s misdeeds to help keep hope and inspiration alive.

 

3. The use of side-characters is phenomenal. Except for maybe Avengers, I don’t think any other superhero movie comes close in terms of character/plot development or creating interesting scenes. Take, for example, the ferry scene. Batman isn’t directly involved and none of the characters on-screen actually have a name. How many series are there where minor characters could have a compelling scene which develops the plot and the villain? Some other interesting examples where Batman isn’t present:

  • Joker’s opening bank heist. If I had to pick a single movie scene which did the best job of introducing a villain and developing his personality and modus operandi in a memorable way, this would be it. The heist is fittingly anarchic and unpredictable in the best way.
  • Joker’s pencil scene.
  • Lucius vs. Coleman Reese. (“You think your client, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world, moonlights as a vigilante and beats criminals to a pulp with his bare hands? And your plan is to blackmail this man? … Good luck with that”).
  • Gordon/MCU fighting with Dent/DA’s office about who blew the bank seizure.
  • Joker in the MCU cell—the cell-phone bomb was a clever touch, but I thought his goading the veteran cop (Stephens) into an imprudent confrontation was most memorable here.

 

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14 responses so far

Jul 02 2012

Signs of a Promising Superhero Origin Story

1. The main character makes a notable decision, ideally one that most other main characters in the genre wouldn’t make in the same position. Ideally, this develops something unusual about your character compared to other protagonists in the submissions pile. For example, one thing that distinguishes Peter Parker from most superheroes is that he’s unusually human, so it’s fitting and memorable that he lets the robber go (which ends up getting his uncle killed).

 

2. The origin story reinforces a key character trait or mood. For example, Parker’s decision helps reinforce that he’s not purely heroic and experiences regular human problems like pettiness. Batman’s origin story helps establish his loneliness and isolation.

 

3. Ideally, the origin is driven by the main character’s actions rather than the character getting passively chosen. Individual effort is usually more memorable than, say, good luck or high birth. For example, Steve Rogers became a candidate for Captain America because he wouldn’t take no for an answer and he won the competitive process by demonstrating cunning and bravery. The plot (and Steve Rogers) would have been MUCH less interesting if the Army had randomly picked his name of a hat.

 

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18 responses so far

Jun 23 2012

Writing Highly Intelligent Characters and Points-of-View

Published by under Character Development

1. By itself, intelligence is not a personality. One barometer of whether characters have enough of a personality is whether they make choices most other protagonists wouldn’t make in the same situation. Giving your characters room to do unusual things will help make them memorable. For example, notable social skills (or the lack of social skills) help flesh out brilliant characters like Tony Stark (charming and uninhibited), Sherlock Holmes (cold and unorthodox), Dr. House (abrasive and aggressive), and Bruce Wayne (charming, but generally emotionally reserved to the point of sociopathy).

 

2. Please come up with some ways to show that the character is intelligent besides just:

  • Chess.
  • Having other characters tell him how smart he is. (For example, search your manuscript for the words “brilliant” and “genius”—double-check those lines to make sure that they sound somewhat believable).  Another issue is whether you’re sufficiently showing the character’s traits. Intelligence should not be a coconut power!  Please give us something so that we can conclude whether the character is smart rather than just telling us what other characters think. One potentially serious problem I occasionally see here is when characters are purported to have certain traits but rarely actually show them.  (For example, in Watchmen, the purportedly brilliant villain commits felony idiocy at least four times).  Unless there’s some reason for this discrepancy, it would probably make the characterization weaker than it could be.
  • Scientific mumbo-jumbo. This isn’t a huge problem by itself (especially in hard sci-fi), but an intelligent major character would probably feel pretty empty if this were the only way his intelligence manifested. Please see #2.1.
  • IQ scores and other standardized tests. This is the most blatant way to turn intelligence into a coconut power.

2.1. Not sure how to make an intelligent character come across as intelligent? Here are some ideas.

  • Heightened perception of opportunities and/or threats.
  • A better appreciation of possible motives.
  • An ability to reason through double-speak and lies.
  • Resourcefulness.
  • Unusual social skills (e.g. figuring out which levers to pull in each situation).
  • An unusually clear understanding of what’s going on (e.g. the ability to detect a physical or social trap or figure out why someone is behaving uncharacteristically).
  • Extensive background knowledge (e.g. the ability to use relevant scientific, historical, cultural and/or miscellaneous knowledge to help solve problems).  Sherlock Holmes is perennially solid here. I’d also recommend checking out Batman Begins’ Dr. Crane, especially the scene where he’s discussing a patient diagnosis with a DA that suspects him of working for the mob–it comes across as very believable that judges would respect his psychiatric evaluations, even though it turns out he’s corrupt and mentally unhinged. 
  • The ability to set up plausible plans several steps in advance.
  • The ability to predict and prepare for various contingencies.
  • The ability to coax and/or manipulate others.
  • A character intelligent in one way might commit blunders of overconfidence. For example, a capable attorney from one country might see it as a sign of weakness to hire an attorney if he gets sued in another country. “Anyone who represents himself has a fool for a client.”

 

3. A character’s intelligence might show up when the character narrates a chapter and/or is used as a point-of-view. The most obvious example of this would be vocabulary and word choice—I think the most common hazard there is using advanced vocabulary so often that the character comes across more as a caricature than someone that is actually intelligent. I’d recommend checking out how Stark, Wayne and Holmes do this—first, most of their lines don’t use vocabulary much more advanced than other lines in the work. Second, they very rarely use terms that are so advanced that most readers would have to check a dictionary (e.g. “sesquipedalian,” “cryokinesis,” or anything which might plausibly show up on a GRE vocabulary list). Another possibility would be working in interesting details and connections. For example, I think something like the connection between superheroics and marital infidelity in The Incredibles could be used to establish that a character is clever/intelligent and/or has an unusual perspective. Another possibility would be showing a keen attention to details and/or a grasp of which details are most important.

22 responses so far

Jun 15 2012

Three Powerful Tips To Heighten Story Tension

This article reveals three powerful ways to play ‘games with time’ when crafting a story. They build suspense and engage the reader’s interest. Stories that master narrative pace get published. 

 

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5 responses so far

Jun 11 2012

Reader Email: “How Long Does It Take to Get Published?”

Published by under Getting Published

The typical author spends about 10-11 years to get published.

 

Some suggestions on how to get published faster:

  • Write regularly. I’d recommend setting aside 1-2 hours for writing each day. If you’re writing 300-600 words per day, you are definitely headed in the right direction.
  • Join a writing workshop. For example, the Critters Online Writing Workshop is free, online, and well-stocked with professional authors & editors. Workshop experience will help you think like an editor and, eventually, impress editors.
  • Establish an audience with nonfiction work? For example, I practiced my writing by blogging about writing advice. The initial results were extremely slow (e.g. it took me 6 months before my readers were collectively spending more time here than I was), but within 5 years (when I got published), SN had had around 500,000 readers.

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May 30 2012

The Most Common Reasons Good Manuscripts Get Rejected

Published by under Getting Published

Most publishers reject 99%+ of unsolicited submissions. Based on the manuscripts I’ve read, here’s my take on the most common issues that separate pretty good manuscripts from the top 1%.

 

1. The main protagonists act too much like most other protagonists would act in the same situation. This will probably make the characters feel generic and forgettable. Some fixes:

  • Please make sure that your characters have distinguishing traits. These will help you find situations where the characters act differently than most protagonists would. For example, in The Avengers, Tony Stark has a lot more curiosity than self-control or tact, so it is fitting and memorable that he electrically prods Banner to see whether Banner can resist turning into the Hulk under pressure.
  • Make sure there are consequences for every decision (especially the unusual ones). Cattle-prodding the Hulk leads to an interesting confrontation with more compassionate and/or restrained characters. The consequences make the decision more memorable.
  • If your cast is too large, it is harder to distinguish each character. If this is an issue, merging and/or deleting characters would give you more opportunities to develop each character. It’d be much easier to sell a novel publisher on a superhero team with 2-4 interesting members than 5-7 scantly-developed heroes.
  • Please develop your characters beyond their capabilities (e.g. superpowers). If your query letter spends more time talking about a main character’s superpowers than developing the character’s distinguishing traits and/or personality and/or motivations, I would lean towards a rejection.

 

2. The main protagonists are generically nice and/or do not make disagreeable decisions.  This does not mean that the protagonists have to be antiheroes (and especially does not mean that they should be jackasses*), but readers should disagree with something the main character does. For example, Peter Parker lets the robber go out of petty spite. This will help add a bit of moral depth and help establish that the character has a pulse.

 

3. *The main characters are totally unlikable. Some common examples:

  • The main characters are generic and lack any personality or distinguishing traits, particularly everyman high school students dealing with one-dimensionally nasty bullies and superheroes dealing with forgettable bank robbers.
  • Characters that act disagreeably without any reason to. Peter Parker comes across as petty (but not a jackass) for letting the robber go, because the robber’s victim had tried to cheat Peter. In contrast, just letting him go for the hell of it would have been jackassery.
  • The character doesn’t have a personality besides being angry.  If you’re doing a revenge-driven character in the mold of the Punisher, I’d recommend looking at how values like honor and loyalty keep the protagonist of Point of Impact likable even though he’s a frosty killer.

 

4. The plot is too hard to follow. Can 95%+ of your readers accurately recount what is literally happening in each scene?

  • Do we have enough information to understand why things are happening?
  • In particular, the first time something supernatural comes up, I would recommend being clear that something unusual is happening, because readers aren’t yet sure that supernatural explanations are in play.
  • Are fictional words and concepts introduced gradually enough that new readers can figure out what’s going on and how the pieces fit together?
  • Can we figure out who is delivering each line of dialogue?

 

5. The beginning is too slow and/or does not show the main character(s) doing interesting things.  Common offenders:

  • The story starts with a prologue far removed from the main characters.
  • We don’t get enough chances to see what makes the main characters exciting and/or different than most characters in their genre(s).  For example, a main character waking up and doing a mundane routine would probably bore readers, unless the character has been woken up by a barrage of artillery fire or his morning routine is preparing for a commando raid at 0400.
  • The narrator drops an infodump, a block of exposition which focuses on worldbuilding at the expense of characters doing interesting things. I would generally recommend introducing your world by having characters experience it.

 

6. The stakes are too low and/or the goals are not urgent enough for the characters. The stakes don’t have to be life or death, but the characters really need to feel that something major is at stake.

  • One potential issue is when the main character passively waits for the main plot to unfold. If you need some time to bring the main character into the main plot, you can use an intermediate goal to drive the story forward and develop the character. For example, Harry Potter spends several chapters dealing with his family before coming to Hogwarts, Tony Stark deals with Afghani terrorists before tangling with the main villain, and Luke Skywalker argues with his uncle about becoming a pilot before he fights against the Empire.

 

7. The plot hinges on inexplicably idiotic decisions, like a villain letting the heroes go or a character withholding critical information for no apparent reason. Make sure that important decisions have motivations. For example, in The Matrix, the villains release a captured protagonist after bugging him so that he will unwittingly lead them to the other protagonists. In contrast, releasing the heroes without any ulterior motive will probably make the villain feel 100% nonthreatening and raises huge issues about whether anything is actually at stake for the heroes. If I had been otherwise leaning towards a rejection on a manuscript, this would certainly push me over.

 

8. The main plot gets derailed by side-plots. The most common offender I’ve seen here is half-hearted romances. If you’re not into romance (e.g. have never read a romance novel or short story), those thousands of words could probably be used more effectively elsewhere.

16 responses so far

May 25 2012

Artists Looking for Writers

Published by under Writing Articles

If you’re an illustrator that wants to find a writing collaborator, please post a request below (e.g. any relevant details about the project you have in mind).

 

For contact information, I would recommend using only an email you’d be comfortable throwing away–no phone numbers or addresses.

112 responses so far

May 16 2012

Please Avoid Having Characters Repeat Each Other

Published by under Dialogue,Scene-Building

Character 1: “Bob and I are going to Vancouver for the summer.”

Character 2: “Vancouver?”

 

Character 2 comes across as sort of mentally slow, right? Unless you’re trying to make characters sound slow (or totally disoriented), I would recommend against having them just repeat each other.

 

Whenever a character says something, it should develop a character and/or advance the plot (e.g. conflicts, goals/motivations, major decisions, etc).  For example, you can use questions to bring in new details rather than just repeating something that has already been introduced.

 

Here are some more interesting responses to “Bob and I are going to Vancouver for the summer.”

  • “Where’d you get the money for that?”
  • “What about your job?”
  • “But there are Canadians there. You don’t even own a gun!” (This character isn’t much smarter than in the original, but is definitely more memorable).
  • “Isn’t Bob convinced the airlines are trying to kill him? How are you getting there?”
  • “Did that Canadian put you up to this?”

 

 

21 responses so far

May 14 2012

This Premise Sounds Brilliant: Redshirts

Published by under Plotting

From John Scalzi’s Redshirts:

Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory.

 

Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to pick up on the fact that (1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces, (2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations, and (3) at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed.

 

Not surprisingly, a great deal of energy below decks is expended on avoiding, at all costs, being assigned to an Away Mission.Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is…and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.

13 responses so far

May 03 2012

Canadian Superhero Authors Wanted

Tyche Books is looking for Canadian superhero stories between 1000-10,000 words. “We want to see any and all permutations of the superhero genre, but with a uniquely Canadian perspective. Stories must involve a Canadian element — setting, politics, culture, history, characters, etc. Any genre-mashing goes: alternate history, crime, horror, romance, SF, fantasy, surrealism; we want a variety of tones, approaches, subgenres, cultural perspectives, etc. We’re especially interested in submissions where setting (a specific city, region, or province) plays an essential role, but we’re open to other types of stories, too.”

 

I’m looking forward to the resulting anthology, because Canada has everything a superhero story needs: international intrigue, dark plottings, and enough lies buried in murders to make even a Minnesotan gasp. How does a superhero survive in a country where even the geese are trying to kill everybody? Are Canadian superheroes mortified when Hollywood casts them as Australians or Britons? What sort of doomsday schemes are unfolding in the barely-inhabited reaches of the Canadian wilderness? (The Apocalypse Nome Theorem, multiplied by Canada). And, of course, the Wolverine Paradox: how many Americans does a Canadian have to slice to become popular in the United States?

8 responses so far

Apr 26 2012

13 Reasons the Police Might Oppose a Superhero

If you’d like to use the police as an antagonist but aren’t quite sure why they might oppose the superhero, here are some  possibilities.

 

1. The superhero is investigating sensitive cases.

  • The hero might be challenging cases that have already been “solved.” If the superhero can show that the police & district attorney have convicted/arrested the wrong person, it will make the police look bad, could open up them to lawsuits, and could jeopardize careers.  Also, the police will probably be skeptical about whether the superhero knows more about the case than the police investigation was able to find. What if the superhero is wrong?  If a superhero even looks into the case, that could create unwanted media attention for the police and prosecutors.
  • Major politicians (e.g. the mayor) might pressure the police if the superhero is tackling politically sensitive cases (for example, if the suspect is a politician or major donor or if the case is highly publicized).
  • The case is likely to implicate police officers or otherwise make the police look bad. For example, anything involving police brutality, corruption, police misconduct (e.g. why did the police drop the case against Lex Luthor? Did the mayor put them up to it?), etc.

 

2. The superhero refuses police commands (which will especially irritate police if the case ends badly). For example, if the superhero tried breaking into a hostage situation while the police were still trying to negotiate a surrender, that would make the police livid (particularly if any hostages then got injured or killed). If the superhero does something that causes the police to get heavy media and/or political criticism, the police might throw the superhero under the bus to protect themselves. “We had this case completely under control until Captain Doomsday showed up!”  (The superhero would probably disagree with that claim–if it looked like the police had the situation under control, the superhero probably wouldn’t have charged in).

2.1. The superhero is too rough. If the hero has a history of gratuitously injuring criminals, getting bystanders/hostages injured, and causing serious property damage, the police might think they’d do a better job on their own.

 

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2 responses so far

Apr 16 2012

How to Shorten a Novel Manuscript Which Is Too Long

Generally, I would recommend submitting an adult novel manuscript at 80-100,000 words. Here are some tips for shortening your manuscript if you’re considerably over that. (NOTE: Please don’t shorten your manuscript until you’ve actually finished a draft! Until it’s finished, completion should be your #1 goal).

 

Substantive Changes

1. If you have too many main characters, please eliminate and/or merge some and/or demote some to minor characters. If you’re an unpublished author, I’d recommend limiting yourself to at most 6 main characters (protagonists and antagonists total) that will require substantial space.

 

2. Eliminate and/or merge side characters.  Individually, a side character doesn’t take as much space as a main character, but there are usually more SCs and it’s generally easier to reduce their roles because they have a smaller individual effect on the plot.

 

3. You can eliminate or pare back side plots. What the characters are doing when they’re NOT pursuing the main arc of the book? Is it worth the space?

  • Relationships between major characters and side characters.
  • Anything a side character does without developing a major character.
  • Anything characters do in their daily lives or day jobs (e.g. when they’re being Bruce Wayne rather than Batman).

 

4. Make the main plot more efficient.  For example, remove intermediate steps in the main conflict which don’t contribute enough to tension and/or character-development.  For example, in the last book of of the Hunger Games series, the main character spends about 6300 words taking down an intermediate obstacle (a fortress standing between her and the main enemy). The fight wasn’t terribly interesting and it didn’t show us much about the characters we didn’t see elsewhere. The author could probably have shaved off a few thousand words there.  Another possibility is making the villain’s scheme less monotonous/repetitive. For example, if you had your villain and hero racing around the world to gather 9 plot coupons, it might help to cut that down to (say) 5 so that you have more space for each intermediate step and readers have less cause to grouse (“Oh, God, another Pokemon badge?“).

 

4.1. Another way to make the main arc more efficient is to shorten the buildup to the inciting event. For example, if your superhero action novel takes 20,000 or 30,000 words to give the main character superpowers, you might be burying the lede too much (assuming the superpowers are the most important plot development early on–if the action is secondary to the story, that might not be the case).

 

Phrasing Changes

5. Convert some/most of your adverb phrases into shorter verb phrases.  For example, “He moved quickly through…” could be “He ran through…” or “He raced through…” Your book probably has hundreds of adverbs*, so you could probably save a page or two here.

*To count your adverbs, have your word processor find all of the examples of “ly ” in your manuscript.

 

5.1. Root out passive and/or unnecessarily long phrases. For example, “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” can be shortened to “Dead leaves covered the ground,” saving you seven words. I’d recommend having your word processor finding all examples of “there were” and “there was” and rephrasing most of them.

 

6. Glance through each of your chapters for unnecessary words/phrases and eliminate them. For example, if somebody has just thrown a plate at the wall, you don’t need to tell us he’s angry or surly. Additionally, the word “then” is usually unnecessary in sequences of events. For example, in “Mike did X and then he did Y,” you don’t need to tell us “then” because it’s obvious that Y came after X. (Otherwise, you would have put Y first).

12 responses so far

Apr 04 2012

Show, Don’t Tell: How Much of Your Story Is Implied?

As much as possible, mentally engage your readers by giving them clues they can use to draw conclusions and inferences.  Instead of just telling your readers “the security is incredibly tight at this military base,” remind us of the foggy day the guards fired three rockets at what turned out to be an angry llama.  It’s far more memorable and interesting than telling us what to think/feel.

 

Are you “showing” enough of your story?  One way to check is to see how much of your story is implied.  For example, on any given page, how times can the reader infer something rather than just read a conclusion you gave to them?  My rule of thumb is that each page should give us room to make an inference (rather than tell us what to think/feel) at least twice.  Show us the llama.  That may sound difficult, but you have a lot of possibilities.  For example…

 

  • Characterization.  Can we make inferences about personality traits, demographic traits, or any other information that might develop a character?  (For example, in the excerpt below, the character doesn’t say how old he is, but there are clues).
  • A character’s thoughts/feelings/beliefs.  For example, is there any evidence implying a character is lying or putting up a facade? Is there any evidence implying that a character’s beliefs are incorrect?  (For example, in the scene below, the main character is probably wrong about his father in at least one crucial way).
  • Motivations and plot. Why does a particular character do X rather than Y? For example, in the excerpt below, if you think about why a murderer might poison a victim rather than shoot him, you probably know more about the victim than his son does.
  • Setting.  Can we figure out anything about the setting beyond what the announcer has told us?

 

Here’s the opening paragraph of I Am the Jackal:

There are a lot of things that could wake you up in the middle of the night in Bellem—you know, that don’t involve gunfire. Cop cars, cop sirens. Shattering glass. Sometimes yelling from the streets, screaming, sometimes the guys trying to party in the apartment next to you. Sometimes normal things like phone calls. And sometimes phone calls from the hospital, saying that your dad’s in the E.R and that he’s been poisoned and he’s convulsing and, would you please come to the hospital right now for him, only I don’t hear that part too well ‘cause by then the only thing I can hear is Mom screaming “GET OUT HERE, SETH!”, a slamming door, and nothing else.

 

What sort of inferences were you able to make?  Here are some I came up with, starting with the most obvious.

Continue Reading »

12 responses so far

Mar 26 2012

13 Ways to Develop a Story That’s Too Short

If you haven’t yet reached your word-goal for your novel (probably 80-100,000 words for a professional-length manuscript or 50,000 for NaNoWriMo), here are some ideas for making your book longer without just dragging it out.

 

1. Add a new complication. If something goes wrong with what your characters have already done or are doing, it will take them time to resolve the complications. I would recommend using this extra space to develop characters and/or advance the plot and/or raise the stakes. For example, in the Hunger Games series, the main character (spoiler) survives a Rollerball-style death match, but her new fame makes her a symbol of a brewing rebellion and puts her family at risk of government reprisal. Before, (only) her life was at stake, but it gets even worse for her.

 

2. Add intermediate scenes, ideally fleshing out character development and/or smoothing out the plot with necessary details. If you’re inserting a scene between A and B, it should add something you didn’t have before.

 

3. Add another goal or a change of goal for a major character.

 

4. Expand scenes you’ve glossed over. For example, if Silence of the Lambs had been shortened by paring back the conversations between the main character and side-antagonist Hannibal Lecter, the plot would probably have been much less interesting. In this case, additional material with a side character developed a main character and gave the main character a few tantalizing scraps of information with which to accomplish her goal (find the main antagonist before he killed again).

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16 responses so far

Mar 26 2012

How to Write Interesting Characters

Creative Writing Resources for English Class

Feel free to use this printout for your creative writing classes or whatever else you have in mind.

Below, I’ve included a text version, mainly to help Google “read” this.

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10 responses so far

Mar 22 2012

A Dialogue Comparison of Twilight and Harry Potter

When people speak they have their own biased version of facts. This is based on their intelligence, experience, and beliefs. Dialog should not only tell readers the actions your characters take, but why they are making them.

 

Let’s see how effective, or ineffective dialog can be. I’m going to look at excerpts of dialog from Eclipse (pages 101-103) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (pages 213-215).

 

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16 responses so far

Mar 09 2012

Picking the Right Main Character

What are some stories that picked the wrong main character?  Who would you have used instead and why?

 

At the risk of idiotically commenting on a series I haven’t actually read, I think Twilight would have been more interesting from Jacob’s perspective* than from Bella’s.  The story, as I understand it, is a tragedy about an emotionally ravaged Bella falling in thrall to an abusive boyfriend and pushing non-abusive guys out of her life. I suspect Stephenie Meyer would probably have realized how creepy the Bella-Edward dynamic came across if she were writing from the perspective of a third character.  (Plus, it would have spared readers the cesarean-by-teeth scene).

 

*Or the perspective of Bella’s mother or father.  They’re probably not aware that their daughter attempted suicide over a high school romance, but the father would have to be oblivious not to realize that something was distinctly amiss.  (I suspect the mother would be more interesting–she might have some conflict with the father about whether this custody situation is healthy for Bella.  The plot would probably have to change to bring the mother more into contact with her daughter, though).

18 responses so far

Mar 02 2012

How to Give a Character a Personality

One English teacher asked for an SN poster for his classroom.  Here’s a poster I made out of a much longer article on how to make boring characters interesting. As always, please feel free to give advice/feedback/creative insults.  Feel free to use it if you’d like.

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20 responses so far

Feb 21 2012

Overcoming Psychological Barriers to Authorial Success

I saw this in one of Slate’s advice columns:

Q: This may not sound like a problem, but I seem to be surrounded by incredibly talented people. My boyfriend has appeared on magazine covers for his worldwide surfing adventures and is also a published writer (which is my chosen field, but I’ve found no success in it). My siblings and circle of friends are all artists and musicians enjoying relative success and happiness with these careers. I know this sounds hyperbolic, but all of them seemed to have found something they’re not only very good at, but passionate about as well. I, on the other hand, am a mediocre “jack of all trades” type and want nothing more than to find that thing that I will shine at… How can I find my talent and/or not be resentful of those in my life who already have?

Here are some thoughts:

 

1. Writing is more of a practiced skill you create than an innate talent you find.  Temperament and attitude are better indicators of success as a writer than talent is.

  • Are you excited about improving?
  • Do you work hard and write often?
  • Do you take constructive criticism maturely?
  • Are you brave enough to make mistakes and learn from them?
  • Do you read heavily, especially within the genre(s) you write?
  • Are you willing to see this through even though it will probably take you years?

If you said yes to all of those, I think you will probably succeed with practice.  If you said no to a few of them, it might be worth looking into other fields or other forms of writing.  For example, if you would feel like a failure if you’ve been writing for a year and haven’t been published somewhere, it might help to start with short stories rather than novels.

 

2. Some seemingly-untalented writers make vast improvements. Even incredible writers very frequently start out inauspiciously.  For example, Terry Pratchett’s first manuscript (Carpet People) was an absolute disaster, but he’s grown into an excellent author (maybe the best in his genre).  J.K. Rowling got rejected 12 times and many authors top 50 rejections.  Closer to home, P. Mac and I were not the most talented writers in our high school–hell, not even in our family–but we’ve both practiced heavily* and he’s since been published in the New York Times and I’ve had a few hundred thousand readers.

 

3. Don’t be discouraged if there is a gap between your self-expectations and the quality of your early work.  You won’t impress professionals right away and that’s okay.  When young writers feel frustrated by the quality of their writing, most often it’s because they’re comparing themselves to experienced writers that have had tens of thousands of hours of practice and are in the prime of their careers.  If your self-expectations are high enough that you’ve read through this far, please keep in mind that the only way to close the gap between your self-expectations and the quality of your work is to practice.

 

4. Unless you’re independently wealthy, I would recommend looking into full-time writing and/or editing jobs to hone your craft (such as communications, journalism, publishing, publicity, marketing, etc).  The typical professional novelist took 10 years of practice to get published.  That’s a long time to go without getting much positive reinforcement–your self-doubts may overtake your drive.  In contrast, a full-time writing job will give you writing assignments where you can plausibly succeed in the short and medium terms.  That sense of success will help propel you forward.  Additionally, the steady pay and practice will help you develop your writing skills and keep your anxiety level to a minimum.

 

And this concludes our hopefully encouraging note on talent, effort and the publishing industry.  And now, back to our regularly-scheduled, morbidly depressing content, such as 5 Ways to Survive a Writing Career Without Buying Food.

12 responses so far

Feb 18 2012

Five Reasons It’s Less Dramatic That Greedo Shot First

In 1997, George Lucas re-released Star Wars.  Among the changes were a half-second tweak to the cantina scene where Han shoots Greedo.  In the original version, Han preemptively shoots the bounty-hunter that has come to kill him.  In the revised version, Han lets Greedo shoot first.  Greedo’s shot misses and Han shoots Greedo.

 

So… why does it matter?

 

1. It’s implausible and contrived that Greedo misses his shot.  Greedo has his gun aimed at Han Solo.  Neither Greedo nor Han is moving.  The two are roughly five feet away from each other.  Everybody—even drunken Ewoks tripping on LSD—could easily hit this shot.

 

2. It reduces Han Solo from a competent hero into an idiot that got lucky.  Given the choice between shooting first or waiting until Greedo shoots first, only an idiot would wait because (as above) Greedo is virtually guaranteed to hit.  The new scene also reduces Greedo into an idiot that is apparently the worst shot in the galaxy.  The original scene was a fight between two competent shooters that was resolved by craftiness and guile.  The new scene is a fight between two idiots that is resolved by a contrivance.  If you absolutely need to incorporate contrivances into your story, I would generally recommend having luck play against the protagonists.  It’s more dramatically satisfying when protagonists overcome bad breaks rather than ease through obstacles just because they got lucky.

 

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13 responses so far

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