Archive for the 'Writing Articles' Category

Aug 27 2011

Red Flags for Female Characters Written By Men

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. If something would be boring and/or undramatic for a male character, it would probably be boring and/or undramatic for a female character.  If you’re writing a female character (particularly in a major role), I’d recommend thinking about whether you’d want to read about a male character in that situation or with that trait.  If not, then you’re probably boring your readers.

 

2. The character is useless.  Have you made a main character more or less helpless for most of the story? Does she watch as the story happens around her?  Does she get repeatedly saved by other characters when the going gets rough? Please think back to #1.  You’d probably be bored reading about a more or less helpless guy, right?  Your readers will be just as bored by a helpless female.

 

3. The character’s only defining trait is being hyper-smart or (more rarely) a total ditz.  That’s fine for one character among several, but if she’s your only significant female character, it’ll raise questions about your ability to handle female characters at a more relatable level of intelligence.  If you’re having trouble with more relatable female characters, I’d recommend checking out some Meg Cabot books, Mean Girls and/or Pride and Prejudice.

 

3.1. The character is totally pure.  A character that always does the right thing and has no motivations besides being friendly/agreeable/nice is probably pretty boring.  100% pure characters strain the suspension of disbelief, are less relatable and usually less dramatic.  For whatever reason, these types of boring characters are almost always women.

 

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139 responses so far

Aug 27 2011

Ladies, What Would Hint a Female Character Is Written By a Male?

Published by under Character Development

What are some giveaways that would suggest to you that a female character is written by a male author?  I’m writing an article on female characters for male authors and would really appreciate your help here.

10 responses so far

Aug 26 2011

Publishing Cliches Decoded!

I found this Devil’s Dictionary of publishing terms dangerously amusing.  (Hat-tip: Kelley at Sterling Editing).   Here are some examples.

  • “brilliantly defies categorization” –>”not even the author has an idea what he’s written.”
  • “continues in the proud tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien” –>”this book has a dwarf in it.”
  • “edgy” –> “contains no adult voices of reason.”
  • “wildly imaginative” –> “author was high on mescaline.”
  • “ripped from the headlines” –> “no original plot content.”

8 responses so far

Aug 25 2011

How to Deal with Unconstructive Criticism

Diagnosis

1.  Not all impolite criticism is unconstructive.   There are some people that would like to help you but are not naturally diplomatic or polite.  “Your spelling needs work!” is a bit rougher than I’m used to, but I’d give those reviewers latitude because they’re trying to help.  Also, some editors are pretty blunt and learning to work with different sorts of people is an important professional (and life) skill.

 

2. Genuinely unconstructive reviews tend to be insulting and/or completely miss the point of what you’re trying to do.   If you feel like the reviewer’s main goal is proving that he/she is a better writer than you rather than helping you improve your writing, the only two people in the world that have any reason to care about the review are the reviewer and the reviewer’s therapist.  I would recommend disregarding these reviews as soon as possible because they won’t help you grow as a writer and aren’t meant to.

 

3. If you’re not sure whether a review is abusive or not, here are some red flags.  

  • It uses words/phrases like “awful,” “really bad,” “terrible,” profanity and/or “sucks” with reckless abandon.  I could (maybe) forgive one use, but anything more than that suggests that the reviewer is not trying to help you.
  • The reviewer states everything as facts and commands.  However, unless a review focuses on obvious mechanical errors (like “tehn” -> “then”), virtually everything in it will be some sort of opinion.  A reviewer that uses personal qualifiers like “I think” and “I feel” and suggestions probably cares more about trying to help than about establishing dominance.
  • The review gets too personal and/or reaches negative conclusions about the author based on the quality of the writing. For example, I think it’d be really dubious to imply or state that the author is an idiot because he/she doesn’t understand writing mechanics yet.  One reviewer got in a pissing contest with an author that turned out to be a grade-schooler.  Smooth move, champ.  (Another possibility: English isn’t the author’s first language, but he’s writing in English because it has a larger online audience).

 

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10 responses so far

Aug 22 2011

List of Superhero Movie Rotten Tomatoes Scores

If you’ve ever wanted to know which is the best superhero movie or the worst superhero movie ever, I’ve compiled Rotten Tomatoes’ ratings below.  If you’re interested in a comparison of how DC’s movies stack up against Marvel’s, please see this article.

Excel file downloadable here with additional data included. Current as of April 2016.

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5 responses so far

Aug 21 2011

Editing Errors in Twilight

I saw that quite a few Twilight reviews mentioned the poor editing, so I spent 20 minutes double-checking whether the alleged editing mistakes were disputable and/or justifiable by artistic license.  So far, I’m up to eight errors that I consider indisputable and another that might be merely awkward.  I can’t remember reading any other professionally published novels with more than one typo.

 

Incorrect Word Choices and Tenses

1. Eclipse mixes up “whose” and “who’s.”

Twilight mixes up whose and who's

 

2. Twilight mixes up “moats” and “motes.”

Twilight confuses moats with dust motes

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90 responses so far

Aug 20 2011

Hostage Situations from the Police Negotiator’s Perspective

1. The first police officers on the scene will not be specialists.  These police officers still play an important role (containing the situation, maintaining a perimeter, clearing out civilians, etc).  Circumstances may force them to initiate some sort of negotiation, but as soon as it looks like the situation will not be promptly resolved, the line officers should immediately terminate negotiations and call in specialists.  (Metropolitan police departments, some state police departments and the FBI have officers who have been carefully selected and trained to deal with these critical incidents).  The specialists’ job will be harder if a line officer antagonized the subject.

1.1. Across the board, negotiators tend to have excellent self-control, calm under stress, communication skills, a calm and confident demeanor, strong listening and interviewing skills and the ability to work effectively on a team.  They’ll have at least 40 hours of training on techniques, abnormal psychology, active listening skills, case studies and drills.

 

2. The main goal of negotiation is to convince the subject(s) to surrender.  If that is not possible, the secondary goal is to give the SWAT team the best opportunity to rescue the captives with a minimal loss of life.  To accomplish these goals, the negotiators want to:

  • Stall for time.  First, time allows emotions to cool down, which reduces the likelihood of hostages getting killed.  Second, it may take hours (rarely, even days) for the subjects to realize how hopeless their situation is.  Lastly, if it does come down to a shootout, the operation will be more successful and less dangerous if the SWAT team has had time to prepare.
  • Establish communication and develop rapport.  For example, the subject might be thinking about giving himself up, but he isn’t sure whether the 20+ armed cops outside will shoot him if he comes out.  A negotiator could work something out fairly easily.  For example, “if you’re ready to come out, the police will lower their weapons.”  (By the way, if the police are willing to lower their weapons, they probably have sharpshooters ready to fire if the subject reaches for his gun).
  • Gather intelligence.  A secondary negotiator should check the subjects’ criminal, civil, medical and psychological records and conduct interviews with friends/family/coworkers.  Is the criminal actually likely to kill his captives?  What might cause an escalation? What actions could the police take now and after the crisis to make sure that there’s a long-term solution here?

 

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7 responses so far

Aug 20 2011

Writing Links

  • Six Questions Authors Hate to Be Asked strikes me as mostly spot-on, but “What are you writing?” definitely should not make authors feel uncomfortable.  I would highly recommend rehearsing a 1-2 sentence answer.  “I’m writing The Taxman Must Die.  It’s a national security comedy about an IRS accountant and a mutant alligator whose detective skills make Scooby Doo look like Batman.”  If you have a two-sentence synopsis, this is a great time to bust it out.  If it looks like the listener is interested in your story, please give him/her a business card with a link to your writing website, if you have one.
  • P.W. Creighton wrote Cliched Plot Contrivances.  I found the section on walking encyclopedias especially helpful.  Hat-tip: Nancy at Author Chronicles.
  • Romance author Roni Loren wrote Six Important Components to an Author Bio, a sharp set of ideas about how to introduce yourself effectively to readers.  I’m not sure about relatability, though.  Which would interest you more: an author with a dog named Max or an author with an alligator named Chompy?
  • Author Paul Dorset wrote a guide to self-publishing e-books (novels, not comics).  If you’re going down that path, it looks helpful.

2 responses so far

Aug 20 2011

More Publishers Looking For Superhero Short Stories

I’ve added the following publishers to my list of publishing houses that mention superhero stories in their submission guidelines.

 

Damnation Books wants realistic portrayals of metahumans and superpowers for its Corrupts Absolutely Anthology.  “Modern pop-culture is brimming over with stories of bright, polished men and women with indestructible moral codes, who throw themselves into a life of public service after being graced (or cursed) with cosmic powers… I call BS. How about people with flaws? People with serious psychological issues? People that have been looking for a ticket out of their circumstances and finally lucked into it?… To some, this just screams ‘supervillain,’ or ‘antihero,’ and in many cases, you’d be right. But usually, these are stock characters without much substance. They’re the ‘bad guys.’ Real life isn’t that simple…”

  • Length: 3000-5000 words.
  • Deadline: December 1, 2011.  
  • Hey, ladies!  The editor mentions that he’s looking especially carefully for female authors and/or female leads.

 

Hyperpulp wants literary stories that “demonstrate a concern with writing, not only with plot or characters.”  It specifically mentions fantasy superhero and sci-fi superheroes on its Duotropes page.  “The idea is to harbor stories that exceed expectations, surprise the reader – also regarding the form – and are not afraid to subvert clichés and conduct experimentations… We’ll give preference to a prose more poetic and surprising.”

  • Length: Up to 10,000 words.
  • Hey, Brazilians!  Hyperpulp publishes in both English and Portuguese.
  • Hey, procrastinators!  No deadline.

 

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10 responses so far

Aug 18 2011

Tips on Self-Destructive Protagonists

Self-destructive protagonists have become well-known and easily recognizable stock characters, particularly in noir fiction. While this isn’t a problem on its own, the amount of characters that fit this basic archetype have cluttered the field and made it a challenge to create unique ones.

 

If you’re writing a similar character, to keep your story interesting and hard to predict, you should treat your character with care and a particularly open mindset.

 

What Is Afflicting Your Character?

Don’t just make your character a shadow of another character that uses the same device. That doesn’t mean you can’t use afflictions that have already been used, like drugs or alcohol, it just means you need to be sure that the affliction you are using is the best fit for your story.

 

First, did your character acquire the affliction voluntarily?  Drugs, alcohol and gambling debts are voluntary. But Alzheimer’s—which I consider to be an affliction that can lead to self-destructive characters—is not. For example, Joshua Hale Fialkov used a brain tumor in the aptly-named graphic novel Tumor.

 

The next part of creating interesting self-destructive characters is to have an open mind while indulging in the creative process. All stories and characters are prone to change, and in analyzing your character’s affliction you should question whether or not the affliction you have chosen is the best one for your character and/or story. Please use the most suitable device rather than just the first one that comes to mind.

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2 responses so far

Aug 18 2011

An Allegory About the Importance of Proofreading

Published by under Getting Published

An aspiring airplane designer is discussing one of his test-models with a prospective buyer at United Airlines.  Suddenly the test-model bursts into a fireball on the runway.

 

The designer sips his coffee.  “And I’ve also achieved enviable fuel economy and a sleek but stylish frame.”

 

Your plane just exploded.”

 

“But what about the paint job?”

 

******************************

 

If your writing isn’t getting as many responses as you want (from prospective reviewers, publishers or agents), I’d recommend considering whether you’re sending them an exploding plane.  Please check hard for mechanical errors* before submitting your stories to other people.  Few things convince readers that a story is not worth their time as quickly as proofreading errors.  (Also, even the most altruistic reviewers hate getting used as a punctuation-checker).

 

*It’s okay to groan here. I did.

3 responses so far

Aug 18 2011

How to Make a Serious Character Likable

From my email: “What Makes a Character Likable? was helpful, but what if the character is serious and a bit of a hardass?”  Here are some ideas that come to mind.

 

1. The character has a sympathetic goal that calls for seriousness. For example, the protagonist in Silence of the Lambs is an FBI agent pursuing an unusually vicious serial killer and nobody else knows what’s going on besides a serial cannibal. Under these circumstances, it would probably be hard to like the FBI agent if she weren’t serious.

 

1.1. The character is hard, but has a good reason to be. If a surgeon snaps at a nurse for getting something 95% right, I think readers could probably be persuaded to sympathize with the surgeon because a 95% competent nurse might get somebody killed. It’d be harder to sympathize with a teacher snapping at a student that got a problem 95% right–unless he’s teaching Bomb Defusal 101. I think bigger stakes and stressful situations make it easier to like a hardass.

 

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5 responses so far

Aug 16 2011

Publishing Sales Are Rebounding

The New York Times reports:

  • Revenues from adult novel sales grew 8.8% from 2008-10.
  • Juvenile fiction revenues grew 6.6%.
  • In total, book-publishing revenues are up 5.6% and total sales are up 4.1%.
  • From 2008 to 2010, e-books grew from .6% to 6.4% of the total market for books.
  • Adult hardcover and paperback books grew only 1% and mass-market paperbacks declined 16%.  (Ouch).

Hat-tip: This Week in Writing, by Mark Evans.

 

4 responses so far

Aug 16 2011

Words Which Should Not Be Capitalized in a Title

Everything but articles, coordinating conjunctions and prepositions should be capitalized in titles.

 

Which words should not be capitalized in a title?

  • Articles: a, an, & the.
  • Coordinate conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet & so (FANBOYS).
  • Prepositions, such as at, around, by, after, along, for, from, of, on, to, with & without. (According to the Chicago Manual of Style, all prepositions should be uncapitalized in a title.  NIVA and I recommend capitalizing prepositions 5+ letters long).

 

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36 responses so far

Aug 15 2011

Selecting Effective Superpowers

First, a caveat.  Generally, good superpowers will not save an otherwise poor story and poorly-chosen superpowers probably won’t doom an otherwise good story.  If the characters are a bore and the conflict fizzles, it doesn’t really matter which superpowers they have.

 

1. I would recommend going with versatile abilities/powers rather than more particular ones.  It’s a lot more creative, memorable and often visually interesting to see a character use his powers in a way that the user’s manual never intended. In contrast, if Superman tries to fly, it’s generally a perfectly smooth operation and his success is never in doubt because he has a power that is good for nothing else but flying.  In contrast, if Yomiko (from Read or Die) tries to fly by using her paper-control abilities to rig together a giant paper airplane, that takes real daring and cunning.  “Do you know how to fly that thing?”  “Uhh, what about the rain?”  “Can your plane withstand gunfire?”  The uncertainty helps make the improvised solution more interesting.

 

1.1.  I’d like to see the characters in some situations where their powers are not obviously useful.  I think the biggest reason some writers give their characters huge amounts of superpowers (5 or more, let’s say) is that they’re scared that their characters might be caught in a situation that can’t be immediately solved with a superpower. First, it’s more interesting/creative if a character can’t just solve a problem by turning his powers on.  (See Superman vs. Yomiko above). Second, superpowers are only one part of the characters’ capabilities, right?*  It’s okay if they have some problems/situations that have to be resolved by other means.  (When was the last time you read about a wizard that solved all of his problems with magic?)  If the superpowers are the only capability that the superhero uses, I would recommend reconsidering whether you’re neglecting the person behind the mask.

 

*For example, your characters hopefully have skills, practical life experience (from a job or elsewhere), talents besides superpowers, education, personal strengths, resources/assets, etc. Characters may also be able to leverage their reputation, authority and/or standing among different groups (like the police, criminal groups, the public, etc) in certain situations. For example, if your hero’s been framed as a criminal and her bank account’s been frozen, maybe she can march up to Fast Eddie on the corner and demand the perpetrator’s name and a flamethrower on credit.  It would take one hell of a personality and/or reputation to convince a hardened criminal to cough up a flamethrower with threats.  And she might also need to convince him that she’s likely enough to defeat the perpetrator that the perpetrator won’t come back and kill Fast Eddie for snitching.

 

2.  An overly complex superpower may detract from the development of the rest of the story.  My rule of thumb is that if a character’s superpowers take more than 1-2 sentences to explain, there’s probably too much going on.  For the most part, time spent explaining superpowers is usually not spent on characterization, transitions/coherence, conflict development, motivations, major choices and other elements that publishers actually care about.  (For example, I’ve seen quite a few publishers specify that they’re looking for believable, consistent and interesting characters–like Dark Horse Comics–but I’ve never seen anybody mention superpowers in the submission guidelines.  They’re just a means to an end–an interesting story–not the end itself).  Alternately, if you want to really delve into the superpowers and you feel like they’re such an interesting component of the story that they warrant that space, you could at least incorporate it into characterization, major choices and the like.  For example, in Bitter Seeds, one protagonist’s powers are bestowed by malevolent spirits that demand gruesome sacrifices.  Understandably, some characters do not take well to this, so the cost of the powers creates an obstacle to team cohesion and friendships/partnerships.

 

3.  I’d recommend using capabilities appropriate to the story’s tone, style and target audience.  If you’re doing an upbeat kid’s story, you might want to leave the machine guns at home.  (We weep for you, children’s writers).  Personally, I’m using mostly agility-based powers for The Taxman Must Die, an action-comedy that I’d like to keep a pretty soft PG-13.

 

4.  Can the character be challenged?  For more details on this, I’d recommend checking out How to Save Insufficiently Challenged Heroes (especially #4).

 

24 responses so far

Aug 15 2011

Redefining Setting

Setting is indisputably an integral part of any story. To a large extent, setting defines your story by shaping the character’s experiences.  Even more so than character, setting tends to be the most memorable and instantly recallable aspect of a story.

 

Some writers treat settings merely as a backdrop.  This is a damaging, borderline murderous view that inhibits the setting’s ability to captivate and engross readers.   A backdrop, no matter how beautiful or intricate, is only a backdrop. Just a necessary aspect of creative works of art that is taken for granted.  A setting can do so much more for your story.

 

The key to making your setting exceptional is to treat it as it deserves to be treated, like a character.

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13 responses so far

Aug 14 2011

10 Uses for Forcefields

1.  Two forcefields could be smashed together to smash something in-between.  Alternately, you could use one force-field and any hard surface for a similar effect.

 

2.  Maybe a forcefield could be used as a cushion for safe landings.  Perhaps the character can alter the hardness/springiness of his forcefields so that he can make them into something like a trampoline.  (The more it can stretch, the less the force of impact will be. Like a seat-belt, but one that can also be used to smash something to pieces).

 

3.  A spherical forcefield could be used to trap in a limited air supply.  That would help a character traveling underwater, through space or through a locker room.

3.1.  A spherical forcefield could also be used to restrict air intake.  For example, a hero might be able to knock someone unconscious by cutting off outside air.  Alternately, if an enemy is using poisonous gas or fire-based attacks (which will readily exhaust available oxygen), the forcefield could lead to the enemy knocking himself unconscious and/or poisoning his air-supply so much that even he can’t handle it.

 

4.  Forcefields could really wreck a super-fast character’s day.  They could be used to limit space (to take away mobility).  Also, if you’re moving at 500+ miles per hour and suddenly hit a wall that wasn’t there a moment ago, it would really hurt.  Even a regular-speed character that was jumping at an enemy would have a lot of momentum.  As in #1, you might also be able to use forcefields to pin a combatant so that he can’t move as effectively.
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16 responses so far

Aug 14 2011

Hostage Situations from a Criminal’s Perspective

1. Taking hostages is so dangerous that it usually isn’t premeditated in the United States.  A criminal’s main means of survival is mobility.  If he’s taken many hostages, he doesn’t have any.  Even if he’s taken only one hostage for ransom money, the police will know where the criminal will be at the designated pick-up time and may even be able to locate the victim with evidence left at the scene of the kidnapping.  There are two main types of hostage-taker (HT) and one type of victim taker.

  • Someone caught in a botched crime.  For example, maybe the criminal is trying to rob a bank, but the police respond unexpectedly quickly.  In the heat of the moment, an utterly trapped criminal might take hostages out of desperation.  In his stress-addled mind, he might think that taking hostages is the only way to somehow effect an escape and avoid a 15+ year sentence.  (He might even have dreams of demanding a helicopter, but that’s a Hollywood fantasy).
  • Someone that cannot outrun the police.  For example, if the police come to serve an arrest warrant, an unwilling suspect might take a hostage (usually a family member) to buy time and space for an escape.  Alternately, rioting prisoners may take guards as hostages to deter police reinforcements from retaking the prison by force.
  • Somebody in an emotional crisis without a clear set of negotiable demands.  For example, a laid-off worker might seize his former boss or a disturbed lover might seize his/her significant other after being rejected.  These criminals are not looking to bargain.  Technically, in police parlance, these criminals are not considered “hostage-takers” because “hostage” implies tangible demands.  People captured without demands are “victims.”  Victims are in much graver danger because the criminal may have murder-suicide in mind.  In contrast, a “hostage-taker” does not have a personal incentive to murder the hostages.  (If you murder a hostage, you lose your bargaining leverage).

 

2. Hostages are fairly high-maintenance, particularly in long-term standoffs (which are very rare).  In the short-term, the criminals have to worry about food/water, toilets, the potential for medical emergencies and the difficult task of controlling the hostages.  In the long-term, the criminals also have to worry about hygiene, medicine and recreation/hostage morale.  (The HTs probably do not have any humanitarian concern for the hostages, but they have selfish reasons to care.  Happy/healthy hostages are easier to control, less likely to infect criminals and less likely to result in a murder conviction.  Also, killing a hostage that happens to be a prison guard could be very hazardous to an HT’s health when he is returned to police custody).

 

2.1. Keeping a handful of hostages is much easier than keeping many, especially if the HTs don’t have the manpower to control many hostages.  But the police will still give criminals a lot of latitude even if they have a relatively small number of hostages. The police will offer the criminals incentives to release some hostages and make other seemingly meaningless concessions (like giving up any extra firearms).

 

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6 responses so far

Aug 12 2011

Ebooks Assemble! How Not to Screw Up Electronic Publishing

If you’ve been following the publishing industry at all lately, you know it’s not all wine and roses. It’s far, far from it. Borders is done, mid-list writers are being shown the door, and many agents are reluctant to take on new clients. It means your local bookstore (if there are any left standing) will be chock-full of books from James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Dan Brown, and Patricia Cornwell. You know, familiar authors who generate sales.

 

Where does that leave you? You’re probably a little like me. I’m barely an author. I’ve had my novel soundly rejected by several agents. I’ve had a few short stories published in admittedly obscure places. I have a modest blog and about a hundred Twitter followers. I’m fairly certain 60 of them are Ukrainian spambots. The others are my brother’s various, web-based alter-egos.

 

So what about ebooks?

 

You know…those things you can buy and read on a Kindle or Nook or iPad. The royalties are pretty good…authors get 70% for each sale from the Kindle store (as long as you price your book between $2.99 and $9.99). Maybe you think it’s time to explore the Nook Store or Smashwords. Maybe you want to experiment a little.

 

But is the timing right? What about the stigma of self-publishing?  You do know self-published works are of inferior quality, right? After all, books from the big publishing houses go through several rounds of edits. If you were to put one of your books up for sale, you’d be the only de facto editor. The possibility remains that you’ll misspell a word or fail to see some giant logic gaffe that kills the entire story.

 

Fortunately, that stigma is disappearing. Self-publishing is now a viable career path, although it’s not going to print money. Consider becoming a forward-thinking author/entrepreneur unshackled by the bonds of major publishing houses. After all, no one ever gets to read something perpetually stuck on your hard drive.

 

If you have any inkling of diving into the choppy self-publishing waters, heed the following advice.

 

Get beta readers. These are people of varied expertise whose insights would prove invaluable in refining you work. You’ll need some adept at grammar, others attuned to plot structure, some good at both, and a few unafraid to rip the work the shreds propose hundreds of potential improvements.

 

Even better, get an editor. The biggest downside to self-publishing, in my opinion, is the lack of editorial oversight. Writers fall in love with their own stories and can’t see their flaws. If you’re REALLY going to do it, let a freelance editor go at it. Sure, you have to pay for the editor’s time, but it will be worth it in the end because you’ll have a finished, polished product that can stack up against any professional work.

 

Don’t rush it. Last year, I got a full manuscript request from an agent. Obviously, I was very excited. I ended up rushing a book edit in hopes of giving my book a quick coat of polish. Instead, I mangled my manuscript by making the kinds of mistakes you’d find in a seventh-grade term paper. As you can imagine, the agent rejected my book. After re-reading my efforts to “improve” the work, I can see why. Take your time. Otherwise, you’ll scare off your readers—whether they’re agents or customers.

 

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18 responses so far

Aug 11 2011

Building a Magical System: A Questionnaire

This questionnaire will help you design a solid magic system which won’t have your readers asking questions of their own.

 

1. What can magic users do?

  • Do they use tools, their body and/or sheer willpower?
  • Are there subtypes or specialties?
  • Is magic a born talent, a learned skill or both?
  • If there are races, which ones are most adept at magic and why?
  • Are there certain areas with high concentrations of magic?  What happens in those areas, and how are people who inhabit those areas affected?

 

2. What costs and limits affect the use of magic? 

  • Are there personal costs like running out of energy or the possibility of physical/mental damage?
  • Are there societal restrictions like actual laws affecting magic use?  What is the main goal of these laws?  What are some of the consequences like for disobeying these laws?

 

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22 responses so far

Aug 09 2011

8 Reasons Authors Don’t Complete Their Manuscripts

COMMITMENT ISSUES

1. The author is working on too many projects to finish one. It’s far better to complete one manuscript than to go halfway on two. Most publishers won’t consider an unfinished novel manuscript from an inexperienced author.

 

2. The author is unwilling and/or unable to set time aside for writing. Alternately, perhaps the author sets aside a regular time, but is not consistent about actually using it. If you put aside one hour per day for writing, you can pretty easily write 1-2 pages. (Actually, I’d like to phrase that more confidently. If you can sit down for an hour and do nothing but write, you WILL write at least 1-2 pages. If you can do 1-2 pages a day in sequence, you will have a manuscript drafted within 6 months). If you’re writing at your computer, I’d recommend turning off the Internet because I find it tends to reduce productivity.

 

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52 responses so far

Aug 05 2011

Writing Psychic Superheroes and Psionics

Problems with Psychic Heroes is an interesting article with a lot of good points, but I think most of these pitfalls can be easily avoided.

 

1. Mind-reading doesn’t need to be an instant problem-solver. Psionics (specifically telepathy, from which most other non-physical mental capacities stem) probably shouldn’t be as simple as just turning on a power and using it.  It’s not like finding a particular product at a grocery store, is it?  It isn’t very likely at all that what the psychic is looking for will be neatly packaged, labeled and sorted.  Consciousness just shouldn’t work that neatly, at least not for your average (or even slightly above-average) psychic.  The mind is an extremely complex, living network of constantly shifting thoughts and emotions, memories and awareness. It’d probably be dangerously easy to get lost if you didn’t know exactly what you were doing.

 

2. If the telepath does recover the secret/information/weakness, it doesn’t have to be the ultimate trump card it’s commonly made out to be. For example, maybe the psychic uncovers only a piece of the larger puzzle. It’s pretty uncommon that a hired goon will have a full grasp of his master’s grand scheme. Also, a psychic police officer might learn who the killer is, but that doesn’t count for anything unless he can prove it in court with actual evidence. Having the information is one thing, but applying it is something else altogether.

 

3. With most superhero-types, the same trick isn’t likely to work as easily a second time.  Perhaps non-psychic characters can learn how to defend themselves against psychic attack.  For example, in “Only a Dream,” Batman mentally overcomes Dr. Destiny.  Also in Justice League, Lex Luthor acquires a power-nullifying device that enables him to overcome Grodd’s mind-control. Alternatively, the X-Men’s Emma Frost has been depicted shifting into diamond form specifically to block an attempted telepathic intrusion, despite being a psychic herself.

 

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Aug 04 2011

Link Roundup

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Jul 28 2011

Why So Serious, Alphas? A Preliminary Writers’ Review

Alphas is a TV show about a team of superheroes people with unusual talents working to solve apparently uncrackable cases.  Overall, it’s a decent timewaster, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it.   So far, it’s condescending towards previous superhero works (and superhero fans) and isn’t fun or stylish enough.

 

What Worked:

  • How the powers are depicted, especially mind control.  Seeing and hearing the controller’s objective everywhere around you was vastly more interesting than a voice in the head.  In particular, the way it distorted the character’s perspective was memorable, like the way a little old lady in a grocery store asks the protagonist where the ice cream is and then says in the most cheerful voice possible, “It’s time to kill.”   (Superhero writers, even a stock power can get a lot more interesting if you play around with how it manifests and works.)
  • I know some people with autism, and I felt that Ryan Cartwright acted well enough that he was believable as an autistic technopath.  From his slightly awkward speech pattern to the repetitive gestures, he was on the mark.
  • A few of the characters are interesting. In addition to the autistic technopath, the superstrong guy had a really solid scene with his wife.

 

What Could Have Been More Effective:

  • The characters were bland.  They are introduced with their names and powers on screen, which is the only way I can keep most of them apart.  For the love of any deity you believe in (and/or the Flying Spaghetti Monster), please make us actually care about your characters.  Also, Alphas’ Rachel (Azita Ghanizada) bears an uncanny resemblance to Glee’s Rachel (Lea Michele).
  • The stock plot could have been more lively.  There’s a mysterious murder, one of the heroes is the prime suspect and the real perpetrator gets away.  There’s not much more than that, certainly not any humor or feeling.  Even if your story is the grimmest of grim, you can still use dead baby comedy.  Just because it’s “edgy” doesn’t mean it has to be emotionless.
  • The plot twists are predictable.  (It’s too obvious that the mind-controlling villain zapped the bellhop into acting as a decoy, for example). This was also a problem with Playing for Keeps.
  • It talks down to the audience.  I know that it’s probably unintentional and they’re trying to pitch the show to a wider audience, but going to any lengths to keep the show from being *shudder* a superhero show and what the fans expect it will be? Either way, I still don’t like it. (Writers, don’t hate on your genre for no good reason. Audience members that are fans of the genre may feel patronized).
  • It wants to be more realistic than other superhero stories, which is fine, but it didn’t even get the research right.  (For example, synesthesia? Yeah, it doesn’t work that way).

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Jul 26 2011

17 Stock Plots

By themselves, these ideas are not terribly inspired.  They’re “stock” plots because they’re generic enough to work in a variety of series.  If you use a stock plot, please spin it so that it feels distinct to your series rather than just a forgettable filler issue.

 

1. The most basic superhero story structure is that a supervillain needs to steal a few related MacGuffins to enact his evil plot.  This gives the superheroes several chances to try to stop the villain, building up the stakes for a climactic struggle with everything on the line.

1.1 Alternately, perhaps the supervillain is trying to kill several people with a common connection, like the heroes, cops/prosecutors, judges, jurors, witnesses and/or scorned caddies that put him away last time or somebody else he has a grudge against.

 

2.  The villain has some sort of fitting thematic connection to the hero.  For example, if your hero’s main flaw is his trust issues, maybe the villain is an Iago that plays on his mistrust/paranoia.

 

3.  A character receives a mysterious and potentially dangerous gift, like an artifact or an encoded message or a key or a free ticket to Detroit.

 

4.  Something or someone from the heroes’ past comes back to haunt them.  For example, Batman: The Animated Series had an episode based around Alfred’s commando experience long, long ago.  Alternately, perhaps it’s something from the villain’s past.

 

5.  Someone the heroes really look up to and/or respect is in trouble.  For some reason, superhero TV shows often cast this person as Adam West, the lead actor in the horrible 1960s Batman show.  (Who the hell looks up to Adam West?)  More soberly, Dark Knight endangered Harvey Dent.

 

6.  A major villain is introduced.  A villain’s origin usually lays out his motivation for becoming a villain and establishes an initial conflict with the heroes.  It may also explain where his superpowers and/or supernatural abilities came from, if applicable.

 

7.  Someone that’s not quite a villain just developed superpowers, and it’s up to the heroes to keep these new and difficult-to-control powers from ravaging the town.  There may also be a personality shift involved: “Have you tried not being a rampaging monster, Dr. Jekyll?”

 

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Jul 21 2011

10 Common but Totally Unrealistic Romance Storylines

Published by under Realism,Romance

I liked this list of common but unrealistic romance storylines.

 

I was not personally familiar with the Angry Kiss, but if anybody tried those shenanigans in real life, he’d probably be registered as a sex offender, fired, and subjected to a restraining order.  As for the Wealthy, Good-Looking Stranger, let’s be honest.  If somebody is wealthy, hot and “single,” he/she is probably a mental case and/or not actually single.  Case in point: Me.  I’m hot*, single and frequently sane, so obviously I’m unwealthy.  What can I say? Writing really is less lucrative than vagrancy.

 

*On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

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Jul 21 2011

The Worst Reasons to Become a Novelist

1. Because you need the money.  It usually takes around 10 years to get published and the typical advance for a first novel is usually around $5000 (assuming it gets published), which is scandalously low for a project that will probably take thousands of hours and might not ever get published.  If you need money, get a day job.  If your main consideration is financial, other types of writing that typically pay better (and more reliably) include copywriting/advertising, corporate communications, journalism, nonfiction books and unemployment forms. Writing comic books also pays better than writing novels, but you’d still be dealing with some of the same risks/uncertainties and reliability issues.  Outside of writing, virtually every full-time job pays more reliably and more by the hour.  It is depressingly rare for a novelist to beat minimum wage, so you’d probably make more working at McDonald’s.

 

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Jul 18 2011

How to Write a Prologue Which Won’t Torpedo Your Manuscript

1. Please don’t just write an infodump of background setup.  If your prologue reads like an atlas entry or history report, you’d probably be better off just cutting to chapter 1 and weaving the background information into the story itself.  Readers will have an easier time learning background information (and will be more motivated to do so) if they see how it relates to the main characters doing interesting things.

 

2. Please make sure the information is interesting.  For example, please don’t start with a prologue about how the worlds were created and/or epic wars that happened thousands of years ago without really making the information distinct and/or fresh. Faceless Evil Hordes getting (temporarily) thwarted by Faceless Good Armies with Elven Allies?  Probably not so interesting.  Unless there’s something so unique to this history that it really sets the tone for the work, I’d recommend just cutting to the story or somehow making it more lively.  For example, if the universe was created by gods on a drunken dare, that will probably intrigue readers more than hundreds of words about how the evil gods created the orcs and how the good gods created the elves.

 

3. Keep the main character(s) as involved as possible.  In almost every case, the main character is a better hook into the story than the setting/backstory.  To the extent that the backstory/setting is a hook, you can cover that in the backcover blurb (“In a city where even the pizza boys have superpowers and the Canadian Mafia sells cocaine-laced mayonnaise on every corner, a schizophrenic bartender and his possibly-sentient goldfish must…”). In your story, please show interesting characters doing interesting things (e.g. trying to accomplish urgent goals) as quickly as possible. If main goals are not immediately available, you can use intermediate goals–for example, before Luke Skywalker fights against the Empire, he fights with his uncle about becoming a pilot, which develops his personality and his urgent goal to pursue adventure. If the main character(s) is not present in your prologue, I would highly recommend keeping the prologue as short as possible or eliminating it.  

 

4. If the prologue functions as a chapter, I’d recommend making it Chapter One.  Mark Evans suggests that some readers are so put off by prologues that they just skip past them entirely.  A commenter below adds that readers might skip over prologues because “if the information was actually important, then it would be included in the main book itself.” I don’t know how common that is, but personally I am so used to prologues being boring that I’m filled with dread, ennui, and an intense desire to flee to Somalia whenever I see one. I have read only 1-2 prologues which have actually contributed to the work.

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Jul 18 2011

Why Do Good Novel Manuscripts Get Rejected?

1. It was good, but not good enough.  At major publishers, publisher’s assistants reject ~995 out of every 1000 unsolicited submissions and pass on the remaining 5 to their bosses for further consideration.  Of those five, maybe 1-3 will be offered contracts.  If you had to reject 995 out of 1000 prospective works, you’d almost certainly have to eliminate many good manuscripts and some very good ones in favor of great and/or highly-marketable manuscripts.  Publishers don’t have enough money to publish all (or even most) of their good submissions.

 

2. It didn’t make enough of an impact on readers.  Publishing is a high-risk industry.  You need to convince publishing professionals to put themselves on the line for you.  An editor that was truly impressed is much more likely to speak up on your behalf than one that felt it was merely pretty good.  Write a book so good that editors would regret letting it slip away to another publisher.

 

3. It’s not what the publisher is looking for right now.  For example, editors might pass on an otherwise publishable work if it’s too similar to something they’ve recently published.

 

4. There were elements that worked, but it’d need more rewriting before it was ready.  Depending on how well the strong elements worked, you might garner a revise-and-resubmit letter here.  “The characterization was really strong, but I found the plot hard to follow for reasons X and Y.  Could you work on that and send it back to me?”  Besides a publishing offer, a revise-and-resubmit letter is the clearest sign you’re deep along the path to publication.  Alternately, any sort of personalized rejection letter (even one that doesn’t ask you to resubmit) is somewhat encouraging.  There’s not enough time to write thousands of personalized rejection letters, so editors will only put in that extra time if they think something is working.  (Unless it’s “Plagiarizing my book and submitting it to my publisher is not the soundest career move”).

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Jul 17 2011

Building Coherent Scene Transitions

Generally, I think most scenes should build on their preceding scenes.  Here are some transitions that  might help.

1. A character gets a text/call or otherwise learns something that relates to the next scene.  For example, pretty much every Law and Order case gets saved by a phone call notifying the detectives that the harbor unit just found the body in the river.  Whatever the detectives were talking about before the phone call, this is a really easy way to pivot the story towards the next scene (investigating the body).

2.  A character does something in the first scene that leads into the second.  

  • BAD: John talks with his romantic interest in scene 1 and fights with his boss in scene 2.  This will probably feel awkward because the two scenes don’t appear to be connected in any way.
  • BETTER: John has a spat with his girlfriend in scene 1 because she thinks he’s not making enough money.  The fight makes him late to work (scene 2).  At work, John’s boss gets upset that his personal issues are affecting his work and informs him that he won’t be getting a promotion/raise.  This is more coherent because we can see much more clearly how the two scenes are related.

3.  The first scene somehow foreshadows the next one.  For example, if Spiderman finds some OsCorp gear at a crime scene (like a Power Rangers mask or something), it’d make sense if the next scene had Spiderman trying to figure out how Norman Osborne (the Green Goblin) was connected to the crime.  If you’re not ready to have him leap into that part of the case yet, maybe it’s just a side-element of the second scene.  For example, maybe Peter Parker goes to school the next morning and thinks more about the case in the background, while the focus of the second scene is him doing something else like talking to Mary Jane.  Maybe his conversation with Mary Jane somehow leads him to realize something about the crime he’s looking at and/or is somehow otherwise thematically appropriate for some issue he’s dealing with as a superhero.

4. I would generally recommend keeping your plot arcs more related than not.  For example, if the book is about John, his romantic side-arc shouldn’t feel like a completely different story than his job struggles.  One way to fit them together into a single story is to do scenes where they both come into play.  For example, in the above example, John’s late to work because he got in a fight with his girlfriend, so we can see how the problems from one arc bleed over into the other.  The solutions can also bleed over.

5. The trickiest sort of scene-transition is probably between different point-of-view characters that have not met and aren’t obviously connected yet.  Let’s say you’re writing a novel where the two point-of-views are a superhero and supervillain that haven’t interacted yet.  Even though they haven’t met, you could still probably make the separate narratives feel coherent by having them deal with some common issues.

  • Common themes: For example, maybe both characters are dealing with being really special and/or having more power than the average person could dream of.
  • Common events: For example, maybe both characters have been influenced by the same event (or very similar events).  If the origin story features the villain’s father dying to save the future hero, the villain might grow up bitterly thinking of the father he never had and the hero might regard his sacrifice as a noble example to try to live up to.
  • Foreshadowed relationship: Well, it’s pretty obvious in this case that a superhero and a villain will clash, but foreshadowing the relationship might be helpful if it’s not patently obvious to readers. (For example, if the second character only gradually becomes villainous, readers might get bored with him if they don’t get some impression of why he matters).

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