4 most important skills to master for writing good fantasy

Wonka Imagination

Lately I’ve thought a lot about my skills and what differentiates a good (fantasy) writer from a bad one. Or what makes an original, engrossing fantasy novel versus a bland, boring one.

Now, there is no perfect recipe. And doing anything well is difficult. But I’m becoming more convinced that if I or anyone else can do these four things right, we’ll be in a much better position as writers.

Stop giving a shit about the rules

You should absolutely learn the tenets of good writing practices, from everything involved in creative writing to grammar. You should also study story structure.

But when it comes to writing the first draft, you should forget all of it.

Okay, here’s the thing. Writing rules can constrain you to the point that you don’t take risks, and that’s bad. For example, I’ll get so obsessed over not using “to be” verbs that I slow myself down when I’m first-drafting because I’m always searching for that perfect verb. Or I get so worried about showing and not telling that I struggle to put words down at all and end up distancing readers from a character when I could be putting the reader in their heads more. I’m holding myself back, and I can feel it.

Lower Your Expectations Writing

Do me a favor. Crack open a book you like and flip to a random page. Now count the verbs like “was” and “is.” You’ll probably see a lot of them. Or actually analyze a scene and count how many times the writer tells instead of shows. Often this is hard to do because you get sucked into the story — and that’s what really matters. Nobody will care how many times you use “was” or “were” if you can succeed in getting them in the characters’ heads and investing them in what’s happening.

I absolutely recommend outlining before writing so that you at least keep yourself on track. And yes, you should absolutely care about using stronger verbs and showing more than you tell. That’s good writing. But you probably don’t need to worry about it as much as you are, especially when you’re first-drafting. Turn off that editor brain. Get messy. Indulge your whims. You’ll have a better story for it.

Put a twist on everything

It’s important to take risks not only with your prose but also with your world and characters. When I think about stories that captivate me and make me jealous of an author’s imagination, I think of stories that do things differently.

The Fifth Season is a book I’m reading right now that’s an excellent example of this. There aren’t towns, there are “comms.” It’s not another stereotypical medieval fantasy world with land surrounded by oceans, it’s a world of shifting tectonic plates, where earthquakes are the normal way of life and everything — from how society functions to how magic works — builds from that one idea. It’s brilliant, really.

But author M. K. Jemisin is just pulling stuff out of her ass. She’s a writer! She’s supposed to make stuff up! You can invent as crazy and new and different of a world as you want!

Adventure Time Jake Rainbow

Yes, you need to create a consistent, logical world with constraints and consequences. But otherwise you can do anything you damn well please. My new goal: Think of something I’d assume would be “normal” in a fantasy story and challenge it by putting my own spin on it. Even if it’s something small, if you do that enough times, you’ll have a book brimming with originality much like The Fifth Season.

In a way, it’s hard to give ourselves that kind of creative license. Fantasy writers are very much influenced by The Lord of the Rings, cyberpunk writers by Neuromancer, supernatural writers by Dracula or Interview with a Vampire, etc. etc.

But guess what: Those writers made shit up. You can make shit up, too. There’s no law saying you have to follow their rules, and if you don’t, you’ll be all the better for it.

Make everything harder, and force characters to act

Conflict is at the root of a good story. But again, easier said than done. It’s hard to 1) constantly up the ante because we love our characters and 2) put them in a position where they have to do something and then actually go do it. Our characters should be those people we yell at in horror movies who go through the door when why would they be so stupid as to go through the door.

Think of it this way: If a crazy killer broke into your house, you’d probably be tempted to hide in the closet and cry and hope they go away. Or maybe you’d call 911 and then play it safe until the police arrived and handled it for you. But the more interesting stories are those where the character is so much braver or more foolhardy than we’d be, and they just start doing things. Because without them taking charge and taking risks and trying things out, it’d be pretty boring to watch. This goes for all of your characters. They need to actually move to move the story forward.

Alien Movie Ripley Action

Same thing applies to intensifying conflict. As writers, we have to be willing to get our characters in a pickle and then do the hard work of figuring how the hell they’re going to get out of this one. But that’s what will keep people reading.

Nail their voices

You know that test that goes, pick a passage of dialogue at random, and if you’ve done your job, you should be able to identify the character without looking at the dialogue tag? That’s maybe a little excessive, but the general idea is right.

Voice is being able to tell, how does a character speak that makes them unique from the others in my book? Voice is reading their POV and having all the writing filtered through not the author’s style, but the character’s style. Reading their chapter should be an experience in itself.

Die Hard GIF Bet Your Ass

Again, easier said than done, right? What helps is to create a quirk or trait that is all their own, as well as a core value that defines their life philosophy (or “misbelief,” an often imperfect worldview). That’s going to help them stand out from the other characters.

Now think of those couple qualities as a straight line. Constantly, when you write their character, you need to write around that line. You can veer in a zig-zag, snake-like pattern around it as you reveal new facets of their character and personality and story, and as they falter and grow. You don’t want to stick purely to the straight line because, well, then you’ll have a boring, one-dimensional character. But if you keep who they are in mind and return to that throughline, it’ll be easier to write them differently than other characters — not only in dialogue but in their actions and narrative voice, too.

All in all …

The more I write and acknowledge weaknesses in my writing, the more I realize how important all these things are to do. And “do” really isn’t the right word. These are goals, and I should always strive to meet them to the best of my ability.

And that ability is growing, little by little, story by story. It takes time and practice and experience, and sometimes you gotta get the “bad” stuff out of you before you can drill down to the really juicy stuff. But if we stick with it, we’ll get there.

What do you consider the most important skills to master in writing an awesome, original story? What makes a good book “good”?

Cool Story

A whole month of critiquing — DONE

frodo mordor

THE END

After critiquing over 100,000 words of another writer’s manuscript in a single month, those classic words took on new meaning.

Last month was the first time I had ever critiqued another writer’s entire manuscript, and it was a BIG JOB. I’m kind of exhausted right now. But I’m also excited, because this means that I get to dive into all the critiques she made on my manuscript and start a new, hopefully much more beneficial round of revisions.

I’m honored that I got to take part in shaping someone’s book. I mean, that’s downright cool. I feel like when I see it on shelves one day and sit down to read it in a glossy hardcover, I’m going to be teary-eyed and proud. Not because I was able to influence someone’s novel, but proud that I helped someone make their story better. Proud that she stuck through all the tough feedback and toiled through the edits to make it as good as it could be. Proud that I know someone who made her dream happen.

Because, hey — I BELIEVE in my critique partner. She’s gonna make it one day. I just know it.

Critiquing a full-length novel has also sharpened my eye as a writer. When you’re just reading a novel, there’s a bunch of little things you don’t notice or take for granted. And when you’re writing a novel, you’re too close to your work to see them. But when you’re critiquing someone else’s WIP and see issues come up time and again — well, you suddenly understand where all those writing rules came from. It clicks in a way that it didn’t before. I’m sure my critique partner could say the same thing from critiquing my story because every writer has their crutches.

Would I do a full manuscript swap again? Absolutely. It was definitely worth the investment to become a better critiquer, a more observant writer, and to receive a full critique in return. Would I do it again in the near future?

I think my brain needs a break first. :)

500 percent done

The pros and cons of joining a writers group

Writers critiques gif

Critique partners, writing buddies, torture pals. Whatever you call them, having some writer friends who can give you honest, constructive criticism on your work is necessary when revision time rolls around. We aren’t trustworthy when it comes to objectively reviewing our own creative writing.

This is why I joined a writers group earlier this year. Well, two reasons: 1) I wanted to force myself to share my WIP with other people, which means being vulnerable and brave. And 2), I knew that without a little feedback and direction, I was going to revise in circles because it’s impossible for me to know what’s good and bad. Your readers determine that stuff. We’re too biased and close to the writing to make those sorts of decisions.

So here are a few lessons I’ve learned these past months from attending a local writing group:

Knowing other writers helps keep you stable

Writing is a lonely occupation, and it’s damn hard. So when you’re struggling or feeling discouraged, or you’re excited about something you’ve accomplished, it’s good to reach out to other people who get it.

My writing group has been super supportive, and it’s nice to talk to other people who understand about word counts and character development and stupid stuff like that without them looking at me like I’m crazy.

fist bump gif

Not everyone will be at your skill level

My writing group consists of 10 or so members, and every one of them is at a different skill level and has different interests. So while they’re critiquing your work, you have to decide whose opinions and thought processes match yours and whose don’t.

If you can find even two people whose criticisms are spot on, then your writing is going to be in better shape than it would be otherwise.

Critiquing other people’s work helps you learn

Most likely, your writing group will consist of beginners, which means you’re going to critique a lot of bad writing. Before you judge, yours is probably bad, too.

The good news is that pointing out the problems and areas for improvement in other people’s writing can teach you a lot about the writing process and how to avoid those kinds of mistakes. Because when you can recognize what’s boring, clunky, or ineffective, you’ll get better at detecting those sorts of flaws in your work. So try to keep this in mind while you’re waiting for your turn, and keep the groaning to a reasonable minimum.

awkward gif

There can be … drama (sigh)

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but writers are neurotic people. And chances are any writing group you join will be a mixed bag of lovers and haters of different genres whose personalities are going to clash.

This is going to happen. It’s inevitable. The best thing you can do is try to stay out of the drama and set a good example. Especially if you’re younger than other people in your group, you’re going to wonder how adults can be so immature. So try to be as fair and accepting as you can, because most writers are weirdos with baggage, and that counts you.

Diversity also means valuable perspectives

In my opinion, the more diverse the group, the better. Not everyone in my group likes fantasy, my genre of choice. Or is anywhere in my age range. Or knows a whole lot about writing techniques and story structure. But that doesn’t devalue their opinions.

Why? Because first of all, your readers may not be educated about these things, either. But if they’re bored with your story or don’t like a character that you wanted them to like, these are still valid problems. So before you gripe about them not understanding the depth and subtlety of your dialogue, remember that every reader is worth listening to, whether you act on their feedback or not.

Secondly, I’ve found that every member of my writing group — despite their strengths, weaknesses, and hang-ups — contributes at least one smart and valuable comment when they critique my work. Because they come from a different background and see the world another way than I do, they catch things I might not. And that’s the whole point of having critique partners in the first place.

weirdos gif

Awesome book cover Friday: The Burning of Cherry Hill

Happy Friday, everyone! Before you head outside to enjoy the first day of summer, take a moment to enjoy this great book cover for The Burning of Cherry Hill by A.K. Butler.

The Burning of Cherry Hill

Description from Amazon:

It’s 2159. Zay Scot is a fourteen-year-old boy raised on a secret island in hiding from a government he doesn’t know exists. After more than a decade of avoiding detection, his fugitive parents are brutally kidnapped and he is thrust into a dizzying world centuries more advanced than the one he left behind. The skies over the United North American Alliance are pollution free. Meals are healthy and delivered to each home. Crime is nonexistent. Medical treatment requires only the scan of your wrist. Poverty, need, and hunger are things studied in history class. But Zay soon finds himself a fugitive, escaping the brute force of a government always a whisper away. Now he must choose between peace and freedom, and if the journey doesn’t kill him, what he finds might start a war.

This story sounds weird but interesting. Which would you rather have — a society virtually rid of crime, pollution, disease, and hunger or one that’s free from Big Brother?

Novel progress update: Eliminating info dumps

info dumps writingSo this year I’ve vowed to work harder on revising my novel. I love copyediting (I do it every weekday for GamesBeat), but it’s much easier to look at someone else’s work with a clear eye than your own, trust me. That’s why I don’t edit my own articles! I have another one of our fine editors check over them.

The same problem occurs with novel revision, but it’s a lot deeper. Instead of dealing with the coherence of a 1,000-word body of text, you’re managing 60,000 and above. GULP.

I’m so glad I made an outline for my novel before diving into it. I got about halfway through writing the first draft of a fantasy novel in high school before I realized how badly I needed a roadmap, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. But when you’re editing a chapter that’s around 20 pages and trying to make it work within a much greater context, a lot more can go wrong.

I’m trying not to worry too deeply about that right now, though. I need to polish each chapter several times first before handing it over to anyone to read and provide feedback, which I want to do before moving forward with publishing. So right now, I’m concentrating on each chapter, one at a time.

info dumpsOne of my main goals is eliminating clumps of exposition or author-like material — the notorious info dump. I’ve noticed that anytime I’m spoon-feeding the reader unnecessary or convenient background info, either through description or dialogue, I need to stop and perform surgery. Just cut it out. If it sounds like I’m stepping in and talking directly to the reader, then I need to find a more natural way to integrate those details.

An article on writing.com suggests, “Remember, the reader doesn’t need to know everything, just what’s necessary to move and complete the story.”

This is sound advice, but I wanted a better idea of how to avoid and address info dumps, or narrative summaries. Here are some good tips from a professional editor:

When writers tell instead of show, they’re generally writing from the author’s POV and not the characters’. While the technique called “narrative summary” does have its place in a novel, it should be used sparingly.

Here’s a before-and-after example. The first version, written in the author’s POV, is a narrative summary:

But the site itself had been inhabited for much longer. The previous day she and Mike had jogged along an old path which edged the Knob, and she spotted the stark, vertical rock chimney of a burned-out cabin. It jutted from a weathered rock foundation that was now covered with thick vines and forest debris. The cabin had been built near the Knob’s edge, which plummeted almost two thousand feet to the valley floor.  She realized that, when the one-room cabin was built, its owner had probably cleared trees away to open the valley up for a spectacular view.

Notice the author is telling about the discovery, just as one tells ghost stories around a family campfire. She is summarizing what happened yesterday. There is no action. There was action yesterday, but that doesn’t count as action today.

I wrote that passage years ago. I thought it was fine writing until an old writing pro pointed out the problem. I read it again, and—by gosh, she was right. Following is the passage as I rewrote it to put the scene into a character’s POV and show the action, instead of leaving it in the author’s POV and tell about it:

Mike stepped aside and she saw a clearing. Grass, kept at bay in the deep woods they’d passed through, covered an area the size of an average yard.

She frowned. “This is it?”

“Yep. The original cabin site. See if you can find it.”

She saw nothing but the woods and grass. Blue sky appeared over a huge, waist-high stone outcropping at her left. She stepped to it and peered over.

“Why, we’re right at the bluff’s edge!”

“That’s right. Jump off that rock, and you’ll fall almost two thousand feet.”

And then she saw the vertical stone chimney. She’d overlooked it before, since it resembled the surrounding tall trees. She walked tentatively toward it. As her eyes adjusted she saw the stone foundation of a long-gone, one-room cabin. Its chimney rose from one corner, its hearth opening toward the center. Slanting rays filtering through the treetops brought the chimney and foundation to life.

She turned to Mike. “Look at that—it’s just like a shrine. Why, I feel like I’ve just stepped out of a time machine.”

The lesson? Write in real time. Don’t tell what happened in the past, but show it as part of the action now.

How do you deal with info dumping in your writing? What’s a good way to catch it?

info dump truck

BookRx recommends books in 140 characters or less, plus e-readers going out of style

BookRx

This post comes to you in four parts!

Part 1:

Need some books to keep you busy during all that holiday downtime? Considering trying out Knight Labs’ new BookRx, which selects potential new reads based on your Twitter account. Just enter your handle, and voila! BookRx generates a list of recommendations from specific words, users, and hashtags that you’ve mentioned in your tweets.

Here’s a preview of one of mine:

BookRx preview

Of course, I’ve already ready a few of these. So it’s not a perfect tool, but it is fun. BookRx separates titles by genre, such as mystery, fiction, and romance. One of its picks for me is Fifty Shades of Grey — a book I would never read. But I’ve previously tweeted about at least one blog post that focused on the book, so it’s little wonder that BookRx noticed my “interest” in it.

What books does it recommend for you?

Part 2:

Do you like the new blog header? I wanted a change. :) But if you guys hate it, let me know and I’ll create some others.

Part 3:

If you’re looking for today’s book cover selection, it’s one post down!

Part 4:

e-reader girl

In a bit of news, the e-reader market is apparently shrinking. Data from the International Data Corporation shows that this year, worldwide shipments of e-readers will fall to 14.9 million units from 23.2 million units last year — a 36 percent decrease. Forrester Research recorded a similar trend specifically in the United States, and these numbers are expected to keep falling in 2013 and beyond.

The explanation? People are buying more multiversatile tablets, smartphones, and PCs — an increase of 27.1 percent from 2011, according to IDC. They’re more willing to spend more money on a high-tech device than a “primitive” e-reader in exchange for the extra features, and those often include Kindle and Nook apps.

“It’s looking like e-readers were a device for a particular moment in time that, more rapidly than we or anyone else thought, has been replaced by a new technology,” Sarah Rotman Epps, a Forrester analyst, told The New York Times. Here’s the full scoop.

Are you ready to trade in your e-reader, or are you surprised by these findings?

[Image credit: via CNET by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, public domain; CBSi]

Ghosts, vampires, and werewolves—oh, please

When it premiered, Being Human struck me as something a little too British for my taste. I have nothing against British television per say. I find IT Crowd downright hilarious, but I’m not so much a fan of the cheesy intergalactic drama of Dr. Who or Hugh Laurie dressed as a woman. Ich, no thanks.

I figured a show about ghosts, vampires, and werewolves would probably take itself too seriously just like every other show or movie about ghosts, vampires, and werewolves (except for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of my all-time favorites).

By now you might be wondering, “What the Dalek does this have to do with books?”

The other night I was watching (and surprisingly enjoying) the first episode of Being Human on Netflix (all twenty-two available episodes are staying in my Instant Queue now), and I started thinking about how difficult it is for a generation so desensitized to those monster groups and more (especially zombies) to write fresh material about something that’s been done a million times.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve read Bram Stoker or Anne Rice. Everyone knows a vampire by those two little dots on the neck, their miserable fashion sense, and their love of London.

And speaking of London: werewolves. The only good werewolves are running around Europe, but I’ve never seen one that doesn’t look sillier than a cat wearing pajamas.

And lastly, ghosts. Ghosts got lost somewhere along the way (err), but they’re still a big fascination thanks to reality shows like Ghost Hunters, movies like Paranormal Activity, and pretty much any Japanese horror movie out there. (I recently watched Ju-on, by the way, and it was much better than the American version, The Grudge. No offense Sarah Michelle Gellar, but you’re Buffy through and through.)

A show rarely mixes all three together, which is part of what makes Being Human so interesting. We get to see how these monsters interact as they walk all over each other’s territory.

But the real sell is in the title: “being human.” The main characters—the ghost, the werewolf, and vampire—don’t think of themselves as monsters. It’s everyone they have to deal with outside who is. And it’s that humanity, or lack of it, that has always made the fantastical a little more accessible—a little more human.

Basically writers are set for eternity. They can write about these popular monsters for as long as they please (or until they drop dead), but only if they can a) emphasize the human traits in the good characters and the inhuman ones in the bad and b) put them in interesting situations that challenge their feral nature.

What do you think? Is it time to retire the big bads, or is it impossible to get enough?