Showing posts with label writing tips. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing tips. Show all posts

How do you write a good twist?

Phil says:
I'm writing a sci-fi story as part of a game, and one thing I'm having trouble with is how to gracefully drop hints of an upcoming twist.

One character is set up so that everyone assumes he is a villain; the midpoint twist shows that he's actually just misunderstood and trying to survive; he actually has a lot in common with the player character.

I want to drop hints of this fact earlier on in the game. I think I can do this without it giving away the twist, but I'm worried that players will assume the apparent contradiction is due to sloppy writing rather than building to something intentional. Is there anything I can do to help readers embrace the ambiguity rather than try to resolve it too soon?

There are few things more satisfying than blowing someone's mind with a good twist. Done right, it'll stick in the player's (or reader's) head, making them need to talk about the story for years to come.

Done wrong, it's lame. If the hints are too obvious then the twist is predictable. If they're too subtle, it can feel like a deus ex machina. Achieving the balance between the two is super tricky for two reasons:

1. You are always too close to your story. It's almost impossible to tell what clues a reader will or will not pick up on when you know what they all are and what they point to. Everything's so obvious to you, so you keep things super subtle. Or you over-correct and make it too obvious. You can't win.

2. It really, really depends on your audience. Ever notice how kid's stories are more predictable than adult stories? That's not because kid authors suck. The opposite actually: they know their audience and are really good at writing for them. They know what tropes kids are familiar with, which is far fewer than most adults.

(Which is not to say you can't write a kid's story that subverts the tropes. You most certainly can.)

It's not just age-dependent either. Someone who has never seen a sci-fi/fantasy movie in their life might be completely blind-sided by a Chosen One or its many subtropes.

So what's the best way to find this balance? I'm gonna say it in really big words, because it's pretty much the same solution to all writing problems.


No, wait, that's not it. It's


You are too close to your story, so get others in your target audience to read or play it. Fresh eyes will help you nail down where the story is working or not. And if you can get detailed comments as they go through, you can even see where they start to guess things and what those guesses are.

For a game, I'd recommend writing up the story as a synopsis first -- revealing information as the player would discover it -- and running that by a few people. (Unless the game's playable, of course, then running that by people might be more useful). It won't be perfect, but it'll get you closer than you can get by yourself.

And perfection's not the goal anyway. No matter how many eyes and how much revision you get on a thing, there will always be people who see the twist coming and people who think it dropped out of the blue (although the latter seems less egregious to me, which suggests you might want to err on the side of too subtle rather than too obvious). The point of getting fresh eyes is to get perspective, not perfection.

"But won't the twist be spoiled?"

For your early readers, yes. But they know that's the deal for getting an exclusive look.

For other people? Maybe. But that kind of spoiler leakage only really matters if you're writing the next Empire Strikes Back, which -- if you are -- I'm flattered you would ask me how to do this. But also if you're at that level in your career, you've probably had enough practice twisting stories that you have a feel for the balance of it by now.

That's another trick, too: practice, practice, practice. Until then? Critique and revision.

Anyone else got tips for Phil? Tell him in the comments!


Got a question? Ask me anything.

Q: What kind of writing samples do you want for game work?

Gunther Winters is looking for a writing position in the gaming industry. He says:
...all those ads [that interest me] require the submission of "samples" of one's own work, and I suspect that those that don't clearly require it just take it for understood. ...what is adequate for "submitting"? How many "pieces"? How long? Of what  kind? Most ads mention no details whatsoever...

Any other advice for an aspirant "writer" who is trying to approach the gaming industry?

I can't tell you specifically what other people are looking for, but I'll tell you what we look for. Since Torment is looking for a number of words on the order of 2-3 George R. R. Martin novels, I hope my advice will be applicable (if not over-applicable) to other positions as well.

Mostly we want to get the sense that you can do the work we need you for. Length of the samples is not very important, so long as it's a couple of pages' worth. Quantity of samples can be useful to get a sense of a writer's breadth, but again is not critical.

The type of sample matters more. For us, we like to see game and fiction writing (and because Torment is a bit more literary* than most games, we slightly prefer fiction writing to get a sense of a writer's skill). If an applicant sent us links to his Twitter feed or blog posts, it wouldn't tell us much about whether they could write character dialogue.

* Read: more wordy.

In general, it's a good idea to send exactly what is asked for. If they don't ask for samples, or you think you might have too many, then include a link to more samples in case they're interested. If they think you look promising, they can always ask for more.

Lastly, although the requirements of every game writing position is different, being technical enough to structure branching dialogue is usually a good skill to have. Fortunately, there are many game design and modding tools that can help you learn this sort of thing.

As to other advice, I've written on that before. Short version: learn to do something related, and do it very well.

Gunther adds:
Last, if the choice is between getting Torment released and replying to me, by all means please just work on the game and release it already. I'm dying here [insert pun about my "torment" here].
Heh. Fortunately for you, my brain needed a break and your question provided it. But I appreciate your anticipation!


Got a question? Ask me anything.

I am not a great writer

(LINK WARNING: The YouTube links in this post are kinda bloody -- accurate metaphors, but bloody.)

Last week I got critiques back on two of my novels. They were great critiques. I mean really great, like editor-from-Tor great. (Don't get excited. They were not from an editor at Tor, nor any other Big 5 publisher; I'm still very much in submission hell.) And this super-editor critique, that I'm extremely grateful for and will probably owe my future career to, well... it totally and utterly crushed my soul.

For two days straight, I was the authorial version of John McClane's feet. I knew I could write in theory -- I mean, people have said so before and even paid me for doing so -- but I couldn't make myself believe it. I didn't feel right reviewing other people's stories or even Torment docs. I felt like I knew nothing about telling a story or stringing words together.

Then I had a revelation, and I want to share it with you because I know all too well how common the soul-crushing critique is. The revelation is this:

I am not a great writer.

But damn can I revise.

Twisting it that way changes everything. If I think I can write, but then I get this critique that rips through my novel like a chain blade through a clan of ninjas, then surely I know nothing. I'm a pretender, a wannabe, and I will never get it right.

But if I consider myself a reviser, then a critique like that is expected -- desired even. It's just more ammunition to do what I'm really good at. Everything I write is going to get critiqued that hard, so it's a damn good thing that I can revise anything.

Don't get me wrong, the critique still hurts, and it's going to take a lot of work for me be happy with it again, but thinking of it that way gave me back the motivation I needed to tackle it. This is something I can do.

How to Become a Video Game Writer

From the AMA pile, Anonymous asks:
If someone wants to become a writer for video games, what would your advice be?

My super short advice is to do these in any order: (1) get a video game job and (2) learn to write well.

More in-depth (and hopefully useful) advice follows.

If you have a video game job, you need to learn to write well and squeeze yourself into positions where you have opportunity to write. You can learn to write anywhere: books, blogs, school, reading, but most importantly by actually writing and getting critiques from other writers.

I suspect, however, that the other order (learn to write, get game job) is the one most of you will be interested in. Here are some options:
  1. Get known for your writing and make your interest in gaming publicly known.
  2. Watch for game developer job openings. For example: inXile, Obsidian, Bioware.
  3. Make friends with other game developers. Note that I said "friends," not "acquaintances who can help me get what I really want." Remember: self-serving has a smell.
  4. Learn skills related to the game industry but that you also enjoy and/or excel at. For example: 3D art, 2D art, programming, web development, game design, etc.
  5. Find similar-minded friends and make quality games (or mods of existing games) on your own time.
  6. Become a game tester.
None of these are mutually exclusive. In fact, the more you do, the greater your chances of getting what you really want.

I know game writers who have followed all of these paths. The goal is to get noticed any way you can, so when someone asks a friend of yours, "Do you know any good game writers who might be available for this?" your friend can go, "[Your name here] might be interested, and his [type of work you do] is always good and on time. Want me to ask him?"

Incidentally, my path is here. It's a stranger path than most, but I did #2 and #3 for my first job, and a combination of #1, #3, and #4 for my current one. So my advice applies to at least one person? I guess?


Got a question? Ask me anything.

AMA: On writing too concisely

Valerie asked:
Do you have any advice for people who write too concisely (i.e., me)? 

Write more.

Okay, kidding. Honestly, I don't know how much help I can be here because personally I try to write concisely. I'm not a fan of purple prose, and I'm not sure how to write elaborate description well without falling into the purple trap (although I know it can be done).

So I aim for concise. I'm not sure you can write too concisely.

Rather than worrying about concise or verbose (which is really just word count, which really only matters if you're getting paid per word), take a look at whether the prose does it's job: to pull the reader into the story. There's like a bazillion ways to do that, but I think it can be done both concisely and verbosely. I've seen great authors do both.

Got a question? Ask me anything.

"You must keep writing, because you are a writer."

You know those writers who say, "I really need to get back into writing," and then two weeks later they're still saying that? Guess who's become one of them.

Well, not that guy. Me. I'm one of them.

You may be familiar with some of my reasons. Drafting is my least favorite part of the process, and with two unpaid novels in the hopper, and a yes-paid job, my motivation for doing the sucky part has been sapped.

And you know what? My reasons are good reasons. I'm doing creative work for my dream job and excelling at it, and I've got novels on the submission train. My priorities are right where they should be. This is what 99.9% of my friends tell me when I bring up the fact that I've written an average of 1,000 words/month lately.

They're absolutely right. Everything's cool. I don't have to write.

But there was that 0.1%, that one friend (I have exactly 1,000 friends; prove I don't), who had to go and say something different that stabbed me right in the gut because it was exactly what I needed to hear. The wonderful and not-at-all maniacal Authoress grabbed me by the shoulders and said, "You must keep writing, because you are a writer."

Ow! OwowowowowieowieOWow.

It's absolutely true that when push comes to shove, the paid job wins (actually the family wins, but they get on a timeout when they shove me, so . . .). But I've been tackling every single day like my job was in crunch time. I am a game designer. But I'm also a writer. If I can't figure out a way to do both, then . . .

Well, I just have to figure out a way to do both.

I know it can be done. I know because I find time to tweet, read, play chess online, and even draw. I don't have to write a lot (see the aforementioned priorities), but if I can't find time to squeeze out even 250 words in a day? That qualifies as pathetic.

Well, pathetic for me. You make your own goals.

What are your goals? How's your writing going?

Coming Up with a Book Title

I am preparing, finally, to send Post-Apoc Ninjas to my agent. "Post-Apoc Ninjas" is the title I use for it online, short for Post-Apocalyptic, Dragon-Riding Ninjas (with Mechs!). While that title is perfectly descriptive of what's in the book, it isn't quite the right tone for the novel.

I have another working title for the novel, which is The Con of War. It's meant to be a play on Sun Tzu's The Ancient Art of War, but (a) I don't think it really comes across and (b) it's just not cool enough. The thing is, I usually just go with whatever title comes to me. Turns out that doesn't always work (shocker!).

So instead I came up with a process (super shocker!).

STEP #1: What does a winner look like?
I thought about what the above titles were lacking in, and what I thought a good title should do. I came up with four general categories. Note that these were just my categories. You may have your own (you should probably look at titles you particularly like or something; I was too lazy):
  1. Tone and Feel: A measure of how well the title hints at what is to come. For my novel, this meant as many of the following as possible: an Asian feel, ninjas, dragons, mechs, post-apocalyptic setting, con game, and war.
  2. Multiple Meanings: A measure of how many ways the title can be interpreted (the more, the better), and the relevance of those interpretations to the novel.
  3. Use in the Novel: A measure of whether the title is a phrase from the prose itself and how relevant that phrase is to the novel's theme(s). Is it an important phrase? Repeated? Does it have special meaning, or is it a throwaway term?
  4. Overall Coolness: A measure of how cool the title might sound to someone who knows absolutely nothing about the story.
STEP #2: Enter the contestants.
Brainstorm. Just make up titles out of whatever. Scan or all-out read the novel looking for metaphors, themes, and cool turns of phrase. Write them all down. I ended up with twenty entrants (including the two contenders above). It helped that I was reading through the novel for a final revision and writing down anything that sounded remotely title-worthy.

STEP #3: Battle Royale. Fight!
Stick them in a table (or an Excel sheet, or Post-Its, whatever floats you) and judge them. Come up with a scale for your categories (I rated all categories from 1 to 3, because I don't need or like a lot of granularity).  Try to be objective. Try to judge them without comparing one to another. Hire someone to clean up the blood and teeth afterwards.

STEP #4: Semi-Finals.
Now that all of your contestants have been judged, determine your criteria for moving on. It might be an objective look at the totals across categories. Maybe you require that one of the categories have a certain score. Maybe you give a special pass to ones you like. Copy only the winners of the Battle Royale to a new place, so you can see them against each other, without the losers cluttering them up.

My criteria was at least 8 out of a possible 12 across the categories (although a couple of 7's passed because I liked how they were used in the novel). It cut the field down from 20 to 12, which wasn't much, but when I sorted them by total, I realized that the only ones I really liked were the ones that achieved 9 and up. These three titles became my Semi-Final winners.

STEP #5: Championship.
The next thing I did kinda surprised me. Instead of choosing a winner from among the three (although I did have a favorite at this point). I looked at all three and tried to make them better.

In my case, I realized most of them were a little shy of the Tone and Feel I wanted. I clarified to myself what that feel was (mostly kung-fu), looked up a bunch of related titles (mostly kung-fu movies), and figured out what made those titles sound like they were related (basically became a human kung-fu movie title generator: Way of the Master's Deadly Dragon Fist!).

It was pretty fun.

STEP #6 (Optional): Poll Your Audience.
Because I'm nothing if not shameless (and also I think by this point most of you want to know what my finalists were). Yes, I am serious. No, I won't necessarily use the most-voted as the title. Yes, you may vote whether or not you've read the novel. (If you're reading this from e-mail or a feed reader, you'll have to click through to see the poll):

Feel free to expand upon your vote, say how stupid these are, or even suggest other titles in the comments.

Loving What You Write

I've had a hard time writing lately. Oh don't worry, there's still a novel on sub, and another novel ready to go after that one. This page is still up to date (wait, is it up to date? . . . Yes, now it's up to date).

What's been hard is writing something new. Part of that has been RPG crafting systems and dialogue design (who knew two full-time jobs would be so much work, am I right?). Part of it is in that first paragraph: I'm on sub, have another ready to go, and my brain is saying, "Why are you writing more?"

BUT I've figured out something that makes it hard to write no matter how many jobs or kids I have: I'm bored of the book.

It sucks, I know, but it has two very easy fixes:
  1. Find what you love about the book (you did love something, right?) and do that.
  2. If all you're left with is things you don't love, fix them until you do.
For me, that played out in a few ways.

I read ahead in my outline until I hit a scene I was excited about. Once I remembered the cool thing I was working toward, it gave me motivation and ideas for how to get there. SO much better than thinking, "Okay, now I have to write a scene where he goes to school again . . ."

(Obviously if you're Zuko-ing it, you won't have an outline, but you have notes, right? Ideas? You can at least think ahead even if you can't read ahead).

World-building. You may know I love me some world-building. A lot of times when I'm bored it's because the world is boring. So I fix that and add something cool. Like mechs or displacer beasts.

I made up some slang. This is part of world-building, but it's become such a fundamental part of my process (and it was such a fundamental part of me getting unstuck today) that it deserves its own paragraph. I HEART SLANG. I came up with six new words and a system unique to this world for just a couple of pages (which, for you math-minded, means that about 1% of the words on those pages are completely made up).

If those don't work for you, then maybe it's the characters, maybe you need to know what they want or fear. Maybe you need to talk to yourself about the story a while, or maybe you just need to get out.

The important thing is that if you're bored with the story, your readers probably will be too. Find what you love and fill the story with that.

Making Up Fantasy Languages

It's impossible (perhaps illegal, and certainly blasphemous) to talk about fantasy languages without mentioning the Godfather of Fantasy Language: Mr. John Tolkien. The guy invented languages for fun since he was thirteen years old. He wrote the most epic novel of all time just so he had a place to use those languages.

If that's you, read no further. You're fine.

Most of us, however, did not specialize in graduate-level English philology. So most of us don't really understand how language evolves or what it takes to create an artificial language that has the feel and depth of a real one. That's why a lot of amateur fantasy languages sound silly or made-up.

So how do you create a language that FEELS real, without spending years determining morphology, grammar, and syntax? I'll show you what I do. It's the same thing I do with most world-building: steal from real life, then obscure my sources.

Let's take the phrase "thank you." It's a common phrase, often borrowed between languages (e.g. the Japanese say "sankyu" as borrowed English; in California we say "gracias" as borrowed Spanish, etc).

STEAL FROM REAL LIFE. First I need a source -- some existing, real-world language I can base my fantasy language on. I want it to be somewhat obscure, and I want to show you how you can do this without even knowing the source language (which means no Thai), so I'll pick Malay.

There's lots of ways to find foreign words in a chosen language. If I wanted to be accurate, I'd use 2-3 sites to verify, but I'm making up a language, so Google Translate it is. It translates "thank you" as "terima kasih."

Now that's pretty cool on its own. It's pretty, easy to read, and sounds totally foreign. But despite the odds, somebody who speaks Malay will probably read my novel at some point. That's why we obscure the source. Two ways I do that: (1) alter the letters/sounds/word order of the existing phrase and (2) mix it with some other language.

OBSCURE YOUR SOURCES. For my second source language, I'll pick something from the same family in the hopes it will make my made-up language sound more real. A little Wikipediage tells me Malay is an Austronesian language, and lists the major languages of that branch. I'll use Filipino (just because it's also in Google Translate) and get "salamat."

Then I mish-mash for prettiness and obfuscation. Salamat + terima = salima or salama or, slightly more obscure, sarama. For kasih, I already used the "sala" part of salamat, so I'll take mat + kasih = matak. "Sarama matak." But that feels a bit long for a thank you phrase, so I'll shorten it to "Sarama tak."

And there you go. It was a little work, but a lot less work than it took Tolkien to invent Quenya. If I'm really serious about this fantasy culture/language, I'll keep a glossary of the phrases I make up in my notes, along with a note of what the source languages are (so I can repeat the process to create more phrases that sound like they could be from the same language) and links to the translation sites I used.

If the glossary gets big enough, I might (because I am a bit of a language geek) start converting the phrases into their constituent parts: individual words, verbs, maybe even conjugations. But that's breaching into Tolkien territory where I said I wouldn't go.

Anyway, now you know my secret. Go forth and make cool-sounding languages.

(remixed from an older post)

Query Letters and That Pesky Bio Paragraph

If you've done any research into writing query letters, you've probably read that you need (1) a hook, (2) a mini-synopsis, and (3) a paragraph about you. I see a lot of confusion about what to put in that bio paragraph. Hopefully we can clear that up here.

(NOTE: This is specifically for fiction queries. In non-fiction queries, the bio paragraph is a lot more important).

RULE #1: If you're not sure what to write about yourself, write:
Thank you for your time and consideration.
And NOTHING ELSE. Seriously. The agent is interested in your story. Nothing you write here will change their mind about that.

The bio paragraph is frosting. Yes, frosting can be very pretty and tasty, but if the cake sucks, the agent isn't going to eat it. Conversely, if the cake is awesome, but the frosting is . . . weird, the agent MIGHT scrape the frosting off. Or they might decide to go with one of the other equally awesome cakes topped with plain vanilla. Which brings us to . . .

RULE #2: You are not a special snowflake.
I mean, you are. Of course, you are. But so are the other tens of thousands of writers who want their book published (that's why they call it slush, cuz, you know . . . all the snowflakes).

And you know what? All of them were born with a pencil in their hands too. Or were published in local writer's journals. Or have a critique group. Or head the local chapter of SCBWI. Or came up with the idea when they traveled to Ireland. Or were inspired by God.


None of these things mark you out as special. For agents who have seen them over and over, they mark you out as someone who doesn't realize how not-special they are. And since you can't know what they've seen over and over, see, Rule #1.

RULE #3: Include professional publishing credits only.
"Professional" means you were paid professional rates for it, typically 5 cents/word and up. If all you got was half-a-penny per word and a copy of the magazine, chances are the agent hasn't heard of the publication. And if the agent hasn't heard of it before they read your letter, they're not going to care when they do.

RULE #4: Include previously self-published books if you sold more than 20,000 copies.
Less than that isn't as important as you'd think.

RULE #5: Mention if you share some background relevant to the story.
Like you have a degree in whatever skill the protagonist uses to solve his problems, or you live in whatever exotic location it's set in (Canada? Not so exotic. The Ozarks? Surprisingly, yes).

RULE #6: You can include something unique about yourself. I guess.
I don't want to tell people not to include stuff like this -- it's memorable and unique, and I've seen it done in cute, writerly ways that made me laugh.

But you won't ever look bad if you follow Rule #1. I mean, what could be more unique than living in Thailand and raising 10 kids? But I didn't say any of that in my query, and it didn't hurt my request rate any. In the bio paragraph, less is more.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Tell us in the comments.

A Free, Easy Backup Plan

You need to backup your stuff. Not because your computer might get stolen or your house might burn down. But because your hard drive WILL fail within a couple of years. Someone in your house WILL, somehow, put a virus on your machine. You WILL accidentally-but-permanently delete your work in progress.

I am the most tech savvy, obsessively careful person I know, yet all three of these things have happened to me. They'll get you too.

I'm also supremely lazy. So if my backup plan requires any maintenance from me, it just won't happen. Here's how I do it then.

You guys know about Dropbox, right? You can store 2 GB for free online with very little work. That's not enough to keep all your pictures and music, but it's more than enough to protect your writing.

Make an account and download the app to your computer. That's it. After that, Dropbox will auto-upload anything you put into the special Dropbox folder, anytime it changes.

"But wait," you say, "Don't I have to manually copy my stuff into that folder as I work?"

Well, yeah. One solution is to work directly within the Dropbox folder, but you don't want to do that (especially since Dropbox can sync two ways -- if somebody hacked into Dropbox, or you had multiple computers linked up, you might lose everything accidentally again). The other solution is this:

Create Synchronicity is this nice little program that will automatically copy files from anywhere to anywhere, on a schedule. It's free, lightweight, versatile, and smart enough to only copy files that actually changed.

Just install it on your machine and set up a profile to copy your important files wherever you want them -- an external hard drive, another computer on the network, or (in this case) your Dropbox folder. Schedule it to run once a day and bam, you never have to think about protecting your work again.

Is this helpful to you? What's your backup plan?

When You Open Your MS for the 1,000,000th Time and You LOATHE It

Thank you for indulging my forced vacation last week. I actually didn't mean to time it with Thanksgiving (I often forget about American holidays out here), but sometimes things just work out, don't they?

So. You sit down to write. You open the Word doc that you've opened a million times before, see the chapter heading or title page and . . . you hate it. You hate that chapter title, that opening paragraph, that scene that you've revised twenty billion times.

This happened to me a little while ago. I've been revising Post-Apoc Ninjas for like ever, and I was so frigging sick of seeing this screen every morning:

Single-spaced, 10-point font, baby. That's how I roll.

But hey, writing's hard, right? We just gotta deal with it and move on.

But this was affecting my mood (and my predilection toward distraction) every single day. It was making a hard thing harder. So with the help of some basic psychology, I fixed it. Now I see these instead:

Emo Billy, but lots cooler.
Alternate view: a map prettier than any I could ever draw.
I found pictures related to my story, pictures that got me excited about it, and pasted them all over the first page. Now I don't have to see any text until I'm ready (and with the Document Map, I don't have to see the opening text at all, if I don't want to).

So that's your tip for today: When you open your manuscript for the millionth time and you LOATHE it, drop some awesome pictures on the first page to remind you why you still love it.

What about you? When you hate your manuscript and don't want to see it ever again, what do you do about it?

Using Foreign Words in Foreign Settings

On the post 5 Tips for Using a Foreign Language, Linda asked a very good question: "[What] if the characters are only speaking/thinking one language which is not English but the narrative is in English[:] which words should be in English and which, if any, should be 'foreign'?"

One of my very first writing tutors was Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and I'm pulling straight from that. If you're a world-builder of any sort, I highly recommend finding a copy of this book.

Technically, any story outside a modern English-speaking setting requires all dialog and narrative to be "translated." This is obvious for a story set in modern-day Japan (where the characters are speaking and thinking Japanese), but it's just as true for stories set in a fantasy universe, medieval Europe, or any setting more than a few hundred years in the future. So this is a common issue.

Tip #1 in my previous post was that someone speaking their native language doesn't throw in foreign terms unless it helps them to be understood. It reads as pretentious. So:

If there is an English word for what you want to say, use the English word. If hobarjee means "duck," then your narrator and characters should say duck.

Only use the foreign word if it refers to a concept for which there is no English word. If hobarjees look and act like ducks, but later on in turns out they shoot laser beams from their eyes, you are fully justified in calling them hobarjees. The word has meaning now that cannot be expressed in our language.

Though I guess you could call them "laser ducks."

Photo by Richard Bartz, released under Creative Commons
Frigging hobarjees

It's Okay to Write Slow

J. K. Rowling took five years to write the first Harry Potter.

It's okay to write slow.

Those of us who take a year or more to draft a novel are tempted to believe we're doing something wrong. Like we're too lazy, managing our time wrong, editing our words too much, or (God forbid) not meant to be writers at all. Some of those things might be true, but slow writing doesn't prove it.

(Terry Pratchett wrote his first novel at 400 words a day.)

You might be climbing a learning curve. My first novel took me 5 years to draft, 2 to edit. My second took me two years total. It's still slow, but I'm getting better. You will too. That's what practice does.

(The Harry Potter series took an average of 2 years per book to write.)

You might be a planner. Natalie Whipple can tell you that fast drafts don't mean finished products. They need a lot of editing after they're "done." Not that slow drafts are perfect, but sometimes slow can mean cleaner.

(George R. R. Martin took 6 years to finish the latest Song of Ice and Fire book. I still bought it.)

You might be unpublished. There are really only two reasons you have to write fast: (1) you signed a contract with a deadline or (2) you write to put food on the table. The rest of us have the freedom to write at whatever pace we want, learning as we go.

(Susanna Clarke took 10 years to finish her debut novel, which won some awards and got optioned for a lot of money.)

You might have a life. Maybe you have a full-time job, a family, and an X-Box. Kids are a full-time job on their own (I know, I have ten) and worth more than a publishing contract. Not that you shouldn't go for the contract too, but if you're sacrificing writing speed to play Guitar Hero with your daughter, I call that a win.

There are reasons writing can take a long time, many of them good.

Live life. Write slow.

(remixed from a guest post I did for Natalie Whipple)

5 Tips for Using a Foreign Language Without Sounding Like a Prat

Foreign languages are hard to use in fiction. Probably because most of us don't use them in real life. Here are some tips for helping the reader get that foreignness is happening, without feeling hit over the head by it.

1) USE LANGUAGE TO BE UNDERSTOOD. First and foremost, the purpose of speaking is to communicate ideas. So if a character is fluent in both English and Thai (say), but her listeners understand only English, she won't toss Thai words into her speech. If someone did that in real life, we'd think they were just showing off their knowledge. And (big surprise) that's how it comes off to the reader too -- like the author is showing off some language they picked up on their trip around the world.

2) THINK LIKE THE CHARACTER. If the character isn't fluent in English, then there will be words for which their native language comes to mind. Such a character may correct herself, which not only sounds natural, but gives you a natural way to translate what she says:
"Come on! We have to hurry to catch the rotfai. The train."
If her listeners are also bilingual, she wouldn't correct herself at all (this is called code-switching; it happens in our house a lot). In this case, you'd have to provide the translation some other way, either through direct telling or (better yet) through context -- assuming you need the translation at all.
She clapped her hands. "Children, our guests will be here soon. Gep your toys. Reoreo!"

3) DON'T MAKE THE READER READ UNINTELLIGIBLE GIBBERISH. What if you've got a character who only speaks Thai? Is it cool to drop a whole string of Thai on the reader then? Take a look at this example and see what you think:
The door flew open with a bang. Four masked men ran in, guns pointed at Bernice and her family. "Lukkheun!" one of them shouted. "Lukkheun diawnii!" She didn't know what they were saying, just put her hands on her head and sobbed. "Tah mai lukkheun diaw ja ying kah man. Ow mai! OW MAI!"
This isn't bad until that last sentence. Shoot, I speak Thai, and even I got bored parsing it. And if you don't speak Thai, you'd get no meaning from it at all. Let's revise it so it still conveys foreignness and Bernice's terror, without forcing the reader to slog through a bunch of meaningless phonetics:
The door flew open with a bang. Four masked men ran in, guns pointed at Bernice and her family. "Lukkheun!" One put a gun barrel to her temple, shouting in a language she didn't understand. She didn't know what to do. She put her hands on her head and sobbed, but it only made him scream louder. What did he want from her?

4) PUT FOREIGN WORDS IN ITALICS. This goes along with not making the reader work. Italics signal the reader that these are words they don't necessarily have to know (also that they're not typos). This even goes for words that you think everybody should know.* A good rule of thumb: if it's not in the English dictionary, italicize it. For example:
"You're hungry? No problema, I'll pick up some burritos."
* I've noticed this problem especially with Californians (like me) who assume everyone took Spanish in high school (like me). Also with British authors and French. Guys, I'm American, I don't speak French.

5) USE FOREIGN ACCENTS SPARINGLY. You've probably read stories where a character's foreign accent was annoying or really hard to read. It's hard to do right, but the general rule is: be subtle. Imply the accent rather than hit the reader over the head with it.

TO SUM UP, if you're using foreign languages in your fiction:
  1. Don't do it just to show off.
  2. Be intentional; think like the character.
  3. Be subtle.
Got any other tips? Annoyances with how some authors handle it? Tell us about it in the comments.

(remixed from an older post)

World-Building and the Problem With Quidditch

On Friday, I talked about making up fictional games for your world: take a real-world game and alter it slightly: to suit your world, to make it unique, and (if you're like me) to make an actual game that might be fun to play.

Today we're looking at an example: Harry Potter's Quidditch.

Quidditch is essentially basketball on broomsticks -- with six goals instead of two, extra balls that hurt/distract the players, and the snitch to determine the end of the game. It's a good concept and it totally suits the world. And it's a testament to the books that even though this central game is fundamentally unbalanced, hardly anybody seems to notice.

But yes, it's unbalanced.

The problem is the point value of the snitch. Every goal in Quidditch is worth 10 points, but whoever grabs the snitch simultaneously ends the game and earns 150 points -- 15 goals. The overall effect is that regular goals don't matter.

Unless one team is down by more than 15 goals, right? Then they wouldn't want to get the snitch. There's tension!

Well, yeah, but when does that ever happen? Have you seen a professional soccer game go 16-0? An NFL game with a 112-point gap? Even in the NBA, all-time comeback records don't go much higher than a 16 goal gap. The best strategy to win Quidditch would be to make everyone a keeper until the snitch shows up. Nobody would do that (because it's boring), but any team that did would always win.*

So why does Quidditch work? For the following reasons:
  • The protagonist is the seeker. Can you imagine if Harry was the one making meaningless goals, while some minor character caught the snitch and won the game?
  • Quidditch wins and losses are not plot critical. If Harry had to win a Quidditch game to save his life, I would be a lot more mad at his team for not being smarter about gaming the system.
  • Something else is almost always going on -- like someone's trying to kill Harry or something, so we're invested in something other than the match.
These are good things to keep in mind if you're making your own fictional game. The more the plot focuses on the game, the more that game has to hold up under scrutiny.

And don't bother playing Quidditch in real life. It's not as interesting as it looks (unless you change the rules, of course).

* Though in the books, Quidditch teams are ranked by points scored, not games won. This fixes the brokenness for a tournament, but it makes individual games less interesting, and makes it almost impossible to have a true championship game.

World-Building: Making Up Your Own Games

One totally optional, but (in my opinion) totally fun aspect of world building is making up fictional games for your world. Like holidays and festivals, games unique to your world can give it a deeper feel and provide an endless source of subplots, conflicts, and climactic settings.

And they're easy to come up with: just take a real-world game and change it slightly. Put Chinese chess on a circular board and change the tiles. Play chess with holographic monsters. Combine Blitzkrieg with Stratego.

For a lot of fictional games, the rules don't actually matter. Although fans have made up rules for Avatar's Pai Sho and Song of Ice and Fire's cyvasse, nobody knows the rules used in the actual worlds because they don't matter. The writers have an idea of the basic concepts of the games (taken from the real-world games they combined) and they only reveal what they need to keep the plot moving.

But sometimes you want more than that. A critical event might turn on the outcome of a bet, like in Pirates 2 or Phantom Menace. Or your entire plot might center on a game, like Ender's Battle Room. In these cases, the reader needs to understand and care about what's going on. They need to know the rules.

If you're not into game design, keep things simple. Liars' Dice, podracing, and even the Battle Room are directly translated form real-world games. The writers only made slight alterations for their settings.

If you want something more complicated, be warned: an unbalanced game, whose rules are detailed in the story, will shatter the reader's disbelief. You can solve this by asking, "How could I break this game so that I win every time?" and then fix it, but that's getting into game design techniques, which I don't think you came here for.

Got that? Here's the summary:
  • Fictional games are easy to make: take a real-world game and change it slightly.
  • If the plot does not hinge on the outcome of a game: be vague about the rules.
  • If the plot does hinge on the outcome: stick as close to the rules of a real-world game as possible.
  • If the plot hinges on the outcome and you really, really want to come up with something unique: welcome to the world of game design, my friend. Here's a list of games to study up on.
Next week, I'll talk about one particular fantasy game that doesn't work, why it doesn't work, and why the novels end up working anyway. Until then, what are your favorite fictional games and why?

Fixing Mary Sue

Who is Mary Sue? Mary Sue is a character that is too perfect, the one that has or does cool things just because they're cool. Everybody likes them, and anyone who doesn't gets their comeuppance in the end. Mary Sue is the author's wish fulfillment.

Sue is most common in fan fiction.* You know, where the author's character is best friends with Luke Skywalker, Jayne Cobb, and Jean-Luc Picard. I don't think there's anything wrong with Mary in these contexts, but if you're trying to get published, you want to do away with Sue.

I don't think real Mary Sues appear in fiction as often as some say they do, but they do happen.

How do you avoid this? I mean, I [try to] make a living out of writing cool characters who do awesome things. And basically every character draws from myself in some way. How do I keep my super-cool pirates/ninjas/mech pilots from becoming wish fulfillment?

Here are some ideas:
  • Give them a flaw. Not an adorable non-flaw like "clumsiness," but a real flaw like "hell-bent on revenge and too proud to admit it."
  • Support their awesomeness. Why are they the youngest, most clever assassin in history? Did they train harder than everyone else? Were they kidnapped at birth and brutally trained to be a killer by a father figure who never loved them?
  • Make them fail. It's even better if it's their flaws that cause them to fail.
  • Don't let them be the best at everything. Have other characters be better than them at some things, both friends and enemies.
  • Give them likable enemies. Not just spiteful, ugly step-sisters, but characters whose opinions the reader can respect.

I don't think Mary Sue appears as much as the internet thinks she does, but it is something to watch out for. If you think you've got a Mary Sue, you need to cruelly examine everything about them and everything they do. Mess them up, make them fail, and ask why they are the way they are.

Who's Mary Sue in the end? It's you (and also Steven Seagal).

* The term 'Mary Sue' was coined by Paula Smith in 1973, when she wrote a parody Star Trek fan-fic starring Lieutenant Mary Sue, the youngest and most-loved Lieutenant in the fleet. You can read it here (page 25). It's kinda hilarious.