I'm a little burnt on posting amateur writing tips,* so today is your opportunity to ask me anything you like. Put your questions in the comments, and on Friday (well, my Friday... you know, in Thailand), I will answer them.

I agree to answer all of them, however nosy, strange, or inappropriate. I agree to answer with the truth when possible** and humor otherwise. And what the heck, I agree to post at least one picture.

There. I feel better already.

* This may have something to do with critiques that are coming in now. At the moment, I don't feel like I have much to say on how to write. Don't worry. I'll get over it.

** Which, of course, means when I feel like it.

Again With the Infodumps

I've been doing some critiquing lately. I think I've critiqued about 8 short stories/novel chapters since I joined, and at least half of them have the same problem: infodumping. (I know I've talked about this before, but bear with me. There's an Air Pirates excerpt a'coming.)

An infodump is when the story stops, to exposit information about the world or the character. This happens a lot in SF/F stories because they involve worlds with which we're unfamiliar. We need them to be explained, but usually not as much as many writers (myself included) believe we do.

For example, in one chapter Sam is in danger of losing his most trusted friends. His pirating used to be an attempt to do good, but Sam has become just as bad as the people he attacks. While his crew celebrates the Winter's Night festival in Savajinn, Sam stays on board his ship to think. The following outline is how the scene went in the first draft:

  1. A paragraph about how Sam's ship was refitted from a merchant ship and the changes he made.
  2. Two paragraphs about Savajinn and Sam's relationship with the town they'd moored at.
  3. One sentence of Sam thinking.
  4. Four paragraphs about Winter's Night, it's origins, traditions, and the differences between the festivals of Savajinn and the Imperium.
At the time, I thought it was all important. No, that's not true. I knew some of it wasn't, but I wanted to share all the cool stuff I'd come up with - like Savajinn and Winter's Night. The problem? Most of it had no bearing on the story. To the reader, Savajinn is just another country and Winter's Night another festival. Unless the details define the plot, readers don't need to know more than that.

In my first edit, I cut the infodumps by half and rewrote the remainder to be (mostly) more connected to Sam. Below is part of the scene - the paragraphs about Winter's Night, both before and after. It's still kinda infodumpy (I bet I could cut the whole thing actually), but it's better than it was. I submit it here with the hopes of helping some of you who may be doing the same thing, but don't realize it:

The sun set alone beyond the sea. It marked the beginning of Amber Winter, when the amber sun eclipsed the warmth of its sister. At the same time, fireworks went off in town, for the first setting of the eclipse also marked Souls’ Day – though in Savajinn, where the monks had little influence, the holiday was still known by the old traditions as Winter’s Night.

Souls’ Day was a day to remember the dead, to celebrate their life and their afterlife. People would feast and pray to their dead relatives, then launch fireworks and hot-air lanterns in celebration. Winter’s Night, on the other hand, was not a night to remember the dead, but to fear them. On Winter’s Night, it was said, the spirits of the restless dead came back to haunt the living. The fireworks and lanterns were meant not to celebrate, but to drive the spirits back to their world.

Same traditions, different meanings. Although the monks did have this much influence on Savajinn: there were no Winter’s Night feasts before the monks came.

Sam watched the celebrations from the prow for a long while. There was singing and dancing, even a parade winding through the streets. Children went here and there dressed as ghosts in what was once a prank to scare older folks, but had since become part of the fun. Some children even dressed as Azrael, for the pirate had become something of an icon to this feast of death.
Fireworks were set off in the town of Chuffton below. Everywhere, people released hot-air lanterns into the air. It was Winter’s Night, when – according to Savajinn tradition anyway – the spirits of the restless dead came back to haunt the living. The fireworks were meant to scare them away, and the lanterns to guide them home, though few took those things seriously. Mostly Winter’s Night was another excuse to get drunk.

I Draw Like I Write

I've been drawing again, and every time I do it, I realize more and more how much my drawing process is like my writing process.

I drew as a kid, but stopped when the things I drew didn't come out like they were in my head. I would doodle occasionally, but no more. So I guess that's the first similarity: I quit because I thought I wasn't any good.

Something inside me still wanted to do it, though, because I bought Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain a few years ago and worked through it. I think it was that book, more than anything, that taught me one of the most important lessons of my life: I learned I can be good at anything I want to be good at, if I'm willing to work hard.

Okay, so the first thing I do when I decide to draw is I don't. I write down "draw" on my todo list and put it off for a few days. Then when I'm done with that, I open my sketchbook and stare at a blank page for about 5-10 minutes. Why is this important? It's not. It's bad, actually. But I do it every time because: I'm afraid of drawing (or writing) something wrong.

When I finally get started, I plan. When you write, it's called outlining. When you draw, it's called blocking. Not everyone does it, but I do because I want to know that everything is in the right place before I start drawing "for real." So in both: I plan until I'm confident the end product has no major flaws.

Lastly, when I write, I'm constantly going back over each scene and chapter to clean it up. This is sometimes wasted effort when things get cut or rewritten, but I do it anyway. Apparently I do this when I draw too. I'll start with maybe the left eye, and I won't move on to another part until I've got all the detail - not perfect - but good. See: I want the part I'm working on to be "done" before I move on.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I treat both kinds of art the same way. It's me, you know? I am surprised at how much fear plays into both processes. I guess I need to work on that.

What's Cliche?

Everything creative is plagued by cliche. Writers are told over and over again not to use cliched phrases, cliched plots, cliched characters... But what's cliche? Sometimes people talk about cliches like they're definable and objective, but I think it's slightly more complicated than that.

At its heart, a cliche is something you have seen before and are tired of seeing. You're bored of it, maybe even annoyed or angry, BUT it's your opinion. People like to say things like, "The washed-up superhero has been done. It's so cliche." And maybe it has been done, but whether it's old and boring to you is another matter.

Take ninjas. Ninjas have been done, a lot. But you know what? I'm not sick of them. Give me Japanese guys in black pajamas - give them swords, shuriken, and smoke bombs - and I'm sold.*

My point is we should be aware of cliches, but not afraid of them. If it's something that you still enjoy, there may be others like you. If someone says they don't like your work because it's "been done," don't set your hard drive on fire. Write well, be as original as you can, but write what you love, even if everyone else is tired of it.**

But most of all, don't be afraid to write.

* It's worse than that. I know nothing about motorcycles, but I want a Kawasaki Ninja. There's a bottled tea here made of red beans and poppyseed (blech!), but because it's called Ninja flavor, I want it. I'm so sad.

** Now, it's different if an agent or editor says something is too cliche. They know what will sell, presumably. At the very least, they know what won't sell if you don't listen: you.

Much To Do About Nothing

A random writing sample from highschool. We were grouped in pairs and each given the same opening sentence. The assignment was to write a short story using at least 15 vocabulary words from the year. My partner and I used 51.

Much To Do About Nothing


Twists and Turns

I've spent the last week thinking of another short story to write. I've thrown out a lot of ideas as boring or predictable. The problem I've been having is finding a good twist.

I'm starting to think that the shorter the fiction, the more important it is to twist it. I'm using "twist" here in its broadest sense as something unexpected (as opposed to a twist that changes the meaning of everything that has happened in the story), so heck, maybe all fiction needs a twist.

One problem is predictability. If the reader sees it coming, then every time you hint at it or try to misdirect, they'll get increasingly annoyed. "Look, I already know the mysterious stranger is his father. Get on with it." This problem is exacerbated by the fact that so many twists are cliche (e.g. see Strange Horizons' list of stories they see too often, #9).

This can be tempered by using a smaller twist. Imagine twists on a continuum; on one end, there are the big twists: "OMG, Bruce Willis is dead!" or "OMG, Kevin Spacey is Keiser Soze!"* On the other end are smaller twists: Frodo decides not to destroy the Ring or Marlin sees Nemo in a plastic bag and thinks he's dead.

The bigger the twist, the harder it is to pull off. Readers are pretty good at figuring out what's really going on. But when a big twist does work, it's mind-blowing. Smaller twists, on the other hand, won't blow anybody's mind, but they're still interesting and much easier to pull off.

But what does it take to pull them off? Here are some ideas:
  • Practice. Try different things and see what works.
  • Read a lot. Among other things, this will help you know what's cliche.
  • Avoid hiding information from the reader artificially. If the assassin is the POV character, and he knows all along that the target is his daughter, hiding the info from the reader will only annoy them. (Exception: the unreliable narrator; e.g. give the assassin a reason for hiding it from the reader).
  • Misdirection. Set up something else that appears to be the truth. This is tricky, though, because it can't be too obvious. Like in Scooby-Doo, you knew the ghost was never the mean old janitor who hated the museum curator.
  • The twist should be better than the straightforward ending would have been. Like I've said before, don't twist just to be unpredictable. This is one reason why the "it was all a dream" ending always fails.
  • The twist should make sense. It'd be nice if this went without saying, but...
Anyway, I've decided on a smaller twist (I threw out a lot of ideas similar to the assassin-and-daughter example, because I couldn't hide the information in a believable way). Let's see if I can make it work.

* If you haven't seen these movies, I'm sorry. On the other hand, they're old - way past a spoiler moratorium, I think.

A Road of Misconceptions

The first thing I remember writing is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. I don't remember what it was about, but I know I drew pictures and stapled my thumb (twice) trying to put it together.

Major Misconception: At this time, I think my only misconception was that I was a fantastic writer, which when you're a kid is a pretty good misconception to have.

High School
I wrote a lot of humor, I recall. Spanish skits about butlers who watered the carpet and put the cat in the washer. Douglas Adams-style tales about gods who were heads of lettuce.

I wrote novels too, though I never finished any. A near future story about an elite team of soldiers who secretly protected the world from alien invasion. Another story in which a group of people woke from cryogenic hibernation to an empty Earth.

This period of writing stopped when I started a fantasy novel about a simple gnome-like creature who got swept up into adventure, where he met elves and dwarves and wizards on his way to saving the world. Around the time he reached a Rivendell knock-off, I realized I was rewriting The Fellowship of the Ring. I got depressed and didn't write anything again for years.

Misconception: To write, you had to be original. Being original meant not getting ideas from other stories.

Post-College, c. 2000 - 2007
Sometime after college, I realized that every song or story is like something else. There's nothing new in the world, and all that. This freed me to write whatever I wanted and worry about originality later. I started a few stories, but every time it got hard, I'd get lazy and forget all about it.

Maybe a year or two later, I realized if I ever really wanted to write I had to just do it. I wrote a short story, to prove to myself I could finish something, then started Travelers. Whatever happened, whatever I felt about the novel, I determined to finish it.

Misconception: Any decent story could be published. I'm actually glad I believed this. I'm not sure if I would've kept my resolve knowing how hard it really is.

Querying Travelers
When I finished Travelers, I didn't know if it was good enough to be published but figured I'd try. I'm glad I did. I learned a lot from the process, and even more from reading agent/author blogs around the web.

Misconception: A lot of misconceptions were shattered around this time, but the biggest one was that the query letter was just a formality. I thought agents just wanted an idea what the book was about, then they'd read the book and decide if they liked it.

With the exception of the Lost Years in college, I have no regrets about the road I've taken. I mean, sure, it'd be great if I knew everything before I started, saving myself time, embarassment, and trouble. But I don't think life works that way. I look forward to more shattered misconceptions in the future.