No One Cares about Your Unwritten Fiction but You

You have stories roaming around in your head. I have stories like that, too. But until we get those stories out of our heads and onto a computer screen, they don’t exist for anyone who lives outside our heads and so those other people can’t care.

Our schooling gives us the wrong impression. In schools they act like even one single child not living up to his potential will wreck their whole century. But in fact even they don’t really expect everyone to do well, and if loads of kids have to give up dreams of becoming writers or rock stars or NFL football players in order to become accountants or congressmen or garbage men, that’s just normal life. In some schools the teachers learn to expect nearly everyone to fail— they are just happy when Joe becomes a garbage man and not a hit man.

The fact is, if you never write another word and give up your writing dream forever— delete your Scrivener, donate all your how-to-write books to the St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop, and burn your notebooks— no one will really care. If you have family members or loved ones, they may be sad if the giving-up process makes you visibly sad, but they don’t really care about the loss of your unwritten work, because those things aren’t real to them.

Now, once you start writing your stories down, even if the first ones are pretty bad, you can start getting better at those writing skills that don’t just involve making up stories in your head. If you try for years and can’t get an agent or a big traditional publisher interested, try small presses or indie publishing or putting your novels up on a blog or on Wattpad. In today’s writing world, anyone can get his writing out there where readers can see it. Which can be a bad thing, as when a 14-year-old girl writes the first draft of a Nanowrimo novel and thinks it’s good enough to be self-published, or at least to be on Wattpad. In ten or twenty years, that weak, unfinished novel she published will haunt her— though more and more writers will have their own skeletons in the online closet instead of in their trunk in the attic where juvenilia properly belong.

That work in your head might well be great. Or it could become great, with enough editing and revisions. It might not be the kind of great I would care for, but still, it could be great. But only if you can get it out of your head. So get to it!

Why aren’t you writing RIGHT NOW?

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Real Writing and Your Feelings

Some people think writing is about expressing their feelings. They throw a bunch of their words at a page in ragged, poetry-type lines and say they are poets. They throw words at a page in prose-type lines and say they are a novelist. Because their feelings got expressed. And I say, bullsh-t.

Novels and poetry are a form of communication. They are supposed to be understood by other people. Expressing random feelings on paper may make you feel better, but those words don’t communicate well. You have to write with other people— your conversation partners— in mind.

The feelings-expressers are not at heart self-centered people. They have simply been mis-educated. They have been told to do finger paintings and later write prose and poems just to ‘express themselves.’ And no matter how bad their work is, they get the same level of praise as someone who is actually brilliant.

No wonder they are missing the point. Real writing is like a marathon. It’s hard to do, and there is likely only one winner. We can’t all be the best poet in the world or the best novelist in the world. And being the best matters, because being good matters.

Most writing, even the bad, self-indulgent stuff, has something of good in it somewhere. And that is a start. But as real writers we don’t just want one or two good bits in our work. We want lots of good bits, and we want to improve our writing day by day so we get even more good bits. We want to write books that are all the good stuff and none of the bad or pathetic stuff. We want to be the best, even if it’s not the best novelist ever but just the best contemporary Amish vampire fiction writer.

This doesn’t mean that there is no room for a fiction writer to express some feelings. But it has to be part of a good story or no one will see that expression of feelings. And when you are an emotionally mature writer, you can think on whether that desired feeling-expression helps or harms the story in general. (I recently started reading a Stephen King book which started out dull, and then he put in an anti-Trump rant. Since he clearly no longer cares about those readers who don’t share his politics or who mind dull story-beginnings, I quit reading at that point.)

We need to overcome that kindergarten-level view of creative work as something that wins everyone praise, and realize that we need to get good as writers. Maybe we only have the gifts to get a little good in some well-defined corner of the fiction world, but we want to be as good as we can be— and then get just a wee bit better.

END OF RANT

 

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No, Virginia, there is no Mary Sue

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Real life can bring disappointment. Santa Claus is a Catholic bishop who punched heretics. And Mary Sue, that figure beloved by amateur writing lore, isn’t real. She and her stepbrother Gary Stu are just figments of the amateur writing wars.

Mary Sue, other than being a way of making fun of women with unfashionable names like Mary and Susan, has no objective meaning. One person says it’s a character that is too perfect. (Was Jesus Christ then the ultimate Mary Sue— or Gary Lou?) Another says it’s a character who is too ‘nice.’ Or a character that doesn’t have the right flaws— the ones that ‘count.’

Realistically, calling someone else’s character a Mary Sue is another arena to fight the opinion wars. John’s a hardcore angry atheist? Then every character in your Evangelical Christian romance is a Mary Sue because they all go to church weekly and refrain from stealing and using heroin. Does Mandy have a low opinion of the ‘politically correct?’  Then she will accuse your characters of being sensitive-snowflake Mary Sues who will worry if a murderer would think it’s ‘racist’ if he is asked not to do the murder thing any more. Any  character more morally straight than Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan can be seen as a Mary Sue by somebody.

If you get accuse of having written a Mary Sue, perhaps the best thing to do is ignore it, as you would do if someone accused your protagonist of being Santa Claus’s lead reindeer. If you really feel you have to respond, ask the person— what, specifically, is wrong with the character? If he responds ’she’s too nice,’ that’s not a specific response. In what scene, in what action, is that character being ‘too nice?’ Chances are, it’s going to come down to a matter of taste or opinion.

Sometimes the problem is genre. If you are writing Christian fiction or Amish romance, the guy who writes spy novels with high body counts may see all your best characters as Mary Sues. But the genre standards are different. If you write an Amish girl who can kill bad guys seven different ways with a pencil eraser, that won’t meet the standards of the Amish romance genre, which has a notoriously low body count.

When you despair, remember that the greatest writers in the world wrote characters who were nice as well as ones that were Lady Macbeth. Jane Austen wrote whole books full of people who never called anyone a motherf-ck-er, not once. Was she a writer of Mary Sue characters? No. And neither are you. Go forth, and write stuff!

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Character Groups: What George R. R. Martin Taught Me

I’ve been getting writing lessons from George R. R. Martin lately— OK, I’ve been binge-reading the Game of Thrones series. (I’ve never seen the TV show except for a few minutes when HBO had a free preview. Didn’t care for it at the time.)

The main thing I’ve learned so far is actually from an appendix of Book One (A Game of Thrones) in which it lists characters by which families they are associated with. There’s House Baratheon, House Stark, House Lannister, House Arryn, House Tully and more. Not only are the family members listed, but also their servants, knights, bannermen and the lesser houses connected to them.

In my own current WIP, I’ve come to realize I need to work on forming sets of characters like this myself— for two different kingdoms, Schwalenland, and a neighboring, poorer kingdom called Ruthenia where my protagonist goes into exile, hidden from the tyrannical king who kills her parents, her father’s dragon, and his own wives, whenever he wants a different one.

For Schwalenland, writing lists of the noble houses and other noble families is part of the worldbuilding. For Ruthenia, it’s important because my protagonist will be meeting different Ruthenian noble families, including, eventually, the Tsar-Autocrat of Ruthenia, who is also the Postmaster of a postal service which uses firebirds to get messages across the land (to the few Ruthenians who can read.)

Character groups are not only important in sweeping fantasy fiction series. Even in a contemporary mystery novel, your character may interact with a group of characters in a workplace, another group in the home environment, and other groups in places associated with solving the mystery.

I’ve realized that NOT thinking about the character groups I shall need, and creating them, slows down my progress on the WIP. I’m trying to take time to create a few of the character groups I shall need. For my Ruthenian characters, since Ruthenia was settled by small groups from the different Slavic-language-speaking countries, I have to research names typical of Ukrainian, Serbo-Croatian, Russian, Polish, Czech and other Slavic groups, and find names for the noble estates as well. And work out the economic resources of the different estates. House Pavliuk has a copper mine, vicuna wool, and rare types of wood valued by woodworkers.

One creepy thing about the mass-market paperback edition of the books I am reading— among the endorsements by other fantasy writers they include one by MARION ZIMMER BRADLEY. Whose daughter Moira Greyland has interesting things to say about the abuses inflicted by MZB and her husband, Walter Breen, a convicted pedophile. MZB is no longer someone whose endorsement would be respected by anyone, I am afraid. (I used to be an obsessive Darkover fan, but now I can see too much of the real MZB in some of the stories.)

Comment: How do you create character groups for your fiction? Do you create them in advance or as you need them? Do you have any good tricks for doing it?

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IWSG: Novels You Have To Read

Being a writer— or an aspiring writer— is different. If you are a child or a plumber or a factory worker, the books you read are books you want to read. But for writers, there are books we have to read to make us better writers. There are good how-to-write books, sure. But one kind of must-read book for writers is examples of the kind of writing we do, or want to do.

For myself, right now I’m reading George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. No, I never watched the television series, and no, watching the TV series does not substitute for reading the book. I read it because it’s a wildly popular book in a genre (fantasy) which I like/write in.

THREE KINDS OF MUST-READ NOVELS

If you are a writer, I hope you are doing a lot of reading of all sorts of books. But there are three types which are kinds of books that you, personally, must-read.

  • CURRENT BOOKS IN YOUR GENRE(S) – You have to know what books are selling right at this moment, in any genre you write in or might soon write in. If you know what science fiction was like in 1950, but haven’t read anything recent, you are not ready to write any kind of science fiction— not even 1950s nostalgia science fiction.
  • CLASSIC AND OLDER BOOKS IN YOUR GENRE(S) – Who were the earlier writers who shaped your genre(s)? You need to read them. You also need to read older but non-classic genre books— many of your readers will have read such books. You need to know what your target readers will find ‘old hat’ or ‘done to death.’
  • OUT-OF-GENRE FICTION – Successful fiction writers are widely read. That writer of best-selling romance novels? She probably reads spy novels or mysteries or literary fiction on the side. You need to read new books and old books, popular and obscure books. Even some of the Great Books, but don’t despair. You don’t actually have to read Ernest Hemingway. Pick books that appeal to you in some way.

Now, if there is a book that is popular but you can’t force yourself to read past the first chapter, perhaps that’s not the book for you. You might read three useful-to-you novels in the time it would take to make yourself finish something you can’t stand. Also, if you have strong moral objections to the content of a popular book, go with your conscience. But you need to read something. Ideally, a lot of somethings.

IWSG visitors:

Please mention the URL of your blog in a comment and I will add your blog to the list of blogs I follow on Bloglovin’. I am looking to increase the number of blogs I interact with, and I’m willing to ‘reward’ comments on this blog by adding your blog to my list. 

Setups and Payoffs in Fiction Writing

I’ve been reading Plot Gardening by Chris Fox, and he introduced to me the concepts of setups and payoffs in a fictional plot.

What is a setup? What is a payoff? Actually it’s easier to define the payoff first. A payoff is a story event for which the main character (and the reader) need to prepare. If your fantasy novel has at its conclusion a sword-fight between your hero and the Dark Lord, you need to set that up. Your hero needs a sword, and needs to know how to use it. Perhaps he needs a magic sword in order to win a fight with that particular Dark Lord.

Payoffs don’t always happen at the conclusion of a novel. Perhaps in your historical novel your heroine needs to be put into a position where marrying a (handsome) stranger seems like her only choice. This marriage is a payoff, though it will probably happen closer to the beginning of your novel. To set up for that payoff, you may perhaps need to turn your comfortable middle-class historical heroine into an orphan, and have a loathsome step-brother offer her a position as an unpaid nanny in his home. Perhaps the step-brother tells her that is her only choice to avoid ending up in a workhouse or worse. That kind of setup would make a marriage to a stranger seem like a plausible choice.

Setup scenes make the reader expect a payoff. If we are shown a firearm in an early scene, we expect that firearm to be fired in a later scene— not necessarily a self-defense or murder type firing, it could be hunting or target practice. But if something is mentioned in a significant way, we expect that it is a setup that will be paid off later in the story.

In the same way, big payoffs in a story have to be set up. Is your character going to undergo a major change— perhaps learning skills or becoming more independent? You can’t just state that fact in your climatic scene, you have to set it up in earlier scenes, or the change seems unrealistic and unmotivated.

Chris Fox says that to avoid ‘plot holes’ you have to pay off your setoffs and set up your payoffs. Setups make your future payoff scenes seem less random and ‘out of the blue.’ Actually having the payoff happen means that those setup scenes had meaning for the story as a whole.

One way to start thinking about setups and payoffs is to think about your climactic scenes. What payoffs will happen at that time? What might you need to do to set up those payoffs? And if you have a scene, often near the beginning, that feels like a setup, think how that scene can lead to a payoff. (If your scene sets up something that will never lead to any kind of payoff, it may not be an important scene for your novel.)

Assignment: Read a favorite novel and note scenes that seem to be setups or payoffs.

Key Character Traits: Just Say It

Recently I’ve been reading Mercedes Lackey’s more recent books in the Elemental Masters series, which features Sherlock Holmes as a character. Arthur Conan Doyle, the character’s creator, has I guess been dead long enough that other writers can use his character. But what do we know about Sherlock Holmes?

Perhaps you know that Holmes is a great detective who uses deductive (or inductive) reasoning to solve cases. Or that he is a brilliant man with loads of obscure knowledge. How do we know this? Because Conan Doyle told us so!

You may believe that writers should be more subtle than that. But really, how else can we convey that sort of information about our characters? We can write a scene that illustrates, we think, that a character is highly intelligent. But if we don’t say the words, some of our readers will conclude that the character is of average intelligence or even not that bright. Readers don’t all experience stories the same way, and many miss out on the subtle intentions of the author.

P. T. Barnum’s circus was the greatest show on Earth. We know that because Barnum plastered those words on every circus poster. He was not subtle. But he had the greatest show on Earth— because he said so.

Muhammed Ali (born Cassius Clay) was The Greatest. How do we know? He said so, repeatedly. And now, after his death, when they do a television documentary about his life and death, the words ‘The Greatest’ are used by a great many people who knew him.

You may wrinkle your nose up at the idea of just telling readers about a character’s most important trait. Isn’t that telling instead of showing? Yes, it is. But that beginning writer’s mantra of ‘show, don’t tell’ is not a commandment from On High. Both showing and telling have a place in our stories. I mean, which works better, telling the reader that a character has green eyes, or writing an otherwise unnecessary scene to show the reader the character’s eye color?

Character features that you tell directly unify the reader experience. Everyone who reads your story will know that John is clever, Mary is clumsy, Jack is homosexual, and Marco is a black man. Being more subtle, and showing, means you are leaving readers out of the loop. I remember reading two different books in which a major character was black, but I didn’t know until the latter half of the book. The writer was just too subtle about it.

The question is, which character features are important enough to tell? You don’t want to make a long list of things to tell— that bores readers. That’s why we have the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule, because some beginning writers want to write lists of character traits into their story. You need to reserve the telling to no more than one or two important traits— traits that make your character who he is in the story.

Descriptive items and diversity status are also things that should usually be stated flat out. You don’t need to make a big deal about it. You just need to let your readers know to picture the character as thin, fat, tall, short, Asian, Caucasian, Gay or straight, wheelchair-bound or able-bodied. These things need to come in near the beginning— when you introduce the character for the first time.

It’s good practice, when telling about an important trait, to mention it more than once. I remember the James Blish novelizations of Star Trek episodes. He mentioned, again and again, that Lt. Uhura was a black woman. Sometimes he called her a ‘Bantu woman.’ I’m sure today he’d have to do a major rewrite. But none of the readers of his Star Trek books missed out on the fact that Lt. Uhura was a black woman of African origin. If he hadn’t repeated the description, I’m sure that some skimming-through readers who had not yet viewed the TV series might have pictured Uhura as a blonde white woman, or an Asian woman. Or one of those green-skinned ladies they had on the original Star Trek.

Telling, like showing, is an important writing tool, if done correctly. You need to learn when and what to tell, and what to show, in order to communicate your story to readers.