Today in stupid advice

I can’t even pretend to be polite about this. It’s ridiculous.

Yes, some of the greatest SF/F writers out there love to read SF/F, some don’t.

As a writer you should love to read. If you don’t read you … it’s hard to explain but consider it Furthering Education or whatever the devil that modern phrase for it is when teachers are required to go back to college every few years kinda thing.

But reading should be something you love.

This and it’s myriad copies (seriously, I find it both terrifyingly cult-like as well as exceedingly telling that these are always worded nigh identically) are phrased in a way that clearly implies “so you known what is selling right now and you can write that”.

I call bullshit.

Don’t believe me? Follow editors and they’re all wanting to see something new and different and lament all the agents who’re only accepting the tried and true.

Look at how many clones of Twilight failed to garner its numbers. The Harry Potter knockoffs. Too, look at the insane number of people of all ages who prefer YA because it’s where they can find something different … to say nothing of YA not actually needing a special genre tag for “this isn’t depressing, dark, etc”.

In short the people like Ms Dawson who say this are horribly out of touch.

You want advice on writing? Look to the successful writers: Ed Greenwood, Neil Gaimen, Terry Pratchett, Spider Robinson, J K Rowling, Saladin Ahmed, Jeph Jacques …

What do they all have in common? They didn’t look at their own genre for anything. Not really. Pratchett’s Discworld stuff started out parodying Dragon Riders of Pern which is a fantasy novel, but I’m pretty sure that is not what the Dawsons of the world mean.

In many cases they utterly defy genre. Ben Bova acknowledges that Spider’s stuff is not, strictly speaking (and doubly so back when Ben was editor of a major SF magazine!) SciFi, but where the hell else could Spider’s stuff find a home?! It definitely wasn’t Romance, Horror, Mystery, or Western. It could be called SF/F if you squinted and turned your head upside-down … so, what the hell! True, Spider reads SF/F … because he likes a good Heinlein, not because it has anything to do with his work.

Ed Greenwood is a librarian whose home is packed to the gills with tens of thousands of books, all of which he has read. So, okay, yeah he reads Fantasy … and cooking, and architecture, and biology, and mystery, and horror, and poetry, and … he just likes books. And that diversity of tastes influences his work.

The thing is, do your thing. Whatever that thing may be. Try to sell it yo an agent if you like, but agents are … no one’s sure why … a bit obsessed with finding the next big clone of the current hot trend; like it costs them anything to accept something great and just actually do their flippin’ job! But publishers won’t let their editors accept unagented stuff anymore. But luckily traditional publishing is really just great for an advance which is pretty paltry and for being distributed by Ingram which I probably misspelled and don’t care but is also pretty much the distributor for All Things Book for US audiences (sad but true, Reagan & Bush’s dismantling of antitrust laws was a Bad Thing … not that publishing much got enforcement of them anyway).

Still, as truly awful as they are (and words can’t express how awful they are) it’s as effective or more so to be available on Amazon which is easy enough to do. Though I’ll be damned if I’ll engage in the modern day slavery of Kindle Unlimited (exclusivity to Amazon and I make a piece if an arbitrary sized pie made of pocket change that Amazon sets?! Fuck that.)

But read what you like, read what you like. And remember: Ursula Vernon doesn’t read SF/F. But she writes it and can’t seem to stay off the bestseller lists 🤷‍♀️.

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Writing advice

Yeah, I’m back on this.  But it’s important.

So, when I tell people I’ve published a book I get some very odd questions, but one that comes up often is “so how did that happen?”

How does one answer that?  I usually go with “I went through most of a pack of paper and several ink cartridges.”

Thing is, that is how it happens.  I know a lot of writers, but I don’t know many authors.  The difference?  The former have ideas, and they write … a lot … but they never finish anything, or never put it out there when they’re done.

Some don’t want to publish, they write for their own pleasure.  This is well and good.  Just as there are plenty of people, some of them brilliantly talented, who paint or draw just for the pleasure of it and others who sell their work so the same should be with any art or craft; writing is no exception.

For the rest, just get to work.

Now, some myths:

You must write every day, no exceptions and no excuses!

Bullshit.  This is so very much not true.  This seems to be more prominent among Americans.  For those in other countries, America is a barbarism where paid sick leave (or even unpaid!) isn’t always available and rather than rise up in revolution against it we developed “the American work ethic” and it’s as perverse as it sounds.

No, art suffers if you do it when you’re not up to it.  Now, you must be self aware enough to know the difference between “I’m just not feeling it today” and “I really don’t want to write this scene”.  The former is fine.  There is no point spending an hour staring at the paper writing nothing, or in writing for an hour a few thousand words that you’ll throw away tomorrow.  The latter … get it over with and move on.

There’s no such thing as writer’s block; it’s all in your mind!

Mmmm … yes and no.  There can be a number of things that are preventing you from moving forward in your story.  Maybe it turns out you need to backtrack and rewrite something, but until you discover that you’re stuck and you can’t move on.  Maybe your dog died and you just can’t concentrate.  Maybe you’re a chronic depressive and you’re having a low day, week, month, year … and you can’t seem to write anything or write anything you want to keep.

Writer’s block is no superstitious concept.  It’s a simple lack of inspiration.  It can have a billion and one causes and reasons, and it can have two billion and five solutions.

Find your solutions, but don’t let anyone tell you that all you have to do is plant your arse in the chair and write (unless, you know, that actually works for you).

You should write like … / Never use …

Just … no.  No, definitely not.  Proof?  Look at the criticisms of any wildly popular work.  I mean the stuff that lasts, like Harry PotterThe HobbitAlice in Wonderland, and so many many more.  They break rules, some break every modern rule.  Bill Shakespeare broke the rules, his contemporaries did not; who do we remember?  Ms Rowling was writing in a “dead genre”, among other “writing faux pas”; who is the best selling author of all time (no Bible comments, please)?

Don’t take thou shalt and thou shalt not from any author, even the most successful ones.  First off, Stephen King said to avoid adverbs, not to never use them; he uses them.  Thing is, it makes a kind of sense for the pacing and tone of his books, but that’d be horrid advice for Lawrence Block to follow.

I mean “thou shalt write thine own damned book” and “thou shalt finish what thou starts” and “once it’s bloody finished, bloody publish it” and so forth, those are fine.  “Thou shalt find thine own voice/style”, etc. this is good.  Absolutes suck, but “absolutes” are good reminders that we’re creating art.  We’re not building and designing nuclear reactors here, there is no precise science to follow; this is art, it’s all about imperfections, experimentation, creativity, and doing whatever.  Well, unless you’re trying to put out a cheap dime pulp in a hurry that’s deliberately formulaic and such … but that’s a complete other kettle of popcorn.

You must do X, Y, Z before you can write your novel / [blah blah blah] pay your dues …

I don’t know where to begin with this one.  It’s just not true on many levels.

  1. Some people just don’t write short fiction
  2. The “examples” usually given weren’t people following a deliberate career path, they were coincidences (and if you’ll notice it’s generally the same list of specific, mostly, old scifi authors.) and leaves out the numerous examples of people who are just as famous or more-so who didn’t go this route.
  3. There’s not really a short fiction market anymore.  Well, self-published, but not a “professional” short market.
  4. That “gotta write a million words” or whatever it was, wasn’t meant to be literal gospel truth and it certainly wasn’t thinking just write a million words of pure drivel.  You must always be aiming for quality and somewhere in there will be mistakes and pitfalls from which we learn and grow.  Read all of Sir Terry Pratchett‘s work from earliest to final (moment of sadness) and you’ll see it.  Heinlein, Asimov, Dickens … you see it if you look at someone with a long enough career.  Some start to lose their touch and so the opposite can become true as well.

In simple, and as always, to be blunt:  go ye forth and write, finish what you write (unless it really is garbage, but get at least a second if not twenty-fifth opinion on that subject before genuinely trashing it), find a means to get it to the world.  That’s the only sure-fire formula for success.  Everything else is superstition.

There are no shortcuts

Sorry for the long time with nothing but social commentary, but I’ve just not had a lot of new things to talk about.

Well, not today.

My wife, who has infinitely more patience for internet discussion forums than I (mathematicians, please feel free to correct me, but infinity is how many more times than less than nothing is something, right?), was noticing how a lot of aspiring authors, especially of an age equal to or less than our own (she was born 1980 & I 1981) seem to think there’s a secret formula to a) turn whatever idea they have into a novel & b) for it to sell.

Well, I’m here to tell you absolutely free that yes such a formula does exist!! [Try to imagine that sounds a bit like the twin sister of that bearded guy on all the infomercials]

A) Sit your arse down (you may stand if desired, but it’s liable to get uncomfortable and awkward), put letters together until they form words, put words and punctuation together until they form sentences, put the sentences together until they make paragraphs, those you’ll group into chapters, and finally you gather you chapters into a novel (advanced authors can group novels into series).

B) Put it out there, and don’t give up.

That’s all you can do.

Yes, if you want to write something as, largely, ephemeral as a Harlequin Romance there’re formulae to follow and it will turn you out a cookie-cutter story quickly and you can usually get Harlequin Press to buy it. Not knocking it, for one thing some really phenomenal authors have written that kind of thing, and some if the greatest Western & SciFi stories were that. But those authors took the formula in hand and, pardon the expression, made it their little bitch; it followed them, rather than the other way around. It set the parameters of the story, but they still has a story to tell.

There’s no special trick that will guarantee you’ll finish the thing, except not giving up.

Outlines? No, I couldn’t even outline my finished work if my life depended upon it, let alone something I haven’t written yet; I don’t really have the faintest clue how. You can try it, if you like, some authors dig it and others hate it, and still others (such as myself) are mystified and intimidated by it.

Character questionnaires? They’re fun, the better of them can possibly be a handy reference tool, but remember that you probably couldn’t fill one out completely for yourself and six friends and, even if you can, you probably won’t have an accurate picture of any of you … so they shouldn’t be your alpha and omega of characterisation.

It doesn’t matter if you sit down with Pantera at decibel levels that would shame Grand Funk and a Big Gulp full of Jamesons, lock yourself in a sound proof room with incense, try to use a laptop while sitting zazen, or spend the day on the London underground with a BIC writing on Kleenex. It’s just got to work for you. You probably shouldn’t ritualise it over much or you’ll find yourself so caught up in ritual that you lose track of ideas; really, that spark of inspiration isn’t going to wait while you to fire up the Yanni CD, brew that special herbal tea, paint your toenails, take a bath, and chain the family and neighbours in your basement (yes, I’m sort of making fun of a few people from a thread on NaNoWriMo).

There’s no secret to making it a great story, either. Doesn’t matter if you wrote it in one draft or fifty (though excess drafts can lead to a too sterile narrative, but excess is a relative quantity), it doesn’t matter if you go over it with a fine toothed thesaurus or strip out every scrap of descriptive language, axe murder every adverb or add fifteen to every sentence. None of those tricks you find touted are a magic solution. Some help in certain genres, some work for certain types of writing (non-fiction, scripts, etc.) because, contrary to a new popular attitude, writing is not the same across all things. What is necessary to ensure accurate and logical textbooks is useless to a novel, what helps keep a short story streamlined can ruin a script, and so on. All that can make a story great is a mix of perception from the reader, talent of the writer (yes, there’s such a thing as talent, and all the piano lessons & practice in the world will no more turn you into Bach than all the writing exercises in history will make you Rudyard Kipling), and some stories are more liable to resonate with people than others (according to someone, Pat Rothfuss I think, that’s going to ultimately be the human heart in conflict with itself).

As for selling it? Well, you’ll never sell what never leaves your hands (literally and metaphorically). Whether you self-publish or traditionally do so, you have to try.

There’re things that help.

First off, yes, having written the current popular formula … assuming you haven’t finished in a saturated market that is beginning to reach critical mass and be transitioning to something else. If you like the style of story, fine. But I suggest you not write it just because it’s what’s selling right now … not unless you’re an experienced writer who can knock out a clean manuscript to shop to an agent or to post to iBooks in only a month or three, because you’re unlikely to finish while it’s still In.

Secondly, don’t get discouraged. Remember, it took a long time for the Beatles and J K Rowling to get a contract. They both could wallpaper a room with rejections. If you’re self-publishing … remember that, by and large, people don’t read. Even NYTimes Bestsellers might only have got a thousand sales, and they probably had the help of ads that cost a couple thousand dollars each.

Thirdly, don’t give up. Taking down a story that isn’t selling isn’t going to sell it any better. If it ain’t costing you to offer it, don’t remove it. If you’re traditionally published … try talking to your agent to see if they can help you get some better publicity or something.

Finally, edit. Self-published especially, since you’re not going to sell very well if you’ve a book out that looks like it was written by a schizophrenic toddler with Tourette syndrome, but even if you plan to submit it to an agent/publisher it’s not going to impress them to look at a garbled parody of English (or French, Portuguese, or whatever you wrote it in); they’re buying your writing, not your glorious idea … besides, even if they love the idea, they’ve got to be able to find it inside all that text, and they can’t do that if it’s unintelligible.

One trick that does really help, though: read. Doesn’t have to be the genre you’re writing in (might even help not to be, but that depends on you), but read. The kind of writing does matter, it does no good to read novels to learn to be a poet, but beyond that just read for the simple pleasure of it. Don’t pull the story apart like some literature class assignment looking for themes and plots and cheeseburgers and … buggered if I know, I was never lying when I said I paid all but no attention whatsoever in my literature classes … just read. By doing so you’ll, the same way a child learns to speak by listening to people around her talking, you’ll start to get an idea how to tell a story.

Really, if the only thing you’ve ever read is a book about how to write (or books) it’ll show. There’ll be something unnatural about it to those who can’t spot the signs, and the rest of us can probably damned near say which writing manuals you used.

Stephen King, American author best known for h...

“If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

― Stephen King

Writing, like life, can’t be hurried and still maintain quality. Kraft Easy Mac might only take a minute in the microwave, but is it really anywhere near as good as the stuff your nana made from scratch with three kinds of real artisan cheeses and homemade pasta? Probably not, unless nana was real shite in the kitchen. And, unlike the Easy Mac which, news flash younger readers, used to take something like five minutes, there’s nothing much that can speed up writing except, maybe, spending time you could otherwise be writing doing exercises in Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. So, if you never want to be better than mid-list (if that high) forget about shortcuts, forget about tricks, forget about anything except what it takes to keep your story moving, your fingers on pen/keyboard, your characters from wandering off to play strip poker, and so that you can remember that Bridgette has curling green hair now because of that spell that backfired in the third chapter.

And seriously, folks, who besides Dean Wesley Smith actually ever wants to be known for churning out literary Easy Mac?! (don’t ask).

Best (and most awesomely put) writing advice I’ve ever seen

From one of this year’s NaNoWriMo Pep Talks

Pep Talk from Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig

Imagine being allowed to do something you’re not supposed to do.

Imagine you’re given the keys to a mud-bogging Bronco, or a dune buggy, or a Lamborghini. And then, you’re pointed toward a field. A soccer field outside a high school, or maybe just a wide open grassland. Nobody there. No kids playing. No animals frolicking. In fact, right now, nobody is here to see you at all.

You have total freedom to rev the engine, slam the pedal to the floor, and gun it through that field. You can do donuts, spinning the car wildly about, flinging up mud, leaving tracks that look like the calligraphy of an old, mad god.

You can slop mud on the car. You can get out and dance in the grass.

You can do whatever you want.

This is not something we’re particularly used to, as adults. My toddler gets it. He isn’t fenced in by the boundaries of adulthood—which, okay, yes, that means he doesn’t necessarily know not to shove a ham sandwich into a whirring fan (instant ham salad!) or not to climb the tallest thing and leap off it like a puma.

But it also means he doesn’t know why he can’t just pick up a pen and start drawing. It means he has no problem grabbing a blob of Play-Doh and creating whatever his fumbling little hands can manage. It means that he’ll grab a Transformers toy and half-transform it into some lumbering robot-car monstrosity—and when an adult might say, “No, no, it’s like this or it’s like that; it’s a robot or it’s a car,” he’s like, “Uh, yeah, no. Go back to your tax forms and your HGTV, stupid adult, I’ve just created a Frankencarbot and you can go hide your head in the sand-swept banality of grown-up life, sucker.”

His entire creative life is the “Everything Is Awesome” song from The LEGO Movie. Because he doesn’t know what he can or can’t do. He doesn’t know about art or form or criticism or any of that. He can do whatever he wants. (Ham sandwiches and fan blades aside.)

And you can do whatever you want, too.

The blank page is yours. Cast aside worries over art and criticism. Imagine a land without rules. Imagine that nobody has ever told you that you cannot or should not do this thing. Those people were wrong. Forget those voices. Because, for real?

It’s an empty field and you’ve got the keys to a freaking Ferrari.

It’s a white tablecloth and you’ve got ketchup, mustard, and relish.

It’s a blank page and you’ve got all the letters and words you need.

Rev the engine and take the ride. Paint with all the colors the condiments at your table allow. Create whatever robot-human monstrosities your mind cares to conjure. Crack open your chest and plop your heart onto the page.

Right now: just write. Donuts in an empty field.

Leave your mark.

Chuck’s Website
Chuck’s Books

Writing about writing

I’m going to take a tiny break from my poking around the NaNoWriMo forums, and unburden my mind on something.

I spend an awful lot of time writing about writing when I only have one book out, don’t I?

Seems strange, especially to me.

Thing is, Tolkien wrote a bit about writing and he only ever released two books (Lord of the Rings, for those who don’t know, was only a trilogy due to paper shortages).  I certainly don’t believe I’m half the author that Tolkien was, nor do I disregard his academic writing … but his fiction is only two works.  Silmirilion, and others are unfinished and posthumous publications.

Thing is, a person who writes can know a lot about writing without being published.  If this were not true there would not be writer discussions everywhere on the internet, and before that on Usenet, and before that on Fidonet, and before that on select BBSes, and before that in various paper newsletters or coffee shoppe/library based clubs.  No, a person can have an hundred titles published and not know anything about writing, and a person can have nothing published and know everything.  It’s like saying someone with a degree in something is more knowledgeable than someone without one — not always true, the difference is that one met certain criterion in a university, the other just spent a lot of time in careful study.

I don’t propose to know all about writing.  I certainly would never claim to, on purpose, write literary works — if for no other reason than my outright distaste for every single example of such that I’ve ever encountered.

The thing is, we all find something that works for us — we share that for those who it might save some grief and pain.  Somewhere out there is another writer wired a bit like myself who is staring, tears in her/his eyes, struggling to compose a tale upon the cold, lifeless screen of a computer.  Sweety, turn off the machine, grab some ink and paper, give that a try.  Hurray, another story rescued!

Also, one cannot write without reading.  This is stated time and again.  Someone had to be the first writer, someone had to be the first blacksmith, so I suppose it’s not quite true — someone can work it out from nothing but it’s going to be pretty unlikely.  Even our friend Mr First Blacksmith, he probably knew something about making bronze, and Mr First Bronzesmith learnt something from Granddaddy Copper or Tin-smith, both of whom learnt all they needed from Ugh Goldsmith who figured out the shiny yellow rocks look neat if you smash them with some dull gray rocks, and goes all runny if you get it near that neat fire thing his cousin Og No Eyebrows discovered last week.  So, I say, you must read.  The first novelists read poetry.  What did the first poets read?  I honestly don’t know, it’s not an area of history that ever much intrigued me, but I would guess that they listened to story tellers who recited a kind of epic poetry.  From this you learn techniques (a hotter fire makes these funny rocks sweat out grey shiny stuff), you learn methodology (no, no, hit the metal, son, not your thumb, works better — trust me).  Most importantly you learn what inspires you (what?  I can’t turn everything into a smithing analogy)!

If you read enough, and then write enough, you discover these details (oh!  hit the metal with a hammer!  Who knew!?) which some will call rules of writing and others rules of thumb.  I provide rules of thumb.  For certain kinds of fiction it’s important to follow strict structures, to only put that she wore green shoes if it’s vital to some later or immediate aspect of the story (at the very least it has to be symbolic).  For others, this isn’t so important.

This is why I tend to say, do it or not, it’s up to you and the necessities of your story.  Because that is the key:  It’s.  Your.  Story.

Believe me, I haven’t read all there is to read, but I’ve read enough to know that one thing is Truth:  in the course of human history, there is no truly new idea in how to write.  Someone will have tried something like it somewhere.  And in this age, someone will have published it at some point and in some place.

As I said:  Do the characters eat?  I don’t know, dear, do they?  Do the characters have sex?  Is it that kind of story?  Fade to black or graphic detail?  Is it that kind of story?  Do I describe their clothes?  Does the narrator notice the clothes, or care?

I cannot stress enough, that there are no literary police who will charge you with being in violation of code 43-b of the Rules of Writing if you don’t do what some literature professor or creative writing instructor told you to then confiscate your literary license.  TELLS, yes, sort of, it’s called marks and they tend to be bad if you don’t follow the instructor’s instructions — but that’s a whole other matter.  Believe me, Jo Rowling, Stephen King, J R R Tolkien, Robert Heinlein, Charles Dickens, A A Milne, Frank L Baum, Edgar Rice Burroughs, E E “Doc” Smith, Arthur C Clarke, William Shakespeare, Voltaire, Geoffrey Chaucer … and so many more, names we know, names we love, names we cherish, names that will live on or have already long endured … they broke The Rules, or at least some rules.  Other rules they followed, some rules weren’t rules yet, some rules aren’t rules any more.

And there’s another point.  It’s so hard to agree on these rules that it’s possible to have these discussions.  If Rules for writing truly existed, beyond those needed to codify how one communicates via the strange glyphs upon a page or screen, then there would be no question and no discussion:  one would become a writer the way one becomes a plumber, or an accountant.

Time and again:  Art has no rules, no boundaries.  Art is imagination, and creativity.  We say ‘think outside the box’ when we want someone to be creative — we tell them to step beyond the bounds of laws, rules, status quo, etc.  In our imaginations, men walk upon the moon, upon alien worlds; in our imaginations we explore the depths of the sea and soar among the clouds; in our imaginations we can send a picture around the world in the blink of an eye; in our imaginations we can converse with cats and have tea with dormice.  Some of these things have, since, become reality — but first they were imagined, and first they were the stuff of fiction, first they were novels or epic legends, dreams of eccentric geniuses.

It can never be stressed enough, and I am not alone, so many of the artists we all adore so often stress the same advice:  do not shackle your dreams.  Do not stifle your story with boundaries and Rules.  Reserve “should” only in name of advice, “Should Veronica wear high heels with that kind of dress, do you think?”  If you can dream it, write it, because if you can dream it you can inspire that dream in others — and that’s what it’s all about really, sharing our dreams and imaginings so that others can enjoy the same journey we did.

Chapters

Well, another topic that interested me turned up.  So, here we go.

Chapters.  How long should they be?

Oh my, oh honey, no.  That would be one of those silly “writing rules” that are such a terrible travesty of the creative process.  Forget should.

Now, that said, I’m going to tell you how long a chapter should be:  as long as it needs to be.

I say that a lot, don’t I?  Should a character be gay?  If they’re gay, yes.  Should I write in English or French?  Which do you prefer?

The only rule of writing is:

a) write
b) use proper grammar, punctuation, spelling, and so forth except when you need not to.  Never ignore them out of laziness or ignorance.
c) openly, deliberately, and consciously violate the laws of reality.  Doing so out of ignorance won’t do.  That’s not to say you should become a master locksmith to make up a lock for your burglar series, but rather that you should realise you know nothing of locks and thus deliberately make it up.  Know thyself whenst thou writeth.

What does this have to do with how long to make a chapter?  That’s the point.  How long a chapter is is only as relevant as it needs to be, as with most aspects of writing.

Really, just ask the lovely gentlemen of Oxford:

noun

  • 1a main division of a book, typically with a number or title:we will deal with this in chapter eleven
  •  an Act of Parliament numbered as part of a session’s proceedings.
  •  a section of a treaty:a majority voted for the inclusion of the social chapter in the treaty
  • 2a distinctive period in history or in a person’s life:the people are about to begin a new chapter in their history
  •  a series or sequence:the latest episode in a chapter of problems
  • 3the governing body of a religious community or knightly order:land granted by the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral

See?  No defined length.  

There’s nothing even dictating one must have chapters.  Look at the fantastic Sir Terry Pratchett.  True, his YA Discworld books have chapters, but that’s at the behest of his YA publisher.  He’d not have them otherwise and has said so.

Oh, but Jaye, you’re one to talk your own chapters are absurdly long!  Well, okay, yes they are.  I have my methods.  I seriously considered not using chapters, but I decided that they made the story more manageable for both writing and reading if it had chapters and I agonised, at times, over where to break them.  I hope that, by and large, I’ve done well on that point.

Still, as with any aspect of storytelling, the length of a chapter should be natural.  Don’t put parameters of word count or page count to it or you’ll find yourself breaking your parameters often in order not to break in awkward places — or, worse, following them too rigidly indeed and breaking in those terribly awkward places.  A chapter break goes where a chapter break goes to you — where you feel is a good place to close this, oh look a cliché (actually an idiom, but too many authors and readers alike are fuzzy on the distinction), chapter of the plot (expression seem familiar?  “This chapter of my life” help?).  When in doubt, ask yourself where, in a movie, there would be a nice dissolve, or in TV where a commercial break would fit comfortably and you’ll be on a fair track.

Keys to characterisation

I’ve discussed charactisation before, but only in reference while discussing other thing — I think.  Honestly, by now, I’ve got enough posts it’d take me days of reading to be sure what all I’ve discussed already.  Not really sure what that says … hopefully something good, though.

Still, characters are important to a story.  Characters can give you a plot, they can give you conflict — if you have your characters and know them well, you absolutely have a story, because your characters will wander hither and yon to various adventures you never once dreamt you might find yourself writing.

How, then, do we get these characters?  These beings which live and breathe and carry the story for you such that you need only hang on to your pen for dear life whilst trying to keep up?

Believe in them.  Well, that’s step two or three actually.

Stan Lee‘s advice on this subject is good:  Start with a name.  I don’t always do this.  Sometimes I start with an idea.  This isn’t quite a description.  I might start with ‘video game playing nymph’ or ‘teen half-vampire’ or ‘high school aged ballerina’.  Then I … I suppose one might say I hold auditions.

Meet your characters.  Really.  Don’t force anything.  Don’t tell them, ‘your hair is green.’  Don’t tell them, ‘you hate chocolate.’  Never do this.  Let them tell you, ‘I dye my hair green.’  Let them say to you, ‘ugh!  Chocolate is disgusting!’

Why?  Maybe they’re allergic to chocolate!  Maybe their favourite colour is green.  Maybe they’re into punk rock.  Maybe they like to dye their hair green, then frost it, spike it, then put on a flannel & jeans to go out two-stepping to the latest by Tim McGraw, or jam to some reggae.

Of course you know what kind of story you want to write.  So you’ll guide them along, but more to the point — let them guide you along.  They’ll take a simple plot concept and give it depth and complexity, if you let them.  They’ll give you little touches, you’ll find yourself adding a scene of a game of poker, or a conversation about the merits of Astroglide versus K-Y.  You’ll learn that strawberries are ambrosia.

In short:  don’t build your characters, let them build themselves.  Tell their stories and describe them as you go along.  You might learn things abou them that don’t belong in the story — jot this down in a notebook for later — you’ll learn things about them that the reader will learn with you.  Somethings you’ll learn and will become more relevant later — you knew it before the reader did, it happens.

Does this sound crazy?  Possibly a little nonsensical?  Maybe it is.

Thing is, most things will go into long, long disserations on characterisation and how to build a good character, how to build them to be believable.  They’ll do things like say ‘you must give them three flaws’, or ask stupid questions about what’s in their pockets or refridgerator.  What’s in their rubbish bin, and other stupid nonsense.

Honestly, that gets you nowhere and gets detrimental.  If you have a complete dossier on your character before you ever put pen to paper (beyond that which was necessary to record said dossier, of course), you run a major risk — you could be inclined to try to use all of that data.  You could info-dump this dossier into your book.  Bad move.  I’m not saying you can’t, if you’ve the kind of mind that likes to gather all the data and such before you start — planning just isn’t my cuppa — but you must be cautious to a) remember to dole the info out only as it becomes important, relevant, or interesting — don’t offload it in chunks needlessly and b) don’t build it from a template, gather the dossier the same way an FBI or CIA agent might, by spying and observing.

If, in your mind, this person is a person.  Too complex to sum up.  If they live and breathe, if they have hopes, dreams, loves and hates, if they like to curl up with a bowl of cheesy popcorn and watch corny old westerns on Saturday nights …

Just don’t force it.  Don’t sit down with character questionaires.  Maybe sit down with them once you know the character, and see what they’d say if they were asked these questions (most of the time they’ll be much more flippant — Q: ‘what’s in your bin?’  A: ‘trash’).

People will disagree — to some, it’s important to build the character, that she grow according to a prescribed formula and that she be three dimensional according to very specific key rules.  C’est la vie, if there was any single right or wrong way to write all stories would be the same and one day a computer, fed a few data variables, would churn out novels in some production line fashion.

“Write what you know.” What nonsense

“Write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all. Write what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect!”

~~ Gore Vidal

I positively love that quote.  It says a lot.  It’s not terribly polite, no, but it’s truth in many regards.

“Write what you know” you see it everywhere you see writers or would be writers discussing things.  Such a strange phrase, I think.  If we write only what we know, the where do we get some of the grander adventures of gods and heroes?  Where shall we seek the dreams of far away worlds and the starships that will get us there?  How shall we dance with angels, sing with mermaids, climb Mons Olympus, and so much more?

We’re writers, even if we skip the fantastic, however shall we rub elbows with the financial elite while sipping champagne and eating caviare?  Wherever would be Julia Roberts and Richard Gere — take your pick of films, but I tend to prefer Pretty Woman for this thought.

If you’re speaking of non-fiction, then certainly write what you know.  I’m not about to try to write a four-hundred page treatise on the mating habits of the Australian Dwarf Hamster.  Why?  Because I don’t know anything about the mating habits of any hamster dwarf, Australian, or otherwise.  If I tried to write that book my ignorance would show, unless I researched it to the extent that it ceased to be anything I’m ignorant of.

In fiction however we ought to write what we think, feel, dream, fear, love, and hate.  Fiction is about holding a mirror up to reality and life.  It is symbolism, it is satire, it is commentary, it is entertainment.  It doesn’t matter if you’re writing the epic tale of two stoners looking for their car after a hard night of partying; the tale of the Hollywood streetwalker who wins the heart of a Wall Street billionaire; taking a family trip across the solar system in your very own nuclear rocket ship; sailing the high seas with Long John Silver and a map to lost treasure … these are things we don’t have to know in our minds, these are things we need to know in our hearts, our souls, in our sense of humour, in our feelings of whimsy, and in our deepest desires.

When we tell a story we must write what we don’t and can’t know.  If we didn’t, then books written by women would have naught but female characters, and vice versa for the men.  Indiana Jones would have no Nazis to fight and no exotic locals to interact with.  When we tell a story we have no choice but to dig into our imaginations and write what we believe, and what we hope that our audience will too.  We have to say “I can’t grow a beard, but I suppose if I could it must be …”

Oh, certainly, we can research some things.  We can research details of shaving.  The intricacies of the straight-blade, cut-throat razor, or the ins and outs of maintaining a handlebar moustache can be unravelled with a little time spent in a forum of moustache enthusiasts.  Still, we cannot experience it.  We can know about it, but not know it.  If you can’t have a moustache then you can only guess at how hard or easy it is to keep soup out of it and how you might drink your coffee politely.  Even the author who can grow a moustache doesn’t know these if he does not grow it and experience it.

There there are the unknowable, unresearchable.  What sort of creatures live on Europa?  What sorts of things are rude or polite on the fourth world of ε Eri?  What was Helen of Troy‘s favourite food?  What is the dance that cures the plague by calling upon Polikthara’s holy light?  Just what does sex feel like from the perspective of our opposite gender?  What is it like to be dying of consumption, or of leukaemia?  What are the smells and sounds of this street in Budapest at noon … in 1287CE?  What did sabre-toothed tiger taste like?

So many questions.  Fiction answers those questions.  We dream of hunting a sabre-toothed tiger with our flint spear through the frozen wastes of the neolithic Earth, the survival of ourselves and our whole family dependent on you coming back with that precious meat and that skeleton made of such useful tools.  We tell that dream.  Are we right?  Are we wrong?  Maybe sabre-toothed tiger tastes more like mastodon and less like chicken, but c’est la vie, without a TARDIS we’ll never know.

That is the meaning of that quote, to me.  Even in the things researchable, sometimes you just have to step into the realm of dream, of narrative causality, of poetic justice.  You have to look at the books in the library on lock picking and locksmithing and say “Rabson.  Screw it, we’ll just wax eloquently about a Rabson deadbolt.  They don’t exist, but how many of my readers know the first, second, or even twenty-fifth thing about locks?!”  When we say that we get the wondrous adventures of Mr Bernie Rhodenbarr, burglar extraordinaire.

How many of us have been shot, shot at, stabbed, in a bar fight?  How many of us have been handed an exploding dental floss, a wristwatch with a laser in it, and an Aston Martin with missiles?  How many of us have been given a recommissioned diesel submarine and told to go act like a pirate trying to get past the US Nuclear Navy with a crew of lunatic misfits?  How many of us have taken a rocket to the moon?  How many of us have explored the lost, cursed tombs of the ancient Pharaohs in search of treasure?

When you write fiction trust your gut.  Feel, question, and guess. To Hell with what you know.  Forget what you know.  You know that science says the universal speed limit is 299,792,458 metres per second, but what if you feel or suspect that this isn’t true?!  Don’t tie yourself down with “facts”, ever do that.  If you want to give physics the finger, then do it — keep the laws of thermodynamics only if you like them, but don’t feel obligated to obey them.  This is your world, your story, your dream.  If we can fly when we close our eyes and sleep, then by all the watching gods, so too can we when we look at the words between the pages.