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Posts Tagged ‘tips’

The Madhatter Teaparty: Rescuing Your Characters from Endless Cups of Tea

Plot kicks my ass. It kicks my ass up one end of a story and down another, because honestly, all my characters want to do is snark at each other over tea. Or whisky. Or coffee. Or bug juice. Whatever. Any excuse for them to sit around flinging zingers at each other and discussing what they are going to do next works for me.

This over reliance on tea-and-conversation scenes is a hallmark of discovery or gardener writers like me. When we get stuck on what happens next, we just sit the characters down for a chat and let them figure it out. Needless to say, this is a time consuming bit of lazy writing, because while it may get us where we’re going eventually, we can spend literally thousands upon thousands of words over the course of a novel having the characters explain the plot to each other, and then we have to go back and remove all those scenes or make them more interesting in their final form (I spent a lot of time in Empire Ascendant in particular going back and making talking scenes more interesting. For real: in the first draft, the first 150 pages of that book was just people talking).

Since I started writing the Worldbreaker Saga, my goal has been to work hard on how I plot and draft novels so that I can write faster, stronger, and more readable stories. But when I was up last night putting in my 500 words for the new Nyx novella dropping on Patreon this month, I immediately caught myself falling into my old routine. After Nyx and her mercenary companions apprehend a rogue Death Magician in a nice action-packed opening, I wrote this:

Khos sat under a tattered awning, mouthing the words on the menu as a scrawny Nasheenian kid peered over his shoulder like a bird. Nyx saw a cup but no tea, nothing that looked remotely wet in that damn cup, sure as fuck not her either, and that annoyed her. He was always coming up with slim excuses to shirk off his work.

            He raised his big head, and had the sense to get up when she  came over the low fence surrounding the tea shop.

            “The fuck, Khos?” she said.

            “You found her?” he said.

            “No thanks to you,” she said. “I’m splitting this bounty with Anneke, cutting you out.”

            “I don’t think that’s necessary,” he said.

            “I don’t give a fuck what you think. Why are you always late to the game, Khos?”

            His glacial face moved into a frown. For all his bulk and careful movements made him seem slow, he wasn’t. Oh, sure, he wasn’t the best to pick up on social cues, but he wasn’t completely stupid. She didn’t like stupid people on her team, and she certainly never fucked stupid people, so he must not be stupid, even though she hated his face in this moment. 

            She reached for the teacup only to have her hand spasm. She shook out the tingling numbness and gripped the cup purposely. If anyone noticed, they said nothing. 

            Falling apart, she was.

            “Get me whisky,” she said, shaking the empty cup.

            “This is a dry town,” Khos said.

            She loomed over the scrawny kid. “Whisky,” she said.

            The kid took off.

            Nyx slumped into the chair across from Khos. “She had two death head beetles on her,” Nyx said.

            “Like the last one,” he said.

            “Want to get them back to Rhys,” she said. 

It just goes on and on like this. While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this scene, the truth is I have written tea-and-plot scenes so many times that they bore the crud out of me. And I can’t imagine how much they bore readers, at this point, even with the hints of conflict and tension woven in here.

And while the scene achieves several things: we get a pause after the opening action to regroup; we cover next steps; we get some character moments – I found myself a couple hundred words in before realized I was leaning on my old go-to scene just to churn out a few hundred words and call it done for the night. It repeats information about the beetle, and the fact that they have apprehended the suspect. While I like that it sets up Nyx’s usual distrust of Khos – conflict is always good – I feel I can do this in a scene with a cooler setting that ties into the plot. This could be a shooting range, or a public pool, or a kitchen where Khos is learning local recipes, you know, something that does more than the invisible “tea and whisky chat.” While sometimes you DO have to have a “talk plot” scene, it’s far better to have a “walk and talk plot” scene (or sex-and-exposition scene, which the GoT TV series has become famous for. That’s their own lazy writing go-to for these sorts of scenes).  Better is to have this scene happen somewhere that ties into the overall plot/theme of the book: this scene should happen at or near a crematorium, or in a morgue where Khos is searching bodies to see if any of the recent dead are among the girl’s gang. Fixing this is a classic “pope in the pool” technique from Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat ( was watching Mr. Robot recently and laughed uproariously at the first episode, because the main character literally saves a dog and I was like, Wow I can see how that conversation played out. “This character needs to be more likable. Have him save a cat or something!” And lo, the dog was saved. That likability probably could have been better achieved without inserting a dog into the show that then has to be mentioned again and again throughout; unless one is setting up the dog to serve some other purpose).

Leaning on your go-to lazy writing techniques happens even more when you’re writing fast, in short bursts. This is the trouble with giving myself short evening writing goals, and one of the reasons I prefer Saturday binge writing sessions when I can set everything up and write out what comes next. But I’m reserving my Saturdays for working on The Broken Heavens, and this novella won’t get done if I don’t carve out time for it. What this scene reinforced for me is the necessity of sitting down and writing out a couple of sentences about the scene I’m going to write before I write it, even if it’s only 500 words. Otherwise they are all going to end up like this. And while I can go back and fix it later to a morgue or crematorium scene, that’s a pain in the ass. Better to catch myself before I do it and fix it then. The more I write, the easier it is for all the writing to sound the same. Writing in a state of flow doesn’t always mean you write the best ideas, only the ones easiest for your brain to latch onto. While the may be great for the first couple of books, at some point your go-to stuff starts to feel like old hat. You have to start working harder, thinking the scenes through, figuring out how every piece works together and becomes resonant instead of just relying on your brain stew.

Remember that this is not BAD, to do. Plenty of people write the same book over and over and do well doing that. But I don’t want to be OK or even just Good. I want to be GREAT. And these days, with the competition that books have with other sorts of media for readers’ time, I don’t feel that I can afford to be “OK” or even “Good.” More and more, I see that there is only room for great, and everything else.

Genderblindered: “We’re both queens. So who will hang out the laundry?”

I read an old proverb once that went, “We’re both queens. So who will hang out the laundry?”

I think this is an important point that a lot of seemingly imaginative fiction fails to take into account when creating societies.

I was on a panel about women in combat at Epic Confusion when Scott Lynch brought up the fact that he often wrote in female guards and background characters in traditionally masculine roles without making a big deal about it. The idea was, to paraphrase, that equality was just something that was in his world, and the role of women in these positions went unquestioned in the society, and thus, in the book.

This is actually a more-or-less common thing for folks to do in SF in particular (and even in some noteworthy fantasy like Lynch’s), but it’s been nagging at me for a while. I mean, “everybody’s equal” should be a positive thing, right? Women can be soldiers and shopkeepers and boxers and bankers. How many people, day-to-day, reflect on why it is that women in our society hold those positions (or even question why they hold them in such fewer numbers than men, or why they’re paid less for them)? Oh, sure, there’s a long, turbulent history of women fighting for the right to hold those positions at all, but it’s not generally something that’s on everybody’s mind as they go about their business.  And ya’ll know I’m not the one to say we need more infodumping in fiction. So it’s cool.

But. Here’s the thing. It’s actually a bit blindered. It’s focusing on about 52% of a world’s population and how they comport themselves. And it ignores how the other half of that society is going to have to change even in the face of the kind of uneasy, tepid, on-paper-equality we have in the U.S. Cause anybody can tell you that as the expectations for what women did, and could do, have changed even in our own country, the expectations of what men were suppose to do, and expected to do, have changed, too.

See, if you’ve got a society that’s truly, really, totally “equal” you’re not just going to have women guards, lawyers, and bodyguards. You’re also going to have an equal number of male child caretakers, kindergarten teachers, nurses, secretaries, receptionists, sex workers, and housemaids (unless you have cunningly created a society that doesn’t have sex work, and if it’s truly equal, I can tell you that it probably won’t. But that’s another rant).

“Equal” societies aren’t just about putting women in armor and calling it good. It’s about totally breaking down the assumptions of gendered work – for everyone – and rethinking, from the ground up, how that society builds, organizes, reproduces, communicates, and even what it dreams about.

More likely, what you’re going to see in more-or-less equal societies created on paper is that somebody is being oppressed to allow another subset of people to be “equal.” So if women are bodyguards working twelve hour shifts, somebody else had better be running take-out food stalls that feed them, the creches that care for their children, and the stores that do their laundry – or you need to have some really advanced technology that takes care of all of that.

If men and women aren’t sharing work, then they’re likely fobbing it off on somebody else – whether it be service-oriented businesses or slaves or servants (and if if they’re doing that, sure, you may have a society that doesn’t have specifically gendered work, but it’s certainly not a society that’s “equal”). Or everybody pays in to have the state take care of their kids. Or they create houses that clean themselves (the old “technology will make us equal” thing).

I do get annoyed in conversations about casual equality in fantastic societies, because they tend to focus on what women need to do to be equal. Equality just means that women will be stronger and better educated and get better jobs, right? They’ll be real people – just like guys! Like everything else, we measure the oppressiveness or openness of a society based on “what women are allowed to do” instead of what the people are free to do.  It glosses over just how massive the change will be.

But what isn’t addressed is that in order for this to work, the men in these societies will have to change, too. Cause if everyone is equal, somebody is losing power and privilege. And that’s going to piss some people off.  It’s why things aren’t equal today, because the folks who used to have unquestioned power are very well aware that they’re slowly but surely losing it, and they’re fighting it tooth and nail.

There are all sorts of ways to construct the social dynamics of societies, many of them with real current and historic examples, which is why I’m often so disappointed that in a book that spends three years trying to get its science right, the woman’s in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant while her husband reads the news in their two bedroom, two bath future-condo.

I  mean, really?

There’s a great article on the changing expectations of fatherhood just in the last couple centuries, including some alternative child caring expectations in other societies (yes, societies here on EARTH, even!) that should at least get folks to thinking about how things have been and thus, could be different.

I mean, you guys – we’re writing/reading fantasy, OK? There is absolutely no excuse for things not to get out-there-crazy fantastic. Including your effing family and gender dynamics.

It’s not just about changing our conception of what women’s work is, or what women’s place is or women this, women that, wear this, wear that. Because I can tell you, after spending several years hip-deep in Abrahamic religions and people’s interpretations of them, I’m kinda bored with seeing societies who overly focus on and define themselves (and are outwardly defined by others) entirely on the appearance and conduct of the women within those societies.

Innovative worldbuilding is about asking, really asking, what it means to be a man in this society too, and what exactly constitutes men’s work – if there is such a thing.  What can men wear? What can they say? What jobs can they hold? And… why? If you’ve got gendered work, there should be a good, non-cliched reason for it. If you don’t, great.

But when you finish writing a book, or reading a book, you should have a good idea of who’s hanging out the laundry.


What It’ll Be if You Listen to Them All

I just read something this week from somebody who said their goal this year was to write something that would “win some kind of award” next year.

See my head explode.

If you are writing books to get awards, you may want to rethink your priorities.

I hate awards seasons. I hated awards season even during years I didn’t publish anything. It’s kind of starting to look a little  ironic that I hate awards seasons, I know. But here’s why I do:

When I first started writing stories for publication, I wrote a lot of characters studies where people sat around and talked to each other a lot, with maybe the occasional cockroach. I remember one of the editors at Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine scrawling across the top of one of my stories, “Cockroaches put me off lunch.”

So after a half dozen of those dismal rejections, I tried to write stories that I saw in the magazines.  At the time, that meant I wrote a lot of sword and sorcery knock-offs. They lacked actual plot, which was, you know, a problem. But worse than that – they were kind of boring to write. But here I was, spending the entirety of my pre-teen and teenaged years hunkered over a keyboard transcribing work from dozens of notebooks I’d scrawled stories in during class, just so I could write something that I hoped was syrupy enough for somebody to like it.

Oh, sure, I get it – this is basically what writing and publishing are about. Being “published” in the traditional sense means that somebody liked your stuff enough to invest in it. That’s flattering. It’s nice.

But it shouldn’t be why you write. Because unless you’re independently wealthy, you’re going to be spending the vast majority of your life engaged in some kind of pursuit that makes you utterly miserable. Life is too short, folks.

It wasn’t until I kinda went, “Fuck it” and decided to write the kind of book I wanted to read that I had some success with it. I think it’s easy to forget, looking back, that GOD’S WAR was the third novel I actually shopped, and the ninth one I’d written. I’d also argue that it wasn’t the most ambitious book I tried to write, either. I’d gotten hip deep into a sweeping epic fantasy saga originally outlined as fifteen books. The first in that series was over 200,000 words. There were some clever locusts in that book, and magician-priests, but I didn’t have the technical skill to pull it off.

Even GW is kind of a wreck, especially when it comes to plot and structure. Some of this is because I’d actually written the opening fifty pages just to get a handle on the world and the character, and then I sort of backfilled a plot in around it.

GW had a rocky road both in its writing and its publication. I wrote it during the year I was dying from what turned out to be an incurable chronic illness (go me!), and spent several years in revision during which time I lost my job and became homeless and moved to a new state. Thus began a series of temp jobs, sad and broken personal relationships, medical debt, and other fun stuff. The book was my therapy. Building a world of shit that was shittier than my failed life really helped put things in perspective. Writing about somebody who had the pure strength of will to get up after being punched down repeatedly was pretty satisfying, too.

It really is true that when you have nothing to lose, it’s easier to give yourself permission to do anything. So that’s what I did. Bug magic? Sure. Bisexual heroine? Why not? Matriarchy? Of course! Non-white protagonists? YES! Old-school biblical violence? You betcha! Also… aliens and spaceships and sword fights and organ dealers and boxing, oh my! BECAUSE I’M DYING AND LIFE IS SHIT, PEOPLE, SO WHO THE HELL CARES?

Now, don’t get me wrong. This book was a tough sell. Shoving all that crap in there made a lot of publishers nervous (“How will I market this??”). And once it was published, it put a lot of readers off. But I wrote the book for me first. I wrote it because I wanted to read this book, and nobody else was writing it. Where were my scary heroines and organic tech? Where were the matriarchies that were just as unbalanced and effed up as the patriarchies? And wouldn’t ancient Assyrian/Babylonian terror tactics go really well with a Mad Max future?

Ultimately, sure, I wanted to see this book published. But I don’t know that I ever wrote anything with the idea of hoping it would “win some kind of award.”  Why? Because that’s the road to madness, right there. Because if I’d sat down to write this book worrying about what everyone else was going to think about it (and at the end of the day, awards are based on the opinions of, you know, people),  then I never would have finished it. Or, worse, it would have turned out like some of the other books I wrote before it, where I’d dip my toes into some weird stuff, freak out, and then go back to the safe little “Gee, haven’t I read this before?” stories.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not a very good writer, or even a very imaginative one. I’m just a very persistent once. Writing INFIDEL was much more seamless than GW, mainly because my life wasn’t so wonky when I wrote it, and I’d learned how to recognize severe pacing problems. I may have thrown out the original second half of that book and rewritten it from scratch, but I knew where everyone had been and where they needed to be, and I wasn’t trying anything fancy. Inaya’s chapters got folded back into that second half just like whipped cream in a cake, and I was surprised to realize how much stronger the pacing was for it.  Did I worry about what people would think of it? Sure. But I worried about that after I turned it over to my publisher, when there was nothing else I could do to fix it.

And the reason I did that is because I knew what that kind of pressure would lead to. People talk all the time about how difficult it is to write a second book, especially when the first garners a lot of attention (lucky for me, INFIDEL came out just six months after GW, when not a lot of people had heard of it). You start thinking more about what people think than you do about what should actually happen in the story. So before you know it, you’re missing deadlines, playing softball with characters you meant to kill, and deleting all those references to burying babies.

Maybe that will help win you some awards. Maybe it will help you sell a lot more copies. Or maybe it won’t.

Maybe you’ll have totally eviscerated your story for fear of what other people will think.

When I went to Clarion West back in `00, we were asked to revise our story from week two in week six. My week two story had gotten a lot of strong reactions from people, including one of the instructors, who said he found it “personally offensive.” The responses freaked me out so much that I basically gutted everything the least bit offensive from my story, and there was no more bloody abuse and a much softer heroine and softer setting. I figured that this was it. This was SURELY the story I would take away from Clarion and have published, now that I’d smoothed off all the stories edges.

But instead of the cheering back-slapping I expected, I got person after person telling me in rather low, sad tones that that not only had softening the story not fixed what was wrong with it, but I’d managed to scrub it completely of the compelling elements that made it worth reading in the first place.

It’s likely no surprise that creating that revised story wasn’t nearly as satisfying as the original for me, either.

Clarion was good for me for many reasons, but that was the biggest writing takeaway for me. You can’t please everybody. And if you try and please everybody, you’ll please nobody. Including yourself.

At the end of that critique session, Patrick Weekes, one of my Clarion classmates (and now one of the incredible writers working on the Mass Effect games for BioWare) drew up a little doodle that neatly summed up the lesson from this critique. I framed the original copy and now have it hanging on my wall, to reference every time I start to lose my nerve.

I’ve recreated it below for your reference:

 That was as true then as it is for me today as I finish up my draft of the third and final of my Nyx books, RAPTURE. It’s a book that won’t be for everybody. It will piss some people off. But at the end of the day, I’m writing the book I want to read. And for me, as somebody who knows how short and brilliant life can be, that’s really all that matters.