Monday, April 30, 2012

Zills and Zebu

Whiles words like zill, zebu, bo, panabas—they're all perfectly acceptable words and have perfectly useful meanings, but how many people actually know what they are? Not a whole lot, would be the answer. They're actually very specific things (For those dying of curiosity: zills are finger cymbals used during belly dancing, zebu are a small species of yak, a bo is a six-foot long staff used in combat, and a panabas is a variety of long-handled sword from the Phillipines.) and it's great to know them, but that doesn't mean that your reader will know what they are, and most dictionaries won't have them all.

There's a bit of a tendency, when you put research into something, to pick up specific words—and you should. However, among less experienced writers, there's also a tendency to use those terms, and that can be far more dangerous than you might think. When a reader sees a whole lot of terms that they don't know, two things happen. A: they feel stupid and B: they feel like the author is showing off. Neither of those things is desirable, I'd like to add.

If you use the term and explain it, that's better, but you could most likely still avoid the word all together. You can call a bo a staff or call zills finger cymbals and even the people that know the proper term probably aren't going to care, and if they do then don't you think they're just a wee bit stuck up?

I've done it too—my very first manuscript (which was never completed, as I was only in seventh grade) was full of those kinds of things, because I was very proud of my intellect and...I try not to remember that story too often.

Of course, this applies to writing fiction. In non-fiction, the idea is to instruct, so go ahead and use those technical terms in non-fiction—I'll gladly read it. But, for once, mixing the chocolate and the peanut butter of fiction and non-fiction isn't so good (But if you want to talk creative non-fiction with me, I'll pour you a cup of coffee and we can dish.).

Goodbye all,
Voss
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I'd like to say, also, that I've had a blast on this blog challenge. I've met some awesome people, written my way over one-hundred posts, and generally just had a good freaking time. Hopefully it wasn't too boring for y'all, either.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Young Adult VS Adult Fiction

When I pick up a book, I normally don't pay much attention to which audience it's intended for. Sure, I don't really go for, say, straight up romances, or historicals, or westerns, or even horror, but it doesn't matter to me whether it's young adult or straight-up adult. I'll read it and I'll either like it or I won't.

So, of course, I got to thinking (I do that a lot, don't I?) what the real differences are between young adult and other fiction. The obvious one occurred to me, of course. The intended audience is different. But what does that really entail for the author? I mean, read some more modern YA, you'll find things that I never expected to see in books for teens. Not that I have a problem with it—I think it's about time people present more adult themes in a format for teens—but it never occurred to me that it would be all right to put gruesome death, actual drug use, rape, or sociopolitical meltdown in YA. It might just be my conservative town, where we didn't get to read those things, but it blurs the line a little, if you ask me.

Well, I think I've pinned down, if not the entire equation, at least a few of factors. I could be wrong but, should I ever decide I want to write YA, I figure it can't hurt to try and apply them to the writing.

Most obvious, and easiest to apply, is toning down. An occasional, full-blown issue can work in YA, but you pretty much want to keep things a little sedate. Nothing terribly graphic, as a rule. Not necessarily because of the audience—today's teens and young adults are some pretty twisted little souls, and those that aren't pretend to be—but for the publisher, and the parent. If they find out there's a graphic murder or some other such thing they deem appropriate, you're not going to see the same number of readers as if you straddle that line between too much and not enough.

How? Put in teenage and young adult issues. No matter who your intended audience may be, they want to see relevant issues to them. That's why YA books are so often set in a school setting, since that's familiar to the audience. Deal with grades, teachers, parents, budding romance, drinking, drugs—all the things you remember worrying about and having to deal with as a teenager, those are fair game for YA books.

The third one is a little more intangible. People want to be able to reread a book for years and years. If you look at all the really great YA books out there, they grow, they have layers of conflict that unwind themselves the older the reader grows. The best YA books hold their appeal through the years, because they grow as the reader does. It can be tricky to pin that ingredient down, but when you've got it, you've got the reader.

That's just my insight. I'm less a YA writer than an avid reader, but let's just call that research.

I'm off and away for now,
Voss

Friday, April 27, 2012

X-Raying Your Manuscript

You don't have to be from the planet Krypton to have X-ray vision. I mean, it probably can't hurt if you are, either, but it's not a necessity.

In fact, as readers, we writers have very well-developed X-ray vision, when it comes to others' manuscripts. You can read someone's work and go “Hey, you're kind of a misogynist, aren't you?” or “You must be from Stony Brook, since every single book you write is set there.” and you're probably correct.

The issue comes when we have to do it to ourselves. It's kind of like psychoanalyzing yourself—it's not easy, and all that denial is going to make it even harder. And you will deny unpleasant things, when you find them, but if your reader feels like you're preaching at them about something, even if you do get published, no one will like your book, and that's not good.

So you sit down with your manuscript and you realize, in shock, that you've been subtly hinting at the stupidity of menial labor from word one—of course, it doesn't seem quite so subtle now that you've had it thrust in your face. But what the hell are you supposed to do? Dissect your entire manuscript and fix this previously invisible preaching?

Yes.

You, the narrator, has a duty to be a bit—just a bit—impartial about your world. Now, if you have a character that thinks menial labor, Christianity, quantum physics, or the cell phone is stupid, that's fine, maybe even two characters (although that's kind of pushing it, in my opinion), but all of your characters can't possibly hate the exact same things—that's preachy, annoying, and thoroughly unbelievable.

How the hell are you supposed to fix all of that? Luckily, it's not terribly difficult, usually, just time-consuming. See, this kind of thing isn't really hidden, it's just hard for the writer to see. It's actually, more often than not, a kind of superficial fix, kind of like a snake shedding skin. You remove the offending surface from the entire body, possibly leaving a few little bits—they don' really hurt if they're diluted—and voila!

Will it make your manuscript better? I think so. Of course, if the entire point in writing the book was to preach about one thing or another, then I guess you maybe shouldn't take all of that out of the manuscript, but barring that it kind of needs to be fixed, otherwise you have an issue.

So now I scurry away to write something...not sure what, but here I go.

Tchüss,
Voss

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Wiping Out the VIN

I'm a little late to jump on this bandwagon, but I've had time to stew on it a little bit.

'50 Shades of Gray.' If that doesn't strike some kind of chord, you probably don't understand this whole rigmarole. I'll give you a summary. '50 Shades of Gray' is an ebook that's really hot right now, and it's making a lot of buzz right now. Why? It started out as 'Twilight' fan fiction, and then the author cleaned out any legal reference to 'Twilight', mainly the names, kind of like replacing the VIN number on a car. The author put it out and *bam* it's a success.

A lot of authors out there might be cringing right now. Fan fiction? For sale? Without the explicit consent of the copyright holder? Preposterous! Surely this heinous excuse for an author will be hunted down and persecuted!

Why? Legally, no one has been wronged. There are no references to 'Twilight' left in the book, making it have nothing but an eerily similar world. As far as I can find, Stephenie Meyer takes no issue with it. Yet people are so incredibly polarized on the subject. Some people really hate it, say that it's not real writing. Others, myself included, rise to their feet and say 'Brava!'

The way I see it, fan fiction or not, '50 Shades of Gray' has to have literary merit. There's got to be some kind of something working with it. If no laws have been broken and the original author doesn't care...what is this huge issue?

Okay, I'm not that ignorant—people are calling into question the skill of this author because the world and characters weren't actually put together from the ground up—they were both borrowed. But that's the same thing, basically, as saying that Timothy Zahn isn't a good author because he wrote his 'Star Wars' books, or that Douglas Niles isn't good because he jumped into the 'Dragonlance' world. It's utter crap—they're, if anything, better authors. Fan fiction (or, if it's got the official seal of approval, 'companion novels') is hard to do properly. You don't get to have the same level of familiarity with world and characters as the original author, meaning you're working a lot on inference, but you're still expected to match the same level of 'reality' as the original author—in fact, you're kind of held to a higher standard.

I do prefer to make my own worlds and characters—but that's kind of just because I like to stay in control. When I make my own world and characters, I can change things as I see fit, and I only have myself to answer to (until it goes to print, of course). But, as far as '50 Shades of Gray' is concerned, let it happen. You don't have to like it, but you really do have to accept it—there's not a lot anyone can do about it anyway.

Voss

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Variety--Not Just a Magazine

I almost put “Variety: the Spice of Life,” but that wouldn't really bring any variety, and then you'd all abandon me...or that might just be my paranoia kicking in...

Any who, let's take a little trip back in time. Past 'The Hunger Games', past 'Harry Potter', past 'Earthsea'...we're going back to the era of budding sci-fi and fantasy, more importantly looking at the characters in these early works, at least in the United States.

I'd like you all to notice something: they're pretty much all straight white alpha-males.

Now jump back to our time and take a look at our modern fiction. While not as severe of a domination, the issue is kind of the same: our speculative fiction characters are predominantly straight white alpha-males.

Now you can try to claim that it's because we're the epicenter of speculative fiction. What about Europe? Poland, Spain, Ireland, Great Britain, France, Norway—they all have famous, storied, brilliant pasts in speculative fiction. What about Asia? Russia, China, Japan, Korea, India, Cambodia—the same thing. And look at all the great female authors out there: CJ Cherryh, Ursula K. LeGuin, J.K. Rowling, Alma Alexander, Miyuki Miyabe, Stephenie Meyer. While I can't really scout out any open and out GLBTQ authors from my mind right now, look at it this way: ten percent of the population is gay, so logic would hold that ten percent of authors are gay too.

Why, then, do we have little to no variety, even nowadays? Is there some codex I haven't received that says we all have to write speculative fiction like Puritans?

I've kind of said it before, but it stands repeating until the whole world gets it: we're different, so make characters different. There are some characters that vary, I know, but not enough, and not a wide enough splay of characters. I know it seems kind of superficial but, let's face facts here—until we get to know the characters, we base our opinions on these superficial factors, and those early opinions also stick even after you get more familiar with the characters.

So where are they? Why is it that all of our characters seem to be white and straight? I admit very joyously that heroines are finally on the rise, but they still tend to be white and straight...why? Are those the only stories we have in us at this point? I don't buy that we're all so streamlined and devoid of any ability to stray from the societal norm.

Apply the change! Viva la Revolution!
Voss

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Unexpected Elements

You're at your computer, right? Have the internet open and all that jazz? Go ahead and open a new tab—it won't offend me. Go to your search engine of choice and type in something you have absolutely no bloody interest in, or very little. Something like seagull physiology or sperm whales or—just something you don't really want to know about. Trust me, it's heading somewhere. Now go on ahead and go through the results until you find something that does pique your interest.

This is where we start link chasing. If you go through enough links from there, you can find a lovely element or two to include. I found things to use on a crochet site the other day—crochet. I don't crochet—I can hardly recognize it when I see someone doing it—but it brought something to the table that interested me, so I stored it in my brain.

That's how you spice up your writing, both for your readers and for yourself. I always talk about following tangents, and this is really no different—if you latch onto a tangent you like, throw it in. Maybe you saw an African fertility chair and really liked it—I bet you can get it into your next project, or the one after that. I have a whole list of them saved up—Zulu spears and shields, ancient Egyptian battery pots, French death clocks, exotic firearms, the Bouncing Betty, Quan Yu, French buccin—and hope to use them all at some point (Although Quan Yu might wait...she can be a little frightening...).

The point is to throw in something you maybe don't expect, something you have to research a little, because research will set your little heart aflutter and fill you with a sort of raucous joy. Plus, your readers will see something out of the ordinary from you—surprising your readers is a good thing. And if that's not enough, you can draw in new readers with new elements. By broadening your horizons, you can broaden your fan base, and then get your work out to more eyes.

And isn't that kind of the point?

So, who knows what could come up next? The characters in your post-apocalyptic world might start rinsing their mouth with urine—it worked for the ancient Romans, right? They were pretty successful...

Peace out, y'all,
Voss

Monday, April 23, 2012

Taming the Inner Self

There's something they never tell you about writers. Never ever ever, not until you finally experience it. You see, there's this little demon that lives inside all of us, and this little demon wants nothing more than to see you fail. That little demon is the fear of success demon or, rather, the fear of change demon.

Now, you might say, “Why would I be afraid of success? I want to be the next Stephenie Meyer!” It's very true that you might well want that for yourself. However, there's something else to it—we don't want things to be upset. We're used to our lives pretty much the way they are, and that's sort of what we want to maintain—familiarity. Sure, if someone could ensure us the same level of success as Meyer, I think most of us would take it. But the problem is that there is no guarantee in this business, so we fear and despair, and every rejection, nasty beta, or hard edit we have just compacts that fear into a little ball of rocky terror in our souls.

But I'd like to share a quote with you:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
~Nelson Mandela

And it's true. We worry so much about our inadequacies, but that's just a front for the real terror—that we are too much for ourselves to handle, that we cannot be controlled, even by our own will. You know what—lose control. That power is the gift given to us to help guide us through life and help us through the rough patches. As a writer, it's your greatest tool, because it lets you do the seemingly impossible—finish on time, edit this, submit that, write this character, format this book, rise to the top, movie deal, merchandising, franchising, buying Skywalker Ranch right from under George Lucas' well-paid ass. With this power unleashed, we can truly start taking charge.

So don't try and tame the demon inside of you—let it frolic and bask in the glorious release of power.

Feeling a little wild,
Voss

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Style is King and Queen

There's one thing we, as writers, really should strive for. There are a whole lot of things we do strive for—publishing contracts, movie rights, Hugo Awards, negative calorie chocolate—but there's one major thing I think the art community in general, and especially the writer's community, should always be trying to get down.

Style. An instantly recognizable style. Why? Because it means several very good things. It means we have a strong enough voice. It means we're writing what we want, which is always a good thing. Most important for post-publication, though, is that a recognizable style garners more fans. Whether or not it's considered 'right', such a simple thing as a unique style, a way with words different from everyone else, gets you more response.

Robert Rodriguez is what got me going on this tangent, and he certainly has a unique style. In fact, fans can often times tell that it's one of his movies from the title or the description, not even seeing a second of the movie. He combines black humor with absurdism all wrapped in a B-movie, independent flair.

And lots of blood.

The problem comes in discovering that style for yourself. No one can tell you what it is, and no one but you can really find it. That doesn't mean it's hopeless, it just takes some thought.

I've found three, one of which is a touch contradictory to what I said above—I never claimed to be a writer.

Wait...crap!

At any rate, there are three.

One: This is the contradictory one. This is where your writer's network can come into play. This is where you take all those people who've read a whole bunch of your work, gather them together (baking for them or bringing them wine to soften them up is not a terrible idea here) and get them to help you look over your stuff to identify a recurring feel, recurring elements, anything that tends to show up universally or nearly universally in all your pieces. Of course, you can do that yourself, but an outside set of eyes can be quite useful.

Two: Write something you wouldn't normally write, be that a western, a romance, a fable, a tall-tale. It's human nature to try and fall back on familiar, personally integrated skills when thrust into an unfamiliar situation, so your style will shine through more and more the further removed your project is from your norm. Plus, who knows, you could have a unique story you can sell somewhere...

Three: Read your eMails. More than anywhere else, when you write letters, Facebook posts, eMails, you're writing as yourself. While sounding like that isn't necessarily always your best choice for fiction, especially fiction you plan to sell, it's helpful as an exercise to go over and see what you sound like to other people.

Of course, you can also ignore my tripe and go about your merry way—that's a perfectly acceptable way of finding your style. But, if you're in need of an exercise to pin down your style, or just some general writing exercises, they're here, and I'm pretty certain they don't run away when I log off, so yeah.

Any who, off to work, I suppose.
Voss

Friday, April 20, 2012

Rules Unspoken

Now, there is no real rulebook for writing—aside from grammar, I mean—but there are things most people know when they set foot into the professional writing pond: it's not easy to sell a manuscript, editing is the devil, writers run on coffee, rejection sucks. But there's apparently some kind of secret writers' society that held arcane meetings to ban writers from sharing some of the more 'advanced' rules. Well, if there's any truth to any of this, I'm about to get a visit from pen-wielding ninjas. Hopefully I'll finish putting this up before they kill me, because I'm going to share the six biggest rules I've learned through my experiences—since five is so bourgeois. If you like them, promise you'll come to my funeral, or at least kill the next pen-wielding ninja you see in a really dramatic battle. If you don't mind.

So, the rules:

~Editors have bad days: We kind of tend to think of editors as demonic, horrible fiends that take pleasure in crushing us. But, you know what? Most editors are or were writers, and they know rejections sucks, so throw that right out the window. They also have terrible days. Friends die, spouses cheat, they get their own rejection letters, or they're just having a low biorhythm day—they're human, which means there are some days you have to be extra-impressive and pray your piece gets a fair trial.

~Rejection doesn't mean you suck: Although it does feel like that, no matter what anyone says. They could have another story like yours accepted to that anthology, or maybe you leaned too much on one style in a cross-genre project. I once got a rejection, not for the writing, but because I wrote about the big bang and they had a lot Christian fans—it's perfectly acceptable, logical, and it rolled right off my back. Of course, rejections still hurt, no matter the reasoning, and you'll normally not get the reasoning behind your rejection anyway, so it's going to hurt.

~The writing world is unfair: You might find out one day that someone just comes along, first manuscript, first time writing, and they've signed a contract with Tor. When you've been toiling and toiling at writing, gotten yourself into some small presses but nothing more—damn it's going to sting. A lot. But so much of this business is luck. You have to basically predict the future if you want to ride the trends, because by the time you find out about a trend, it's too late to write for it.

~Genre is nothing: I've shared the quote before, but it bears repeating. This is from Kay Kendron, on genre. “What we're talking about here isn't important. It's about where the book is f*cking shelved.” The first instinct a lot of genre writers have is to slap themselves into a specific genre. You shouldn't. The genre is about the last thing to consider—write what it is you want to write, and let the big wigs worry about whether it's 'urban fantasy' or 'contemporary fantasy', 'hard sci-fi' or 'space opera'. I mean, it might do you well to figure it out, if you can, but don't stress about it.

~Imperfection is awesome: In characters, worlds, even to some extent in writing, imperfection is kind of thing to include. Do you really want to read about perfect people, living in utopia, told by a grammarian? No, of course not. That's quite dull, and it's not in any of the fiction best-sellers I've read. The imperfections in your character and your world provide plot and conflict and, as for the imperfect writing, those little idiosyncratic things are called voice, and that's what writers are always looking for, it seems—why kill it?

~Fiction is not academia: Sadly, fiction writing isn't normally a focus in the public school system, and the tools are so different. In academic non-fiction, we're all taught that sentences need to be complex, running through thoughts as best they can, taking up as much as three or four lines to get out a single thought with precision—and that's what you do, because you want that high grade. However, fiction is more like poetry than non-fiction. Thoughts are best delivered concisely rather than in long, compound sentences. Think music—tension and release—rather than college lecture.

Well, since I hear the ninjas, time to post it.

Goodbye cruel world and all who inhabit it,
Voss

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Quotes, Ahoy, Matey!

All this daily posting and high-tress has officially fried my brain, so this post is a bit of a wash. Sorry.

(I also don't know why I'm talking like a pirate in the title.)

Any who, if you haven't noticed by now, I'm kind of a quote slut. I like them, and I especially like them for writing—it gives you a little something to latch onto. So, since I like them so much, I thought I'd share some of my turn-to quotes, for when I'm feeling like utter excrement. Some of them You'll see again later, some of them you've seen already—I like them enough to keep posting them and reposting them.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
~Nelson Mandela

“Do or do not. There is no try.”
~Master Yoda

“I sound my barbaric YAWP over the tops of the world.”
~Walt Whitman

“Don't ask me about being a writer. If, when you wake up in the morning, you can think of nothing but writing, then you're a writer.”
~Ranier Maria Rilke

“I wanted to be a reader...I only wrote the first book because I thought it wasn't there...”
~Toni Morrison

“ 'The cat sat on the mat' is not the beginning of a story, but 'The cat sat on the dog's mat' is.”
~John le Carre

“I don't remember deciding to become a writer. You decide to become a dentist or a postman. For me, writing is like being gay. You finally admit that this is who you are, you come out and hope that no one runs away.”
~Mark Haddon

“People ask me if there’s a method to my madness. I say, ‘Nope. Just madness, but it seems to work.’ “
~Cleve Hall

I do hope those are as helpful to you as they are to me. I mean, let's face it—sometimes we need a hug and there's no one around to do it. This is my little bit to try and help you out, so I hope it's good.

If you have any more good, inspirational quotes about writing or just dealing with life that could be applicable to writing, send them my way in the comments section. I'll be happy to throw them in the list.

Swearing he had more than this stashed away,
Voss

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Personable Characters

Writers are generally sarcastic, snarky, witty people, and that's wonderful—we tend to like each other like that. But, here's the thing—we shouldn't write for writers. It's kind of like a composer writing a piece specifically to pander to the musicians that see it—it might have sixteenth note runs in the tuba line, but it's probably much more fun to play than it is to listen to.

Sorry. I forgot the point for a second. Any who, I see it a lot—we write characters like ourselves. They're snarky, ironic, and can often times come off as intellectuals—which all kind of adds up to a real asshole, if you don't strike that perfect balance between all the potentially offensive elements.

Do I like sarcastic characters? Yes. Is it just a writer thing? No, but we need to be cautious about it anyway. Take, for instance, the smirk. This is an error a lot of people make—myself included—in the name of vocabulary variety. People tend to think of a smirk as sort of a half-cocked smile which, if that's a universal understanding, it could work. However, for the time being, a smirk is a nasty little bugger, and it makes your smirking character look and seem weaselly.

Take Miranda Priestly from 'The Devil Wears Prada'. While she's a delightful character, she isn't really all that likeable. That's because she's too sharp and kind of nasty. However, Andrea is a great heroine—she's smart, outspoken, but not mean and nasty. It sounds like really dumb advice, but you'd be surprised how often unpleasant characters make it into the hero role, and not even as an anti-hero.

It could be a non-issue, but it's such a dangerous path to tread. The more personable your main characters are, the easier it's going to be for the fans to really connect and care, and those hooks are barbed, making them the perfect tool. Once your reader really gives a crap about the characters you want them to, they're going to care, because ripping those hooks out is going to hurt like a son of a bitch. Of course, if you start ripping them out, making your character slowly transform into an utter asshole—believably, of course—there's going to be a slow pain and an open, bloody wound in your reader, which is kind of our job, right?

But they have to be good people first, or you have to write an anti-hero, which is a whole 'nother beast. The problem is that not everyone likes sarcastic people—though I don't know why—or overly witty people. I feel kind of like a nutter on a street corner at this point, prophesying the doom of your writing career, but that's not what I mean. I'm just saying to be cautious, and honestly ask yourself if your sympathetic characters are actually sympathetic, or if they're just nasty. Honestly answer the question, too.

Voss

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Opera's Lessons

Yes, opera. Better than anything, opera pulls us in. Sure, part of it is the song and dance—it's exciting and musical—but part of it is the fantastical feeling. I've espoused about opera at least once before on here, but this is different. I'm talking about the specific style and grandeur of opera and, above all, that boils down to a single factor. In opera, they don't care.

They don't care what someone else thinks about what they're doing. Look at 'Carmina Burana.' One of the most famous operas in the world (and it is an opera—I refuse to dispute that fact) has an entire movement about a goose being boiled (or it might be a duck) from the goose's (duck's?) perspective. Or look at, say, 'The Barber of Seville', my personal favorite opera. The scene right before the intermission is about how they all have headaches and are going crazy—for fifteen solid minutes.

Opera has this stigma, you see, and I don't get it. Someone apparently decided, long before I was born, that opera is boring, but I have to assume that, whoever that was, never even saw one. Opera is far from boring. It's the single most exciting art form out there. Sex, murder, betrayal, fantasy, magic, crossdressing—it's like every season of 'Passions' thrown into three hours, with a musical score.

What does it have to do with writing? It shows a good, gung-ho philosophy that's sorely lacking in literature, outside maybe bizarro fiction and books about opera. We all have this useless, mostly self-imposed set of rules that tells us what we can and cannot do in our writing. Of course, when you lay it out like that, it becomes petty obvious that it's bullshit. If it's our writing, then we can do whatever we like. Sure, there are some things you have to be careful of if you want into a specific market but, for once, we're not focusing on the commercial aspect, here. This is about writing your book or your story, exactly the way it should be. Believe it or not, chances are you're not going to offend people if you write it the way you know you should. Okay, you won't offend any more people than you would normally.

So take a hint from Wagner, Rossini, Ravel, and Orff—stop giving a shit. People are going to think what they're going to think no matter what. You're not going to make everyone happy—so why impose needless restrictions on yourself? Sounds silly, right?

Voss

Monday, April 16, 2012

Norm!

'Cheers' fans—anyone with me?

There's a reason 'Cheers' was so successful—the characters. I can say Sam Malone and we all get the same ladies' man, misogynistic, former alcoholic barkeep running through our head. Heck, all I had to do was bring up Norm and everyone got it, right? They have sticking power because, like most really good characters, they're caricatures, just a little shy of reality. That doesn't mean they're unsympathetic—who here doesn't feel for Carla, somewhere deep down inside of you?—but they're not real people. That's what makes the most recognizable, beloved characters, and there are some real masters out there—Mervyn Peakes comes to mind, for me, as well as Robert Rodriguez and Tetsuya Nomura.

How does it work? I have an exercise (I know, I know—I always have an exercise. Sue me.) to help out with that. We all have at least one character sitting in our brains fully formed, right? Get them clear in your head right now, and then grab your thesaurus. Yes, I said the 'T' word. That little book you've been told to keep shelved for so long is officially allowed out of its cage.

I want you to make a list of, say, three to five words that you would use in a brief description of this character—leave some space between them, though, enough to jot down some words. Now take your first word and—no, don't touch the thesaurus yet!—think about it. How many connected words can you think of that bring the right effect to your character? If you wrote angular, maybe you're thinking sharp or pointed or spiny or carved or harsh—anything you can come up with for that single descriptor on your own.

Once you've done that for all of them, crack the thesaurus and go to what you think the best word is on each aspect's list. It may be the original one, or it may not. What matters is that it speaks to you. Put that on another list and look it up in the thesaurus and list your favorites of those words. That's not to say you'll be using them as descriptors in your work, but you now have a different view of this character, a different, perhaps deeper understanding of them physically, emotionally, and mentally.

Now, you could do it for all of your characters—it sounds like a good bit of fun—but eventually you won't have to. Eventually it will internalize and you'll start pulling things together naturally—and that's when your writing really takes off, in my opinion. When you create these skewed characters, it makes your work look better. It sounds crazy but, in practice, it works. Looks at Miranda Priestly from 'The Devil Wears Prada.' No one is actually like that. Look at Irma Prunesquallor from 'Titus Groan.' No one actually looks like that. El Mariachi from 'Desperado', 'El Mariachi' and 'Once Upon a Time in Mexico', Rorschach from 'Watchmen', Bellatrix Lestrange from 'Harry Potter'—they're not realistic. Everyone says they want realism in their fiction, but they want a semblance of realism, in reality (really).

It might sound crazy, but what's the harm in trying?

Trying to figure out how to make people yell my name when I enter the room,
Voss

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Purely Titular

(This post is unaffiliated with the A to Z Challenge)

So, over the course of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, the title of my blog has been brought up a few times. Well, I've been putting off this post since I started the blog, but I guess it's time to cover the information. Are you ready?

It's a ploy to get people in here. It sounds really cool and draws the attention of sci-fi and fantasy fans.

Now, for those that didn't really buy that, yes there's more to it.

Demon hunting is the subject of my very first full-length manuscript (Tartaros). Ever since I met one particular person, I've been minorly obsessed with Catholic demonology. While it doesn't feature a whole lot into 'Tartaros,' I do have a copy of The Lesser Key of Solomon on my computer, and I peruse it from time to time for fun.

As for the tenth-dimensional physics...I like it. A lot. I don't really get along with regular physics that much. But quantum physics/mechanics, I can work with. They make sense. So, if you read my sci-fi, you'll almost assuredly be able to find some reference to some dimension from four to eleven. I chose ten because it's a nice, easy to understand dimension in physics, and it sounds good after demon hunting.

So no, I don't post a whole lot of anything to do with demonology or science on my blog, it's entirely an interesting title to get my hooks in.

Glad to be over with that,
Voss

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Modifying the Standard

Classic image of Hell: fire and brimstone.
Classic image of a dragon: great, bloody, flying, fire-breathing lizard.
Classic image of high elves: noble, slender, beautiful, ancient humanoids.
Classic portrayal of magic: muttering magic words and *bam* magic.

I could go on. These are all wonderful—especially as fallbacks, little minor things to fill in at the spur of the moment, since they require no real explanation—but boring. If something classic is going to figure into your work, change it up a little. I once read an interview with Masashi Kishimoto (the writer and artist for Naruto) on how he came up with the world. He just said (I'm paraphrasing) that most of what he came up with was him just trying to break the norm. Ninja? Put him in an orange track suit. Magic? Screw magic words, they're just going to make pretty symbols with their hands.

Guess what? It worked! Huge, multi-national franchise from a blonde, orange ninja that makes shadow puppets (I love Naruto, don't get me wrong on that point. The world-building is breathtaking, to say the least.)!

So, why not have some fun and change it up? It's one of my favorite exercises. Take a basic idea like dragons and see where you can go. Sure, fire-breathing is awesome, but take a look at Douglas Niles' drackans from the Watershed Trilogy. They breathe a fog that knocks out their prey...until they taste darkblood. Then it turns into a scorching blast of steam. They have a carapace over their wings that breaks open after puberty. They have a color war between brown and green. I love them.

Dwarves don't always have to dig tunnels and have excess body hair. Who says there can't be comely, dwarves? Who says elves have to be gorgeous, or shoot arrows? Why can't an elf, just once, shoot a sub-machine gun, or be a heroin addict?

The best wizard I've seen wasn't just kooky and wise—he was just insane, rambling, and had no bloody idea what he was talking about.

We all know the normal things, but they've been done to death, revived, and killed again at this point. Yes, you are going to get crap from people for messing with the 'official' lore. Stephenie Meyer did, and she has one of the best vampire mythos I've read. But, you can also root into the foundation much better with something different—I bring you to Meyer again. In today's age, vampires sparkle and are very, very pretty.

So, take a chance and have some fun. Screw the norm, just do what you want to do—if you prefer that your dragons live underwater and knit sweaters for the fish, make it work.

Now go, frolic with your imagination,
Voss

Friday, April 13, 2012

Lamentation of Swans, Fluther of Jellyfish

Yes, a fluther of jellyfish. It's the proper terminology for a group of jellyfish. Trust me. It's an example of the sort of useless knowledge you're bound to pick up along the way. Your characters are no different, but there's a beginning author syndrome dealing with those tidbits—characters always seem to have just the right knowledge for the situation. They've either been to the right city, no matter how obscure, studied the right tribe, no matter how long extinct, or happen to be everything short of a doctor of whichever out-there subject you happen to pull out of your rear end.

That works about, maybe, once. Things aren't easy in real life. Unless your character is under some kind of luck spell or blessed to have an eternal good life, it takes more effort than that to get things taken care of. You can't just have them knowing everything, or have an expert waiting off-stage to explain the entire thing. There's no conflict that way. Somehow or another, they need to earn the information. Sure, there can be flashes of trivial, otherwise useless knowledge, but not a whole slew of it.

Those flashes also provide a unique opportunity for continuity. If you introduce a piece of information early on, and then have it come up later in your plot as being actually useful, it creates resonance. Even if your reader doesn't explicitly, consciously remember the information, hearing it again jogs the memory, and they go 'Hey, there's that thing! You brought it back around! Whose a good author? Whose a good author? You're a good author! Yes you are, yes you are!'

What? That's what authors really want. Honest to goodness.

I suppose this could be more informative, couldn't it? That's kind of why I write fiction, though—I can make it all up. Here, let me try again.

Okay, I think I've got a little more in me. That little trivial knowledge can also be used really well to bring people together. I kind of don't want to admit the number of times I got together with my friends and just talked trivia, or played Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit. It brings people closer to see what menial crap we all know. That's why games like that exist—they're fun and, unless the players are insanely competitive, lighthearted. That's how my first ex and I met, actually—historical trivia.

Okay. I'm officially spent. Not the best night's sleep, I have yet to get coffee, and 'Burlesque' is on—I think it's a good show of focus on my part I wrote this at all.

Considering how much it would take to buy a lamentation of swans,
Voss

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Kids

“I don't know what's wrong with these kids today!”

Sorry. Broadway moment. I'm talking about using kids as tools in our writing. Okay, that sounds really bad, but that's what it really is. Little kids are great tools to provide dialogue, get your more mature characters thinking, and provide more internal conflict. Plus kids provide the cute factor for the reader, and they make your characters care about someone that can't take care of him/herself. And putting kids in dangerous, potentially lethal situations, while a pretty cheap emotional ploy, works.

But I'm not here to talk about putting kids in dangerous situations. Well, maybe a little—I'm not above manipulative writing on occasion. When I started thinking about this post, I was thinking more about that old(ish) show, 'Kids Say the Darndest Things.' It didn't happen very often, of course, but on occasion the kids on that show would say something very apt, or something that would just make an adult stop. It's because kids are innocent, and don't really know those unspoken societal laws we old fogies have ingrained in us. When confronted with that childlike honesty, how your characters respond is a quick and cheap way to show us a serious part of their personality.

They can also increase conflict in a very serious manner, especially when you have a romance or action-based plot. Think about it. If your romantic interest has a kid and your main character is reluctant about children, you have instantaneous conflict, and a chance to soften the main character's personality through the course of the plot. In action-based books, unless your main character is a heartless asshole, when you somehow or another put the kid in danger, your characters are going to have to go out of their way to keep the young one safe from the marauding demons or what have you.

Now, when you do put kids in dangerous situations, don't waste that reader reaction, either. One of the easiest things to do is make your reader hate someone or something for trying to harm the little kid. As soon as, say, your evil sorcerer tries to sacrifice a child (or, better yet, a schoolhouse full of children) to the Nameless Dark One for ultimate power or something, your reader is going to call him an asshole and want revenge.

So yes, when it comes to literature, children are really good multitask tools. Simple as that.

Voss

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Jell-O and the Pudding Pops

Come on, you know you know that guy—it's the Cos. Bill Cosby is one of the most often imitated celebrities of our modern era, because he has very recognizable aspects to his speech. Whether or not that's a real part of his speech, a part of his stage speech patterns, or simply something attributed to him through his characters in 'The Cosby Show' doesn't matter—it's completely and instantly known that certain things are imitations of Bill Cosby.

The same thing has to be true if you're going to use character imitation to great effect. This links directly to having totally different, unique speech patterns and pet phrases for each character. If you're going to have characters imitate one another, there has to be something to latch onto.

I remember distinctly one moment in fourth grade (I remember a lot of moments from fourth grade, actually, but one that's applicable.) when we were reading 'The Wanderer.' It was about these people on an old boat or something like that, and it was told through their journal entries. Now, as they grew closer, they started to imitate each other. There was one character that had a habit of repeating things three times (i.e. Bored bored bored.). Late in the book, another character (Looking back, I'm pretty sure they had some kind of budding romance I didn't pick up on as a fourth grader.) starts to do the same thing.

As people get to know others, they pick up on conversational idiosyncrasies—I do it all the time. It makes your characters that much more real, that they are affected by the people around them. Of course, imitation can also be used as mockery—we all know that. But, to do it properly, you still need that uniqueness of speech pattern. Mockery isn't nearly as easy to pull of as books as it is in speech, so you need to really lean heavily on those speech patterns and such.

As far as I'm concerned, imitation and the techniques that go along with it are quite useful, particularly in romantic situations (where two people sort of start to blend personalities) or with younger people, who have a greater tendency to make fun (it's a cliché, but we all know it's still sort of true. We were all teenagers. Remember how it was.).

Now I'm going to go get the pudding...it works better if you can actually hear my voice, I promise...
Voss

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Issues in YA and Middle Grade Fiction

God, that title is so boring, don't you think? Lacks pizazz, really.

Any who, like the title said, this is about issues unique to a YA (and middle grade) target audience. Most of them are really obvious, but adults can sometimes lose a bit of that connection to the hardships of those years, only looking back on the good times. But I'll tell you this much—there were hard times throughout those years for everyone. I'll be trying to only put up issues that cross genres, but no promises about that.

~Dating: Doesn't that make you cringe? Just hearing that word rockets me back to memories of awkward set-ups, hallway liaisons, and cheating weasels without the cojones to break up with you in person...not fun. In most YA and some upper middle grade books, dating, attraction, et cetera all play a role as at least a minor plot, often the major plot. But, to make it believable, you should have floundering characters, flakes, bad blind dates, and meddling friends—and pain. Lots of pain, little bit of pain, but love hurts. There's a whole song about it, actually.

~Drugs/Alcohol: You know what? Even in a generally peaceful, sort of semi-utopian fantasy/sci-fi world, there are still going to be people who think life sucks, and there are still going to be kids and teens who think they should drink and shoot up. That leads to sharing, which leads to a certain level of moral dilemma. At least once for most of us, the opportunity arose to drink/smoke/what have you—it doesn't matter if it's weed or sensa-sticks, vodka or cryowhiskey—it sort of happens, sorry to say.

~Sex: I've posted about this before, but it does stand repeating. Teens are hormonal creatures in their sexual prime and, if they're anything like I was in middle and high school, extremely slutty. The decision to have sex or not have it, who to have it with, even where to have it are important at that age—and there's pressure pushing them both ways, most of the time. Peers are trying to make them have sex, but other authority figures are likely telling them to stay away—we've all been there, right? It's a real issue for that age group.

~Bullying: I'd like to see more of this addressed in YA and middle grade fiction, since someone needs to bring it to public attention. Bullying is pretty severe—it leads kids to drop out, causes depression, leads to suicide, and breeds further bullying—but everyone tries to push it under the rug. When it does get shown, it's always something like 'Carrie' or whatever his name was from 'Degrassi.' They are real issues and based on real events, but they always make the bullied party look like the bad guy. In fact, one of the best examples of bullying where the bullies are actually portrayed in a negative light is in 'George Lopez', when the whole school turns against Carmen and forces her to drop out or be tormented for four more years—sitcoms do it better than books, for some reason.

There are obviously more that may or may not cross all genres—grades, parental issues, suicide, ascending the throne—but those, I think, are the big four.

Reminiscing,
Voss

Monday, April 9, 2012

Haughtiness VS Confidence

I just finished reading the special edition of Piers' Anthony's 'But What of Earth?', a book that flopped on first release. He went ahead and, after regaining full rights in a legal settlement, schlepped it over to Tor books in an unedited format, with a section in the rear for his comments on the editorial staff's original notes.

Now, if you're Piers Anthony, you can do something crazy like that and not get yelled at. Well, I'm going to yell a little anyway. He was spot on about most of the issues he had with their edits—they were either pointless removals, stupid changes, or they created more work than was really necessary—and I'm not going to talk about any places where I disagreed.

My beef is with the way he wrote up those comments. He had this sort of high-and-mighty author air about him, as though he was Piers Anthony and he could do no wrong. Often, he questioned the purpose of editors, of why he should even be edited for anything but spelling and grammar. That's what got under my skin. I don't see how any author can feel that self-important and arrogant. We have flaws, we make mistakes. I admit that he got a really bad set of copy-editors and, aside from screwing him on a lot of edits, they violated key parts of his publishing contract, but to call into question the validity and usefulness of outside editing?

It's one of things I really want to avoid. I definitely want Piers Anthony's level of recognition, but my goal, and it's a goal I'd like to see from other authors, as well, is to not get that arrogance. He also has a good point—author's kind of need to be a bit arrogant, or at least confident. It's our only real defense against publishers—we have to stand up for our work, when push comes to shove, even if it does mean losing a contract. However, I've noticed that a lot of the 'old boys' of sci-fi and fantasy have the same damn complex about themselves. They feel that they are the infallible lords of the speculative fiction genre, all hail, all praise.

Sure, if Piers Anthony, Orson Scott Card, or Asimov's ghost wanted to give me advice, I'd take it—they obviously know what they're doing—but I don't agree with anyone in any business that feels they are the top. It takes one nudge to knock down the Jenga tower. Besides, being properly humble around editors and publishers is good for your business, wouldn't you say?

Now, of course, I'm sure some people are going to be very unhappy with me because of this post, particularly those that really like Piers Anthony. I'm not saying he's a bad writer, but no one is so good they can't benefit from an editor—just not the editors assigned to that book.

Preparing for the flame war,
Voss

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Genuine Emotion

Your readers will be able to tell if your characters are giving off real feelings, or just going through the motions. If you can't make the audience believe that Jimmy is heartbroken over the death of his parakeet, you need to rework that section. You need to not only have already given them reason to feel bad for Jimmy, as well as the parakeet, but you then have to be unafraid to really rip Jimmy apart when it happens and show his true colors, because when you're really and truly heartbroken or enraged about something, there's no hiding anything—no way in Hell.

How does it work, though? Think back through your life—we've all felt strong emotions. It's kind of the writer's bread and butter—if you haven't had some kind of meltdown at some point in your past, you're kind of just a fledgling writer. I am joking of course...a little. It's much easier to write if you've already been cut and sliced to bits and had your emotions laid out on the table at least once, multiple times being preferable. It really sucks, but that's the way these things work.

So you take that real emotion you've felt—not seen but actually felt—and you dive into it. You hurt yourself again or, if it's intense joy, you bring that feeling over yourself all over again. As soon as you start feeling with your character, that's when the reader will start feeling for your character.

If you've done this, you'll probably see a flaw right about now—how the hell are you supposed to write in this state? You can't even see, for Christ's sake! You have to either dial it back enough that you can type, but still keep the memory of that emotion fresh in your brain, or you have to hand-write/touch type your scene while your in the midst of that pain. It's the most effective way to make it all properly poignant.

Of course, you should also avoid saying the actual emotion in the scene. Jimmy's sad—don't tell us, because then we know what's coming. You have to show us without using sad, upset, depressed, or any other words like that. Talk about the cold in his limbs, the parakeet's silence, the churning of his lunch, the hot tears shredding down his face—but never say that Jimmy was sad unless you're writing a children's book...and I'd avoid it then, too, if at all possible.

But, more important than any of this (hopefully practical) advice is this: read it. If you feel the right way, you're at least headed in the right direction and, while you're not as impartial as the average reader, that outpouring of emotion from you will get you somewhere. Cross my heart and hope to die.

Now emote, my lovelies!
Voss

Friday, April 6, 2012

Fremde Sprachen (Foreign Languages)

“Ich bin ein Berliner!”

One of the most famous examples of a language blunder in history. Even if you don't speak German, you probably know that it means “I am a jelly doughnut.” What the poor man meant to say was “Ich bin Berliner.” (I am a Berliner.)

I've seen this kind of thing a lot—people sort of abusing their use of other languages. I'm here to say be careful. It's one thing if it's a fantasy language or an alien language that nobody actually speaks, but if you put in an Earth-based language that even one person can understand, you can just about count on someone that understands the language is going to find it and, if there's a mistake, they won't hesitate to point it out. I do it with German—often.

And it's not all about mistakes. You can use the language perfectly, but it doesn't matter if it's not actually set on Earth. I have a little secret to let you in on about 'The Dark Crystal'. When she calls to Fizzgig, it's not some made-up Gelfling language. It's Serb for (My translation might be slightly off, but it's the right sentiment) “Good dog, good dog.” Basically what happened, so far as I can tell, is they found the person on staff that spoke the most obscure language and had them translate it. The problem is that, while most people won't understand, there are people who do, and they can't resist telling.

I'm not trying to scare people off from using other languages, but you need to check up on it (This is in an Earth setting. I strongly recommend avoiding Earth languages in a non-Earth setting.). The best thing you can do is use a language that you speak fluently, with proper conversational grammar. However, sometimes your character just has to speak Slovak. It's an understandable desire. What you need to do then is get someone that does speak the language you're using and get them to look over your translation or, better yet, give them the English and let them do the translation for you.

If you're just using simple phrases or words (Hello, goodbye, good night, yes, no) an online translator will likely work, but anything more complex than that and it's best to get some outside help. Not only will you get that grammar and wording correct, but there are things in different cultures that simply don't translate properly. Look at German. “Alte Schachtel” literally means “old box”, but if you say it to a German woman, she's going to be pissed. It's the equivalent of calling someone an old hag in English. In Japanese, they have a word that means nothing (Sadly, my memory fails me as to what it is.) that's simply said before a meal—that's its one purpose, and it does absolutely nothing else. Those are the little quirks of language you can't just throw together with an internet translator or a bilingual dictionary.

That's all I have to say on the matter—it's a matter of protecting yourself from rabid readers. Wait. One more thing (And I've sadly seen this in a manuscript before.): for the love of all that is holy, don't sound out foreign words! Find the real spelling!

Wiedersehen,
Voss

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Electronic Blowout

There are times when I swear by my laptop, desktop, and word processing programs to get my writing done. In fact, I used to entirely insist on using electronics to write, but then my laptop crashed. At home, I could still write on my desktop (Since it was NaNoWriMo, I needed that speed quite desperately, too.) but I was pen and paper when I left the house. I have to tell you, it's different. For so long, that's why I so preferred to write on my electronics—typing, I could get my ideas out almost as fast as they came to me.

However, that forced stint back to handwritten fiction kind of opened my eyes again, and hearing a fellow writer praise hand-writing really got me back to thinking on the differences.

Any more, if I feel like my prose is a bit lackluster, kind of just going through the motions to get from A to B, I unplug, go grab pen an paper, and throw my scene together. Why? Because, on paper, words are much more permanent, at least to our minds. You have to put more time into each word, which means more thought, which means that you're forced to sort of slow down and smell the literary roses. It makes prose more vibrant, more intelligent, and simply feel different.

Plus it's much more portable. Sure, you can take a laptop around anywhere, but they run low on power, take time to get going, and draw a whole lot of attention, whereas a notepad and a pen only need to be changed when you run out of ink and/or paper, only needs to be opened to work, and can be done subtly enough that you don't have hundreds of eyes staring at you in the supermarket.

Plus, look at pen and paper—it has an excellent track record, don't you think? Everything written by William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, and Edgar Allen Poe was pen (or quill) and paper. I'd like to think they're all pretty well known, fairly successful authors. Following in the footsteps of such greats can also make you feel kind of like you're on the right track, as though it's a parallel to fame, like following the Lewis and Clark trail.

Of course, if I'm going for that writerly feel, there's one thing above either the computer or the pen and paper option: the typewriter. That, of course, is another story to be told another time.

Pioneer writing, anyone?
Voss

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Dialogue, Ye Many-Headed Viper

What sells better, gets more recognition nowadays, books or movies? That's right, movies. Now, I do often prefer a good book, but the appeal of cinema is pretty simple to see. It's all action and dialogue, none of that pesky back story to get in the way of anything else. Personally, I like the back story, but this is about mass appeal, after all—I think I've made that abundantly clear through the course of this blog.

Some writers are afraid of dialogue, since it's not a tool we're often trained in, but dialogue is probably the most important tool we have at our disposal in fiction. Look at it this way—in real life, you most likely can't read people's thoughts, so you only have their dialogue to judge them on. Why should your characters be any different? Especially with such an unclear image of your characters as we have in a book, what they say is of utmost importance.

One would think that we would be good at writing dialogue. I mean, we all speak, after all, so we know how it sounds, right? Not necessarily. People fluent in a language use passive listening rather than active listening, meaning that we enact a sub-conscious mechanism to gather information when we listen to people. Combine that lack of knowledge with the human tendency to, uh, stutter and, um, like, kind of, fumble with words when, uh, we speak, and you have a nightmarish cocktail.

Again, there's always a solution. The most fun is one of my favorite things to pull out of my writer's group—write a scene first without any dialogue, just action and explanation, and then write the exact same scene with just dialogue, and try to make each one viable and believable. At that point, it's closer to writing a script, in which we draw on our osmotic knowledge of scriptwriting gained from watching plays, movies, and operas (Or am I the only opera fan here?).

You can also try your hand with some public speaking lessons. In fact, go to your library and look along with the writing section for books on public speaking. Go ahead. I'll still be here when you get back. I don't think your characters should be constantly giving speeches—trust me, that's really the last thing I want to read. The important thing in those books is the way they dissect human speech. To teach you how to speak the 'right way' in front of a crowd, they have to show you how the average person speaks in a normal situation. Admittedly, it doesn't work for a more historical speech pattern, but I'd bet that, somewhere, you can find a resource for those too.

The other thing that no one ever wants to explain to writers is the differences in character dialogue. We all hear it—your characters should sound different from one another—but no one ever bothers to give us the tools for that. Well, I'm no linguist, but there are certain things you pick up on. Think about the way the different people in your life talk. We all have little idiosyncrasies (personally, I always use 'correct' instead of 'right,' use 'any who' instead of 'anyhow,' and often end long, drawn-out stories and explanations with 'et cetera, ad nauseum, ad infinitum.') that people take notice of. Some people use choppy sentences, others use long, languid sentences. Multilingual people will sometimes slip between languages. There are colloquial sayings, foreign speech patterns, and all sorts of countless other things that make people's speech more interesting. Go ahead and use those things to mark your characters as unique—but keep them to one character. If every character uses high honorifics when addressing people, it becomes a part of the culture, not a quirk of the individual.

If all else fails, though, go to the old standby (What? You knew I'd mention it at some point, didn't you?) and read your dialogue out loud. If you're really lucky and really nice to your writer's network, you might get people to read your other characters' parts. If you can't, then it's advisable that you at least don't read it in public. I mean, talking to yourself is one thing, but holding conversations with yourself in different voices can garner you a few weird looks.

Peace for now, loves,
Voss

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Commas and Their Ilk

Yes, gasp away—I'm writing about craft.

Well, sort of.

I'm really writing about the dangers of waxing poetic. You see, I started as a poet, publishing my annoying teenage drivel for years and years before seriously writing anything. Now there are good things about that—it taught me to use words to create bigger effects, for one—and there are horrible evil things about that, the worst of which is pacing my prose with punctuation.

Now, to an extent, this is allowable, such as when your character talks. Like. This. That's a good, widely accepted way to use non-grammatical, artistic, poetic punctuation in prose.

However, there are two things not to ever use for pacing, one of which I am horrendously notorious for: commas and em-dashes.

Now, I blame the standard school system for a lot of the comma issues—they tell you commas are pauses, and they are in poetry. Not in prose. I've seen people inadvertently change the entire meaning of sentences by using commas as pauses, and editors let that slip by, for some reason. Luckily, I don't see it terribly often, but it warrants a mention here.

Now for my big problem—the em-dash. I overuse them for two reasons, the first of which is poetic. It creates more of a pause, better delineates a thought from the surroundings. The other reason, and I believe this holds wider prevalence, is literary analysis. For years, I wrote literary analysis papers, which encourage you to have long, complicated, compound sentences, mixing commas, colons, semi-colons, parentheses, and em-dashes. Of course, being in the public school, no one bothered to properly explain the em-dash.

However, these kinds of errors can be overcome, but they don't die easily. To this very day, if I'm tired or unsure of exactly what I'm writing (i.e. writing by the seat of my pants (the same way I write any and all literary analysis papers)) my em-dashes explode everywhere, and normally they shouldn't be there. It's an ingrained habit but, I still think awareness is the number one thing we can have to make ourselves better writers and more proficient editors.

A good dose of black humor helps, too—makes it much easier to laugh about rejections and the like.

Tchüss,
Voss

Monday, April 2, 2012

Bathtub Novel

The bathtub novel is the number one atrocity in literature. Okay, so it's mostly a biproduct of great literary fiction, but it does show up in SF/F and, I'm sorry, but it doesn't matter—bathtub novels are bad.

What's a bathtub novel? It's a novel in which the character does NOTHING. They sit in the bathtub, lay in bed, hang in stasis, or wait for the evil sorcerer to come and kill them in the dungeon, but they don't actually DO anything. That's not to say an intellectually based work has no place, but if we're looking at mainstream, commercial fiction (which is sort of where I live, if you haven't yet figured that out), someone has to do something at some point. I think Kurt Vonnegut said it best:

“Make characters want something right away―even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”

No matter what your book is about, something happens. Real people do things, eventually. It's inevitable. Even if your character has been chained to a wall and can't escape, he or she is going to struggle and kick and talk and whine and cry and bitch and piss and moan and, assuming they're not starving him to death, eat.

Yes, I'm being preachy here―so sue me―but this point is supported by Vonnegut, and last time I checked he wasn't exactly a total failure. It's not to say characters always have to move around and be active, but they can't be inactive the entire book, or you don't really have a plot. Of course, there are exceptions depending on how the plot is displayed to the reader. Look at Wells' “The Time Machine”. Technically, not a whole hell of a lot happens, but the story is told within the story, and hence something happens in the important part, although it's really only Victorian men sitting around smoking and chattering amongst themselves.

Plus, who knows what's going to come of that midnight trip to the supermarket for pizza? Maybe that's the jumping off point for your story and you'll have to (sit down for this) delete those twenty-thousand words of motionless, introspective, literary brilliance and start with “He wanted pizza.”

Actually, that's a good idea...don't use that line...I call dibs...

Off to write a story about a guy who really wants that damn frozen pizza at midnight,
Voss

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Art and Culture

How do we define one people from another? Is it by appearance? Then what about the USA, or South Africa, or any other cosmopolitan nation? All right, then it must be by language? What about Switzerland, where they speak German, French, and Italian, or China, where dialects can differ so much that you may not be able to understand someone using a foreign dialect of the language?

It's by the art and culture that we are defined, and that's how it should be in writing, too. Go ahead and pull out your map, with all of those precisely designated countries you hand-rendered, the rivers you tracked down from the mountains, and the carefully drawn microtrees to designate a forested area. Now, what is it that makes one little glob different from the one next to it? If you say anything but art and culture, you're not necessarily wrong, but that should be in there, right up at the top of the list.

Now, I can't rightly separate art from culture, as they both shift and change with one another. Be it your country's food, drink, dance, theater, government, architecture, religion, literature, or whatever else, they should have a unique world view. Do you have to know all of that? Yes. Even if you only really deal with one character form that country? Yes. A country's art and culture will affect its people in such a way that it becomes inextricable from their being. Don't believe me?

Try to imagine how our country would be different without the Beatles, or Dr. Seuss, or the Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan. It seems weird, but think about every ripple that never would have formed. You really can't, and that's the key thing. Its easy enough to track their influences on culture from the onset, but if you try and remove them, its a totally unpredictable mass of nothingness.

That's how your cultures need to be portrayed, or they probably won't come off as the most clear image that they could. Now, I'm not saying I'm perfectly amazing at this, since I'm not, but the first step to fixing an issue is seeing it, and every writer out there should be behind me on that point, yes?

What, however, influences your art and culture. While it's true that sometimes things are just flashes of inspiration from the gods, particularly on the artistic side of the equation, for realism's sake, one should trace them back to something greater that the people can't really control. Like, if you live in a tundra without heating or other modern conveniences, are you really going to have a face studded with piercings? No, because your whole damn face would freeze, turn black, and shrivel into a frostbitten husk. All right, that might be an exaggeration, but it would be highly uncomfortable and you know it. Look at a desert culture—your first instinct is to have them wearing light, skimpy clothing to escape the searing heat, but when you look at actual desert cultures through history, they wear more clothing than anyone else, because they have something more pressing to worry about than heat—sunburn. Heat may be uncomfortable, but sunburns can be lethal.

Also, why are they divided here? Why isn't this just one giant country like China or Russia? Is it an old religious dispute, governmental disarray, a river, a road? What force is so powerful to keep two countries apart, and is it a point of contention?

Where did their culture come from? Is it wholly original or did they, like many countries on Earth, borrow, assimilate, and steal various important parts of their culture? Are they the Chinese, originating the written characters, or are they Japan, taking the Chinese characters and changing their meanings?

There's so much more I could go into on this subject—hell, books could be written about this subject, if someone had the time—but I'll leave it at that. It's enough to get us thinking, right?

Voss