Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Common Writing Mistake: World Building

World building is a tricky subject because there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem.  Ask ten writers how they attempt to make their fantasy world rich and immersive and you will probably get ten different answers.  And this is not necessarily a bad thing!  World building is what gives a story its flavor.

When I work on beta reading projects I would say that world building issues usually falls under one of two categories:

1) The Information Dump

or

2) The Assumption

The information dump is exactly how it sounds.  Instead of creating a rich, sensory experience for the reader in gradual pieces, the author dumps everything the reader needs to know about a character/place into one huge blob of text.  Why is this a problem?  It's boring for one thing.  For another, a huge blob of text does not necessarily enhance the reading experience.  Just because the reader received the explanation once does not mean that he/she will retain all that information.

Readers need to be carefully and constantly reminded of details.  A character who constantly displays a certain mannerism is more memorable than one who had an epic backstory presented once.  With environments the impression the area gives is usually more important than knowing the exact layout.  Having a house feel creepy and abandoned vs. warm and inviting is more relatable information than knowing a house has three rooms, two of them upstairs.

The second category is a little trickier to fix.  "The assumption" is when the author forgets the reader is not in his head.  The result ends up reading something like this:

"Watch out for those zortong.  Everybody knows why we should avoid them."

So while the author gets points for trying to immerse the reader with new terms, the reader is still left confused because there's not enough contextual information to figure out what the heck a zortong is.  The author knows what a zortong is and assumed the reader knows as well.

The reader needs to be clued in to fix the assumption BUT the reader also doesn't need an information dump.  Both evils need to be avoided.  Often assumptions can be fixed with a few choice words.  For example:

"Watch out for those zortongs.  Those animals have a nasty temper.  There's a reason why everyone avoids them."

No information dump, no assuming.  The reader now knows the critical information in order to keep going with the plot without being bogged down by questions.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Review of "Never Chase Space Potatoes with Teenage Girls," a short story by Mack Moyer



Summary:
Mike takes his dying mother to a desolate island resort, eagerly awaiting his inheritance once the old gal kicks the bucket, then finds himself in the company of a beautiful teenage girl. Naturally, Mike and his new friend are visited by what could only be described as the cutest space potato of all time.

Review:
Moyer's short could be summarized with one word: trippy.  Whether or not this works entirely boils down to taste.  A reader could find this story amusing just as easily as he could find it ridiculous.

I found myself favoring the amused side of the spectrum.  It was weird and random but I couldn't help but smile as I read about killer potatoes.  My only gripe was the the story felt just a tad too fluffy.  It would have been nice if it was a little bit more about a bitter son waiting for his mom to die and less about a drug trip.  I feel like it would have made the twist at the end more profound.

Regardless, it's a fun, fast read.

3.5/5 stars
Reviewed by Alain Gomez

Buy this story on Amazon.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Creative Writing Lessons: Bestselling, award winning author Neil Gaiman on writing


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Common Writing Mistake: Spacial Awareness

I brought up in a previous post the idea that writing is like an RPG game.  For me, I like the Role Playing Game comparison because it uses numbers and strict rules.  Numbers and rules are not ambiguous like plot.

This idea of strict rules continues when it comes to spacial awareness.  If a character can only move three spaces per turn then it would take two turns to move six spaces.  This is a limit to movement and actions.

The same is true for characters in a book.  Unless a character has magical abilities or super powers, there is a limit to what the standard human can do.  If the character is on one side of the planet in one chapter, that same character cannot suddenly appear on the other side of the planet that same day.  Enough story time must pass that allows for the character to travel that journey.

This is a trap that I see authors fall into quite a bit while beta reading.  All too often I see the movement and actions of characters dictated by the plot because it's convenient.  The easiest way to solve a conflict is have a particular character present so the logic of movement is ignored.  While this is convenient for the author, it's jarring for the reader.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Common Writing Mistake: Illogical Characters

Creating characters is like playing a role playing game.  In fact, now that I think about it, games like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder are fantasy writing.  The point being that you have to create your characters with abilities and limitations and then adhere to them in order to create a believable adventure.

Continuing with the RPG (Role Playing Game) example, if a character has 20 health left and a sword with 5 attack, that's all that character gets.  It's very straightforward.  It means that once that character's health gets below 20, he's dead.  If that character is facing a monster, the maximum amount of damage that he can inflict with one hit is 5.  So a monster with 10 health would require two hits.

I'm using the RPG example because it involves numbers.  Numbers are simple and creating an immersive world for readers is not.  However, the "environmental logic" is the same.  Characters must adhere to a set of rules--that are created by the author--that allow for them to interact with the environment in a certain way.

Illogical characters are something that I see a lot while beta reading.  To me, it's a very natural mistake for inexperienced writers.  A book is born from an idea.  And ideas for books usually hinge on large scale plot rather than character.  The writer fixates on this idea, which is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself.  The trap is that the idea becomes all-consuming.  Certain plot elements MUST happen (so the writer thinks) or else the entire idea is ruined.

What this leads to is illogical characters.  By being fixated on plot, the writer forces the environment to dictate the characters' actions rather than the characters' reactions being a natural result of the environment.

To continue with the RPG example, if the hero with 5 attack is facing a monster with 5,000 health one of two things must happen in order for the story to continue is a logical fashion:

1) The hero must acquire a new skill or weapon that allows him to have a much higher attack

OR

2) Something must happen to the monster that makes the monster's health much lower

In other words, the options available to the writer must be dictated by the stated limitations and not "just because I said so."  All too often the following sequence of events take place is stories:

  • The super powerful monster is presented with no prior mention of any weakness.
  • The hero must face the monster but nothing is mentioned earlier in the story that will make him more powerful.
  • Writer inserts random event (such as a random character never seen before or a random power never before mentioned) in order to resolve the story
The reason why this is an issue is because, as I just mentioned, it comes across as random.  Everything previously mentioned about the characters comes across as pointless to the reader.  Why did the character go through all those adventures only to have a random event solve everything in the end anyway?

In order to create a satisfying reading experience, the solution to the story's conflict must be presented before the final resolution (aka the end fight scene).  This doesn't mean spoil the ending.  It means lay the groundwork for the story to resolve in a logical fashion.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Review of "The Suspect and other tales," a collection of short stories by K. Morris



Summary:
Tales of the unexpected, ranging from stories of crime and vengeance through to ghostly happenings in an ancient mansion.

Review:
A pleasant collection of flash fiction length pieces.  The stories are engaging and fun to read, though a bit simplistic with their twist endings.  Most veteran crime readers will be able to predict the ending of each story before it happens.  With some polish I could see Morris' style becoming quite thought-provoking.

Still, the flash fiction was written well.  Each story was a complete experience and didn't feel rushed, which I appreciated.  It's worth picking up a copy if you want an easy afternoon read.

3/5 stars
Reviewed by Alain Gomez

Buy this collection on Amazon.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Common Writing Mistake: Show, Don't Tell

They say that more than half of our communication comes from non-verbal cues.  Naturally, this has led to a hundred studies trying to figure out exactly how much communication is verbal.  But you get the idea.  Suffice to say that if you were to watch a movie and put the sound on mute you could still generally tell what sorts of emotions the characters are experiencing.

Unfortunately, this is something that tends to get easily lost during the writing process.  Writing is about words... the verbal part of communication, right?

Wrong.

To me, the most memorable books are the ones that create a world for you to become lost in.  You love the characters because they seem real even if the setting is in an alternate universe.  In order for that setting to become real the writer must give the reader non-verbal details to latch on to.

For example, telling the reader that a character is angry doesn't create much of an impact.  How angry is angry?  Forcing the character to stand by and watch his farm burn to the ground shows the injustice.  The writer doesn't even have to say that the character is angry if the setting is done correctly.  The farm was the character's home.  Anyone would be angry if their home was burned to the ground for no reason.

Show the reader, don't tell the reader.

I believe that new writers tell details because it's easier than showing.  Saying that the Lord of Darkness is evil is much easier than writing out a scene describing his ruthless distribution of justice.  But the end result for the reader will be completely different.  Telling me what emotions I am supposed to feel creates detachment from the story.  Remember that a reader does not have to care about your characters just because you, the writer, care.  Readers must be made to care, which means that empathy must be created.