Archive for the ‘On Writing’ Category

This week (honestly, it has predated this week, but this week is when it bubbled to the surface of The Discourse, so here we are) has seen a few people calling for the return of the Hays’ Code. For those not in the know, the Hays’ Code was a (somewhat) voluntary self-imposed guideline that predated the current MPAA Rating System, and that prohibited certain things from showing up in movies. What things? Well, any explicit reference to sex, no miscegenation, no queers, and so on and so forth. Seriously, kisses couldn’t last more than three seconds. Can’t cast a Chinese actress if her male lead is a white guy in yellow face. Can’t have the youth of America be corrupted, now can we?

Anyway, the Code died a much needed death at the end of the ‘60s, but its presence still casts a long shadow in US (and by extension global) cinema. Why do people want to go back to it? It’s slightly complicated – but it amounts to certain people feeling uncomfortable with fictional(!) displays of sex and violence and using the cover of “but the Code meant people had to be more creative than they are today” as a way of forcing their puritanical views on the general public.

You can read more about why the code was bad and why a return to it is A Very Bad Idea here.

Anyway, this ties into something I’ve been thinking about in other contexts, namely guidelines I keep seeing in genre magazines (fantasy/sci-fi/spec fic in particular). Frequently you will see guidelines that stories that have sexual content are out (okay – so is a kiss okay, but missionary out? Is the main character stripping down to fight the bad guy sexual or does that depend on the gender of the mc? Do I trust the editor to understand that if I include a queer character, that it doesn’t make it explicitly sexual or not?) , or explicit language is verboten, but hey, throw in all the violence you want.

I’ve had stories of mine where I needed to edit out an f-bomb or it wouldn’t be published (something something about not wanting to get flagged on the ‘zon for explicit content). I tend not to include sexual contact in my stories anyway but if it made sense in the context of the story, why wouldn’t it be included? Look, some of my characters would sooner stab a body than look at them, and you want to tell me they’d be concerned about their language being uncouth? I’m not saying that every story need to sound like a bad rip off of a Tarantino script, but maybe, just maybe, the self-censorship isn’t needed and might be holding the genre back some.

And I know this is at least somewhat predicated on the genre and audience you are writing for, but every time I see another call for fantasy fiction that then deliberately cuts off part of the human experience I have to sit there and scratch my head and wonder “Why?”

This week’s challenge was to write a story about the end of the journey. 1500 words. Like rolling off a log, right?

Yeah, well my first draft ended up around 2800 and it’s still sitting there in the back of my head, a bad itch that won’t go away. I’m thinking “Am I clear what the stakes are?” and “Is there more I can do to build up atmosphere?” and “Is there enough tension to keep readers interesting?” and yeah, there’s a bit there I want to tease apart, insert a bit more into.

And none of it is going here, because 3,000 words or so is a nice little sweet spot of a story to try submitting to markets. As of right now, I’ve got all of four pieces submitted for the year. So instead of fiction, you get to hear what I like to see in a story. Please note this is what I’m looking for as an editor for my magazine and is solely my opinion. And as I have a co-editor, I am only speaking for myself, though I’m sure there’s a bit of overlap. (more…)

Yeah, yeah, so this is going to be one of those posts that is writing about writing. Unlike some of the other ones I’ve done, this is way less about craft and more about content and the fundamental underpinnings of character. So if you are here only for the short fic, might want to give this a pass. Also, I am not writing this to call any author out, except for maybe myself. (more…)

A quick note: I fenced for a number of years. Foil primarily, but I’ve also picked up some different rapier techniques as well as some “heavy” sword work (two-hander, sword and shield, single-handed broadsword along with some very limited small unit tactics). My lens is primarily through Western martial arts, and there are some great additional resources out there (The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts for instance) that I definitely recommend checking out.


(Yes, I had more thoughts on NaNoWriMo. This list is related to the post below.)

  1. Do your research now. If you’re having to spend time looking things up while you are writing, you are wasting precious, precious writing time.
  2. Be excited about what you want to write. If you hate everything about your story, what makes you think readers are going to like it any more than you do? Related: what do you not see enough of in fiction that you would like to see? Now is your chance even if the only one that ever sees (or hears) the final product is your cat. Or dog. You get the idea.
  3. Related to number one: organize your research. Index cards, word doc files, scrivener notes, post-it notes, pencil scribbles on bar napkins. It doesn’t matter what it is, but if you can’t access your research while you are writing, it doesn’t matter how much research you did. Time spent finding your notes is time you could have been writing.
  4. Speaking of time: you will never “find” enough time. You have to carve out time for yourself with a butcher blade and a chainsaw.
  5. You should know what’s going to happen in the story. I can’t stress this enough. Approaching the story as a magical mystery tour where you are writing to find out what happens is a good way to get yourself trapped by plot holes or needing to save everything with a Deus Ex Machina. Plan. Outline. You’ll thank me later.
  6. NaNoWriMo isn’t the time to be looking for the perfect word. If you are struggling to find the medical term for bruise, know you could have written bruise and the next four sentences in the time it took you look up ecchymosis.
  7. Don’t be afraid to steal. Steal from other books. Steal from movies. Steal from TV. Steal from life. Steal from lots of different places and everyone will think you are original.
  8. Break it down into manageable chunks. I get it, 50k words seems like a lot of words. It is a lot words. So what about 2,000 words? Write 2,000 words a day for 25 days and you won’t only be done, but ahead of schedule.
  9. I mentioned characters in the last post. Antagonists are characters. What’s making the bad guy do what they do? What’s in it for them? How do their goals run counter to the protagonist?
  10. Think in terms of scenes. We don’t need to see the entire journey from Point A to Point written out. Is that trip uneventful? Great. SKIP TO THEM ARRIVING.
  11. The only person you are really competing against is yourself. Comparing yourself to how other people are doing is good way to get discouraged, especially if this is your first attempt. Think of it this way- the only who can tell this story in this particular way is you.
  12. No one is going to judge you if you don’t get to 50,000 words, except maybe you. No matter how many words you get down, it’ll be that many more than where you started November 1.
  13. Finish. Your. Shit. You got to 50k…buuuuut your story isn’t finished. So sit down on December 1 and work to finish it. Even if you aren’t planning on it ever seeing the cold light of day, it’s important to finish what you are working on. (And just ignore that drawer full of half-finished stories I just slammed close- this is Do As I Say not As I Do time, and we’ve all got our flaws). This is about finishing a draft you can then polish, not, “Yay! I wrote a story I don’t ever have to look at it again!”
  14. Don’t let anyone tell you NaNoWriMo is for people who aren’t “real” writers. A lot of people who write can get pretentious about what constitutes a “real” writer. Do you write? Good, you’re a writer then. We all gotta start somewhere.
  15. NaNoWriMo isn’t actually the end. What happens next is you let it sit until January 1. Get through the holidays. Get some distance and perspective. On January 2nd (because, let’s face it no one does much of anything on January 1), you get to phase two – editing. That’s where you get to take your word slurry and try to make it into something coherent. That’s where the real work starts.

Extra special bonus tip: Get rest. Be sure to eat and drink. You’ll write better rested and cared for than exhausted and distracted by being hungry or thirsty.

Feel free to comment, like, and share!

  1. Shut up it’s not too early to talk about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Yes, officially it starts in November, but I guarantee you the best way to successfully complete the requisite 50,000 words in the 30 days given is to start thinking about your story now.
  2. Start thinking about characters. That means description, backstory, motivation. What’re their buttons? What sets them apart? This is more than just the protagonist. Think about your antagonist. Think about satellite characters. What’s motivating them? What’s making them do what they do?
  3. What’s the setting? Rural Alabama is different from Elfy Forestland is different from Noir Cyberpunk where it rains all the time. How does the setting help to frame the story?
  4. Related to the above: do your worldbuilding now. November is for writing the story, not the setting. I guarantee if you let yourself get bogged down in the worldbuilding, if you need to spend time figuring your shit out in November, you aren’t going to get far with the actual writing.
  5. What are the stakes of the story? What happens if your protagonist falls flat on their face? Is it the end of the world? The end of a relationship? End of employment? What if they succeed? The status quo should change by the end of the story.
  6. Do not let your character be a leaf on the wind. They need to be a jet plane. In other words- give the character(s) agency. Have them make decisions. Have them make choices. These can even be bad choices, but make them act in the world you create.
  7. Work out now how you are going to tell the story. First person present? Third person limited past? Now’s the time to make those decisions, not at 12:01 am in November 1.
  8. Think about your beats. Road map out your story. NaNoWriMo is 50,000 words. That’s 10k words an act for five acts. You know who worked the five act model? Shakespeare. Be like Shakespeare.
  9. Allow yourself to suck. NaNoWriMo is designed to get writers to get words on page. They don’t have to be the perfect words. That’s what editing is for.
  10. Don’t give a fuck about genre. You want to write steampunk airship pirates battling Martians? Shapeshifter mutant erotica? Weird West meets Weird Science? You do you.
  11. Look at your schedule. 30 days for 50k words is 1,666.67 words per day. November contains things like Thanksgiving. Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Having to go to work. Plan out what days might end up being blacked out for writing. Plan accordingly.
  12. There are certain things that drive word count. Action. Dialogue (especially asking questions). Do those things.
  13. Certain parts are going to bog you down. Writing long descriptions. Writing exposition.
  14. Getting stuck on a scene? Put in a place holder. Something like [Exposition on the nature the lamia/sphinx war goes here]. Move on to the next scene. Put that bracket in red, set it off from the rest of the scene. Come back to it later when you are ready to tackle it.
  15. Find your writing groove now. Music or no music? What kind of music? Caffeine? Alcohol? Other? If booze makes you sleepy, you might want to scale back when writing. You won’t get nearly as much done as you might think. Haven’t written anything in a while? Maybe write a couple of short pieces before hand. Take those characters out for a test drive. Writing is a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.

Further reading:

How to Write a Novel in 3 Days (The Michael Moorcock Way)

The official NaNoWriMo website.

Yes, I am considering participating in NaNoWriMo this year. I did it years ago. 2001 I think? And I finished. And if I do participate I’ll be posting the word slurry here, one day at a time.

“Hey there.”

“Hey back.”

“Watcha working on?”

“A piece on dialogue writing.”

“Seriously? You think you’re qualified to write something like that. What are you starting with?”

“A definition. Dialogue: a conversation between two or more people as a feature of a book, play, or movie.”

“Yawn. C’mon, liven it up a bit. Think of the great dialogue scenes in movies. John McClane and Al Powell. Harry and Sally. Vincent McCauley and Neil Hanna. Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield. Two people, sitting down, talking to each other. Sometimes sizing each other up. Sometimes taking the piss out of each other. And you’re going to start with a definition?”

“You’ve got a better idea?”

“Bet your ass I do.”

“Please, enlighten me.”

“Start with a question?”

“A question. But not any question. The question all authors need to ask about anything they are including in a story.”


“Well what?”

“The question, what’s the question?”

“You tell me, you’re the one writing about dialogue like some kind of expert.”

“All right. How’s this: ‘What purpose does dialogue serve in the context of the story you are telling?’”

“Ding ding ding. Of course, you are also going to have give some examples.”


“Hey, you are the one that wanted to write about dialogue.”

“All right, all right. So you can use dialogue to answer questions, right?”

“Are you asking me or telling me?”

“Can’t it be both?”

“Now you’re catching on. If you answer a question with a question, you might both answer the question and raise more questions. Same thing if you have someone ask a follow-up question to an answer provided. Helps break up the wall o’ text that might establish itself in the middle of what you are writing.”

“All right. So it can be used to ask questions and answer them. It can be used to provide information to the reader. Anything else.”

“What are you, some kind of idiot?”

“Wait- what? Why did you just call me that?”

“Maybe I did that to show the kind of relationship that we have. By taking an antagonistic approach to the dialogue I’m telling the reader about the kind of relationship we have, as opposed to if I started calling you Pumpkin.”

“Really, another Pulp Fiction reference?”

“Just seeing if you’re paying attention. So do you think it’s possible to have more than two people in a conversation?”

“Of course it is.”

“Whoa, who are you?”

“The person eavesdropping on your conversation. Fascinating stuff, really. So yes it is possible to have another character jump in, but you need to be sure to keep clear to the reader who is talking, otherwise they might lose the thread of the conversation.”

“Huh, good point.”

“Agreed. Now, if you don’t mind, this is a private conversation.”

“Well, excuse me.”

“Wait, where were we?”

“Let’s see, showing relationships through dialogue, Pulp Fiction reference, timely interruption. Anything else?”

“Let me think. Mind pouring me a cup of coffee while I ponder?”

“Not at all.”

“There you go, showing action through dialogue. Of course, you could do that through a sentence showing action within the dialogue, but that’s not always necessary.”

“Hmm. Good point. Any final thoughts?”

“Final thoughts? Final thoughts! We’ve barely dipped into the topic and here you are asking me for final thoughts! We haven’t touched on dialect, slang, or whether or not it’s okay to use ‘said’ at the end of a dialogue to indicate who is talking. And we definitely haven’t touched on the most important aspect of all.”

“Huh? What’s that?”

“Reading the dialogue aloud. It’s even better if you’ve got another person you can work with so you can make sure the banter works, as opposed to dwelling in your own head only thinking your dialogue pops when it facts its heavier than a lead balloon.”

“Huh, good idea, thanks.”

“De nada.”

The question is a simple one. “Why do you write?” Why do you take time out of your day when you could be doing so many other useful things? Why do you feel the need to inflict upon the world your fantasies and fictions?

Because I can. Because I have to. Because sometimes the only way to silence the voices is to write it out, and I’m too damn narcissistic to perhaps do the humble thing of locking away what I write in a drawe, never to see the light of day.

I write because I have stories I want to tell, characters who speak to me that want to speak, that want to act, that want to live. I write because I can and because it is the one artistic talent I have.

I can’t draw. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. I can’t paint, sculpt, or play a musical instrument.


I can string words into sentences into paragraphs into stories. On occasion I can spin a phrase into something beautiful.

I write because I was an awkward, nerdy kid in school who escaped into books, who liked fantasy and science-fiction because it was so very different from everything else I was experiencing at the time. I could disappear into books, and I admired and envied those able to spin stories.

As I got older, I learned to pull stories apart, study the bones and entrails, divine what made the stories tick, how they were put together. What separated good writing from bad. Something that nowhere near enough high school or college classes are good at teaching, at least at any level prior to grad school maybe. By learning how stories work, I learned to put together my own. I learned how to juke left when the predictable thing to do would be go right.

I write because it is still an escape. For me, for others. People get to disappear into my words for a time, and maybe there’s a nerdy, awkward kid out there who needs that. Who connects with what I’m doing. Who finds their own inspiration.

And hell, I write because it’s fun. It’s exciting to write action scenes. It’s fun writing punch-drunk dialogue, the back and forth sniping of two characters. It’s fun making terrible things happen to fictional people, to pull the strings and make them dance.

I write because I can’t stop. I’ve actually gone months without writing a story, and when I do I feel like a piece of me is missing. And then I’m back, blank screen in front of me. Filling it up with words into sentences into paragraphs into stories. Maybe I’m an addict. Maybe I can’t stop. And maybe it’s because I’m getting older and I’m not the type to go out to the bar and bullshit with the regulars. Maybe this is my stool, my space, and I get to tell the stories I want to tell.

Why do I write? Because it is something deep within me, something inextricably a part of me that needs this like a junkie with his fix. And even if it goes no further than this and a couple of stories out there in the world, well, so be it.

But I’m still writing. Still submitting. And I’m not stopping any time soon.

[This week’s Chuck Wendig Challenge]

The protagonist is the main character of the story. It is the person that, by acting, or in many cases reacting, to events, drives the action of the story.

Protagonist is a Moral Free Designation

The protagonist of the story is the main character, that’s it. They can be good, evil, moral, immoral, or amoral. Patrick Bateman is the protagonist character of AMERICAN PSYCHO, even if he is an unhinged lunatic. Maleficient, even though she is the antagonist in SLEEPING BEAUTY, is the protagonist for her own story. It doesn’t matter what their motivation is, so long as it is their action driving the plot, then that’s your protagonist.

If you were to write a story from Darth Vader’s perspective, Darth Vader would then be your protagonist, with the rebels (and possibly the emperor) being designated the antagonists.

Your Narrator Isn’t Always the Protagonist

It is easy to think that your narrator, especially when writing from a first person perspective, is the protagonist. This, however, is not always the case. The iconic example is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock stories, which are told from the perspective of his friend, Dr. John Watson. Watson, however, is not the driving force behind those stories, even though he does take an active role. Rather, he is the chronicler of Holmes’ exploits.

So when looking at your own story, is your narrator the main character? Or is someone else making the decisions, developing as a character, and driving your story forward?

What If You Have More Than One Protagonist?

So what if you have more than one main character? What if your characters trade off narration duties, especially when perspective flips? Well, then you have the case of the deuteragonist. The deuteragonist may not get the same “screen time” or page count of the protagonist, but their story is as integral to the whole. While the story of Lord of the Rings is very much Frodo’s story, Sam’s story takes up a good deal of the plot as well. And yes, Aragorn ends up being a triagonist in this case, as his story, while important, is sublimed into the background of Frodo and Sam’s quest.

Sometimes the Protagonist Isn’t Who We Think It Is

Sometimes as writer’s we employ a bit of sleight of hand. We start off with a story, lulling you into a sense that the character who is currently front and center is the focus of the story. Surprise! They die a quarter of the way through the book. Wait? What happened? The writer was using the time-honored technique of the Decoy Protagonist. Huh? Why would they do that?

Lots of reasons really.

Maybe the simple answer is that the author never wants you to get comfortable around the characters, never wants you, the reader, to feel safe. If the “main” character dies part way through, well then who is safe at the end of the day? The sense of danger and of suspense is heightened when the reader doesn’t know who is going to survive and who’s just more meat for the grinder.

And Sometimes the Protagonist Lies

Think about stories you might tell about yourself. Do you drag every fact into the light? Are you always objectively telling the exact truth? If you and someone else tell the same story, do all the facts line up precisely? Probably not. Think about that from your perspective as a writer. You, as the author, need to know what happened. The character? Not so much. Their own prejudices and biases color their actions and thoughts, and you need to be aware of that. Sometimes your protagonist will lie, or even simply be mistaken. As the writer you need to be willing to take those chances, while still being true to the story you want to tell.

Now go ahead and watch THE USUAL SUSPECTS. Think about who told the story. Now, what parts of the story hold true? How much of it is a fabrication? How can you use this in your own stories?

On Horror

Posted: May 28, 2015 in On Writing
Tags: , , ,

“The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…”- Stephen King

What defines the horror genre? What sets it apart from the rest of speculative fiction?