Being a Better Writer: Order of Operations

Hello again, readers, and welcome to yet another Being a Better Writer post with an ominous, math-based title!

I know, I know. Forty percent of you clicked away after reading that sentence. Another fifty percent didn’t make it past seeing the title. And the twenty percent that are left? They know what’s wrong with that last statement.

Actually, if you’re quick on the uptake, you might have realized that there’s more than one error in that last paragraph. The first most probably spotted, but the second …? Well, it has to do with our title, which means that this is as good a point as any to dive right in and get into things.

So, let’s go ahead and start then. Except … unlike normal, I actually want to start today with a bit of a hands-on moment. A writing prompt, if you will. You may have noticed that there’s a scenic picture below. See it? You might need to hit the jump. Anyway, it’s a picture of the Kennecott Copper Mine ghost town in Alaska. This particular picture was shared to Reddit, IIRC, so hopefully it’s all right to use it here. I didn’t take it, is what I’m saying, and the goal here is to use it for educational purposes. You can click on it to see it in all its glory (which I recommend).

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Being a Better Writer: Politics

Oh dear, what have I done? Why did I ever even write this topic down? What was I thinking? And then I picked it?

Actually, it’s not that bad. Some of you readers may have had similar reactions to seeing this topic, considering what it could discuss … and let’s be honest, that is a topic I could discuss, and likely will at another time.

Just not today. No, today’s topic of politics isn’t going to be involved with the real-world, thankfully (because that’s a mess). No, instead I want to talk about the politics in your book. No, not those “social politics” of the theme and whatnot. Not that at all. That’s the other topic, the one most of us dread because it’s so overblown these days.

No, I want to talk about the political sphere of your story. The politics in your story, that the characters are part of. Not the reader.

Now, because I’ve seen this topic broached before at conventions, writing classes, and the like, I can imagine what the average response is to this topic. Either a confused expression (fairly common) or a deadpan,  bored look coupled with the thought “Well, my book doesn’t involve politics or anything like that, so I’m just going to zone out” (which is equally common, in my experience). But … you’re wrong. If you’re thinking that right now, you’re wrong. And here’s why.

Almost every story, no matter the subject, will involve politics of some kind. In some way, from some angle. Politics will be there.

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Being a Better Writer: The Heavy Hand of the Writer

So … I picked that title because it looked and read better than my other alternatives. One of which was “The Heavy Hand of Whatever” which really didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Another was the several knit-together topics that this post was to cover … which would leave you, readers, with a giant string to look at. Then the last was a giant string (______) in place of “the Writer.”

Oh, right, before I dive into things don’t forget: April 19th is a one day sale of all my works in honor of my birthday! That is one day away! Or possibly less … or maybe even in the past, depending on when you read this post. Hopefully you read it in time. Part of the goal I’m going for is for everyone who’s enjoyed one of my books to share their favorite somehow while the sale is on, so get ready! You can check this post for a quick reminder of all the sales. Got it? Good!

So, back to the mysterious topic at hand. This is one of those posts that was actually inspired by a book that I’m currently forcing my way through. Yes, forcing … It’s not a very good book. But, since what’s causing me to not enjoy it is an easily identifiable flaw, or rather a series of them … My mind immediately turned to this blog and started putting together a blog post. A blog post I knew would be written late, since I had work today, and I have family visiting tomorrow.

So … here’s the biggest problem with this book I’m trying to shove through (which, if you’re wondering where it came from, originated at my local library as my random pick of “Let’s try this”). Okay, second biggest problem next to its plot being ripped off pretty much wholesale from any generic book or film that has a Skynet plot. And this problem is … Crud, I barely know where to start. Technically, it’s a lot of problems all wrapped up under one giant umbrella, each one feeding off of one another to create a morass of issues. But at it’s core?

The book is extremely heavy-handed in it’s approach to, well, everything from the plot to the theme.

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Being a Better Writer: Detailing Characters

Whoa. Did I wake up late today. Noon, in fact. Wow.

But you know what? I feel excellent! Last night marks, I think, the first full night of sleep I’ve gotten in since … crud … Since I returned from my quick Alaska trip. And even there I was playing catch up. I think that today I might almost be caught up.

So … today’s post is a little late. Sorry. But I really don’t feel bad. I feel really good. Crud, I might even go get some exercise today!

Also, really quick before we get to today’s topic, don’t forget the 24-hour sale hitting on April 19th! Even if you already own a few books, it’s a chance to either complete your collection or share your favorites with someone else!

Okay, all that out of the way? Let’s get down to business with today’s topic of choice: Detailing characters.

Hopefully, that title has done its job properly and drawn most of you in. Made you think. Many, I expect, upon seeing the term “detail” and “character” in the same context would assume that the topic of choice would be about how to create or write detailed characters. Which, to be  fair, is a very good topic. Hence why I’ve made a number of posts on it already. And yes, this topic does sort of align with that. It’s definitely going to get the tag.

But … I didn’t say “detailed characters.” I said detailing, which is just a little bit different. Detailing is something a bit more specific.

It can also be a verb, describing an action instead of being a thing. So, for example, I can talk about detailing as a concept … but I can also say “Oh, I was detailing X” and the statement still works.

Right, right, enough background. So what is detailing, and what does it have to do with your characters? Simple. Detailing is the act of adding small, decorative features to a building, sculpture, painting, or other piece of art. Hence the name. You’re adding small “details” to an item in order to enhance the whole. Like molding along the edge of a room, or a slight upwards crease to the lines around a sculpture’s eyes. Small, tiny details that enhance the whole when pulled back.

Most of you can probably see where I’m going with this now. Maybe. You’re thinking about the small details of your characters, right? How to add them in to enhance what the reader already knows?

Well, that’s good. In fact, I think I wrote another post that touched on that at one point. Maybe more than one. Which is good, because I’m not repeating that today. No, I’m not going to be talking about your primary characters at all.

No, today I’m stepping in another direction with our detailing. I’m talking about secondary and tertiary characters. And just like that, the whole situation has changed.

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Being a Better Writer: Fleshing Out Ideas – From Idea to Story

Welcome back, readers, to another Monday post of Being a Better Writer! Sorry for the delay. As many of you likely guessed, I was given a morning shift at work to deal with. Half-shift, but even then there’s the prep time around it, afterwards, travel time, etc … Hence why I’d rather sell more books. But that’s a case for another post. Being late, better I dive right into today’s topic!

Now, I don’t actually remember the circumstances by which this topic came to be on the list (could have been LTUE), but either way, the topic is a good one. Hang out in a writing-centric thread online or attend a writing workshop—sands, even look in the comments of a public page for an author or attend a panel—and eventually, probably fairly quickly, you’ll hear a question or  comment that’s a lot like the following:

I have this great idea/concept/story/character, but the moment I try to sit down and write them, I just run out of steam. I can’t get it/them written. How do I do this?

Now, the exact phrasing may vary, but trust me, you’ll here the sentiment, echoed from a number of beginning writers. And you won’t even have to wait long. It’s a question that comes up all the time.

And you know, to be fair, it’s not exactly a bad question. A poor one, maybe, but not a bad one. And it’s one that’s often reflected by the faces and situations of many more in whatever assorted audience is present than the one who asked. Crud, I’m certain that it’s a question that some of the authors who have been forced to scramble for an answer themselves once voiced, though perhaps internally.

But … it’s still a poor question. I certainly wouldn’t call it a good one. Not poor enough that it isn’t worth tackling in this post, but not the best question either.

Why? Well, let me answer that before I get into the deeper-roots behind the question. The question is a poor one because 90% of the time the individual asking it is asking for a silver bullet. A solution that doesn’t exist. I entirely suspect that if, when asked this question, whoever was asked responded with “Well, are you using X program?” or “Are you sitting in this kind of chair?” there would be a massive sale of said product in the audience that had asked.

Again, I shouldn’t batter these poor souls too badly. After all, they are beginners. But as beginners, when asking this question, the answer they get is hardly the answer they want (and sometimes, they’ll tell you). They’re inexperienced enough to think that all it takes is an idea, a pen or a keyboard, and a little bit of writing, and boom! Story! And the problem with that is that, as all writers know, there is no silver bullet. There’s no magic “thing” or element that anyone can just do to take a story from an idea to a finished product (or at least a halfway competent one). And in that regard, the question is poor.

Now, that said, it wouldn’t take much to “fix” it so that we can give it a real answer. If we rearrange it a little, tweak a few of the words a bit, we get something much more workable. Something like:

I have a good idea/story/concept/character, but the when I sit down to try and write it, I start having trouble. How do I take it from an idea to a finished work? What are the steps there?

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Being a Better Writer: Unbelievable Reality

Ever heard of a film called To Hell and Back? No?

I’m not surprised. The film came out a long time ago. 1955, to be exact. It’s a World-War II movie chronicling the exploits of one Audie Murphy.

Do you recognize that name? Some of you are likely shaking your heads, while a few others are nodding vigorously. You see, Audie Murphy was one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II and remains one of the most decorated soldiers of all time. Exploit after exploit was attached to his name. Naturally, the kind of man you’d want to make a Hollywood blockbuster about, right? That was To Hell and Back.

Well, here’s the interesting thing about this movie they made. You would likely expect that a story about a war hero (or anyone, really) coming out of Hollywood would be heavily edited and dramatized, right? Hence the “based on a true story” nonsense that usually means that there was probably a person somewhere who did something similar to this, but its so disconnected you might as well be watching pure fiction.

Well, you’d be right. The movie wasn’t exactly like the real story.

It was, actually, less amazing.

That’s right, the movie was toned down. And I don’t mean that they shied away from the violence or the horrors of war, no. It was that they looked at Audie Murphy’s life and said ‘no one will believe this, it’s too fantastic’ and then toned the film down, downplaying some of the man’s heroism and accomplishments. All because they were certain audiences, despite the event’s truths, wouldn’t believe them for the stories they were.

Today, in that vein, we’re talking about knowing your audience, and the challenges associated with the possible.

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Being a Better Writer: Don’t Neglect Your Backdrop

Apologies for the delay. My other job scheduled me for several Mondays in a row, and I wasn’t able to get this post done well enough in advance to make the release date. Next week’s post should be done more in advance, however.

There was a post I made here, once, where I brought up the “painted on backdrop.”

If you’ve not seen a lot of old movies, this may take a small bit of explaining, but not much. But in the days before computers, if you wanted to shoot a scene someplace and make it look like somewhere very different (say, your desert lot was perfect for the shoot, but didn’t have the canyon-filled background you needed), you didn’t need to travel somewhere expensive. Instead you would just use a cleverly design backdrop, a piece of canvas with the background you wanted painted over it. Carefully, mind you, so that shadows and whatnot lined up.

Now, sometimes, especially for a film that had either lower production values or was designed to mimic a stage production (such as a musical, where backdrops are a part of the charm), you could clearly see that the characters were interacting in front of the backdrop. But for a lot of other productions, sometimes you would be hard-pressed to tell that what you were seeing wasn’t real.

None of this is news to anyone who’s seen an old movie, or has any familiarity with practical effects. Oftentimes it’s very impressive to see the “how it was done” for an old film and discover what was a special effect, or a model, etc, etc. It’s impressive how often we were all fooled by something!

Okay, okay, so what does this have to do with writing? Good question! Obviously we don’t have painted backdrops.

Or do we?

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