Being a Better Writer: References and Pop Culture

Hello readers, and welcome back to another post of Being a Better Writer, coming to you bright and early this Tuesday morning.

Yeah, Tuesday. Mondays shifts at my part-time job again. Just a fair heads-up, I’ve got a Monday shift next week too, so next week’s BaBW post will also  be delayed. It happens. And I need the money, so …

Oh, and I apologize in advance if this post seems a little scatter-brained. I’ve not been sleeping well lately, and that’s probably had a detrimental effect on my writing.

Right. Back to the topic at hand. Which is a request topic from one of you readers! And an interesting one at that, one I wouldn’t have likely come to on my own. See, this reader asked after right and wrong ways to do pop-culture references in a book. And while yes, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about this … it’s not a topic I would have thought to discuss until it was posed!

This is why reader questions are always good to hear. Sometimes there’s just a topic I wouldn’t have ever considered on my own, but someone else has. And in this case, it’s a topic that’s worth talking about.

So, references and pop culture … Where do we start? Well, how about some definitions and clarifications for those who aren’t quite certain what I mean when I talk about these terms?

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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: 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: Sidekicks

The original concept for this post, or rather I should say request as that’s what it was, was for information regarding a comedic sidekick. But I’ve decided to expand on that a little for two reasons. First, dying is easy, but comedy is hard. Really hard. I envy those who can write comedy, like Adams, Prachett, Taylor, or Korman. It’s a serious talent. The art of regularly keeping a comedic tone, building things up for comedic beats not just every once and a while, but with a regular rhythm? That’s really hard to pull off, to start. It takes a lot of practice and understanding.

Second, because a comedic sidekick isn’t exactly a great point to cover. It’s like looking only at one side of a building. Sure, a comedic sidekick is great an all … but what about the other sides, those other types of sidekick? What about the foundations of having a sidekick at all? What makes a sidekick different from, say, a partner character?

See, I consider these questions just as valid and important to consider as the original question of a comedic sidekick. Also, I can answer many of them to my satsifaction, or at least give a much more concise, clear opinion on things. I can’t really do that with a comedic sidekick in more than a glancing manner. After all, comedy is not my specialty. I can give a few pointers, but that’s a pretty short post.

Sidekicks, however? I can talk a bit more about that. So, without further ado, let’s get started.

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Being a Better Writer: Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic

Apologies for the delay. Once again I had a Monday morning shift. I am considering moving future Being a Better Writer posts to Tuesdays for the time being as a result. I’ll keep you updated!

This post was bound to happen. Sanderson’s Three Laws have been a frequently requested topic since the very beginning of this blog, and it’s a staple of a lot of writing education these days (especially fantasy), so I knew there would come a day when I had to write about it. Of course, I wanted to ease into the topic first, which I did two weeks ago when I wrote a post about creating magic systems. During that post, I referenced the Three Laws, saying I’d talk about them later. You see, before I got into talking about the Three Laws, which are more about how to use magic in a story, I did want to dedicate some time to the subject of creating magic first, so that there would be a basis for Sanderson’s Laws to dig into.

Now, with that post behind us, the time has come to look at Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic.

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Being a Better Writer: Giving Characters a Leitmotif

Okay, first of all, I need to apologize for this post coming so late in the day. I know that yesterday I said I would have it up this morning, but as some of you likely noticed … that didn’t happen. What did happen was that last night, as I sat down to put together what would have been this morning’s post, it … Well, it wouldn’t go together. I was nursing a headache, tired, and after a frustrating time spent slapping together a less-than-subpar BaBW post, I canned the whole thing and decided to do it today after work (and after I’d gotten a little more sleep).

So far, this seems to have worked. With the one problem being that I missed the scheduled posting this morning and for that, I apologize. I should be more regular in getting these posts up (especially with the sudden surge in Monday work shifts at my second job).

Right, so with that done and said, what are we talking about today? After all, I’m sure a few of you who have had more than a few music classes or shared a passing interest in music may know what a leitmotif is, and with that knowledge, you’re surely wondering how that applies to writing. After all, despite experimentation to the contrary, a majority of books do not release with a soundtrack, nor any form of ambient accompaniment (and there’s a small subset of people who want to keep it that way, no less). So then, what might I mean by giving characters a leitmotif?

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Being a Better Writer: Playing Out Your Puzzle Pieces

Welcome back, readers, to a Monday post that’s actually on a Monday! BaBW is back to its proper day once more! So, to commemorate the occasion, what’s today’s writing topic?

Puzzle pieces.

I can see the curious, questioning looks even from here in the past, so let me explain a little further.

One of the questions I get asked from readers—especially those who are about to make the transition to new writers—is how I’m able to fill my books with such complicated plots and keep everything moving at a steady pace at the same time.

This is a legitimate question. I want to stress that up front. As a new writer, nothing is more daunting than looking at someone else’s book with all it’s intersecting plot threads and carefully doled out clues and thinking “How on earth do I do that?” To a new writer, it seems like an almost insurmountable task: There are all these different parts of the story, and all of it seems to be fitting together just so the guide to reader to figure things out or move along with the story at the same pace as the characters … And once you stand back and look at it, that’s quite a bit of work!

And, to be fair, the average English class that many are going to have gone through in their high-school years has very low odds of touching on this, which only compounds the problem. For new writers, it just seems like something that writers do, but no one is explaining how. Again, this is why I encourage taking creative writing classes if they’re available to you—they’ll teach this kind of stuff and more.

But, that aside, point is, most young writers see a full, complex story and wonder how on earth an author was ever able to keep everything straight. Crud, some don’t. Read through a Sci-Fi book the other day (giving an author I’d read before another shot because the premise of the book was very unique, even if I’d been disappointed in an earlier work of theirs) where the author didn’t dole out their complex story well—at all. Here’s how it ending up playing out: You got the opening chapters, introducing the characters, and giving you roughly 80% of the information you needed to know for the conclusion of the story. Then, following that was most of the book, roughly two dozen chapters of the characters just making their way to the conclusion while talking but never really doing much for the story other than “We go from here to the their, this ending is stressful.” Near the end of that bit, which was most of the book and pretty dull, we got another 10%, and then the conclusion happened almost immediately, bringing with it the last 10%.

Do you see the problem? The book had a great premise and an interesting idea, but the author didn’t know how to dole the information out. The result was a massive dump of exposition at the beginning, and a small one at the end with the final bits the reader needed … and then everything in-between was just sort of  … there. It could have been summed up in two or three chapters rather than twenty.

Or the story could have doled out its puzzle pieces better, distributed them evenly across those intervening  chapters, and given them some purpose to the overall plot (as opposed to the “And we’re traveling … and we’re traveling … and we’re traveling …” that the story became). Something that would have given them impact on the story, rather than just being happenstance.

Right, so that’s the second time (not counting the title) that I’ve used that term, so it’s high time I explained what I mean when I write it.

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