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: 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: Balancing a Returning Character

Whoa! Late post today! Don’t worry, it wasn’t because I was slacking off. The opposite, actually. See, during that month-long burn to get Colony published and into eager reader’s hands (many of whom are now enjoying it immensely, going by the high-quality reviews that have already rolled in), I skipped a lot of sleep. Quite a lot. We’re talking 10-12 hours spent a day working on Colony regularly, plus everything else my life had. So I was, for almost a month, getting 5-6 hours of sleep a night.

Now I’m catching up. Fighting off a cold, letting the web-eyed feeling go away. The like. So today I slept pretty late. I’m not going to apologize for it; I needed it.

But since I’ve touched on the topic, here’s my shameless plug reminder to go buy a copy of Colony! It’s currently collecting a nice set of 5-star ratings and reviews across Amazon and Goodreads! Not only does it help support yours truly, but you’ll be getting an awesome Sci-Fi read to enjoy!

Right, enough plugs, as I’m sure you’re all off to buy Colony now. Once you’ve done that, you can come back and read today’s Being a Better Writer post. Which starts in the next paragraph (but first, as a quick aside, if you’re a long-time reader of BaBW but not of my books, consider being one who reads both. After all, if I can write this much good advice on writing, wouldn’t it be worth your time to see if I’ve delivered on that?).

So, balancing a returning character. Many of you are probably wondering what exactly I’m referring to when I say that. It could be taken a couple of ways, I’ll admit. So let me explain in a bit more detail. Today’s topic comes as a response to a reader question from long ago, one given in response to a post on dealing with overpowered and underpowered characters. This reader had a curious thought with regards to both that subject and the idea of continual, advancing character development: Considering that characters do (or at least should) continue to advance, develop, and grow, how does a writer keep them from becoming overpowered if they use them in a sequel work? Or, as they phrased it, how do you keep legacy characters (or characters from earlier in a series) from becoming too much for the story to take and overwhelming it?

Okay, some of you are nodding, but for those of you who are nodding but only halfway certain of what I just said, let me explain in a bit more depth through use of an example. Say you write a book. You’ve got a cool protagonist that starts out fairly inexperienced against whatever foe you’ve got, but by the end of the story they’ve “leveled up” and gained enough skills and talents to be able to defeat the antagonist.

Cool. Edit it, print it, sell it.

Then you decide you want to work on a sequel. Except … you can’t write the same book twice. Why? Because if you throw that character into the same scenario as the last one, or even a similar one … guess what, you’ll have a pretty short book. Because they’ve already overcome those trials and struggles. They know how to succeed.

So, now the obvious answer is to escalate the threat/antagonist the same way you’ve escalated the protagonist, right? Well … maybe. You can only do this for so long before the story starts to hit DragonBall Z-levels of ridiculously competent/overpowered characters. Endless escalation makes for … Well, it makes things start to become ridiculous fairly quickly.

And that’s the query that was proposed by the reader. They wanted to know how they could use these “Legacy Characters” without breaking the flow of their sequel. How they could keep things tough and difficult for their protagonists while still using the same protagonists in some manner (even having them as a side character can still enable them to solve a lot of problems).

So today, that’s our topic. How to bring back a character in a later work with all their skills and talents … but not have them break our story.

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Being a Better Writer: Story Bibles and Other Forms of Story Organization

Well, after a wild weekend consisting of both roller coasters and more viewers in a day to the site than I normally see in six months, I’m back! To those of you who are regular readers, hello again, and to any of you who are new, I hope you like what you see and stick around!

Right, down to business, or brass tacks, or whatever other work-based colloquialism you might be able to think of. Today I’m tackling another reader request topic, but before I do, I’ve started to notice a trend with these. Lately, a lot of the requested topics have been—How to put this?—mostly on one side of the writing spectrum. Dealing with structural topics, such as organization, motivation, or the like, rather than close-in topics like characters, tropes, or plots.

I’m not complaining. It’s just that I’ve noticed the trend, hence I’m not going to be using requested topics all the time as I’d like to keep BaBW from focusing solely on one aspect of writing like that. As important as things like motivation, goals, and other bits “surrounding” the act of writing can be, I don’t want to write solely about them for a long period of time because there are readers out there who want to hear about characters, pacing, tropes, and other fun topics that you’ll run into in the act of writing. So in the future I’m going to try to make sure to balance that a little better, as I feel that lately a lot of the topics I’ve discussed have been that “infrastructure,” for lack of a better word, surrounding writing that doesn’t as commonly prove to be an issue with writers.

That said, this week’s topic probably rests somewhere in the middle between those two points. Story bibles, along with other forms of story organization, are a particularly common tool in the toolbox of most writers, even among those that are primarily the “write-as-you-go,” pantsing sort. No matter what someone is working on, there’s usually a point where it can’t hurt to have a little bit of a reminder sitting there to help them keep track of what they’re working towards. Or to have something to serve as reference material.

Now, this is actually trickier to write about than most would probably expect (and certainly moreso than I expect the reader who requested this topic guessed), and not because of how tired I am (pretty tired) but more because this is one of those topics where so much of it boils down to both individual preference between authors and the story itself, changing from project to project. For example, while I usually create a story bible for most of my works, there have been times when I have not. The forth-coming Colony, for instance, despite being a juggernaut of a book and universe, never had a story bible. No, the most I ever wrote up for it was a few lines about one of the main characters back when I was starting out, and a simple checklist timeline of “This needs to happen by the end of the book.” And Colony is one of my longer epics to date.

But it didn’t need a story bible. Though to be fair, it was also a book where I wanted to see how I did pantsing a story, so not having one was deliberate (Knowledge gained from this experiment? It took me twice as long to write Colony—six months—as it did the similar-length story Beyond the Borderlands I wrote right after it which had a full story bible).

My point is that there’s no “right” way for me or anyone else to follow here. There’s no set “proper method” for doing a story bible. There’s no right way to do an outline. At the end of the day, whatever assists you in getting your story written is what you want, and that can be anything from a large, complex story bible to a simple checklist of events you want your story to wind its way across.

No, in this case, the only thing that could be said to be “correct” is that the outline, checklist, bible, or whatever else you create does its job in helping you formulate and write your story. As long as it does that, its good. That’s all it needs to do!

Right, now, that all said, there are undoubtedly a few readers out there who are looking for a few pointers on where to start, so let’s go a bit past the name. Let’s look at story bibles, but also a few other other frameworks of organization and planning that various authors make use of.

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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: Avoiding a Sagging Middle

All right! And we’re back with today’s follow-up to one of our more recent posts! Remember? The one about health?

Okay, I’m actually joking. This isn’t a post about that. But it was too good an opportunity a joke to pass up. Sagging middle … anyway …

No, today is another topic by request, but it’s not about that sagging gut. Well, it’s not about the sag you were just thinking of, but the one you probably thought of when you first saw the title to this BaBW post. You know, the one that you’re worried about finding in the middle of your story.

Yes, that middle.

So, let’s dive right in. We’ll do that by first asking this question for those who may not have heard the term: what is a sagging middle?

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