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Webcomics Time: Der-Shing Helmer!

June 28th, 2015 | Circuit Reader, Comics, Review

Have you read any comics by Der-Shing Helmer? No? Shame on you! As artist-writers go, Ms. Helmer is up there with the best of them, and frankly, she’s more than the webcomics scene deserves. She took a hiatus that lasted a couple years, but now she’s back and better than ever–and producing two comics simultaneously, no less!

helmer01

I suppose I’m biased, given that Helmer works in one of my personal favorite genres–long-form speculative-fiction adventures–but her writing stands up beautifully regardless of one’s preferred subject matter. Her worlds are original and very completely realized, a tough thing to pull off. Her characters are complex and unique. Her writing can be a talky at times, but not so badly that it distracts from the experience. These are stories one will remember and think about.

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Stereotyping: Gender (Fiction Skills Series)

June 22nd, 2015 | Errors of Content, Fiction, How to Write Fiction That Doesn't Suck, Tutorial, Writing

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

This image has a gender.

Many writers falter when trying to write characters of whose genders are different from their own. Even Margaret Atwood, a writer who I deeply admire, has this problem at times. In her book The Robber Bride, the primary characters, three women, are all rich, complex characters. Their male partners, by contrast, are a bunch of shallow, selfish morons who easily fall for the charms of the book’s female villain. Male writers frequently struggle with the same problem, writing women who blather about shoes and makeup, making clichéd remarks like “men are idiots.” These are not characters. These are bland collections of traits which we associate with one gender or another. Granted, these characters don’t offend many people, as stereotypical depictions are so familiar as to be invisible, but neither will anyone see these as memorable characters. We know the stereotypical traits of gender; we’ve been learning them since before we we knew how to talk. If you want to make a nuanced character, we need to know more than what gender they are.

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Animals Were Harmed

May 28th, 2015 | Et Cetera

  
So this happened: Asger Juhl, AKA “the Danish radio host,” killed Allan the rabbit on air. He was looking for hypocrisy, and boy howdy, he found it. How dare he, legions have demanded. How dare he kill a poor defenseless little bunny? Many of these people then ate ham sandwiches.

So, hypothetical ham-sandwich eaters, the question remains: why is Allan’s death so meaningful to you? In 2010, 110 million pigs were slaughtered in the US alone. That works out to more than three pigs slaughtered per second.1 Allan only died once. If you are outraged about Allan and not about the pigs, you are a hypocrite millions of times over.

Now on to my fellow vegetarians, many of whom feel that they have the right to condemn Juhl’s actions. Maybe you do, but first, consider the following: 1. Allan’s death was swift and probably painless. 2. Since Juhl ate Allan after the slaughter, Allan’s body was not wasted. 3. Since Allan’s death has engendered a debate on this issue (one which we rarely see covered in the media at all), his life was not wasted either. Allan’s death occurred under far better circumstances, and meant much more, than that of nearly any other animal on earth.

We humans are inveterate animal killers. I am not innocent and neither are you. If you are a meat eater, you will consume the flesh of hundreds of animals over the course of your life. If you are a vegetarian, untold numbers of rodents and insects were exterminated to prevent them from stealing your food. Millions of people depend on drugs which are extracted from the bodies of animals. Vast numbers of animals die as roadkill: we’ve come to accept this as the cost of speedy transportation. Animals were harmed in the making of your favorite movie, even if only by the catering department.

Do not mourn for Allan. Instead, take a moment to remember that all of us are guilty. If that bothers you, do something about it. Allan lives!

Stereotyping: Race (Fiction Skills Series)

May 3rd, 2015 | Errors of Content, Fiction, How to Write Fiction That Doesn't Suck, Tutorial, Writing

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

The evil Fu Manchu, a familiar Asian stereotype

Given the nature of race relations throughout human history, this is probably the touchiest subject we’ll be touching on, so bear with me, and understand that I’m not assuming you’re racist. If the issues discussed in this section don’t apply to you, so much the better. If they do, that’s a problem, but it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, just that you’re not a fully mature writer. In short, take this post to heart, but don’t take it personally.

When creating characters of different races, don’t treat “race” as some sort of variety pack of character tropes. Far too many stories have a “token” character who is Black/Hispanic/Asian/etc., and is primarily defined by various stereotypical traits associated with her race. Much ink has been spilled over the sociological implications of token characters, but our primary concern here is that they’re just plain stupid, and in many senses not characters at all. They are just superficial conglomerations of whatever vague ideas the author may have about people of a certain race. It should be noted that these aren’t necessarily negative stereotypes. I’ve seen numerous examples of the Asian character who is really good at math and is also a computer hacker. This character is every bit as trite as the Black character who says “yo dawg” and spends every night spraying graffiti. Positive stereotypes are still stereotypes.

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Archaic Language (Fiction Skills Series)

April 25th, 2015 | Errors of Style, Fiction, How to Write Fiction That Doesn't Suck, Tutorial, Writing

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

“Lo,” quoth the shepherd, extending his staff toward the citadel.

The ancient fortress was perched atop a hillock some fathoms away, and the company strained to look at it. Cloven it was, struck in two by some bygone enchantment, and its once-stalwart ashlars were strewn across the slope.

“Truly a vision,” spake Quagmire at last, relieving the quietus which had fallen upon the party.

The problem of archaic language is usually particular to fantasy fiction, which treads a thin line as it tries to cultivate a medieval atmosphere while simultaneously maintaining a natural flow to modern ears. Many writers, as in the example above, make free use of as many old-fashioned terms as they can think of, and arrive at this ugly combination of cutesy phrasing and thesaurus attacks.

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Know What You Write (Fiction Skills Series)

April 20th, 2015 | Best Practices, Fiction, How to Write Fiction That Doesn't Suck, Tutorial, Writing

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

"The Flintstones" is not a viable source of information about prehistory, sorry.

Among the most backward, counterproductive bits of writing advice ever conceived is the adage “write what you know.” Following this concept to the exclusion of any others greatly restricts the scope of your storytelling. While many writers have mined their lives for material, this should hardly be considered the only viable source of stories.

Instead, you should know what you write. By this I mean that any subject is fair game–provided you do your research. Many beginning writers are under the impression that fiction writing is easier than nonfiction writing because fiction requires no research. Well, writing bad fiction requires no research, but the same can’t be said about good fiction. Writing good fiction requires you to know what you’re talking about. Your readers’ lives may be similar to those of your characters, even if your own is not. If your depiction is not accurate, those readers will have their suspension of disbelief broken, and you will lose some credibility in their eyes.

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The Twin Demons: Sentimentality (Fiction Skills Series)

April 11th, 2015 | Errors of Style, Fiction, How to Write Fiction That Doesn't Suck, Tutorial, Writing

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

sentimentality

Sentimentality is best defined as emotion which has not been earned by the scene. Unsophisticated writers live off sentimentality. It thrives in everything from bestsellers to movies, and audiences eat it up. So why avoid it? Because, like so many other things, sentimentality is the exclusive domain of cliché. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • A character dies, but not croaking out a few words of wisdom and love, and possibly reconciliation.
  • After said character dies, his family sobs uncontrollably for a long time.
  • A story centers on a dysfunctional household in which people scream at each other more or less constantly.
  • A sappy love scene in which the characters repeatedly proclaim their feelings for each other.
  • Pretty much any instance of a character howling “NOOOOO!”

Sentimentality occurs when characters’ reactions to a situation are predictable and at least somewhat exaggerated. It’s difficult to depict emotions in a nuanced, realistic way, so many writers compensate by turning the emotional “volume control” as high as it will go. This makes it easier for the writer to describe the emotions, and for the audience to understand them, but comes at the expense of credibility. In real life, people who emote on the level of sentimentality are the so-called “drama queens,” who are generally considered to be highly annoying. If your writing is sentimental, that means that you’ve effectively made all your characters emote like hormonal teenagers, and I shouldn’t need to explain why that’s a problem.

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The Twin Demons: Melodrama (Fiction Skills Series)

April 3rd, 2015 | Errors of Content, Fiction, How to Write Fiction That Doesn't Suck, Tutorial, Writing

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

“I don’t think melodrama is a good thing, [but] I believe books need to risk sentimentality and to risk melodrama.”
– novelist Naeem Murr

asteroid_impact

Which of the following situations are melodramatic?

  • Joe is walking home one day when a ton of bricks falls on him, killing him instantly.
  • Lillian is on her way to jump off a bridge when she finds a winning lottery ticket, bringing her financial woes to an end.
  • Count Evilstein fails to destroy the world because he has a heart attack just moments before he would have activated his space laser.

The answer is that all three of these situations represent different manifestations of melodrama. Many people seem to think that melodrama only refers to situations in which bad things happen for no reason, but this is only partially true. A more accurate definition of melodrama is things which happen to the characters for reasons unrelated to their actions. It doesn’t matter whether the outcome is favorable or not, if things happen for no reason, they’re melodramatic. It’s also worth noting that this definition of melodrama is as exclusive as it is inclusive: a character who has been established to be a repeat drunk driver can get into an accident without invoking melodrama, regardless of the consequences of the crash. (This can, however, lead to sentimentality, as we will see.)

An understanding of melodrama is important because it’s directly related to the concept of plot as a chain of causality, which is perhaps the most important concept in storytelling.

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Avoiding Purple Prose (Fiction Skills Series)

March 22nd, 2015 | Errors of Style, Fiction, How to Write Fiction That Doesn't Suck, Tutorial, Writing

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

purpleprose

It was late and the city had become deathly quiet, tomblike almost. The streets glistened as if varnished from the fallen rain, which now rose in misty vapors into the cool night air. The gossamer haze drifted through the gauzy beams of the streetlights, whose rich amber glow bathed the broken sidewalks with an eerie radiance.

On nights like this it’s easy to feel very alone, Mary thought. Her muscles ached, dull pain caressing her nerves with its bitter electricity. She needed something to eat, something to take the edge off the cavernous hunger of her stomach, unfed since noon. Ahead she saw the greenish luminescence of fluorescent light, and a strawberry-red neon sign: a dilapidated hole-in-the-wall diner was open. Already her mouth was watering in anticipation, and she didn’t even like the greasy heaviness of diner food.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: it’s fun to put words on the page. As long as the words keep flowing, it’s easy to feel like you’re really getting somewhere. This, you think, is a brilliant piece of fiction. It must be, because it contains so much beautiful writing, so many excellent words!

The truth, of course, is that you just blew it. All that superb verbiage that sounded so nice as you were writing it is, in fact, what we call purple prose.

Almost all novice writers fall into this trap at some point. It’s an easy mistake to make; once you realize you can write anything you want, you soon begin to write down every phrase that pops into your head. This is especially true when writing toward a wordcount goal, as in National Novel Writing Month, as every word counts toward that magic number whether or not it’s well-placed.

Purple prose is a problem because it actively interferes with storytelling. Look at my example passage from the beginning of the chapter: our fearless protagonist decides to go to a diner while out walking in the middle of the night. That’s all that happens, but it took over a hundred words to express that idea. When an entire story is written this way, it becomes difficult to tell what’s even going on, because maybe only one word out of a dozen is actually pushing the plot forward. Your reader will lose track of what’s going on, and if her attention strays, she may gloss over the only important part of a sentence. She will get bored and confused. She will stop reading your story.

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Game Over: The Failings of Season Four

March 19th, 2015 | Et Cetera, Review

Game of Thrones is starting to grow soft. No, not soft on brutal violence and the wholesale incorporation of dark themes; all that stuff is still in there. Rather, the show’s writing has begun to take a very by-the-numbers approach to its story, delivering more or less exactly what viewers have come to expect without doing anything really surprising. It goes through the motions, and that’s all it does. No more really needs to be said, but there’s no limit to my ability to carry on about things that irritate me, so let’s take an in-depth look at why Season 4 failed to live up to the example of preceding seasons.

The Season Four experience captured in one thrilling image

Lack of Direction

All the season’s problems eventually fold into one larger problem: that there is no singular direction in this season, no one overarching plot that all the other storylines play into. The other seasons used the leadup, climax, and end of the war as a sort of “meta-story” unifies the more personal storylines into the context of a larger arc. This technique worked brilliantly to explore the concept of how individuals’ actions affect events on a global scale.

So, with the war more or less over, what’s left to do? Well, not a whole lot, as it turns out. The Lannisters have more or less total control of the country, leaving them with nothing else to conquer. Most of the Starks are dead. Neither Stannis nor Daenerys are in a position to begin their invasions, so their activities are largely quotidian. The Greyjoys don’t do much of anything. The Wildlings eventually attack Castle Black but we don’t see much of their preparations for it. The Tyrells are nonentities. The White Walkers are hardly in evidence. With no particular goals to aspire to, much of the action consists of little more than characters shuttling back and forth between different locations, sometimes with minor skirmishes thrown in. Never do we get the impression that we’re witnessing a defining moment in this world’s history; it’s by and large a story of mundanities, and even some of the more interesting predicaments the characters face prove to be more pedestrian than they have in the past.

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