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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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Behind the Scenes of The Non-Seen

March 7th, 2015 | Artwork, Process, The Non-Seen

As I launch into the exciting world of Chapter 2, I thought this might be a nice time to give you all a little peek into the process of making each page. Let’s take a look at the making of Page 1, start to finish.

The page begins as a script. I went back and forth a lot on what to open the chapter with, and ultimately decided to show Claire waking up on the first page, then cut to the parents talking on the second and third pages. Here’s what my script said:

We open with Claire awakening the following morning, happy at first and then transitioning to irritation as she thinks back to the events of the night before. She wants answers. She gets up.

Ruth is out at the shoreline, collecting marine life samples. Alan meets her with a cup of coffee on the way to the lighthouse. They discuss his dreams and his unsettled thoughts over the last couple days. Ruth mentions that she’s going on a trawling trip later.

As you can see, my scripts generally don’t include dialogue or any sort of blocking; I find that stuff easier to work out in thumbnails. Here’s how I initially broke down these three pages:
First draft- thumbnails for first three pages

As you may have noticed, these pages don’t really resemble that which I finally drew. These were a first draft and I ultimately scrapped them and tried again. (The slashes across the pages indicate that they are not for use in the final comic.) I eliminated the page with Claire because it seemed unnecessary and because I have a bad tendency to start chapters with characters waking up. Instead I decided to jump straight to the parents, and to merge their two pages into one, as it seemed a lot of that was filler. Here’s the final thumbnail (with this and all other images, I will display only the first panel. Click to see the rest):

second_draft_small

As you can see, the dialogue and blocking are more or less solidified at this point, and the panel arrangements have been decided.
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Last Month: January 2015

January 31st, 2015 | Review

Hello, and welcome one and all to this, the first installment of this to-be-monthly retrospective of the things that I read and watched over the course of the previous lunar cycle. By posting more frequently, I hope to improve the quality (and, probably, the accuracy) of my commentary. At the end of the year, recommendations, awards, and condemnations will be selected from these, so if any of you wish to speculate wildly about winners and losers, now would be a great time to start.

Without further ado, here we go!

2015_01_jan

Books

Finn, Brunton. Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet. (Non-fiction)

This book has an excellent topic, one which has not yet (to my knowledge) been explored in such depth. What is spam? Why is there so much of it when no one likes it? Finn’s examination of spam covers nearly every conceivable angle: history, sociology, technology, warfare, and even a smattering of drama. Spam is depicted here as something akin to a force of nature, an unwelcome but unstoppable flow of garbage that has nonetheless defined much of the way that the internet functions.
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CREDO Fails at Science

January 8th, 2015 | Et Cetera

Ractopamine

Several times per week I receive emails from an activism organization called CREDO Action. Quite often these are about chemicals which CREDO has decided are a danger to the public, and recipients are asked to sign petitions to various branches of government requesting that the chemicals in question be banned. I used to sign these without much thought; it only took a moment and seemed like the least I could do. When I started to read them more carefully, however, I started to notice a recurring trend: CREDO doesn’t know what it’s talking about.

I will elaborate. Today’s email was about ractopamine, an additive which CREDO believes should be eliminated from the US food supply. They cite a number of startling facts about it: 160 countries have banned it outright, it’s used in 80% of pigs in the US, it causes harm to farm animals, and long-term exposure in humans has not been studied. It is described as both “dangerous” and “toxic,” and its effects on “consumers, livestock, and farm workers are serious.” Taken at face value, yes, ractopamine sounds like a pretty horrible substance, and not something that anyone should eat. But let’s look a little deeper at what’s going on here.

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