Don’t Do This! Pt 1 – Self Publishing Company Shill

I hope there’s not wailing and gnashing of teeth at this announcement, but I’m not posting tomorrow. You’ll have to wait ‘til next week (Monday unless a more urgent post presents itself) for Don’t Do This! Pt 2 – The Single Worst Line I’ve Read This Year in a Published Novel.

Try to contain your disappointment. Man up. Rub some dirt on it.

I have three reasons for writing this blog:

First, and don’t ever think that this isn’t my first priority, to help me sell books (when I actually, you know, have books to sell).

Second, to organize my thoughts and make me a better writer.

Third, and this is the one that I’m concentrating on with this post, is to help make you a better writer.

I make no ethical or moral judgments about what you write. If you’re creating the great American novel, I want you to create a greater American novel. If you want to get across a political point, I don’t care whether that point is conservative, moderate, or liberal; I just want to help you get that point across better through a good story. If you want to arouse your reader with erotica, I want you to pen the most titillating prose you can. And, if you want to shill for a self publishing company, I want you to write the best darn shill post you can.

When I encountered this post yesterday, it bothered me. Again, not because it’s a total shill for a particular self publishing company, but because it’s so obviously a shill for a self publishing company.

C’mon man! If you’re going to do such a thing, can you try not to make it quite so obvious? For one thing, the author mentions the name of the company 8 times in a short post. The author also goes far beyond just linking to that company’s website; she (if the author is, indeed, female) also links to their FB page, twitter account, LinkedIn account, Myspace page (news to me that Myspace still exists), and gives a phone number.

If you’re going to do it, do it well.

That’s still not the worst thing, though. My biggest issue is that the shill didn’t get inside the head of the character they created to tell their “story.”

Let’s think about this “person,” Sherry Smithen, for a moment. We’re supposed to picture a lady who is new enough to writing to not have any books out (I searched for an Amazon author page) but who is far enough along to have “partnered” with a self publishing company. Intuitively, this means she probably has a book in the advanced stages of completion.

I don’t know about you, but the first thing I did after I finished an advanced draft of my book was to start a blog in which I don’t mention the title, genre, or, even in passing, the subject of my book but instead sing the praises of the wonderful service someone provided me.

Really?

Get inside the head of this shill. Make her a character. Give her a background story. What book did she write? Why did she write it? What’s her journey and character arc?

It takes an intelligent man to learn for his mistakes. It takes a wise man to learn from the mistakes of others.

Let’s all be wise and learn a valuable lesson even from this transparent shill attempt — Get inside the head of your character.

How I Created My Magic System

Yesterday, I debated whether or not sharing details about my worldbuilding fit into the purpose of this blog. I decided to compromise. I’ll disguise said sharing as a “how-to” guide — a subterfuge that probably would have been more successful had I not warned you about it…

I’ve stated before that I’m a storyteller. Worldbuilding is far down my list of priorities. I’m coming to understand, however, that a great concept combined with great craft generates the best results. It’s too late to change anything for my Power universe, but, perhaps, I’ll try to think up a really cool idea for a future series.

Regardless, what I ended up with for Power is far better than my original concept. Are you ready for the mind-blowing originality of that first idea?

Magic based on the four elements.

Yep.

My great innovation? I was going to add two mages — one dealing with life magic and one with death.

First Step: Come up with a concept.

After one of my early beta readers/mentors told me that elemental magic is so overuses as to be unviable (that’s somewhat debatable; I’m not necessarily against reusing old concepts), I came up with a new concept — magic based on controlling energy.

Second Step: Make concept simple enough to convey in your story.

In all, there are a whopping ten types of mages, each based on a form of energy. I needed to limit those for the first book. When you’re introducing a new system, you want to firmly establish each concept before moving onto the next and do it in an interesting way. You’re writing a story, not a textbook.

Can you imagine trying to establish ten different types of magic? I didn’t want to devote the story space necessary to do so. Instead, for Power of the Mages, I focused on four of the types, though I mentioned the existence of the others without any detail. I justified the exclusion by having the four types I use be more common, comprising the vast majority of all magic users born.

The four are:

Alchemist – Controls the energy of chemical reactions, of which fire is the most common. This type allowed me to keep most of what I had written about my “fire mage” intact.

Kineticist – Controls the energy of motion, can impart speed and direction to an object at rest or stop an object in motion.

Masser – Controls potential energy by increasing or decreasing an object’s mass.

Death Mage – In my universe, life is a form of energy. By adding life to an injured person, you can heal them. By draining it, you can kill someone.

I also mention a Blighter as the bogeyman, a mage type that the noble use to justify executing anyone born with magical ability. This person can cause nuclear explosions.

Third Step: Limit the power.

After creating a foundation for my system and determining some of the types, the most important step is to limit the power. First, I created the stipulation that, with the exception of the death mage, no magic user can directly affect another person (thanks for the idea, Mr. Sanderson). With this limitation, the mundane have at least a small chance, albeit tiny, of defeating a mage.

The next bound (SPOILER AHEAD – don’t read this paragraph if you wish to eventually read Power of the Mages and be surprised at a key point) was to give mages the ability to block each other’s magic. Again, a completely necessary constraint for storytelling.

Fourth Step: Add complexity.

Finally, I created some complexities that aided my plot. I needed for my mages to be able to communicate over distance and, like Wheel of Time, gave them the ability to dream to each other. Instead of creating a dream world, I rationalized this trait by connecting them all to a “lake” of magic. Their power gives them access to the magic source and, through it, to each other.

Also, since my mages control energy instead of elements, I wanted to give my alchemist a little more of a weapon then just setting someone’s clothes on fire. I decided that the mage, as a part of manipulating the energy, can build up a vast reservoir of fire while containing it. He can then target an enemy and imagine a pinpoint hole in the barrier he created, causing a fiery death ray.

For the last limit, I need the magic to take some kind of toll on the user. I likened using magic to physical strain, and, if a mage overextends, it causes them to pass out.

Tips on Building a Fantasy Magic System

Before I get to the topic of today’s post, I need some input from my readers. I’ve been discussing my blog with one of my author friends. It’s his opinion that I should add more reader-friendly content. I know that this blog is geared toward writers and other bloggers, and, frankly, I don’t want to change that no matter the potential advantages.

On the other hand, would it hurt to add in a few articles about my world in particular?

On the other hand from that, would it actually add anything to do so? Is anyone out there actually interested in stuff like the magic system I created for Power of the Mages?

I’d love some feedback in the comments section.

Now, on with the show…

There are two types of speculative fiction writers — those who believe that speculative fiction writers can be grouped into two categories and those who… Yes, I know that I’ve used this joke before. Yes, I know that it wasn’t all that funny the first time.

There are two types of speculative fiction writers (for the purposes of this post, anyway) — those who create a world as background for their stories, and those who create stories to showcase their world. I’m definitely a storyteller.

In the end, though, I don’t think it much matters which you are. Worldbuilders have to tell stories, and storytellers, for speculative fiction, have to build worlds.

For fantasy, the major portion of that world, almost a character unto itself, is the magic system. Here are some considerations when creating yours:

1. Be consistent. That’s the most important advice I can give you. You can do anything you want with your magic, but you have to stay true to the rules that you create. I suggest spending a lot of time thinking about the ramifications of each piece of information you come up with and keeping a comprehensive list/guide.
2. Don’t let your magic be overpowering. Tension is created by the reader’s doubt that your character can accomplish his goal. If he has access to superpowerful magic, your opposition has to be even more superpowerful, and, after a while, your story risks becoming ridiculous with the escalation.
3. Magic should be simple enough to understand but complex enough to create surprises and twists. You need to be able to explain the broad strokes of your system to your reader using a few simple paragraphs. When the magic is first encountered, you can’t spend a whole chapter detailing the ins and outs. Instead, you need to show them just a taste and expand their knowledge from there. On the other hand, if it’s too simple, there’s no room for that great zing moment later in the book/series.
4. Magic needs to create as many problems as it solves. Tension drives interest, so, if magic solves all the characters’ problems, you don’t have a story.

It occurs to me that all my tips deal with using magic to tell a story whether than how to create a magic system. Maybe it does matter whether you’re a storyteller or a worldbuilder.

The Only Ironclad Rule of Writing

Most of the “rules” of writing are merely guidelines to point you in the right (write?) direction. Truthfully, there’s only one that you absolutely must follow:

You can do anything you want — as long as it works.

The first part is simple; it’s just what you wanted to hear. The second part, there’s the rub. How, exactly, do you go about figuring out if something works?

My first suggestion is to follow the “rules.” They’re not there to constrain you. They exist as helpful guides to keep you from screwing up. If you’re going by the acceptable standards, you’re probably going to be okay.

Sometimes, you simply have to be true to your artistic vision, or, maybe, you just want to be contrary. Basically, sometimes you just gotta break all the rules. In that case:

Use your discernment as a writer. There is absolutely no one better qualified than you to determine if your vision is being translated onto the page because no one else knows your vision. With experience comes discernment. Flag any areas where you felt you’ve went off the beaten path. Continue writing. Once you’ve gained some distance and perspective, go back to those sections and ask yourself, “Did I really accomplish what I wanted?”

The problem is that, while you are the best person to determine if you’ve translated the story in your head correctly, you’re also the worst. You know exactly what you meant to say, and your mind will trick you into reading what you meant instead of what you wrote. In that case:

Find good beta readers. In the absence of good ones, bad ones will work. Remember, however, the cardinal rule of dealing with such, good or bad, as the old saying goes — they’re usually right when they say you’ve screwed up but usually wrong in telling you how to fix it. What I’ve found is that there will be long stretches of text with no comments. Then, they’ll be a section where multiple readers have placed a comment. These remarks may be sentences or paragraphs or even half a page apart. They may critique different things entirely. One may question my word choice while another mentions character. The thing I take away is that the scene didn’t work, and I need to fix it. And not necessarily by changing either of the things the commenters brought up.

The problem with beta readers is that it’s a bit like the blind leading the blind, and it’s sometimes hard to trust them completely. That’s why you need an expert.

Pay an editor who you trust. For one thing, the fact that you’re laying out cold, hard cash gives the comments you get back instantly more weight. What you get for free (or even as an exchange) is not nearly as valuable as what you pried open your wallet for. Your editor should be the most experienced expert you can find and afford. Don’t skimp on this step. He’ll be your best friend in that he’ll take your work to the next level. He’ll be your worst enemy in that he’ll see all the flaws you hoped you had hidden.

Review of Timepiece

I’m having WordPress issues. I wasn’t able to access the “New Post” feature at all yesterday, and it’s still acting buggy today. Is this just me or are others having problems?

In Timepiece, Ms. Albano tells of a young woman stifled by early 19th century society. When she received a watch in the mail that lets her move through time, her adventure begins.

Why to buy this book: If you like time-traveling steampunk with monsters, giant robots, and alternative history, this book is a bargain. The romantic elements and character development were, for the most part, done quite well. I also liked the hook she through in at the end (trying not to give spoilers here) that gives an interesting hint about the origin of the third protagonist.

Why not to buy the book: To begin with, I don’t really like prologues all that much, and the author added to my misery by going out of her way to not describe the “monsters.” I’m assuming that she wished to build up hype for when the things appear later in the story, but she mainly ended up annoying me by withholding information in a clumsy manner. When the monsters eventually entered the plot again, they did not meet the high expectations the author established in the prologue. Speaking of that prologue, she revisits the events but has the time travelers change what happens. No problem there, but the scene got repetitive. Perhaps it would have been better to start nearer the point of divergence. Like I said above, overall the character development was decent. I did, however, have one quibble. The two protagonists both have disdain for their society, which the author does a good job of showing. However, it seems like these two are the only ones in the world who find it stifling, and, given that their attitude is somewhat necessary to the plot, this makes the plot seemed contrived. If the author would have spent a little more space developing a general teenage rebellion toward society (she does this somewhat; just not quite enough), it would have smoothed out this objection. Another issue I had is that, if you’re writing alternative fiction, you need to have a reason for things to go differently than what happened in real life. I’m not sure this author addressed those issues well enough. Though, perhaps, she intends to do so in the sequel(s). Finally, the writing could have been tighter. The extra words didn’t bother me too much throughout most of the book, but I felt it detracted from the action scenes, leaving them feeling incorrectly paced and muddled.

Bottom Line: Putting a star category on this one is difficult for me. On one hand, I enjoyed parts of it and plan to buy the sequel. On the other, there were at least five annoyances that ranged from minor to pretty bad. For 99 cents, it’s worth buying, but, based on the sheer number of problems, I had to go with 3 stars instead of four.

Beware the Blank Factor

Writing is a series of tiny choices. Do I use this word or that? What characteristic is most important to display? What description best sets the scene and the mood?

Some choices help the reader immerse themselves in your stories. Other choices do the opposite.

I’ve noticed that, in particular, those authors who love world building tend to make decisions based on creativity and a “coolness” factor instead of on what works best for the reader. For example, a scifi author decides that authenticity of character names is much more important than readability, so he names his characters Aajto;tjhiy and Xxtjioatati&@hio.

Some readers are going to look in the back of the book in the glossary to determine the correct pronunciation of these names (Ahhh, a semicolon is pronounced like a hard “k.”) Some — most in my way of thinking — aren’t going to bother. The best the author can hope for in that case is that the reader will invent their own pronunciation for the names. A lot of readers aren’t even going to go that far; they’re just going to skip the words.

That’s the Blank Factor.

The author is thinking, “Those names aren’t anywhere close to similar. They contain very few of the same letters, start with different letters, contain different symbols, etc. There’s no way that any reader can confuse the two characters.”

That author is wrong.

You see, to some readers, those two character name are the same. In my mind, I read the first one as “Blank” and the second one as “Blank.” So, when the writer pens, “A Aajto;tjhiy told Xxtjioatati&@hio to recharge the raygun,” I read, “Blank told Blank to…”

See the potential for confusion?

So, am I saying that it’s never okay to go with what you want? Am I trying to stifle your creativity?

Absolutely not. I’m simply advising you to be aware of the problem so that you can take steps to minimize any problems.

Case Study 1:

An amateur author requested feedback on a fantasy forum. The story took place, if memory serves, in medieval Iceland (or some such place), and all the character names were authentic to the language and the period. The author introduced at least five characters in the short piece that I read. My first comment was, “I have no idea how to pronounce the names, so I got really confused.”

The response? I have to be authentic to the period.

My next question, “Is it more important to be authentic or to have someone, somewhere actually want to read what you wrote?”

Case Study 2:

A guy in my writing group is a world builder who tends to make a lot of decisions that increase his level of difficulty to the nth degree. One of those choices is to sprinkle words from his made-up language throughout his work, including hard-to-pronounce places, creatures, and elements of his magic system.

In a recent two-paragraph short segment, I counted seven of these words that I read, essentially, as “blank.” I felt like I was watching an episode of The Smurfs. “You smurfity smurf smurfing smurf-a-lot! What the smurf do you think you’re smurfing?” (Of course, it was worse than that, ‘cause I actually got the sentiment of what those last couple of sentences were trying to express.)

Suggestions on how to mitigate such choices:

1. Feel free to be authentic with your eighteen-syllable name but understand that real people use nicknames. Introduce the character with their full name if you have to, but shorten it to just a couple of syllables for the majority of the time.
2. Try to create words that are easy for a reader to pronounce. Calling something a Glapflubakner, a word that is easy to break down in to recognizable syllables, is better than calling it a Gxlypbabpa. How do you pronounce Gxl? Where are the syllables broken up? A “p” followed by a “b” is a hard transition. Etc.
3. Don’t introduce, or use, too many made up words at once.
4. Make the usage stand out. If you’re going to make up a word, that word needs to be important to your story. You need to constantly reinforce the usage, so the reader doesn’t forget. If there’s a concept that appears just a couple of times in a five book series and is then important at the end, it’s probably a bad idea to make up a word for it. The reader will have forgotten what the crap it is by the time it becomes important.

3 Ways Writers Rob Tension from Their Scenes

A lot of people see writing as an art, and, to an extent, I agree with them. Figuring out your story, determining the exact right words to use, painting a picture with your description are all creative, artistic endeavors.

There’s another side of writing that is just as important — technique.

If you use a particular technique, you’re going to create a particular result every time. Figuring out which one to use is creative; the actual use is technical. Each technique is a gear, and, when you fit the right gears together in the right order, you create an engine that hums along and draws in the reader.

The fuel most commonly used for that engine is tension. A character wants something, and the writer creating doubt about the character’s ability to achieve that objective creates interest for the reader.

I’ve offer critiques to a lot of writers, and I’ve noticed three ways that they unintentionally rob their stories of that crucial fuel.

One – The characters have a blasé attitude toward the opposition to the goal.

Take this example:

The bullet whizzed past Joe. He yawned and stretched before lazily reaching for his gun.

I started out with a tense situation. A bullet implies that Joe’s life is in danger and gives him an immediate, important goal — to escape with his life. The bullet also implies the presence of opposition to Joe’s goal in the form of the person who fired the bullet.

With two of the primary elements for tension present, I should be well on my way to a fantastic scene. Instead, I rob all my hard work with the second sentence. For tension to exist, the reader must have some doubt that Joe is going to escape with his life. Since the reader is seeing the action through the filter that is Joe, his blasé attitude will infect the reader and pull out all the tension.

So, obviously I’m saying that you can never have a badass character who laughs in the face of danger. No. Do you think I’m an idiot who doesn’t know that “Joe” exists in hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions, of novels? If those authors can make Joe work, so can you. My point is that you have to know that you’ve killed your tension and fix the issue.

Perhaps the scene continues this way:

“I hate you!” Jill yelled.

Joe rose from behind the crate and shot the guy drawing a bead on her. She drew back her arm and readied her throwing knife. Another bullet passed by Joe, this one close enough to rip his leather jacket.

Damn, he thought, I loved that coat.

Before he could adjust his aim to the new threat, the red handle of Jill’s knife appeared sticking for the man’s eye socket.

The laser from a third assailant’s rifle glowed red on Jill’s shirt, and he shot the guy in the center of the forehead. A flash of red passed before Joe’s eyes, and a blade impaled the wall inches from him.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” she yelled.

Now, the action is a comedic backdrop for the tension-filled argument between two lovers.

Another method might be to reveal information to the reader in a previous scene that the POV character doesn’t have. Perhaps Joe is so confident because he’s a superninja who can take out scores of mortal opponents without taking a scratch. Unfortunately for him, his three opponents are all superninjas! That “Oh crap” moment when he realizes it can be a lot of fun.

Bottom line: If you’re going to populate your story with these types of characters, understand the challenge you’re creating for yourself and figure out ways around it.

Two – The author inserts inappropriate description.

The other day, I’m reading a book, and I get to an action scene. Bullets are flying. Giant robotic creatures are terrorizing nineteenth century London in pursuit of, essentially, Frankenstein monsters (Unfortunately, I am not making this up). The time-traveling POV character arrives in the midst of this mayhem, and the author — wait for it — decides to insert long paragraphs describing the city.

Really?

Description is a great tool. When used appropriately to set the scene, to control pacing, etc., it absolutely belongs in your story. In this case, it did nothing other than kill the tension. If the POV character has time to study the city streets, she’s probably not all that concerned about her life. If she’s not concerned, why should the reader be?

If you feel the pacing needs a break, focus on something that increases tension rather than kills it. Taking a paragraph to describe in detail the tip of the sword thrusting at your hero emphasizes that the POV character is focused on the danger, which in turn focuses the reader on the danger.

Three – The author tells instead of shows.

Long time readers of this blog will know that I take a more lenient stance toward telling than some. This attitude doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that showing should be your default technique.

Think of it this way: Your buddy comes up to you and says, “I survived a gunfight yesterday.”

It’s possible that you, as an author, are thinking, “See, that creates immediate tension and interest. It’s just not a usual situation for one of your friends to be involved in a gunfight.”

Granted, unless you are a cop or a soldier (and, even then, I’d guess your actual gun battles are fairly limited) it’s not all that common for your friends to be in gunfights, and, if one of them comes to you with such a story, your ears are going to perk up. There’s a fallacy here, though.

While my in real life buddies don’t routinely get shot at, characters in the books I read or shows I watch do. There’s absolutely nothing inherently exciting to me about one of those characters being in that situation.

Contrast the telling with the author showing the character in a gunfight. This technique allows me to experience the gunfight, and, as long as I feel doubt that I’m going to survive, that introduces tension.