Writing Is A Bad Habit: There Are Only So Many Stories a.k.a. How Original Can You Be?

You think you have the greatest, most original plot idea ever … until you wind up looking through your bookstore and see it.  There, right there, is a book that seems to be your exact same concept!  Someone beat you to the punch and so there goes a great idea!  Or does it?

They say there are only seven core plots in the world and that’s pretty much right.  No one has a problem with that.  It is even said there are only so many stories ever and that even makes a certain degree of sense.  When you have billions of people in history all being creative, there’s bound to be convergent thoughts that lead to similar plotlines and story ideas.  That doesn’t mean you should give up or simply throw away anything that seems similar to previously told stories.

The trick about writing is not always coming up with a unique idea (there are few, if any, of those left), it is how you tell the story itself.  No one tells a story in the same way and no two characters are totally identical.  You can take a plot that may be identical in its key points to another story, then change it all up by implanting different characters, different styles, and different dramatic beats.  New themes, new ideas, and your own unique perspective can radically alter a tale.

All the same, if you do find that you’re looking at a mirror image of a book on the shelves, it might not hurt to compare them.  The last thing you want is to wind up on that one-in-a-million chance that you running on such a convergent set of thoughts that it really seems like you *are* copying the other work!

In the end, you can take any plot and apply your own unique style and outlook to make it your own.  Until next time, good luck, good reading, and good writing!

Plot and Motivation: No Plot Survives First Contact With The Enemy

Hey folks!  Between writing chapters for my next book (the last book of Three Seconds to Legend) and getting the next Starving Review ready, I’m behind on actual writing thoughts.  However, today’s writing inspired me to fire off a quick article for you folks out there.  Today’s Plot and Motivation deals with all of your hard work on plot and how it can all fall apart in a moment.

I think every writer would offer as advice that preparation and research is vital to writing.  Just as likely, every writer will also suggest that it is also vital to be ready to shift your plot and preparation when it feels wrong or when the actual writing starts to trend away from the preparation you have already done.  This is horribly contradictory advice to some and, on the surface, it is.  We say ‘prepare and plot ahead’ and then say ‘ditch that work at the moment’s notice’.  What does that actually me?

Experience in writing now makes me realize what this all really means.  At least to me, what this means is that to write something properly, to write about things we don’t know about, we have to research it to give it truth and to make it understandable and believable.  Also, for many writers, pre-plotting and figuring out a series of events before starting a longer piece can be very helpful in avoiding continuity and character problems later in the book.

However, with that said, the second bit of advice is critical as well.  What *that* advice actually means is that it is very possible to start writing a novel and, in the course of the practical application of your outline or pre-plotting or what not, realize that there are errors and flaws in what you had originally planned.  Was your original plot flawed?  Maybe but possibly not.  Things simply could have changed.  You could have had inspiration that makes some of your old ideas seem out-of-date now.  A character could seem different when written than your original conception.

When this happens, you are almost always going to be best off following that new inspiration or new idea.  You have to be unafraid of your instincts and unafraid of being able to change when the needs of the piece demand it.  The trouble some people have with this is that they are afraid of making changes that lead to a series of second-guesses that unravel their entire concept.  Overturning even the best ideas they have when those bad ideas hit.  It’s an understandable fear.  As with all things though, there is a vital middle ground and here it is the place where you, as a writer, realize when a new flash of inspiration is for the best of your book and when that flash is just a sizzle in the pan.

Until next time, good luck and good writing!

Looking at Character: He, She, or People? Characterization and Gender Identification

Hey there folks!

As I wait for the Amazon and Smashwords engines to chug forward in publishing my latest book, it would be a good time to get back in the swing of things and get a new Looking at Character article out.  This is one I’d been meaning to do for weeks now, inspired by some strangely coincidental input I’d received from multiple sources, all within a day or two of each other.  Let’s talk about characterization in light of gender, which is a way of asking ‘Is gender an elemental part of characterization?’

Maybe I should explain better.  Some people believe that a character should be identifiable as a gender simply through characterization.  A woman, for instance, should be recognizable as such without direct gender tags simply by how her actions and personality.  Others believe that this isn’t necessarily the case.  While a character might have identifiable gender traits outside of direct description, it isn’t always the case, the argument being that people are, at their core, people regardless of gender.  One could even expand these two opposing arguments to include ethnicity, sexuality, and other ‘intrinsic’ characteristics.

Which is right and which is wrong?

Gender politics aside (one could make a very strong case that the ‘gender is a base personality trait’ is sexist to both genders), I think the best approach to finding the answer is to talk to people.  Ask a man if he thinks that being a ‘man’ is more important than being a ‘human’ and the same with women.  I can tell you what I have discovered from asking everyone I know over the past few weeks.

No one wants to be stereotyped by their gender.  Well, most people don’t, at any rate.  Most people believe that who they are, their personality, is more important to their identity than their gender.  If that’s the case, why treat the characters in your writing any differently?

Obviously, there WILL be times when gender is important to plot and characterization.  There are gender issues, political, social, and physical, that can play a role in things and, yes, sometimes even be vital to a character’s overall personality.  However, these are not the norm and shouldn’t form a baseline of personality traits to add on to.  A person is a person first, then a man or woman.

I can’t claim to be an authority on this.  However, from both my writing instinct and my moral compass, treating a man or a woman as a person is simply the right way to characterize them.

This might be a divisive topic but I would also love to hear other takes on this.  Whether you agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your comments as long as you keep your tone and arguments civil and rational.

Until I can make an official post on my book publication or the next Starving Review, good luck and good writing!

Into the Action: Everyone Take a Turn a.k.a. Multiple Character Action!

Hey folks!  Time to take a moment from the busy review and writing schedule to take another trip Into the Action.  Today’s article is going to look at writing action scenes (DUH!) but, more specifically, writing action scenes involving multiple characters.  When I mean multiples, I mean groups, gaggles, crowds, clutters, mobs, and more!

At first blush, this seems pretty straight forward.  It’s just like writing any other action scene but, you know, with more people.  Simple, right?  Well … no.  No, not at all.

Obviously, the basics of action are the same.  Reasonable conflict, proper fast pacing, and keeping by all your usual rules for building dramatic tension are all just as important to writing these larger scenes.  However, there’s an added layer of complexity once you introduce more than one protagonist and one antagonist.  It may, in fact, seem very intimidating to deal with a many sided engagement but there’s some basic rules of thumb that can help you sort it all out.

First, do not mess with your chosen ‘point of view’ and writing style.  There could be a strong temptation to shift viewpoints to get a better wide view of a large-scale fight scene, especially if you’re working in a limited point of view like first person.  Do NOT do this!  It’s much like breaking any other established rules of your book, fictional or otherwise.  Once you break them, you start to lose the trust and interest of the leader.  Remember, keep to your guns and keep your focus.

Second, make sure to keep track of all parties in an action scene.  It is hard but you need to evoke a sense of presence in your actors, even if they aren’t constantly referenced.  Creating that sense of being will add to the reality of the situation for your readers, allowing them to better visualize and follow the action.  If your readers know where the actors in a scene are, they also won’t be taken off-guard when they do perform actions.  It won’t have a sense of feeling ‘out of place’.  It will flow easily.

Third, avoid falling into the ‘turn based combat’ trap.  Quite often, a writer faced with the challenge of a scene with many participants is to simply describe what they do in the scene one-by-one as if all of the characters were in a turn-based board game or RPG.  Everyone dutifully does their thing in order with no one character’s actions seeming to interact with the other.  Though this is rarely intended, it’s easy to have happen, especially if you confine each character’s actions to their own paragraphs.  The fact is that in a real action situation, people are going to be acting or starting to act in the same time frames and you need to impress upon the reader that sense of simultaneous action, even if there is an order of operations you want to follow.

Those are the top three tips that can be used to help sort out large-scale action scenes.  There are undoubtedly plenty more so feel free to share your own in the comments below!

Until next time, good luck and good writing!

Into the Action: Dressing To Impress And Hopefully Not Die!

Today’s writing article will be a brief one.  No, not because I’m too busy (though I am) but because this topic is so common-sense and so straight forward that there is really little room to say anything other than the point itself.  So, what action-related topic is up for grabs today?  Well, I’m glad you asked!

Today, we are looking at costuming vs. action.  I use the word ‘costuming’ but I mean, of course, whatever your characters are wearing in an action scene.  Though often related to the characters themselves, it is still, essentially, ‘costuming’ as you, the author, have final control over it.  However you want to look at it, what a character is wearing in an action scene can greatly alter the course of said action scene.

All it takes is a little forethought and common sense to understand how this can be important.  High-heel shoes are horrible for movement and any kind of fighting.  Baggy clothes may be easy to move in, but also present loose folds that can be grabbed or manipulated.  Armor can have any manner of effects beyond raw protection: light armor is easier to move in but far less durable, heavier armors might be more protective but can be heavy and fatiguing to wear.  Powered armor, like Iron Man, may be amazingly powerful but subject to energy concerns, bulkiness when unpowered, and vulnerabilities to anything that disrupts electronics.  Masks can protect one’s identity or have built-in protective lenses but, depending on how they are worn and attached, can ruin peripheral vision and be easily manipulated to obscure vision further.  Let’s not even start to talk about capes!

The point is that these are all possible factors you should consider in an action scene when describing your characters’ clothing.  Not only can it provide all manner of hooks and sequences you can add to spice up your action but it can speak volumes about a character and their familiarity with a situation.  An ex-military woman who has come to expect trouble around every corner won’t be wearing a tight dress and high-heels unless it’s a special occasion, for example.  A laborer who is caught in a firefight will probably still be able to be physical, as he will be in sturdy work clothes designed for movement.  A fantasy knight will be clad in head-to-foot armor when expecting trouble and probably still be in tough leathers or a mail coat in other situations, regardless of gender.

So, remember, the clothes do sometimes make the man.  Remember to tailor your characters’ wardrobes to them and the situation and never forget how you can use what they do wear to add new twists to an action scene.

Until next time, good luck and good writing!

Looking at Character: Bring on the Bad Guys!

Being a writer isn’t easy.  The biggest obstacle to writing something people accept as ‘good’ is, well, the readers themselves.  Everything is subjective to that audience and they are the ones you need to get to invest in the world, the characters and the story you have to tell.  That means we, as authors, can’t skimp on any part of creation because any lapses could trigger an onset of disengagement that will make the readers turn away.  Which leads, meanderingly, to today’s Looking at Character article, which is devoted to the bad guys, the antagonists, in literature, more specifically in making your villains something the reader will want to invest in.

Much like your protagonists, your antagonists need to have a ‘real person’ at their core, at least in most cases.  They need to have understandable motivations for doing what they are doing.  If you don’t bother with providing your bad guys with reasons for doing what they are doing, they become something more akin to a hurricane or thunderstorm, threatening but impersonal.  The reason to use actual people as villains is to explored that characterization so you better bother to actually do it!

Closely related to this ‘why’ of the antagonists, you should closely consider the ‘who’.  Who are they?  What are their origins?  What are their capabilities?  What do they look like?  These are all components of the greater ‘who’ of the antagonists and is their core characterization, something vital to all your major characters and important to the minor ones as well.  It’s all about building a realness, something the readers can understand, even if the antagonists themselves are inhuman.

Once you’ve put some thought into the ‘why’ and ‘who’ of your antagonists, it may be smart to consider the ‘how’.  How do the antagonists fit into and help move the plot along?  How are your antagonists threatening to the protagonists?  How can they be overcome?  These, and others, are vital questions to consider, as the lack of an answer to any of them can cause you to paint yourself into a corner in your writing.

If you don’t know exactly how the antagonists move the plot forward, they may feel ‘tacked on’ to the actual story.  If you don’t know how they threaten the protagonists, they will be seen as ineffectual at worst or nebulous at best.  If you don’t know how they can be overcome, any victory you write for the protagonists will seem like sudden or cheap, as you haven’t established the means to that victory before hand.  All of these things press hard against the suspension of disbelief and threaten to break it and, as we all know, once that is broken, the entire story tends to collapse.

Really, this is a topic that could be an entire book in and of itself.  Still, I hope that this basic look at the creation of good antagonists will be a big help to all of your writers out there.  If you want to add more do’s and don’t’s, add them in the comments!

Until next time, good luck and good writing!

Looking at Character: Everyone Can Be A Hero!

I wanted to step away from some of the more politically and emotionally charged articles and reblogs I’ve been doing lately, vital as they are, to touch on some lighter writing topics.  With that in mind, in today’s Looking at Character, we are going to examine the ups and downs of a favorite character archetype: the Everyman Hero.  Few kinds of protagonists can score higher in the reader relatability department than the Everyman, because at the heart of it, he/she is a normal citizen, just like most of us.

That very fact makes the Everyman Hero both easy and hard to write for.  Obviously, most authors know very much what it is like to be an everyday person so there are fewer chances to make mistakes at the base character level.  You know what a normal person is capable of, you have an idea of just how varied their background and personality can be, and you have a good idea of how they might react when faced with unusual situations.  It sounds like an ease to add to your story.

The thing is, all of those things can also lead to complications.  Especially if your story deals with fantastic elements, you may have difficulty coming up with realistic reasons for the Everyman Hero to be involved in the larger plot or to justify his/her ability to not to participate in the plot, but to even survive it.  This can tie into the overall need for character agency in our protagonists and the possibility of the Everyman Hero to mutate into the Load, something that can be very jarring when said of a major protagonist.  It could also lead to issues of straining the suspension of disbelief (‘How did that toll booth worker fight off two werewolves with a roll of silver dollars?  She should be torn to pieces!’) when you have the Everyman Hero triumph in situations that would stymie even an archetypical action hero.

These aren’t impossible problems to overcome.  The most obvious means to deal with this is to make the Everyman status a beginning point and allow the protagonist to progress along and grow as strange things happen around them, getting by first by luck and talent and eventually becoming something greater than how he/she started.  A more subtle approach is to simply remain thoughtful and open-minded as you approach strange situations involving the character.  Everyman doesn’t mean dumb and everyman doesn’t mean incompetent.  All it means is the character is relatively ‘normal’.  Human beings are capable of some pretty impressive feats, so an Everyman Hero can do the same things when needed.

However you want to work it in, the Everyman Hero can be an excellent character type to use in a variety of situations, most especially if you need a highly relatable character to provide your readers a viewpoint into an otherwise arcane or complicated setting or plot.

If you have any suggestions, ideas, or critiques, feel free to put them in the comments below!