Is it profitable for authors to share the secrets of their craft?


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One thing I’ve learned in my years as a fledgling writer is that I have a profound respect for professionals who share their knowledge with would-be competitors. In fact, many of the authors I read are those who have contributed to my cause in some way or another.

When I first discovered the Writing Excuses podcast, I had no idea who Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Taylor were. In truth, I was a fan of their show long before any interest emerged in their works. And while I did eventually buy their books, it had little to do with the stories themselves, but because I felt I owed it to them.

In a way, they became mentors, churning out hours of free content, condensing years of hard-earned experience into tiny bite-sized earcasts that I was then allowed to gobble up free of charge. It just didn’t seem fair.

So I read their stuff. And if I couldn’t read it, I shared it with friends. And I still do, for what it’s worth.

Since then, I’ve discovered other authors this way. My desire to learn has lead me down many a strange path, and I’ve read a lot of peoples’ stuff for the very reasons mentioned above.

I once bought a book by Ray Rhamey, for example, called The Vampire Kitty-Cat Chronicles. To be clear, I am not the target audience for this kind of book. I’ve never been a fan of vampires, and while I do like cats, I don’t much care to read about them. But I did read this one. Why? Because Ray Rhamey posted a generous critique for a sample I had written on his site, www.floggingthequill.com.

I honestly have no idea how profitable this strategy is for authors. I do know there are a lot of desperate writers out there looking for mentors. And in an industry where getting your name out there is paramount, I can’t help but see this as an opportunity for those looking to engage more readers.

So, all of this has me thinking. Is this give-and-take relationship as successful as it seems and, if so, in what ways can it be exploited?

I remember an episode of Writing Excuses (Episode 4.32: First Paragraphs) where the hosts critiqued the works of their listeners. It was a fantastic show and one I’ve been hoping to see repeated.

One idea I’ve seen mentioned is to have a panel of contributing authors offer feedback on aspiring authors’ stories. It wouldn’t have to be a regular cast, per se, but just a few pop-ins here and there. Barring that, maybe some writerly Q&A’s or idea workshops.

Now, I am aware of the many amazing critique sites out there, and I don’t doubt their merits. But there’s something so damn appealing about having a pro take the time to look over your work. I’m also aware that many authors host workshops online (Cat Rambo’s Online Classes for example), but I lack the time and resources to participate in most of those. Lastly, I’m sure I’d have better luck asking someone this question directly, but my blog is woefully lacking in content so I might as well post it here.

I’m sure these things exist, I just don’t know where to find them. At any rate, if by some off chance you’re still reading this God-awfully long post (Hi!), and know of where I might find such a thing… Please, do be kind and show this wayfaring stranger the way.

Thanks.

With regard to hooks


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I’ve always thought of hooks as being those tiny, curved pieces of steel fisherman fling into a body of water, on which a worm or some other tantalizing bait is impaled, in hopes of snagging an unwary fish to be plucked from its home, cleaned, seasoned, fried, and eventually devoured.

In writing, this analogy usually assumes that I, the writer, am considered the fisherman and my prey, the reader, is the dimwitted and impulsive fish. The hook itself, then, is a smelly glob of meat smeared here and there throughout my book to give the reader something to sniff at and, if I’m lucky, latch onto.

As you can probably tell, I don’t much care for this analogy.

It makes sense, as far as its application, but I fear that the relationship between reader and writer is somewhat confused.

The reason being that readers are not as dim as my interpretation makes them out to be, nor are they so naive. And any analogy assuming so, at least for me, is toeing the line of degradation.

If anything, the reader plays the part of the fisherman. It is he who willingly dips his bait into the water, drawing forth our work from a crowded sea to decide whether or not the thing which he has caught should be kept or, if judged unfit, thrown back for the bigger, hungrier fish to consume.

I like this idea much better, because it puts more weight on me to produce something valuable. Furthermore, it entices me to strive for quality throughout my writing, to make my work worthwhile, a thing to be devoured, and to leave my reader not only satisfied but craving more.

Come to think of it, I want my work to be that big ass narwhal that yanks the reader out of his boat and drags him into a dazzling world of sunken ships, lost civilizations and whatever the hell this is.

Its called a Dumbo Fish

In short, I want my work to be great in its entirety, independent of cheap tricks or wasted promises. Be it a trophy on my reader’s wall, a savory meal, or that crazy fish-story he raves about to all his friends.

The one thing every author needs – a platypus


I believe a platypus is living in my attic. At first I thought it was a giant rat or maybe a squirrel, but last night I swear I heard it quacking.

I don’t know much about platypuses (platypi?), but I do know they have beaks which means they quack. This, of course, makes them part duck – the other part being beaver – but that’s the extent of my knowledge. I’m no expert, so please don’t send me your platypus questions.

Anyway, I’ve not slept much this week due to this thing making ruckus. Plus I have kids who wake up every 3 minutes to pee, usually in my bed, or stand in front of my face for hours on end. As a result, I’ve been cranky and mopey and I’m suffering from mashed-potato brain.

On the upside, mashed-potato brain seems to be good for writing. It’s like my brain-mush is oozing through the cracks in that box it finds so cozy and I get to glimpse all the weird and wonderful things happening outside.

It also lowers my inhibitions – as you can tell – and I find myself caring less about piddly things like grammar and sentence structure and more about entertaining myself with a good story. It’s not exactly legible, but it’s still a better story.

And I feel like that’s an important distinction to make, because storytelling and writing are not the same thing. A story can be told in many forms: Books, movies, comics, song lyrics, paintings, and so on… Writing is just another method. I think many of us want to lump it all together, which may work for you, but I don’t think it’s best for me.

You want to build a good story first. For the longest time I thought revision was the process of tightening prose, trimming fat, killing darlings. I’d spend days revising the same scene over and over, changing words and cropping sentences. Then I’d read it and think “this reads so well, so why is it so bad?” and I’d just stare at it in befuddlement before sighing and starting again.

The problem was that the problem wasn’t the words, but the story. It’s boring because there’s no conflict, no arc, no character development. In other words, I wasn’t telling a good story.

And I realize this now, thanks to a platypus living in my attic.

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8 Ways to Antagonize Your Characters


What do you call two convicts in a dispute?

A conflict.

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HAHAHAHA, okay, now simmer down. I know that joke was funny but it’s time to get serious. Serious… about conflict.

As you know, conflict is essential to a good story. It’s the disturbance of the Force, or that whip on the ass of your hero that spurs him into action.

And we humanfolk luuuuuv it, especially when it’s happening to other people. Like Maynard James Keenan said:

Eye on the TV
’cause tragedy thrills me
Whatever flavour
It happens to be like;
Killed by the husband
Drowned by the ocean
Shot by his own son
She used the poison in his tea
And kissed him goodbye
That’s my kind of story
It’s no fun ’til someone dies

So how is conflict created and where does it come from?

To put it frankly, if conflict’s the whip, then you, my friend, are the slave driver. You gotta swish and flick that sucker! And here are a few ways how.

Your character has secrets. Reveal them!
We all have things that we’d rather keep to ourselves. Maybe it’s a mistake we’ve made or something we’re not proud of.

The thing about secrets is, they’re like little nuclear bombs. In the wrong hands, they can be devastating.

Knowledge is power, and when someone knows something you don’t want them to know, that gives them power over you.

In the first season of Downton Abbey, Lady Mary is involved in something that, if discovered, would make for quite a scandal. Conflict ensues when Mary’s secret ends up with the wrong people (one of these being the head of a major newspaper) resulting in blackmail, slander, and other wonderfully wicked things.

And they don’t even have to be bad secrets. Maybe your hero has no money but is too proud to ask for help, or she gets cancer and can’t bear the grief of telling her friends that she may be dying soon. In this case, maybe it’s not an enemy but a friend who spills the beans.

Spread rumors like jam on toast.
I hate when people gossip in real life, but in a book I gobble that stuff up. So your hero doesn’t have anything to hide? No biggie, your antags will just have to be more creative.

A small lie in the right ear can be devastating, just as a small match and a little wind can cause a great big fire. The quicker that fire spreads, the harder it is to put out. Add a few shady coincidences and even your readers won’t know who to believe.

Isn’t it the sweetest mockery to mock our enemies? – Sophocles
People are cruel, and in a world where sticks and stones get you thrown in prison, a few choice words can make for quite the substitute.

If you’ve ever been teased or witnessed someone else being teased, you know just how freaking awful it is. The more sensitive and relatable the issue, the more impact it has. Teasing someone about a big nose is one thing, teasing them because their dad died… that’s just wrong.

As hard as it is, tease your characters. Gang up on them, bully them, make them cry. It’s hard to do, but the payoff is worth it. Your reader will love your hero more and hate the villain worse than ever.

Humiliate them.
Similar to above, humiliating your character can go a long way. Be it the hero or the villain, use this as a tool to garner sympathy for your characters.

Give something to them.
Give your characters something they don’t want. Be it a baby, homework, or herpes.

Whatever it is, make sure it gets in the way of something your character wants. And bonus points if the thing weighs heavy on their shoulders or heart or mind (as these things tend to do).

Hey, Clark. You want a bonus check? How about a One Year Membership to the Jelly of the Month Club? or, Hey, Clark, guess who showed up for Christmas this year?

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Take something from them.
Remember in A Game of Thrones when Arya’s direwolf attacked Joffrey? Remember what happened next? Slight spoiler ahead. Arya had to chase her wolf away to save it from execution. Her friend was murdered by the Hound. And to top it all off, Ned Stark was forced to kill his other daughter’s wolf, Lady, to appease the queen.

If you really want to get your character’s goat, take the things they love. Your readers will love you for doing it. (Sick bastards.)

Damned if I do, Damned if I don’t.
Okay, I’ve already used a Downton Abbey reference but, man, this one is too good to pass up. If you’re not caught up with season 3, do not read this.

SPOILER ALERT!
In the middle of the third season, Lady Sybil Branson is about to give birth to the first grandchild of the Grantham family. During the birth, her family doctor, Dr. Clarkson, says that he believes she is showing signs of pre-eclampsia and urges the doctor attending her birth along with Sybil’s father to get her to the hospital. Sir Philip Tapsell, MD, being very prideful, ignores Dr. Clarkson’s warning.

When Sybil’s mother begins to panic, her father, Lord Grantham, must make a hard decision. Does he trust the family doctor and risk hurting the pride of the esteemed Sir Philip, or ignore Clarkson’s warning and risk his daughter’s life? The result, and here’s the spoiler, is that he sides with Sir Philip and Lady Sybil dies.

Lord Grantham is devastated, not only because he lost his daughter, but because he could have saved her. This consequences gives rise to new conflicts as his wife struggles to forgive him.

END SPOILER

The point I’m trying to make is that your characters should be faced with hard choices. What makes those choices hard is that there’s no winning either way. Something is gained and something is lost no matter which way you go, and conflict always follows.

And that’s my list. If you have anything to add – like better, more coherent examples – feel free to share them in the comments. But you don’t have to! I mean, it’s no skin off my back.

Nope, I don’t care either way…

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George R. R. Martin Interview – The Nerdist


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George R. R. Martin does a lot of interviews, and I’ve probably heard them all, but when I saw that he’d appeared on the Nerdist podcast, I nearly “squeed” myself.

The interview is just over an hour long and you will laugh more than once. It’s nice to see George around people with a sense of humor.

George R. R. Martin – The Nerdist

A Character Exercise with help from Tyrion Lannister and Joffrey Baratheon


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Okay, I want you to try something with me. It’s a bit of an exercise that I think is helping me build my characters.

The first thing you have to do is write this statement and fill in the blank:

Readers will like my character because he is _______.

Now, pretend that I say, “Oh really? Prove it.” Next, write a short passage, or even just a line, showing me just how _______ your character is.

For example…

Readers will like my character because he is passionate about books and history.

Don’t believe me? Well read this…

Tyrion Lannister looked up from his books and shivered…

His reading lamp was flickering, its oil all but gone, as dawn light leaked through the high windows. He had been at it all night, but that was nothing new. Tyrion Lannister was not much a one for sleeping.

…the septon was snoring softly, his head pillowed on an open book in front of him. Tyrion glanced at the title. A life of the Grand Maester Aethelmure, no wonder. “Chayle,” he said softly. The young man jerked up, blinking, confused, the crystal of his order swinging wildly on its silver chain. “I’m off to break my fast. See that you return the books to the shelves. Be gentle with the Valyrian scrolls, the parchment is very dry. Ayrmidon’s Engines of War is quite rare, and yours is the only complete copy I’ve ever seen.”

See? I told you he is passionate about books. He certainly cares about them more than that Maester does! He’s even been up all night reading them.

Let’s try this again.

Readers will like my character because he is funny.

Oh yeah? Prove it.

“What are you doing up there? Why aren’t you at the feast?”

“Too hot, too noisy, and I’d drunk too much wine,” the dwarf told him. “I learned long ago that it is considered rude to vomit on your brother.”

Now, let me be clear that you cannot say he is funny and then just repeat it in the text.

For example:

Readers will like my character because he is funny.

Oh yeah? Prove it.

Everyone liked Moren, for he was a funny man. Whenever anyone saw him, they knew they were about to laugh. Once, Moren had even made Jeni laugh so hard at dinner that a pea shot out from her nose.

Okay, okay, so people in your story think Moren is funny. Well, I don’t.

Let’s do one last example, but using hate instead of like.

Readers will hate Joffrey because he is a sniveling little twit.

Oh yeah? Prove it.

“I am in no mood for your insolence today.” Tyrion turned to his nephew. “Joffrey, it is past time you called on Lord Eddard and his lady, to offer them your comfort.”

Joffrey looked as petulant as only a boy prince can look. “What good will my comfort do them?”

“None,” Tyrion said. “Yet it is expected of you. You’re absence has been noted.”

“The Stark boy is nothing to me,” Joffrey said. “I cannot abide the wailing of women.”

Tyrion Lannister reached up and slapped his nephew hard across the face. The boys cheek began to redden.

“One word,” Tyrion said. “And I will hit you again.”

“I’m going to tell mother!” Joffrey exclaimed.

Tyrion hit him again. Now both cheeks flamed.

Yep, you were right. That Joffrey is a right old prick. Oh, and Tyrion is awesome.