I’m thrilled to announce that Writers Don’t Cry will be at PAX Prime this year! I’m doing three panels—come by to say hi and check it out!
2PM Saturday (9/1): Making Magic Work: Designing Magic Systems for Games and Books with special guest New York Times Bestselling author and game designer Rich Baker, award-winning game designer and author Bruce R. Cordell, and award-winning author Erin M. Evans.
8PM Saturday (9/1): How to Craft a Damn Good Fight Scene for Games and Books with special guest award-winning game designer and author Bruce R. Cordell, award-winning author Erin M. Evans, and author and game designer Erik Scott de Bie.
4PM Sunday (9/2): Sympathy for the Devil: Creating Killer Villains for Games and Books with New York Times bestselling author Philip Athans and award-winning author Erin M. Evans.
For more information, check out the full schedule here.
I remember when I first had to learn how to write for an audience. It was a writing class which shall go unnamed, and I got my first less-than-spectacular grade on an essay. I was floored. I had just gotten a stellar grade on an essay in a writing class known for having a very harsh teacher. This teacher was not known to be harsh at all—quite the opposite in fact. But this teacher complained that my essay wasn’t in the five-paragraph style, and didn’t start with a sentence that stated my purpose.
It took me a minute to realize it: she hated my style. It had nothing to do with whether my style was good or bad, it was just that she hated it. I was devastated. I worked hard on developing my essay style. I was proud of it. I’d gotten awards for it. And this teacher didn’t just not love it—she hated it!
But, of course I wanted a decent grade. So, swallowing my pride, I asked for her to tell me what she wanted—what a good essay looked like. And then, on the next essay? I made sure my writing would do what I felt she wanted while still being something to which I’d be proud to attach my name. And I got a good grade. She complimented me on my improvement. And I bit my tongue, nodded, and moved on.
So: will I go on to write in that style forever? Heavens, no. Do I think that style is superior to my own? Obviously not. But it was an incredibly useful exercise. I had a goal (to get a good grade) that defined my audience (my teacher)–and being able to write for an audience like that is super handy, especially for corporate writers, or anyone else who wants to be able to write for someone unlike themselves.
When I talk about considering an audience? I don’t mean that when that audience says jump, you jump, and when they say write about a pink gnome who smells like sauerkraut, rides a unicorn, and wields a mean mandolin, I don’t mean actually write that. I mean that if your goal is to write a book that a particular audience–be it the experts or the a subgroup of sci-fi fans–will enjoy, then just like when you buy a gift for someone, take their taste into consideration. Figure out what it is that tickles them about that sour-smelling gnome, and what you could do to give them more to enjoy in your book without sacrificing your style or your comfort.
The most obvious example for me in terms of considering your audience is kids. If you’re writing for kids, not keeping your audience in mind is silly. I mean: you’re not a kid! You like different things from kids. Like, you should probably use less swear words in a kid’s book. And it might be a good idea to focus on problems kids have, such as identity and relationships, rather than issues specific to adults. It’s also likely helpful to think about your word choice and sentence structure a little—both in terms of difficulty, and in terms of what kids will find funny. (Kids, for instance, tend to find shouting “diarrhea” way funnier than adults.) That doesn’t mean talk down to them-–they are far smarter than I remember being at that age!—but it does mean if you’re writing for kids, try to write something they would like.
My GenCon schedule–I hope to see you there!
So, You Want to Be a Hero: Creating Captivating Heroes for Games and Books
4pm Thurs/Aug 16/Convention Center Rm 211
Sympathy for the Devil: Creating Killer Villains for Games and Books
4pm Sat/Aug 18/Convention Center Rm 211
For more info on my seminars, go to my Writers Don’t Cry article about them.
Games & Novels
11am Thurs/Aug 16/Convention Center Rm 211
Panelists: Dennis Detwiller, Matt Forbeck, Susan Morris, James Wyatt
Making Room for Daughters
2pm Thurs/Aug 16/Convention Center Rm 210
Panelists: Michelle Lyons, Susan Morris
10am Fri/Aug 17/Convention Center Rm 211
Panelists: Tavis Allison, Susan Morris, Stan!
How to Get a Woman (to Play Your Game)
12pm Fri/Aug 17/Convention Center Rm 211
Panelists: Jess Hartley, Michelle Lyons, Susan Morris, Elizabeth Shoemaker, Christina Stiles
+5 Sword of E-publishing
1pm Fri/Aug 17/Convention Center Rm 210
Panelists: Wolfgang Baur, Susan Morris, Gareth-Michael Skarka, Stan!
Fancy title, but what does this mean, you ask? This means I get to participate in a bunch of featured panels and seminars, which I don’t know the details of yet, but which I hope will all be focusing on my favorite topics from Writers Don’t Cry, because my last Writers Don’t Cry panel, Sympathy for the Devil: Creating Killer Villains for Games and Books, hosted by Emerald City Comicon, was a total blast.
See you in Indianapolis!
Looking for advice on writing? I maintain a weekly advice column on Amazon’s Omnivoracious blog called “Writers Don’t Cry,” covering topics ranging from Total Reader Immersion: Writing Evocative Description to Sympathy for the Devil: How to Write Killer Villains. I also interview some of my favorite authors on the things they do best, like R.A. Salvatore on How to Write a Damn Good Fight Scene.
If you have a burning question about your novel, short story, or piece of flash fiction–or even just a general question about fantasy writing, editing, or publishing–please send it in, and I’ll try to answer it in my column, or find some author who can.
To browse my columns by subject, check out the Writers Don’t Cry index.
Amazon has been an amazing experience—I’ve learned more about marketing and sales and data analysis than I could any other way, and it has greatly informed my view of the publishing business. But I’ve also learned that the retail side of books just isn’t where my heart is. My heart is–and will always be–on the other side. Editing, writing, and getting elbows-deep in the ink and sweat and passion that goes into a great story. There’s just something about first drafts that’s fulfilling in a way that is rare and wonderful to me.
To this end, I have left Amazon to return to editing and writing full time—freelance this time—and to spend a bit more time teaching kids about writing as well. I will, of course, continue to write my writing advice column for Amazon’s blog, Omnivoracious, among other freelance projects.
So if you’re a publisher, author, or agent who wants a second pair of eyes on a manuscript, I’d love to see what I can do to help you turn your manuscript into the book you’ve always dreamed it would be.
Heroes. People paid in glory, not gold, because we couldn’t afford them if we had to pay cash. In theory at least. In reality, it would be better said that they are paid in the satisfaction of knowing that they have survived, and that they have managed to live up to their own standards. Because in reality, few heroes receive hero’s welcomes, and if they do, fewer still manage not to overstay it.
The question to me has always been why do heroes do what they do, if not for glory or gold? Modern society features many heroes by necessity–those who can do no other than be heroic or face death, which we assume most people aren’t fond of. But there is that other kind of hero–the hero who is driven to heroism by some internal need. By their own conviction about right and wrong.
In the wake of Japan’s tsunami and the radiation leaking, I was fascinated by the will of those who went in to try to mitigate the radiation–knowing they would likely die or encounter radiation poisoning. That degree of self-sacrifice for a cause greater than oneself–what were their stories? I’m sure every person on those teams has their own reasons. But it’s such an uncommon phenomenon.
In my latest Writers Don’t Cry column, I dissect the different kinds of heroes by why they fight, how they fight, and how they win, and an attempt to better analyze the hero phenomenon, and found that my own views on the matter were fairly strong, if not necessarily mainstream.
Personally, I am drawn to the kinds of heroes that I want to believe, in a just and perfect world, would be rewarded. I want to believe that idealism and fighting for what is right is rewarded because I have strong beliefs and I want to fight for what is right. I want to believe that intelligence is more important than brute strength or unthinking will–that if I study hard, if I work hard, that I can learn enough to achieve whatever goals I have in life. And I want to believe that the will to continue on when it seems like all is lost, when you’ve been beaten down too many times to count, and when a lesser person would have given up–is rewarded. Because that is the speech I will give myself to make myself go the extra mile. That it is worth it. That the last mile is what makes all the difference.
What are you drawn to? What kind of heroism do you want to be rewarded?
Check out my Amazon article on how to create compelling characters here: So, You Want to Be a Hero
When I first starting writing seriously (going through my college-ruled notebooks with a vengeance), my main character was exactly who I wanted to be when I grew up. Beautiful, talented, sixteen, an elf… And plenty of esoteric things as well, like dangerous to her enemies and loyal to her friends, and of course, most importantly of all, special.
I wasn’t very good at making people special. I thought that the only way to make someone special was to make them both perfect and the last of whatever they were—the ultimate Mary Sue (because really, everyone was talented and beautiful in my books). This was something that went back to my less serious writing days in elementary school, writing plays about the Last of the Xanthans. Whatever a Xanthan is. That never really did become apparent. (It was a name taken from an ingredient in my lunchtime chocolate milk.)
Then, at some point, I realized that that was what everyone did. That all stories involved heroes with icy blue or sparkling violet or emerald green eyes… That all heroes were all beautiful and talented, dangerous to their enemies and loyal to their friends. That a lot of them were even elves! That all heroes were special. Not one of them was like me.
So I scrapped my by-this-point 600-page epic and started a new story about a girl with normal brown eyes and normal brown hair and nothing particularly remarkable about her… and got bored and never got past twenty-seven pages or so.
It took me two more tries before I realized that it wasn’t happening, and finally came to accept that it was okay to write about people who were other than perfectly ordinary. Also, that sixteen was a dumb age to wish to be. You couldn’t really do anything interesting until you were eighteen.
As I continued to write and read and eventually edit, I spent a lot of time analyzing what makes characters compelling, and I realized that while it certainly wasn’t blandness, it also wasn’t perfection. What made characters interesting were their fears, desires, loves, hates, flaws, merits, and everything else that made them special—as in unique. But also everything that made them spark when other plot elements hit them.
What made my first “serious” character so interesting wasn’t her beauty, talent, or specialness—it was her fiery personality, her loyalty to her friends, and her idealism that sometimes blinded her to the truths of those around her. Likewise, my favorite characters of my favorite authors are almost never their main characters, but are the side characters, filled to the brim with flavor and bereft of the heavy expectations of hero protagonists. Free to be a little dumb, a little selfish, a little lusty, a little obsessive, a little interesting.
Check out my Amazon article on how to create compelling characters here: She’s No Mary Sue: Creating Characters People Care About
You remember the first time you were betrayed. At first, it took you a moment to realize what had happened. That that was something people did to one another. And then, there was this great sucking hole in your chest. You could feel the wind and everything. But when you looked up, they didn’t even care.
And then they turned and walked away. You called after them something like, “Then you should have died! Died, rather than betray your friends, as we would have done for you!” But when they glanced back, it was with such a look of distain and incomprehension that you weren’t sure how you’d ever trusted them, how you couldn’t have seen it coming. I mean, they didn’t even get that Harry Potter reference. How would you ever be whole again?
Betrayal is a powerful thing—a taboo across cultures—and its forms are legion. It was hard to decide how to best categorize betrayal for my article. It’s such a monstrous topic that choosing what parts to put in and what to leave out would prove no easy task. But that’s the challenge every novelist faces with every page of their book, so I could hardly shirk from the challenge.
The important bits about the mechanics were, as I saw it:
- Who is doing the betraying? Is it a person or a group?
- Likewise, who is being betrayed? A person or a group?
- What is the relationship between the betrayer and the betrayed?
- What is the motivation behind the betrayal?
But, perhaps more important than the mechanics was the aftermath:
- How is the betrayed affected by the betrayal?
- How is the reader affected by the betrayal?
- How is the betrayer affected by the betrayal?
- How is everyone else affected by the betrayal?
It looks so simple, written out like that. In two sets of four. But it is all incredibly nuanced. The betrayal can be self-sacrificial or selfish. Often betrayers are villains, but sometimes, they are allies, whose weakness serves to illustrate the strength of the hero. Once in a while, they are the hero, betraying out of necessity, or a villain who comes upon a conscience and sacrifices themselves for their newfound cause. And sometimes, the betrayer is actually the society a person lives in, and sometimes the thing betrayed is ones country, making one a traitor—or a hero, if you look at it from the other side. Sacrifice, as a tool, tends to buy belief.
And that’s not even going into the aftermath.
I chose to write about the motivations behind betrayal in my Writer’s Don’t Cry column because I think it is the most interesting and varied aspect of betrayal, but it was a near thing between that and categorizing betrayals by their affect on the reader’s perceptions of events. A well-placed betrayal can make you realize and value the strength of those who did not break. If we are defined by our choices, choosing loyalty to ones friends over betrayal is one of the most important choices one can make.
And it must be said, a good turning-down-of-the-easy-road-to-stand-by-your-friends scene will get me every time. Yes, I’m a sucker for buddy films.
But I’ll leave that for another column, and stick to character-motivation for this one, because hopefully, if I’ve done it right, the motivations behind a betrayal lead one to explore the affects of a betrayal on all involved. Including, of course, the reader.
Check it out here: Make it Sting: How to Write Betrayal
You can always tell when someone’s just read a good fight scene. No matter how small, shy, or sweet he or she may be, the moment the book snaps shut, there’s a twinkle in their eyes and a fierceness to their step. They’re just waiting for someone to start something! They feel like they can take on the world.
A good fight scene is empowering, invigorating, and moving. It gives life, depth, and drama to a book, and expresses emotion, theme, and plot in a whole new, nuanced way. A good fight scene is to die for.
As an editor, I have obviously spent a lot of time and thought dissecting what makes a good fight scene (see my post from last year for Wizards), and I’ve probably read more fight scenes than heist scenes, love scenes, and escape scenes put together. But that’s nothing beside the insight of someone who has a knack for writing breath-taking, pulse-pounding fight scenes time after time.
So it is incredibly fortunate that I managed to run into the very author who first inspired my definition of a good fight scene at GenCon this year—and even more so that he agreed to be interviewed for my “Writers Don’t Cry” column on Amazon. And I was thrilled to find that, despite my years studying fight scenes (his among them!), I learned quite a bit from his analysis.