Kids—and parents of kids—often ask me what they can do to become a writer. I have my answers, involving education, community, and lots and lots of practice. Which are certainly all very important, and which really do all help. But really? Beneath all the reading and writing and classes? Being a writer means never giving up. It means stubbornly persisting despite the uncertainty, the dismal statistics, and the temptation of easier paths because you believe in what you do.
When you are a kid is not the time to worry about being critical about your own writing. You will go through many stages—messy, beautiful, terrible, necessary stages. Stages in which you will use too many adjectives, or write everything in the second person, or have a thesaurus addiction, or write everything from a candlestick’s perspective. Your writing will win praises from teachers, and a year later, you will hide it in embarrassment. And that’s okay—that’s good. That’s learning. Anyone who tries to make you more critical about your own writing during these stages is missing the point. This is the time to try all your crazy ideas—to take risks, to fail. And yes, to recognize when you fail, but to try again. Because you have that luxury, and because that’s how you will learn. Being a writer has never been about taking the safe, easy route.
Then, you will likely enter a hypercritical phase, in which the blank page goes from muse to brick wall. You apply the critical eye you’ve used on books all your life–dissecting their techniques, figuring out what words they use in what order to elicit the correct emotional responses, and what emotions they play in what order to give satisfaction—and turn it on your own writing. And suddenly, you notice that you’ve been mostly just banging on the piano, not making any music at all, and all the joy and love you experienced writing fades into horrified embarrassment.
In this stage, you tighten up on the rules, refusing to break them at all. You will go from having too weak boundaries to having too stern boundaries. Scoffing at those who overuse adjectives, laughing at the gall of those who use second person, and sniffing at those who bother to use a complicated word where a simple word will do. And this stage, frankly, sucks.
But it does end. Eventually, you will find the right flexible, strong boundaries for your writing. You will take the good from each stage you passed through as a writer—adjectives, sesquipedalian words, and all—and wrap them into your own unique voice. And that’s when the writing becomes fun again. When you can recapture the joy and freedom of youthful writing, with the restraint and precision of experience.
So don’t give up. Keep reading. Keep trying. And know that it’s an adventure, every bit as perilous and joyful as those you write about.
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.
It used to be that one of the hardest conversations you could have with an author is the conversation where you try to convince them to kill a character. Because no one used to want to kill characters! Authors love their characters–and with good reason. They’ve spent months, even years struggling with those characters, building them, perfecting them, and putting them through hell and back again to tell good stories. Those characters have fans of their own–sometimes people dress like their characters, write fan fiction about their characters, and speculate about which characters should get together or whether their characters could beat other characters in a fight . . .
But then George R. R. Martin came around, killing characters with such style that all of a sudden, the conversation became about how NOT to kill characters.
A fan of the dark side myself, how and when to kill characters is a subject near and dear to my heart, and as such, I made it the subject of my latest “Writers Don’t Cry” column. Often misunderstood, sometimes overdone, and always controversial, killing characters involves far more than the simple mechanics. At least, it does when it’s done right. Killing characters is about how to decide when a character is worth more dead than alive in terms of the plot, character arc, and emotional impact.
Check it out, and let me know what you think!
Your heart drums with anticipation as you settle into the big comfy chair in the corner of your room. Your palms are sweaty as you pull it out of your bag. It’s way too late, you know you should be going to bed—you have to get up early the next morning—but you can’t help yourself. You need it—just for a few minutes. Then you’ll go to bed, you promise yourself. But it’s well past midnight when the pages of your latest book crush finally release you to dream about the story you’re no longer reading.
What is it about a book that can drive us to read into the wee hours of the morning, when we have work or school the next day? What is it that can cause us to miss our bus stop, forget an appointment, or not hear the bell between classes? What is it that it can give us such a feeling of belonging? That we can feel more at home between its sheets than the sheets of our own beds . . .
Is it great literary writing? A vocabulary to make Shakespeare blush? Is it the twist we didn’t see coming, or the flawless, perfect characters?
I would argue that it’s not any of these things. It’s reading about characters you care about—characters you end up knowing so well, they’re like your best friends. Sometimes, when you’re in a bad place, they are your best friends. And when you have characters like that, you have to find out what happens to them—you crave spending more time with them. And when the book finally ends, it’s bittersweet, because while the ending was doubtless incredibly satisfying, it also means that your characters are leaving you. That there’s no more to read about them, and that’s a tragedy.
That’s when you know it’s a good book—when you don’t want the book to end, because you want the story to go on forever. And those books aren’t always the literary ones, or the ones with the perfect twists.
In my new column for Amazon’s blog, “Writers Don’t Cry,” I wanted to start on this note, because it’s always been what drives me to read, to write, and to help others to tell the stories they want to tell. Sometimes, I feel like we make writing and even reading so complicated—but I really think it’s quite simple. If you enjoy it—if it gives you those familiar feeling where you’re staying up late on “school nights” and missing appointments again—then that is a good book.
And nothing can replace the experience of a good book.
My new column features tips on writing, and will occasionally feature tips on writing technique from the authors you know and love on what they do best. Check it out!
Being a “gamer girl” can be a surreal experience. For all the guys who don’t think women can hack it in the gaming world, there are thousands who ask Santa for more gamer girls every year. Thanks to the scarcity of gamer girls out there, we lucky ladies get just one stereotype to share between us—which means everyone has a great idea of exactly who you are before you even open your mouth. Part of the current stereotype is that we gamer girls fight with each other in order to compete for attention, status, and all those eligible gamer men.
An entertaining notion to be sure, and I can see why there is that perception. However, while I can’t speak for all gamer women, I really don’t think that sexual competition is at the root of the various rifts. I think it’s about image and branding, and what they do to the everyday life of your everyday gamer woman.
When Stereotypes Attack
There’s a great XKCD comic, where a man fails at a math problem, and they say, “Wow, you suck at math” and then a woman fails at the math problem, and they say, “Wow, girls suck at math.”
It’s funny because it’s so, so true. Not the woman sucking at math part—my mother is a mathematical genius, and current research supports that women are equally skilled in this area, thank you very much—but the stereotyping bit. I am fully aware that in some circumstances, I represent my whole gender, and it terrifies me. Making a mistake in general sucks; making a mistake your whole gender will henceforth be branded with? Priceless.
Whenever you are not part of the dominant party in a group—such as women in math, gamers in mainstream society, or women in gaming—then you represent your entire subgroup. In mainstream society, every time a gamer does something stupid, the whole group is branded with it. Remember Columbine? The number of adults who suddenly became concerned over the state of my soul—and my marksmanship—because of the atrocities other kids who played the same games did . . . It was infuriating. Presented with tragedy, I was grouped with the guilty parties, not the victims, in the eyes of greater society, simply because I enjoyed playing games. I suddenly had to defend myself. I can only imagine how much worse it must have been for those gamers who were also guys and wore trench coats.
There Can Be Only One
But in the eyes of greater society, there is room for only one dominant stereotype of “gamer geek.” And likewise, in gaming society, there is room for only one dominant stereotype of “gamer girl.” So, whenever a woman makes a splash in gaming, all gamer women are at least partially branded with her actions.
Understandably, this can make a woman a bit concerned about the way gamer girls are portrayed. Whenever a stereotype gets too prevalent that a particular woman doesn’t want to get branded with, she is being threatened, if indirectly. All of a sudden, this means that when she interacts with people, she has to deal with being branded with something that doesn’t fit her, that might insult her, that isn’t her fault, and that forces her to take corrective action.
Granted, it’s never so bad as “commits atrocities,” but the stereotypes can certainly be annoying. For instance, when the “Girls Can’t Game” stereotype was in, no matter how well I played, or how steep my geek cred, some guys would still get all paternal on me, sometimes even TOUCHING MY DICE to show me which dice to roll—a travesty punishable by far more than the snarl I favored the unfortunate with.
Once, I met this woman who, while perfectly fluent in gaming, would play dumb in order to flirt with guys. At first I was furious, because her conscious perpetuation of the stereotype that “Girls Can’t Game” directly affected the way the guys treated me. But when I thought about it, I couldn’t complain too loudly, because all she was doing was following her heart to achieve a goal—and succeeding at both. Who could blame her for that? Besides, her girly posture in game gave me permission to show my girly side. You see, while I don’t suffer geeks misconceptions about my mad skillz, I LOVE bright, sparkly dice. Not exactly combating the stereotypes about girl gamers myself there, either. But really? Loving sparkly dice is part of what makes me “me.” Why should I sacrifice that to better fit in the accepted gamer girl box? Why can’t I be badass and sparkly at the same time—and her, flirty and badass? Besides, I don’t have time to be embarrassed about my sparkly dice habit—I’m too busy having fun playing the game!
The First Rule of Gaming Is There Are No Rules
The good news is that while there are those who play by the stereotypes in every group, there are also those who see past them. Yes, it is totally annoying to have to deal with the gamersby who assume you’re buying your game for your boyfriend, or assume you want pink dice (or assume you don’t want pink dice for that matter!), but there is a bright side to all these competing stereotypes.
The more strong stereotypes that get out there, the more obvious it will become that we do not fit in a box. We women who game come in many varieties—from those whose first words were “thac0” and “crit” to the “ladies of a certain age” who stumbled into D&D through their grandchildren and now host D&D and tea parties. And then, some bright day in the future, we’ll just be Susan, or Erin, or Nina, or Pip Puddlejump Impirae Pioneer Playful Prankster Panishee, Faerie Guide Emeritus. Or, you know. Whatever.
You’re not going to like every book you read. It’s called “having an opinion,” and it’s perfectly okay. But a scathing review is as unhelpful as a dishonest one. A good reviewer helps his fellow readers choose books that they will enjoy—and there are a couple ways to can make sure that that is what you’re doing.
1. Give Context. Context is the single most important aspect of your review. Taste is relative, so you need to let readers know who the audience for the book is, and what your tastes are. Without context, your well-thought-out review is meaningless. After all, how useful is a four-year-old’s opinion on Dante’s Inferno?
2. State Opinions Not Facts. You can’t compare the book to a Platonic Ideal of Bookness, because there isn’t one. So instead of declaring something bad, say the truth: you disliked it. And remember: as much as you think that having a cow crusader called the Masked Moo is stupid and cliché, Johnny over there has never seen anything like it, has papered his walls with the book posters, and goes to school wearing spots and a domino mask.
3. Give your reactions. Even better than saying you dislike something is explaining why. And I don’t mean by tearing it down. I mean by describing what made you feel negatively about the character or plot or whatever caused your issue. For example, “When the Masked Moo squashed that innocent little sea slug under his cold, merciless hooves, I just couldn’t identify with him anymore. I mean, who does that? It made me feel bad for the Omnipus and his sea slug legions!”
4. Identify what you like as well as what you didn’t like. Instead of saying that the Masked Moo was an unlikeable hero, try saying: “I like my heroes brave AND compassionate. When the Masked Moo risks his life to save Mini Moo, I really felt for him, but I just didn’t understand why he wanted to squash the poor sea slug.” That way, you give other readers a perspective on your opinion.
5. Don’t Bash the Author. It’s just rude. Remember: they really are trying their hardest to make you happy. Besides, you never know the circumstances under which the book was written (and it’s also rude to speculate: “Man, Mr. Mooster must have been hit in the head repeatedly to think this is good!), it might not have been written for you, and judging a whole person by one book that they don’t have complete control over is like judging someone based on their outfit on prom night.