Category Archives: Resources for Writers

Are editors still needed?

imageEvery last soul reading this post could, if they chose, have 5,000 words of fiction up in some prominent e-bookstore by the end of this week. This is true too of feature journalism, epic poetry, creative non-fiction, film scripts, thinly veiled Raylan/Boyd Justified erotica, song lyrics, diary entries and stream of consciousness commandments for that new religion you’ve been meaning to think up.

Step one would be typing 5K words of, seriously, whatever. Steps two through finished would involve figuring out step-by-step instructions available everywhere, on how to set up, price and upload the relevant files.

If we were all to do this, some of those hypothetical stories–say the ones written by Neal Gaiman, Tana French, George Lucas, Elvis Costello, Patricia Briggs, Joss Whedon, Connie Willis and Wayne Gretzky*–would be commercially successful. They might not offset a week’s worth of other work at the Lucas level of income, but they’d get lots of uploads, reads, likes and user reviews.

A different subset, including some but not necessarily all of the works just mentioned, would make for entertaining reading. They ‘d be good stories, fun experiences, and worthy uses of reader time. There’d be some delightful drafts in the mix. Depending on each writer’s process, some would be quite polished. Others would be pleasing shambles of prose.

There might be a few runaway successes that were simply awful, and a few unnoticed, typo-ridden gems.

Then there’d be everything else: quiet stories that didn’t quite pull it off, novel beginnings that had promise, stories with okay structures but off-putting protagonists, and a whole lotta stuff that wasn’t all that great. A great bulk of words that would, whether deserving of attention or not, sink like sediment to the bottom of the great and growing e-commerce database.

What does any of this have to do with editing?

New writers can tend to see editors as a source of adversity. Editors are the ones who say yes or no to buying our work, after all. Yes means publication, money and–perhaps most importantly–a certain kind of validation. No… well, it’s hard not to take a rejection personally, especially if you haven’t yet heard Yes.

New writers wonder if editors will steal their ideas. They worry about whether they’ll ruin their stories. They wonder if they’re too cynical or overworked to recognize quality. All of these questions have been part of a larger discussion about how publishing is changing, in this age of throw it on the Internet yourself!

I don’t want to get sidetracked into everything editors do. Beth Hill has a quick and very useful summary here.

The question about editors on my virtual floor (this came from Blaise Selby, on Facebook**) is: do we still need them?

I say: do we still need chickens, I say? Pacific salmon?  Caribou?

Editing, the act of reading fiction and providing insight into how the author can improve it, is a key process in the storytelling ecosystem. It is also, incidentally, an entirely noble activity.

One could–and many do–argue that editing can be performed by anyone with a reasonable degree of literacy. Your english teacher, your mom,your critique group, the lady who supplies your Diet Coke habit, a hired freelancer, fans, beta readers, agents, college professors, tax accountants, deposed dictators, or your romantic partner. They all read, right? And the fact is writers do seek out these people, and others, to read our work before it goes to market. This is, in itself, an argument that editing is vital.

But if anyone can do it, why do we need editors?

Expertise: the above random list of people could also provide first aid if you had a heart attack on the street.

If someone from your critique group CPRs you until the ambulance shows up and as a result you don’t die this week, that’s awesome. Go them! It’s a delightful human interest story. Even so, I bet you’ll be pretty happy when you’re ensconced in a hospital having a face to face consult with an actual cardiologist.

Getting CPR at the scene may keep you alive for awhile. Honestly, though, “not dead on the streetcorner” isn’t a very high bar. You want your writing to sing, to dance the Charleston in the streets. You want it climbing Mount Everest and swimming the Channel! Smarter, cleverer, stronger, and ever more effective.

There’s nothing quite like working with a professional editor to not only pull up the quality of a given piece of writing but to teach you techniques and spark ideas that will inform the quality of the next story.

So what else? Editors have a financial stake in your writing: anthology and magazine editors curate selections of short fiction that reflect their taste, the themes they want to explore and the best prose they can find. Book editors seek to add authors and novelists to their publishers’ lists that will bring glory, awards and pots of money to the company coffers. If they do these things well–economy notwithstanding–they get to keep publishing their favorite writers, bringing things they consider beautiful and affecting and important to readers.

I’m not the biggest fan of the invisible hand, but there is an increased investment in this process that can’t be matched by volunteer readers. Editors’ reputations rise and fall on their professional choices. When your workshop group is just trying to get through the latest round of manuscripts without breaking into a flamewar, and your writing professor is moving on to the next classroom full of aspiring Rowlings, when the freelancer cuts you an invoice with a handwritten note saying “Good luck with this!” your editor is still there, chewing away on the problem of why this or that angle within your book doesn’t quite work.

Financial stakes the sequel: It is simply nice to work with people who send you cheques. This sounds facetious, but consider: you have profit motive too. And when the person paying you says “This is a problem,” you’re going to be less inclined to ignore them than when your writer BFF says it. We all get tired of revising our work. Sometimes we need to suck it up and do another pass.

An editor who buys your work is investing in you. They’re taking a risk on you, in a way that the purchaser of a 99 cent e-book simply isn’t. That is a heady and important thing, something every artist deserves to experience.

The gatekeeper thing: I hate the word gatekeeping. To me, the word puts everyone in mind of club bouncers or Saint Peter in an unreceptive mood, barring the gates to Heaven. And we’ve all heard from writers who see it in exactly that light, and resent it accordingly.

But editing is about finding treasure! It’s archaeology, Indiana-Jones style. A quest for the awesome. They’re unearthing nifty written artifacts, polishing them up, and bringing them out into the light to blow readers’ minds.

In a world without editors, readers are be left to do their own digging in the quest for good fiction. Word of mouth, these days, includes professional review, as it always did. It’s also everything from blog entries to user reviews from anonymous posters to that friend you never quite agree with to what your book club’s reading. There are lots of ways to get opinions, good and bad, on what you should read.

In many ways this is a good thing. But crowdsourcing has its drawbacks. The accumulated opinion of everyone who happened to post might not be an opinion that helps you. Consider Yelp’s restaurant ratings. Canny Yelpers tend to have to develop a personal system for divining which ratings are actually accurate. A five star restaurant with only three reviews isn’t really a five star restaurant, is it? It’s a place that three people happened to like. A restaurant in the heart of a big city tourist district might have hundreds of reviews and ratings. And many of those are going to come from jet-lagged, hungry travellers who were grateful to be able to sit down and eat something that wasn’t deep fried nuggets o’ Spam.

As S.M. Stirling pointed out in a comment on this thread, any reviewer or gang of pals with an ax to grind can skew things the other way, dragging down the approval ratings of perfectly good writers, books (or restaurants, hotels, and fix-it guys) for obscure reasons of their own.

Thriller writer Chris Pavone praises gatekeeping elegantly here, at Publisher’s Weekly.

High grade your time: I consider making stories to be the highest and best use of my working hours. I want my writing to be fantastic, and I don’t want to spend endless hours on typos hunts–a skill at which, you may have noticed, I entirely suck. Every time an editor notices that I’m fuzzy on the difference between north and south or that I’ve forgotten to distinguish between constitutional debate and criminal law in the third Stormwrack story, I look smarter.

Storytelling have been part of the storytelling ecosystem for a long time. Cut them out, and the system will react accordingly: invasive species will flood in to imperfectly fill the niche they’ve left. Writers and readers would both suffer.

The idea of not needing them is, to me, unthinkable.

_____

*It’s my blog, I can imagine any readership I like.

**This essay is one of a series inspired by all of your responses to a query I threw to the Internet, asking everyone to let me know what you’d like to hear about in the near. I am still welcoming your topic suggestions.

***Your Raylan/Boyd recs are always welcome.

Thank you for the question, Blaise!

Alyx-self-portrait2

How Writers Read, and Sometimes Why

I was having an online conversation recently with one of my novel-writing students about reading more thrillers–because she’s writing one–when one of her classmates chimed in with a question.

It boiled down to this: “How do you learn to write from reading? Is there an article explaining how that works?”

A number of answers occurred right away. There are so many ways to learn from reading other authors, living and dead. It’s a huge question. We learn from a form of osmosis, for example: simply by reading books for pleasure, we absorb some sense of how sentences are supposed to sound, proper grammar, new vocabulary, the idea of voice, fundamentals of worldbuilding, word play, plotting, and how to structure a variety of points of view. Everything we want to try, in fiction, is in a book somewhere.

If we want to try out some particular literary technique, chances are it’s because we read it in a book somewhere. I structured the Indigo Springs frame story as I did, in part, because I wanted to understand novels like Katherine Dunn’s exquisite and heartbreaking Geek Love.

keep readingWe can break down a book we love or admire–examine it scene by scene, plot point by plot point, character journey by character journey. We can outline it, draw graphs, shuffle around cards with the story components jotted on them, all to better understand its structure. On the micro level, we can become better prose stylists by examining small pieces of writing within larger works, the passages that make your heart beat faster, the ones that sing within the mind’s ear because they’re just that effective. (Or, sometimes, the opposite. Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places has some deeply annoying comma splices, which break up its rhythm quite badly.)

Many of you already know I do this, using my text fragment collection.

Moving off the beaten track of this topic, there are also a number of books and movies about readers and writers, pieces that are instructive. They’re fiction, is what I’m saying. But they can add to your understanding of craft, or discipline, or process. A somewhat frivolous example would be the romantic comedy Music and Lyrics, which–amid the tasty froth of a boy meets girl tru luff always storyline–sneaks in some hard truths the value of art, the persistence and commitment it requires, genre snobbery, writer’s block, trying too hard, and giving up too soon. All that and Drew Barrymore, too!

Or, if you want something loftier in this vein–not to mention thoroughly wonderful–go pick up Alan Bennet’s novella “The Uncommon Reader” It’s about the birth of a writer, a certain eminent person who takes up reading comparatively late in life and who does nothing, for most of the story, but read, read, and read some more. If you want a fictional and yet true answer to “How do you learn to write from reading?”, this is very much it. And the beginning of that answer? Learn to read. Or, rather to read. Not glancingly or inattentively, but with passion, intent, and thoughtfulness.

(This novella is, btw, quirky and delightful. You’ll laugh.)

I hope to have more on this subject in the future, and perhaps not just from me. In the meantime, what do you all think?

Write ups, chin ups, push ups

imageI am thinking about dialog today. It’s a topic I’ve covered to some extent in my Yakkity Yak essay, but I’m wondering if there couldn’t be a way to construct some bare-bones exercises to teach beginners some of the basics of improving it.

A starting point, I think, would be to actually have dialog as opposed to implying it. So I might preamble with:

Though there aren’t necessarily any right or wrong ways to do anything in fiction-writing, it’s sometimes useful to pretend this isn’t the case. This is because some techniques generally work better than others; some strategies should be employed sparingly, rather than as a matter of habit.

With that in mind, let’s attach the label “Less Effective” to this:

Hans & Greta debated knocking on Mrs. Witch’s front door.

And this one we’ll call “More effective.”

“Should we knock?” Hans asked when they reached Mrs. Witch’s door.
Greta shook her head. “If we warn her, she’ll call the police for sure.”

Part one of the exercise would then be to supply three more less Effective sentences:

Pinnochio lied about breaking curfew, but of course his nose grew and Papa grounded him for a month.

Snow White tried to refuse the apple politely.

Mr. Straw Pig indicated he would very much prefer not to allow Wolf past his threshold, unless of course he had a warrant.

Part two would be for the writer to find and edit some examples from their own work, and part three would be analysis: did this improve your writing? How?

What do you think? Potentially useful?

Off My Lawn! Linda Nagata vs. “Stop before you’re done.”

red first lightI have been reading Linda Nagata‘s fiction since her mindblowing novel, The Bohr Maker came out and won the Locus Award for best first novel. She’s written any number of short stories and books since then, and her novella “Goddesses” has the distinction of being the first online publication to receive a Nebula award. Though best known for science fiction, she writes fantasy too, exemplified by her “scoundrel lit” series Stories of the Puzzle Lands.

Her newest science fiction novel, The Red: First LightThe Red: First Light, is a near-future, high-tech military thriller, just released under her own imprint, Mythic Island Press LLC. Here’s the back cover blurb:

There Needs To Be A War Going On Somewhere: Lieutenant James Shelley commands a high-tech squad of soldiers in a rural district within the African Sahel. They hunt insurgents each night on a harrowing patrol, guided by three simple goals: protect civilians, kill the enemy, and stay alive—because in a for-profit war manufactured by the defense industry there can be no cause worth dying for.

To keep his soldiers safe, Shelley uses every high-tech asset available to him—but his best weapon is a flawless sense of imminent danger…as if God is with him, whispering warnings in his ear. (Hazard Notice: contains military grade profanity.)

Today in Off My Lawn! she tackles the idea of ending your writing day before you’re ready, even if you’re on fire. And, in her way, I think she beats a nail into the coffin of all One Size Fits All writing advice. See what you think here, and let her know!

I’ve lived on the island of Maui for many years and I can say with fair confidence that this is not a “bookish” community. There are readers here of course, but compared to literary havens like Portland, Oregon, we don’t have a lot going on, particularly in the speculative fiction.

We do, ironically, have a large and thriving community of visual artists. Go figure. At any rate, around here writers don’t tend to be held in high esteem, and there aren’t a lot of myths about us. We are generally perceived as dreamers who don’t make money—and I have to admit that’s usually a fair assessment.

But myths about writing? Those are universal.

The one that annoys me the most has several variations:

* Stop writing for the day when you still have things left to say.
* Stop writing for the day before you want to.
* Stop in the middle of a sentence and pick it up the next day.

What? That’s insane! This is one of those rules made up by prolific writers who assume that everyone else’s muse operates just like theirs. May I say, “NOT!”

For some of us (many of us?) there exists the elusive “flow,” the “zone,” that place of writing nirvana where the words are simply there, in mind, waiting to be poured into the word processor of choice with only a few corrections along the way. When operating in the flow, the outside world retreats and even the Internet ceases to be a distraction. The page, the story, becomes the focus, and good things happen.

Some of us only occasionally reach this point of writing nirvana. Perhaps you’re not one of us. Perhaps you’re one of those writers able to slip into the zone and produce a thousand words a day, every day. Let me qualify that: a thousand of the right words, every day. (Because a thousand words of useless nonsense don’t really count.) Some of us find the zone elusive. We are faced with many days when cleaning the bathroom sounds like a delightful alternative to writing; when we have no clue what is going to happen next and who cares anyway? It might take us one, two, three days or more of forcing ourselves to write—during which time we produce mostly rubbish—before we find the zone and the words begin to flow.

To cut off that flow early, to reject the gift of it—sacrilege! ingratitude! If life calls us away, that’s one thing—if the kids are starving, or the dog needs to be walked, or we must be at work promptly at eight AM, well fine. But to reject the zone simply on the premise that doing so will help us find it again the next session—no! Because for some of us, it just doesn’t work that way, which is why I ride the flow as far as I can every time I find it.

Don’t hold back. Give everything you’ve got when you’ve got it. That’s my writing advice.

Although of course my advice is only good advice if it works for you.

Writing, the Pinboard

writing pinboardOne of the things I do as part of my teaching practice is keep an eye on links about writing and, when they seem right for a given class, post them in my classroom at UCLA. What I’ve taken to doing as of this quarter is pinning the links on a single board called, not surprisingly, Writing. This way all of my classes can access all of the links, new and old, that I’ve posted.

As I’ve begun to do this, I’ve realized that posts without graphics (the text-heavy stuff we writers naturally tend to favor) don’t pin well. I was always aware that essays with at least a few pictures were more readable–giving the eyes a break, yadda yadda–but there’s this extra element of ‘need a picture’ now that is part of the reason you’re seeing all these little meme-y things and screengrabs popping up on my site.

Visuals aside, this board has some great writing essays on it. Go, read, enjoy!

Dracula hits the #Buffyrewatch, plus bonus links!

That’s right–I’ve reached S5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here’s my essay on the best Riley episode ever.

In other news, I am building a not-safe-for-work Grammar Cop board on Pinterest. I’m hoping this will use up the energy I spend thinking, “Its, not it’s!”

Finally, author Lynette Aspey has written a lovely essay about my Books of Chantment, Indigo Springs and Blue Magic, as well as the tie-in novelette “Wild Things.”

Off my Lawn! Jaine Fenn versus “Write every day!”

I am just beginning to know Jaine Fenn because we’re both members of SF Novelists. She is a British SF writer who studied Linguistics and Astronomy and had a career in IT before swapping financial security for the chance to tell tales about how the future might be. Her Hidden Empire series is published by Gollancz. Downside Girls is hot off the presses as of two days ago, and is a set of interlinked stories set in her Hidden Empire universe. Here’s the cover:
Jaine Fenn Covers

Today, on Off My Lawn, Jaine talks about the advice, often give to aspiring writers, to write every day.

One piece of advice commonly found in writing ‘how to’ books is ‘Write Every Day’.

Okay then! Soon as I build my time machine I’ll get right onto that.

Apparently Stephen King writes every day. This grand master has lots of
useful advice:

So if a ‘Write Every Day’ regime is good enough for him then surely it should work for you and me. Well, I’m afraid it doesn’t work for me.

Firstly, there are not enough hours in the day. Most writers have families and/or day-jobs. We like to see our friends, to engage in hobbies and go on holiday. We generally require more than two hours sleep a night. For many of us, if we don’t cook/clean/shop/child-wrangle then we’ll end up starving/drowning in kipple/unwashed
underwear/feral children. Finding a significant amount of keyboard-time in our schedules isn’t always possible.
Ah, you may say, but you have to make time. Fine. I refer you to the second paragraph above. And if you’ve already got a time-machine, I’d like to borrow it please.

Often we end up snatching the odd hour or two, and if writing isn’t our main source of income, even that can be fraught with guilt. But yes, an hour is better than nothing. Of course it is. And even if you don’t make it to a keyboard, you can – and should – still be developing stories in your head.

Which brings me on to the second reason I don’t write every day, the one unrelated to excuses and a chaotic lifestyle. The one that comes down to how creativity works.

The act of creative writing has been likened to drawing water from a well. If you keep taking the words out – if you make yourself produce several thousand words every single day – you may well find that after a while all you’re bringing up is mud.

This isn’t true for everyone, but for those of us not blessed with Mr King’s prodigious talent, the well of creativity isn’t bottomless. It needs time to refill.

When up against a deadline, I can write three thousand words a day. But if I do that for too many days in a row then, deadline or not, those words are not going to end up in the finished story. They’re just noise. For some people, making that noise is a good thing, especially when they first start out. You might subscribe to that school
of thought, and write every day despite the sure knowledge that some days you’ll only dredge up mud. But that doesn’t work for everyone.

For me, it’s frustrating when what turns up on the page is wastage. I might learn some lessons from it, but it won’t earn me a living – nor should it, because no one wants to pay for mud. And I could have used that time to clean the bathroom.

Every few days, even on deadline death-marches, I’ll find myself vacuuming the stairs, or digging the garden, or just going for a walk, but in my case this isn’t just writing avoidance. I’m waiting for the well to refill. Ideas need time to ferment, plots to coalesce.

On a Venn diagram of ‘writers’ and ‘OCD sufferers’ you’ll find a big overlap. Writers are good at setting up, then knocking down, mechanisms allowing them to almost write every day. We reorganise our lives, then find creative reasons not to write, and often punish themselves for not doing so. When I was writing Queen of Nowhere I was in the interesting position of writing about an obsessive while behaving obsessively, and I found a few insights there, I can tell you.

Fortunately, it being my fifth book, I had my coping mechanisms in place. I did not write every day, and I did not punish myself for not doing so. I still made my deadline.

So, if you’re someone who has learnt enough of the craft to get the basics down and has a busy life, instead of “Write every day,” the advice I’d give is to write regularly. It might just be a few hours on Saturday mornings, during your lunch break on days when the job isn’t too crazy, or an hour or two while the kids are at school,
but schedule it in.

If you’re being paid to write to a deadline you’ll be able to justify that time, but even if no one is paying you to write your story put aside some time, regularly, to write. Just not every day.
______
Thank you, Jaine! What do you think, folks? When and how often do you write?

Here’s a little more about Downside Girls: The floating city of Khesh rests above the uninhabitable planet of Vellern. For the Topsiders life is about luxury and opulence, while for those of the Undertow day to day survival takes precedence. Khesh City is a democracy by assassination, where the Angels – deadly state-sponsored killers – remove those unworthy to hold office. When Vanna Agriet accidentally spills her drink over an Angel it could spell death, but instead it leads to a rather peculiar friendship.

Human Relationships, Character Relationships

Emotionally powerful fiction, as you know, brings characters into conflict with each other.

This is not to say that you can’t tell a story about someone who’s facing a powerful internal conflict, or a character who’s at odds with their environment, locked in a battle with impersonal forces, with physical survival as the stakes. However, the most affecting clashes in fiction are usually the struggles between individuals, those frictions that arise out of our natural attempts to connect with (and, sometimes, control) other people.

As I write this essay, I hope it’s true of those of you reading it that the important relationships in your life are positive ones: enduring friendships, solid family ties, and cordial business associations. So here’s an exercise: think about simple affection, and jot down some notes about the things you like about the people in your world. (Be as specific as you can. If you particularly admire your mother for her self-sufficiency, think of an example of a behavior that illuminates this trait.)

Now, look it over. What areas of common ground are the foundations of your friendships? Do you, like most of us, have a hierarchy of friendship: BFF, old schoolmates, colleagues, fellow writers, Twitter pals? How many worlds do you live in, and how well do these worlds co-exist?

All this exercise is meant to illustrate is that your characters probably don’t exist within a social vacuum. As you consider who they may clash with in a given story, think too about who supports them, and what resources—social and otherwise—they may have to draw upon.

If you’re stuck, consider a few common plots involving friendly relationships:

The Mentor—Be he Merlin or Obi-wan Kenobi, this older and more experienced ‘trainer’ figure turns up in adventure fiction, to prepare young heroes for big tests.

· Who are your real life mentors and inspirations?

Mercutio—this is the friend who serves as a sacrificial lamb. They are usually killed to up the stakes on a conflict already in progress, or to show that the villain really means business.

Loved one gone bad—sometimes a protagonist loses a friends’ support through selfishness, with the catastrophic result that the former ally joins forces with the antagonists of the story.

Confidante—Confidantes are handy—they give protagonists a chance to hash out their interior angst on the page. They are custodians of your characters’ secrets, and sometimes unwittingly betray them.

· Who do you confide in? What qualities make them especially trustworthy?

The above examples are just a small starter list of archetypes and the stories that spring from common, real-world relationships. Any of the ‘types’ I’ve listed above can be treated as a cliché or be fully-realized and brilliantly handled. The key thing to remember is that if your novel’s protagonist is so socially isolated that there is nobody at all to reach out to when they’re in a jam, you may have an underdeveloped cast of characters.

Here’s another thing: Affection and Conflict can go hand in hand!

Not all stories boil down to Hero Versus Villain, thankfully, and even the closest relationships can be eclipsed by conflict. For many of us, we’re far less likely to solve a murder or save the world from aliens than we are to have a painful argument with a loved one. How many of you might prefer getting a punch in the gut from a total stranger to having a verbal conflict with someone you love deeply?

A protagonist’s loved ones are in a more advantageous position to undermine, deceive and flat-out betray them than a villain-stranger. You cannot betray someone who doesn’t trust you.

So, with that in mind, let’s talk about lying for a minute. Lying, in fiction, has great potential to create both conflict and suspense: it also makes characters, and their motivations, more interesting. A common beginner mistake in writing is to have all or most of your characters tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Nobody is perfectly honest; don’t allow your characters to fall into this trap.

Insofar as fiction has any rules, here’s a biggie:

If an important character tells a big lie in a novel, the truth must come out by the end.

Here are some basic things to ponder with regard to lying:

· A character should lie more easily to a stranger or casual acquaintance than a loved one (this assumes they are not a sociopath)
· A character needs a reason to lie. They—or someone they care about—should have something big at stake.
· Lies and other betrayals of trust are unique opportunities to examine an intriguing facet of human nature. Few things are worse than the experience of being betrayed by a loved one: this is deeply personal, deeply emotional material.
· If a character is going to tell a big lie, it’s probably a good idea to make them sympathetic in other ways.

Think: how many times have you told a casual acquaintance who asked how you were that you were “Fine,” even though the answer was anything but? Does that make you dishonest, a chronic liar? No. Withholding information and even deceiving people can self-protective, a necessity or even a kindness. We all do it. Remember this when your characters start to tell random strangers too much about their current situation.

As an exercise, look at the following lines of dialogue, assume they are untruthful, and see what you can deduce about the speakers:

· “That dress looks fab on you, darling.”
· “It’s all over with my ex—I was just returning some stuff he left at my place.”
· “I never touched her.”
· “I have no idea where Chris is.”
· “I sold the rifle—I’m not hunting anymore.”
· “I’m not very smart. Not as smart as you.”
· “It’s a gift for my sister—can you take it back to the U.S. with you and mail it?”
· “The dog ran away after you left for school today, sweetie.”
· “I will never touch another drink again.”
· “The doctor gave me a clean bill of health.”

Just knowing the above statements aren’t true laces them with conflict, doesn’t it? Try coming up with a few of your own. Look for speeches that are creepy, heartbreaking, or hilarious—hit as many emotional notes as you can find.

Betrayal

What about when the untruth is malicious—when it’s backed up by bad action? As I’ve said, betrayals by their very nature can only occur in relationships characterized by a certain degree of trust. This is true whether a character is a spy selling military secrets, an adulterous spouse, or a corporate embezzler.

In fiction, betrayals and lies tend to get bigger as your story unfolds—the dishonest character’s actions make things worse—and by the time the truth comes to light, the ‘victim’, whoever it is, has a significant chance of being hurt.

Imagine one of the sentences before: “It’s all over with my ex—I was just returning some stuff she left at my place.”

What if the speaker initially said this to his new girlfriend because his ex tracked him down and tried to start things up again? Perhaps the initial ‘fib’ was merely an attempt to avoid worrying the new girlfriend. Not necessarily a terrible crime, am I right? But then the ex starts calling, and he doesn’t want to admit he was dishonest. Now, in an all-too-human burst of panic, our speaker tells his new love something wildly untrue. “My ex has been diagnosed with leukemia,” he says. Suddenly things are very sticky, and can spiral out of control in a number of ways.

And, remember, sooner or later the truth will come to light, and then there will be consequences for everyone involved.

This brings us, finally, to. . .

Reconciliation

Not all betrayals are forgivable, and not all characters are capable of forgiveness. Scenes where your characters do let go of this type of pain can be tough to write. How do you say “I forgive you,” without falling into cliché?

One strategy is to look at what else there is in the relationship you’re exploring—the common ground that makes forgiveness possible and worthwhile, the past history. Often a reconciliation scene is less explicitly a case of Character A saying “Forgive me,” and Character B replying “Okay!” and more a case of a gentle, careful reaching out into one of those areas of commonality. This doesn’t mean things go back to the precise way they were before the betrayal occurred. Betrayal inevitably changes things—the trust is damaged, and the rules of the relationship will to reflect that.

Since fiction is, after all, about character change, this is fertile ground, well worth exploring.

So far, I’ve talked about engaging our protagonists in conflict not only with obvious bad guys, but with their loved ones. I’ve talked about how the people in a given character’s life can, even with good intentions, mislead and betray. Finally, because I’m still focusing on essentially positive relationships, I’ve talked about the potential for forgiveneness and reconciliation. Now, there’s one more thing you may want to consider . . .

Love, Intimacy and Sex

Writing about sex can be daunting, so take a breath and remind yourself that everything I am saying about friendship—its joys, its power to support and nourish a protagonist and its potential for conflict—goes for intimate relationships too.

Think about falling in love. Consider what happened, how the feelings developed, what you felt and what, if anything, went wrong. Most people may find that their love interests and sex partners are the people they trust most, and are most vulnerable to.

A huge proportion of Western literature traces the love relationships of thousands of couples, both conventional and unconventional. When you try your hand at showing people in love or on their way to it, remember, once again, to look for the details that make them and their romance unique.

Sex Scenes

What if it’s time to get your characters into the bedroom (or the supply closet? Or the Macy’s parade?)

Some writers revel in creating smut. Others are embarrassed. Most fall somewhere in between. Writing honest, unabashed sex scenes can take courage. What if your grandmother reads them, after all?

Assuming, though, that the threat of Grandma doesn’t stop you, here are a few important things to remember:

1) Sex scenes are about atmosphere, not which body parts end up where. Technical writing (“He inserted Tab A into Slot B”) is, generally speaking, something to be avoided. Creating an aura of sexual action, where readers can imagine what’s happening is more important than the blow by blow.

2) Sex scenes are about revealing character traits, developing relationships, and furthering conflict.

3) Sex doesn’t begin or end with intercourse.

Okay, enough of this chatter about good guys. What about villainy?

What I’m hoping you’ll remember as you sit down to write is that your protagonist’s allies come from somewhere. They are family, friends, compatriots and lovers. These are the threads from which your whole story is spun, so consider their color and texture carefully. A main character’s parents, siblings, spouses, ex-spouses, bosses, their sons and daughters, teachers, fellow-sufferers, doctors, grocers, landlords, classmates, slaves, confessors–and even their media heroes, are all potential sources of inspiration, nurturance, support and well-intentioned conflict.

Now, remember this too: your story’s antagonist or ‘bad guy,’ if it has such a thing, comes from the same pool. A rapist need not be merely an unnamed shadow-figure: he can be a teacher. A co-worker can set out to have your main character fired; an officer on the other side of the battlefield can take it into their head to maliciously shell your character’s foxhole. As you move from considering a character’s mostly-positive relationships to thinking about deliberate bad behaviour, consider the possibilities for complexity in these relationships too. The individuals involved aren’t just pieces of your plot. They are still human and should have comprehensible motives. What makes them a baddie is that their intentions are actively harmful.

Which brings us, conveniently and at last, from sex to violence!

One of the ironies of Western culture is that many of us are quite uncomfortable when writing about love, lust and sex. . . but we’re only too happy to dive into a war scene or a barroom brawl.

Most of us are fortunate enough to live in less violent worlds than we write in. Fiction is full of murder, fighting, and carnage because we fear these things, and we want to experience them in a safe, controlled fashion. Part of us likes to believe that practicing violence in this manner can prepare us for the reality. It can’t.

Isn’t it odd, then, that it can entertain?

Like it or not, fighting is entertaining. Hannibal Lecter is, to many, a cool character. Film genres like anime make terrible acts look bloodless, even beautiful. To write about violence in an entertaining fashion is to pretend that we can shake it off—that police can get into gunfights and sleep soundly at night after slaughtering nameless bad guys.

This is perfectly okay. It’s escapism, it’s part of our culture, and there’s no sense in pretending it’s not fun. But what if you want to say something true about violence? The answer lies earlier in this essay: you make its participants real to the reader.

Before we delve too deeply into the mechanics of violence, I want to revisit two points I mentioned with regard to sex scenes:

1) It’s not about which body parts end up where.

2) Intimate scenes are about revealing character traits, developing relationships, and furthering conflict.

The above statements are equally true whether your characters are rolling around on a beach in the throes of passion or if they are trying to drown each other.

Imagine a world where all the fight scenes were a literal description of the action:

Smith hit Jones, breaking his nose.
“Ow,” Jones said. He stabbed Smith in the chest with a barbecue fork.
Smith fell, clawing in his jacket for his gun.

Even if the above were more stylishly written, it would be pretty dull, wouldn’t it? Remember this about fictional violence—be it a knock-down brawl, a hair-pulling fight between five year olds, or even a vicious, relationship-ending father-son argument—people in conflict are emotional. Most of us live fairly pleasant, violence-free lives (I hope!) and it takes a great deal to get us to lash out physically. Yes, in fiction violent situations crop up more frequently than they do in the real world. And yes, some characters do round out their working day with a swordfight. This is no excuse to have them be emotionally distanced from the experience of harming another being—or being harmed by them.

Foreplay, Intercourse, Pillow-talk and Pregnancy

No, we haven’t slipped back into the smutty gutter—but remember that third point? Violence, like sex, rarely begins and ends with the act itself. There’s lead-up to the actual event; afterward, there’s character reaction to deal with. Depending on the degree of realism in your work, there may also be long-term fallout in the form of trauma.

Trauma, naturally, is yet another of those things that comes with a set of conventions and clichés. You’ve all seen stories that open with someone screaming themselves awake from a nightmare. You’ve all seen fictional victims of violence shrinking from the touch of others, having flashbacks, resisting therapy and then opening themselves up to that process. These things do happen, of course, but the range of human behavior is wider than the few possibilities I’ve mentioned. As with anything else, finding a more unique and yet believable response will make your work stand out.

Violence makes for exciting, suspenseful reading, and I invite you to try writing scenes that bring your characters into physical conflict. But what if that just doesn’t fit with your story? What if you’re writing about two people who are vying for a promotion at work, a parent attempting to bond with a difficult child, a person coming to grips with loss, or their gender identity, or even just something unexpected?

In a sense, the answer is the same either way. Whether you’re writing about an interpersonal struggle between two passive-aggressive relatives or using words to stage a knife fight, remember: sex, violence and conflict are all about the same thing—power. Who’s winning, and who’s losing? Who’s in control and how are the other parties responding? Does one character have something the other wants? These are the underlying dynamics of good scenebuilding—use them well.

Fisticuffs can be great, in other words, but not all stories need them. What they do need—what this entire lecture is about–is passion, purpose, and characters who work their way into your readers’ hearts.