Category Archives: Writing

The 7 Deadly Sins of Writing

1. Not Explaining How Things Work

One of my favourite books when I was a preteen was Lois Lowry’s “The Giver.” It’s an excellent example of what happens when authors don’t explain how their worlds work.

The idea of growing up in a society that had no suffering, premature death, disease, or pain of any kind mesmerized me. I spent hours fantasizing about what it would have been like to live there, especially early on before I realized what price the characters had to pay for that slice of paradise.

There was one part of the plot that drove me up the wall, though. Jonas, the main character, explained in an early chapter that  100 babies were born every year in his community. All of those babies were placed with adoptive parents, no single parent families were allowed, and no family was ever given more than one son and one daughter to raise.

The women who were chosen to give birth for the colony only needed to give birth three times in their entire life. Once they completed those pregnancies, they spent the rest of their lives as single adults. They never were allowed to marry or have/raise other children.

So out of Jonas’ 50 female classmates, about 17 of them would need to be classified as birth mothers in order to produce the next generation. This means that 17 of his male classmates would never be assigned a spouse. If you continue to do the math, each generation of this society would be smaller than the rest because of the restricted family sizes and the large numbers of people who were never assigned a life partner.

This problem bothered me for years. I couldn’t figure out why Ms. Lowry wouldn’t have added a throw-away comment about some women giving birth more than three times and/or some families being assigned more than two children. If my math is correct, both of those things would need to occur in order to keep their numbers steady from one generation to the next. Small details like that would have gone a long way in explaining why Jonas’ society had survived for so long.

2. Forcing Endings That Don’t Fit

Lately I’ve read several different books that pushed two characters who barely even liked each other into falling in love. No, I do not have a problem with romantic plots or subplots in general. There is definitely a time and a place for them, but not every story needs to end with two people falling in love and pledging to be together forever.

Some characters are better off as friends. Other characters might make a great couple in the future once they’ve gotten to know each other or have solved at least some of the problems that are currently preventing them from being a good partner to anyone.

I have also noticed this happening a lot when it comes to happy endings. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen a happy ending tacked onto a movie or TV show when there was absolutely nothing in the beginning or middle of the storyline to indicate that anyone would be lucky enough to end up that way.

Do I have a problem with characters living happily ever after? Of course not! I love it when a plot unfolds in such a way that every single character in it gets everything they need and want in it. With that being said, not every tale is meant to turn out that way.

If the ending doesn’t fit, don’t force it.

3. Telling Instead of Showing

Earlier this year I began reading a story whose blurb sounded amazing. I was excited to begin it and sure that I was going to love every single second of it.

By the end of the first page, I knew I was wrong about that. It was a real struggle to finish it, too, because of how much time the author spent telling the audience what was happening instead of showing it to us. When I closed my eyes, I couldn’t visualize anything that had happened in the scene I’d just read.

None of the characters’ adventures caught my imagination in any way because everything from what they ate for dinner to the battles they fought were described so vaguely that they almost might have been the same thing.

There was nothing to pull me into that universe, and so it was quickly forgotten.

4. Chasing Trends

Some people say you are what you eat. That may be true, but I also say that you are what you read.

The first time a teenage girl in a supernatural universe fell in love with a 200-year-old vampire who turned out to be a pretty decent person despite his sunlight allergy and intense cravings for human blood, it was fascinating. The twentieth time it happened, I didn’t even bother to finish reading the description on the back cover before I put it back on the shelf.

This isn’t to say that I’m totally against the idea of a normal person falling in love with a vampire. If I ever stumble across an author who has come up with a fresh twist on this idea, I will read his or her work with joy.

In general, though, it’s best to follow your characters instead. Maybe someday someone will write about a teenage girl who meets a vampire she finds vaguely attractive, gets extremely weirded out by the fact that he’s several centuries older than her, moves far away to attend college, and then eventually meets back up with him for a cup of coffee after she’s graduated and come back home to take over the family business.

5. Not Researching Your Subject Matter

No, this advice isn’t only for people who are writing nonfiction or historical fiction. After listening to one of my writer friends talk about this on Twitter lately, I’ve come to agree with her stance on this issue: everything that can be researched should be researched!

For example, if you’re writing about a character who has a  peanut allergy and you don’t already have personal experience that kind of medical condition, go research why allergies occur, how Epi-Pens work, and what could happen to someone who starts wheezing after they eat something that was accidentally contaminated with peanut oil and then realizes that they can’t find their Epi-Pen anywhere.

One of the things that will make me close a book and stop reading immediately is if the author gets something very wrong about a topic I know a lot about. I don’t expect perfection in every single detail, but it sure is nice when writers at least attempt to get the facts straight.

6. Only Reading Books in Your Genre

Last year I wrote an entire blog post about why everyone should at least occasionally read books that aren’t from their favourite genres.

If anything, I believe this even more firmly now than I did back then. There is nothing wrong with loving one or two genres, but I’ve seen the difference between authors who only read books that are from the genre they write in and authors who have branched out into other types of storytelling.

Every genre has areas it excels in and other areas that it usually handles poorly or even ignores altogether. It is only by moving from one genre to the next that you will begin to see what your favourite genre is and isn’t good at discussing.

7. Even Worse, Not Reading Books at All

I’ve met a few writers who have stopped reading anything that isn’t directly related to whatever project they’re currently working on.

While I completely understand being crunched for time, reading well-written fiction is almost as important as attempting to write it yourself. One of the best ways to learn how to write well is to read essays, stories, or books from authors who have spent years perfecting their craft.

They say you are what you eat. I say that you are also what you read, for better or for worse.

How about you? What do you think are seven deadly sins of writing? Come tell me about it on Twitter.

What Do Authors Owe Their Readers?

Lately I’ve been participating in an online discussion about a famous series that started off beautifully and ended in a way that irritated many of its longterm fans.

(No, I won’t be mentioning it by name here today. If you’re insatiably curious about this, send me a private message on Twitter and we’ll talk about it there).

The first few books in this series foreshadowed some fabulous plot twists that either never happened or were far easier to solve than anyone would have guessed based on how much time the characters spent worrying about them earlier on.

 

Several questions have popped into my mind over the years as I’ve listened to fans in this community debate what the ending means, whether or not it was satisfying, and why the author chose to tie everything up the way that they did.

My answers to them have evolved over time, but this is how I’d answer them right now.

Who decides what a story means?

We all do. In no way am I downplaying the importance of understanding what an author meant to say. That would be quite the silly thing for this writer to do!

With that being said, I also believe that an audience plays a key role in understanding any story. How they interpret certain scenes might not necessarily be how the creator thought about them when he or she was in the middle of the writing process.

This is a good thing. Sometimes I’ll write a story that I honestly don’t fully understand. Surprisingly, the writing process can be fickle like that, so I really appreciate it when readers come along with their own interpretations of what certain scenes could have meant.

If you mention a gun in the first scene, must it be fired later on?

Yes.

The difference between a gun in real-life and a gun in a story is that the latter was created for a specific purpose. If the writer was never intending for anyone to use it, why on earth would you add it to the scene? Everything that’s mentioned in a piece of fiction should serve a purpose. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t belong there.

What about red herrings, you might ask? While I’m not a big fan of them in general, distracting the audience from what’s really going on does give them meaning.

Writing about something that you know is a distraction from the beginning is nothing at all like writing about something that doesn’t have any reason for being there in the first place. Red herrings generally leave small clues for the audience about their true reason for existing.

A gun that isn’t fired doesn’t do anything like this. It pops into existence for no reason at all, and it never bothers to correct that no matter how long the plot meanders forward.

As you probably already guessed, this is one of my biggest pet peeves. I am completely comfortable being surprised by how something ends. I am not at all okay with having the wool pulled over my eyes.

What do readers own their favourite authors?

An open mind.

I am still a fan of the series I alluded to at the beginning of this post. I’ve been reading the first few books in it over and over again since I was 12 years old, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

With that being said, I will always be disappointed by how it ended. There were so many missed opportunities in the last book to tie up all kinds of loose threads.

Now we come to the heart of the matter.

What do authors owe their readers?

Consistency.

I’ve read plenty of other stories whose endings disagreed with me for any number of reasons.The difference between those stories and the series I discussed today is that the former are consistent.

If they mention a gun in the first scene, it is fired at some point. What happens to the bullet varies from one storyline to the next, but it does leave the chamber of the gun. It never sits there unused forever.

To give another example, the main character might die in the last scene of a tale. If they do, though, there will be plenty of foreshadowing along the way to prepare you for it.

Speaking of foreshadowing, some authors use it heavily while others barely touch it at all. I can happily adjust to either technique as long as the narrator delivers on everything they hinted at early one.

All I want is for what’s hinted at in the beginning to be properly carried out by the end. Don’t leave me hanging, and I’ll be a happy reader.

10 Pictures That Are Begging to be Turned into Stories

I come across the most beautiful, scary, haunting, and fascinating images when I’m searching for stock photos for this blog. It always makes me a little sad when I realize that nothing I’ve written so far fits them in any way.

They’re the kind of images that demand an audience, so today I’m sharing a few of these unusual pictures with you in the hope that you’ll be inspired by them. If anyone uses one of these images as a writing prompt, I’d love to know how you interpreted it! Send me a message about it on Twitter.

 

An Unbroken Doll

The fact that this doll’s face was broken at one point doesn’t surprise me. Toys break all of the time.

Who painstakingly glued her back together, though?

That isn’t the kind of chore that can be finished in a few minutes. It probably took days of carefully sifting through the sharp porcelain pieces of her head to figure out how every piece fit together and what kind of glue works best for this sort of delicate project.

It would take a lot of determination to see this project through to the end. I imagine only someone who had a strong emotional urge to do it would succeed.

 

The Pretty Poison

None of the household poisons I’ve ever seen look anything like this.

The purple liquid sure seems like it would smell nice. I’m imagining a light, floral scent that almost disappears once air hits it. You’d have to be quite close to it to catch a whiff of anything.

That wouldn’t make it any less dangerous, of course. Every apothecarist knows that.

Leg Day

Look closely at the picture above. It may take you a moment to notice the strange twist in it.

My first thought when I saw it was that it was some kind of genetic engineering gone weird. The horses legs look almost human at first glance. Is a horse still a horse if some part of its DNA somehow came from a human?

I’d love to read that book and find out.

Happily Ever After

The bright colours and whimsical scenery in it caught my eye. immediately. They’re exactly what I’d expect to find in a fantasy romance novel.

This is the kind of cover that would make me pick up a book to find out more about its plot. If nothing else, I’d want to know if there was an entire forest of heart-shaped trees for the characters to skip through or if this tree was unique in that way.

Knock, knock!

This is another one of those photographs that seems perfectly ordinary when you first glance at it. I was actually planning to save it for a future post about something cheerful and ordinary like going on vacation until one strange little detail in it popped out at me.

That detail catapulted this post from it’s original purpose into possible story territory. The explanation for it could be completely logical and scientific, but there’s also room for science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, or even horror elements to it if you prefer. Stop reading now if you want to figure out on your own what I noticed.

For anyone who needs or wants a hint about, pay attention to the body language of the woman in the centre of the photograph. How has she positioned herself? Do you notice anything unexpected about it?

The Insincere Smile

The stock photo site that I use most often has dozens of pictures that are similar to this one. The models are always nicely dressed  but have completely insincere expressions on their faces.

There are many explanations for why that might be so. Sometimes I like to come up with some reasons for the fun of it. Were the models worn out from a day of posing? Are they trying to secretly warn their audiences about who or what might be lurking behind the camera? The possibilities are endless, and the sci-fi writer in me prefers the unexplainable ones.

All that Glitters…

What I like the most about this picture is how versatile it is. Off the top of my head, it could be interpreted to be part of the erotic romance, regular romance, science fiction, fantasy, or even the older end of the young adult genre. You could probably even find a way to turn it into a mystery or a thriller if you massaged the possibilities enough.

That ambiguity makes me smile. I like it when stories leave room for more than one genre to flourish in them. When its done correctly, this can be a wonderful way to introduce people to types of storytelling that they might not otherwise be open to trying.

Deep in Thought

I both love and hate seeing gorillas and other apes at the zoo for the same reason: they remind me so much of human beings.

Everything from their mannerisms to their facial expressions can be eerily close to the way that people behave at times. When I look at them, I feel like we are this close to having a conversation about the weather or which kind of fruit is in season now.

While I’m glad that they have a safe place to live, it also feels wrong to cage them up. They feel too intelligent for that fate to me.

The nice thing about this picture is that it could be used for non-fiction just as easily as it could for fiction. You don’t have to invent anything about the intelligence of other primates in order to write about them. We already know that while they might not be exactly like us, they’re also not exactly like other animals either.

When Justice Is Blind

Is it just me, or does that water look uncomfortably cold?

The first thing I thought when I saw this scene was that it looked like a test of some sorts. Is he expected to swim in that chilly water or simply stand in it blindfolded for a predetermined amount of time?

The One Who’s Watching You

Obviously I had to save the best picture for last today. This is the creepiest thing I’ve stumbled across in a long time.

Not seeing a character’s face always scares me.

The fact that we can see his or her hands doesn’t help the situation, though. Their nails look sharp and rough. Their skin looks leathery, and I’m not entirely sure it would still be warm to the touch if they brushed against you.

What does he or she want?

I’m afraid to ask, but I’m even more afraid to turn away before they do.

Why It’s Okay to Eavesdrop for Creative Purposes

 I have a confession to make today. Listening in on other people’s conversations is one of my favourite things to do, and I don’t think any artistic person should feel the least bit guilty about it.

In fact, we should be doing it regularly.

Why is that, you might be wondering? I have several different reasons for feeling this way.

This Isn’t About Spreading or Listening to Gossip. I would be equally interested in overhearing people passionately debate their favourite fishing techniques as I would a happy story about someone they know who just got engaged. If someone really loves a certain topic, their enthusiasm for it can be contagious.

There’s also something fascinating about conversations that aren’t rehearsed or expected to be remembered in any way. I like the little pauses people add to what they say before they share big news and the different sounds they make when they hear something sad, thrilling, troubling, or wonderful.

The way that words slip off of a real person’s tongue isn’t always the same as the way that characters speak. It’s interesting to find these small cracks between the two and try to fill them in the next time I read or write something that didn’t quite hit the mark.

Your Intentions Are Good. On a related note, another big reason why I don’t have a problem with eavesdropping for creative purposes is because artists and writers generally have good intentions when they do it. We listen in on other people’s conversations to find inspiration, not stir up trouble or poke our noses into other people’s business.

There have been times when I suddenly stopped eavesdropping on people because of how personal or sensitive their exchange was becoming. It’s one thing to overhear someone talk about what kind of fruit to pick up at the grocery store and quite another to listen to them plan a funeral or publicly break up with their partner.

These aren’t things that I have any interest in overhearing. They really should have happened in a private place anyway, so I pretend like I never heard them if they accidentally spill out into the public sphere. Someone who was eavesdropping for an unsavoury purpose wouldn’t have this kind of discretion.

Some Moments Were Made for Each Other. Have you ever thought of the perfect comeback minutes, hours, or days after a discussion ended? Time travel isn’t possible, of course, but you can always go back and rewrite how things should or could have gone if that’s something you want to.

There’s also something to be said for snipping moments out of real life that never could have happened next to each other and then figuring out how to lay them down gently on a fresh sheet of paper, tuck them into song lyrics, or flick them onto a clean canvas.  The best things I’ve ever written were a curious mixture of wishful thinking, stolen tidbits of time from true events, and characters I’ve already created that demand to keep that particular idea for their own uses.

Other People’s Stories Are Fodder for the Imagination. I have never used an entire conversation that I’ve heard in anything that I’ve written. The details always get changed, and they usually are altered in such profound ways that no no one would recognize their source.

Most of the time these exchanges make me think of questions that lead me to entirely new places in my mind. For example, I might hear someone mispronounce a fairly common word and wonder why they did that. Is English their second language? Did they used to have a severe stutter when they were a child that now only comes through when they try to say certain sounds? Have they only ever read that word in print and so have no idea that they’re mispronouncing it?

There are so many logical explanations for something like this. If you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, there could be plenty of supernatural or otherworldly explanations to play around with as well. Has this person been possessed by a ghost who lived in a time when that word was pronounced differently? Is she an alien who is desperately trying to blend into human society while she observes how our society functions and decides whether or not to officially make first contact?

I almost never have a clue if my theories are actually correct, but that doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things. They provide a decent jumping off point, and I’m happy to let my imagination wander after that.

Life Would be Dull Without Storytellers. I believe that poets, musicians, writers, painters, and other creative folks fulfill a vital purpose for our species. We take note of those strange, beautiful, difficult, or thought-provoking moments in life that many other people miss and reinterpret them in all kinds of wonderful ways.

Occasionally we even get to preserve those moments so that they can be savoured decades or even centuries after they originally existed. If this isn’t a kind of immortality, I don’t know what else would qualify. There is something almost magical about still having these snapshots of ordinary times that existed long ago and in faraway places.

So eavesdrop away, fellow creative people! There are beautiful moments slipping by every single day. It’s up to us to capture a few of them and make sure they’re not forgotten.

Scifi and Fantasy Rules That Should be Broken

I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy stories for about as long as I’ve known how to read at all. There are so many things I love about these genres, but today I wanted to talk about some of the things that I wish SFF writers would do differently.

1. The Chosen One Must be Young and Uneducated

Why is the chosen one nearly always a teenager or young adult who hasn’t completed – or often even started – their training yet? Why are they the only one who can defeat the wizard, dragon, corrupt government, or werewolf army?

I dream of the day when the chosen one is actually a group of specialized, highly-trained witches who must use their complementary powers at the same exact time to defeat the dragon. Alternatively, maybe the chosen one could be a 70-year-old scientist who has spent the last 40 years studying the virus that has wiped out the last three attempts at permanent human colonies on Europa and who only now is ready to test his vaccine for it on human subjects.

At this point, I’d prefer to watch conflict build up slowly over years than see any more characters jump into the fray before they fully understand what’s going on or have had any training in what they’re about to accomplish.

2. Everyone Gets a Love Triangle

No, I am not against romantic storylines in general. There is definitely a time and place for them, and many stories would be far poorer without them.

With that being said, I’d be happy to never read about another love triangle again. This kind of stuff yanks me out of the plot every time it happens because of how confusing and strange I find it to be.

Please let characters be polyamorous, asexual, or totally uninterested in falling in love until the last zombie has been destroyed and humanity has once again begun to enjoy luxuries like healthy food, deodorant, regular baths, and not running in terror for their lives every day.

I would be thrilled to read about any of these scenarios. What I’d like to avoid, though, is anyone wringing their hands about which love interest to pick when there are far more urgent matter at hand.

For example, how terrible must all of the characters smell after running away from zombies for weeks and eating nothing but stale candy bars and potato chips out of vending machines?( I’m mostly joking here, but I think about practical matters like bad breath and body odour when a character in this sort of story suddenly starts mooning over someone who also probably hasn’t seen a toothbrush or loofah since sometime last month).

There are so many interesting things to say about outsmarting zombies, navigating a spaceship, or figuring out how to placate a fairy after you’ve unintentionally angered her and all of her relatives. These sources of conflict are a thousand times more compelling to me than wondering which love interest the main character will pick when he or she is still trying to figure out how to survive the night or which end of the sword you should be poking the bad guys with.

3. Aliens Are Always Smarter Than Us

There are only a few non-human species on Earth that can be described as intelligent: elephants, dolphins, and certain species of apes come to mind here.

We have no idea what life is really like on other planets or if it exists, but sometimes I wonder what humanity would do if we discovered something that wasn’t a little green man who could learn to speak English.

How would we treat an alien species if it was about as intelligent and willing to communicate with us as is the average cat? What if they were intelligent but it was in a way that wasn’t particularly compatible with human intelligence? Would we still be interested in a species if we couldn’t figure out their language or they couldn’t figure out ours?

These are the kinds of questions I think about every time I watch science fiction movies about humans making contact with new species from other planets.

4. Humans Are the Good Guys

Speaking of aliens, why are humans always the good guys when our species get into conflicts with each other?

Humanity honestly doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to treating new cultures and societies fairly. While I hope that would change if we ever met intelligent and communicative beings from another planet, I think there’s a fairly decent chance that at least some humans would try to take advantage of them for personal or political gain.

No, I’m not saying that eery single human needs to be fighting for the dark side. Wouldn’t it be interesting to read a book or watch a movie about someone who noticed this happening and who tried to warn the aliens before one of our governments passed a law saying it was okay to mistreat visitors from other planets, though? The conflict between your duty to your species and your duty to protect innocent visitors who are going to be horribly abused for potentially many generations to come if you don’t speak out and fight for them right now would keep me glued to my seat.

It would also help the scifi genre return to the kinds of social messages that used to be much more common in it. Science fiction isn’t just about coming up with flashy ideas for new technology or imagining what life could be like in a few hundred years. It can also be about getting people to think critically about the decisions they make in their real life that can help or hurt the most vulnerable members of our society.

5. Nobody Spills the Beans

I shake my head every time a vast conspiracy is revealed that has existed for decades and required thousands or even millions of people to play along with it.

It’s hard enough to get five people to agree on what kind of pizza to order or to keep excited relatives from sharing the news when you tell them that you’re pregnant, have finally finished writing your book, or recently got a promotion!

Secrets only work if they’re kept by a small number of highly motivated people. Even then, it is very easy for one of them to spring a leak with someone they deeply trust.

Unless the character exist in a universe where the Powers That Be purposefully limit the intelligence of most people while they’re still in the womb, these things should either somewhat common knowledge or only known by a handful of characters in the entire universe.

I would love it if more books understood all of these rules. If you have any recommendations for stories that do, let me know on Twitter!

How to Survive a Post-Apocalyptic Storyline

Congratulations! You’ve just been selected to be one of the secondary characters in an upcoming post-apocalyptic novel. If you wish to die nobly in order to spur the main character on at a critical moment in the plot, please disregard the rest of this message. There is always a need for volunteers for this position, and so… Read More

Why Everyone Should Stop Using Pop-Ups

This is a repost from my old blog. I will be back next week with new material.  I don’t normally rant on this blog, but I’ve been having issues with pop-ups lately. Pop-up advertisements are one of the fastest and most efficient ways to drive me away from a site. It doesn’t matter how much I loved… Read More

The Cupboard Mice: A Parable

A family of mice once lived in a drafty old farmhouse. “They’re going to set a trap and we’re all going to die!” the oldest mouse squeaked every time someone forgot the rules: no squeaking, don’t leave droppings on the dishes, and never capture the cat’s attention. No one remembered what a trap was any… Read More