Tag Archives: fiction

Problems in urban paranormal/fantasy fiction writing

It’s all over the place now: self-published urban fantasy/paranormal fiction. Lots of fantasy, too. If it has elves, I think of it as fantasy. If it has vampires, I consider it paranormal. If it is set in our modern day, unless it is set in Cletusville, I consider it urban.

This is the legacy of franchises: Anita Blake, Twilight, True Blood, and going farther back, Shadowrun, Tolkien, and D&D. And it’s fine, unless you hackney the hell out of it. Unfortunately, most people do so.

All right, if you insist on writing it, then do a good job:

Work out your world’s ‘science.’ You can’t ignore that. What is the biology of your elves, your vampires, your dragons? How long do your elves live? Is vampirism biological? Viral? What about lycanthropy? How does your magic work? Yeah, I know, you don’t care about all that crap; you just want to present this beautiful, thrilling, terrifying environment with compelling characters and a gripping storyline. Tough, because if you skip those basics, you will never get your reader to suspend disbelief long enough to buy in. It is not that you need to tell the reader all that stuff. It is that you need to know the ‘reality’ so that cues from it seep into your story as you go.

I have a hot tub. I don’t want to mess with bottles of chemicals, testing strips, and periodic changing of the water. I just want to soak in its soothing, scenic, healing warmth. However, if I don’t do the testing and treatment part, I will contract a rash that requires antibiotics to battle. It is no more feasible for me to duck out on tub maintenance than it is for an SF/fantasy author to just decide the nuts and bolts are too icky and she just wants to write a beautiful, scary story. The reader deserves better than the brain rash she will get from trying to follow a grammatically incontinent story.

Look at what’s been done. Tall, noble elves with sage wisdom and lifespans of centuries? Well, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen those. It may be the ten thousandth. How are your elves more interesting, fresh, new? Same for every non-human race you present, if it is a race concept for which your reader has a frame of reference.

Don’t throw in as many species as you can think of unless you’re prepared to give them all background. Okay, you decided that weredragons are really, really, really cool. How the hell does someone get to be one? If you just allude to them, you will leave your reader hanging, wondering what goes on with those. If you allude to too many, you will leave your reader not caring what goes on with any of them.

Consider lifespan, knowledge, and experience. If you are going to present creatures that are five centuries old, you must have some idea how and where they survived that long. They should have accumulated the knowledge of seven human lifespans. How do their brains cope with all that? Do they now speak forty languages, ten of them dead? Can they hold in their heads the active vocabularies to do that? What happens? Think it through.

Do not be pretentious. Pretense comes when you begin with the assumption that your world has certain qualities, particularly mystical and magical. You cannot merely tell the reader it has those, and be believed; you must show her that it does. Tolkien didn’t write an epic fantasy story by telling us that Aragorn was noble, or that hobbits were quaint and endearing; Tolkien gave us reasons to see them those ways. Not that he did not describe; he did describe. However, he showed more than he told.

How are you going to narrate? Fantasy tends to contain a lot of flashbacks, lookbacks, and so forth. Is the protagonist the memoirist? The only one, or will there be another narrator at some point? How long after the story events was the memoir composed? Here’s the thing: character death. If writing after the fact, the minute you say someone ‘is’ such-and-so, you convey that s/he survives the story. What if there’s a gender reveal? It will take major gymnastics to avoid doing that without pronouns, and a single slip blows the reveal. Consider the person–first, second, third, and tense, present or past. Are you writing in first person? Then you can present only that which your protag sees, feels, knows. On the easier side, your narrative has the freedoms mostly allocated to dialogue; on the harder side, you have to be careful with tense.

That’s another area where one simply cannot just say: “grammar is icky. I just want to write and this is my process.” Then I will say the sentence that has gotten rid of more ‘will you look at my writing’ folks than any other: then your process is wrong, and you should fix it. Most people who seek out freebie writing advice from me do not really want my honest opinion. They want me to approve of what they are doing. Well, if you do not think through the person and tense of your narration, I disapprove of what you’re doing. Here are examples of problem sentences:

I go to the store for some milk and ran into David. While first person narration of an uneducated or poorly spoken protag doesn’t have to be perfect, it needs to be better than this. Even a poorly spoken person would almost never mix tenses quite this way.

So I called up my friend Bertha. Bertha is about six-two and 275. And we now know that Bertha survives the story. Which, if you don’t mind that, fine and dandy. But what about everyone else in the book?

Some of this applies to genres other than urban paranormal/thriller/fantasy, but that’s where I’m seeing the most of it. People can do much better.

The difficulties inherent in ‘semi-autobiographical’ writing work

I’d say that the majority of mss that come my way are semi-autobiographical fiction. I do not think that the authors realize the issues involved. The words ‘based on’ are the first signal. The second signal is when I get an hedgy answer to “is it fiction or non-fiction?”

Why is it such a frequent choice? Some of the following reasons may apply:

  • They want to write their own stories, or something akin to them, but with added fictitious events. Which raises the question: why add fiction, if the real story is interesting enough? The answer is that most of our real lives are more interesting to us, and to our loved ones, than to people who don’t know us (the paying customers).
  • It’s easier to use characters, places, situations and events they know; creating them is harder. Perhaps they were told ‘write what you know,’ and misunderstood what that meant.
  • They have a point they want to make, but do not want to do it in non-fiction, for whatever reason: privacy, liability, etc. That’s probably the most understandable reason, but it might be preferable to present it as non-fiction with some locations and participants changed.

Compare two sentences, and let me know which is easier to support:

  1. Everyone has a story, and if it feels good to write it, s/he should do so.
  2. Everyone’s story is equally marketable and fascinating to the audience, which is everyone.

Put less gently, we have a tremendous species tendency toward believing that our life stories are marketably interesting. And, perhaps, they are–to that small minority who are collectors of life stories. The other 314 million Americans need something beyond ‘but it’s my story.’ Absent that extra something, your audience was just pared down over 99%.

Long as people don’t mind that, they should continue the way they’re doing. But know: the first major storytelling divide is that between fiction and non-fiction. There is no true ‘semi-fiction.’ One asserts that the story is true, or does not.

In fiction, no one is asserting truth. The characters may be modified. The plot can change. Not only can we lie, it’s our job to lie in the most engrossing way possible. The reader accepts this, sets her bullshit detector on ‘plausible under the postulated circumstances,’ and takes a trip to a land of fancy.

In non-fiction, we invent nothing, unless we so specify and have a credible reason. What happened, happened. If we want to use pseudonyms, we indicate that we have done so. If we must reconstruct and approximate dialogue, not being ourselves eidetic, we admit this. We may leave out events as long as the choice does not slant the story away from fact, but we cannot make any up. There are no characters to create, simply participants to describe. The ending is as it occurred. We defy anyone to sue, for we assert that this is how it happened. The reader’s bullshit detector is set on ‘even a whiff will make me doubt every word.’

So what’s the matter? If it’s semi-autobiographical, why can’t we just label it fiction-with-winking? In fact, we must call it fiction. It is fiction. As the umpire said: they ain’t no close calls; they is either this or that. And from an editing standpoint, it’s fiction with a ball and chain attached. As editor, the shackle goes on my leg.

  • What if the events are very personal to the author? S/he may veto changes to the events, even if they make bad fiction, because they may be the reason s/he sat down to write.
  • What if it would make a better story for this character to do something unadmirable? Sorry, that’s his or her daughter: “No way would my daughter do that!” In fact, in fiction, it isn’t his or her daughter. It’s a fictional character in an untrue story, and for good story development, we have to be able to make her do whatever we want.
  • What if the author reaches very personal events where s/he very obviously breaks the fourth wall, and is clearly venting from the soul? How do I tell the author that this is unsuitable narrative and needs to be removed? “But I hurt BAD! I need to say this!” What will happen when I advise the author that this is amateurish and a turnoff, and that we are forgetting the ‘fiction’ part?
  • How am I going to tell the author anything about his or her protag? If adverse, that will come as a personal insult. It shouldn’t, in fiction; it’s okay to size up any character any way we want. But with semi-autobiographical, the little boundaries stymie such frank editorial assessments.
  • If we need the story spiced up, how’s an editor supposed to tell that to the semi-autobiographer? “‘Your’ life isn’t that exciting. Could we arrange for ‘you’ to empty a pistol into ‘someone?'” What kind of response will that likely elicit?

It is not that semi-autobiographical storytelling is an automatic nyet. It is not that it cannot be good. It is not that I don’t ever want to see or read or edit any again. I understand the motivations.

I also understand that I can’t talk anyone out of it. You’ve already written it, or already plan to write it. Thus, please take it with a smile and simple realism when I acknowledge that you will therefore ignore any suggestion from me that you change this course. If a person wants to write something, and has his or her mind made up about what it will be, the person will tune out everything but encouragement and approval. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I simply mention that I anticipate it, based upon experience, and that this is why I get so much semi-autobiographical fiction, and why my view of it begins with a certain skepticism about the prospects.

On to the helpful part. If a non-fiction presentation is unpalatable to you, and you want to write semi-autobiographical fiction anyway, but without the blinders that say “everyone wants to pay to read everyone’s story and that includes mine,” what ought you to do?

  • Classify it as fiction, without qualifiers, and resolve that no character or event is more sacred than the goal of quality storytelling.
  • Depersonalize the ‘you’ in the story, and ‘your’ loved ones, enough that we can speak of them as professionals, editor and author, without you taking offense. If I can tell you that your protagonist needs serious counseling, or belongs behind bars, and that won’t hurt your feelings, you have succeeded.
  • Do as much outright character invention as you can. This is fiction, so you may do this, and are encouraged to do it well. ‘Write what you know’ refers to regions, professions, hobbies, languages, and other esoterica where you can ring authentic without effort. It doesn’t mean to limit yourself to people whose actions you can predict because you know them. But show the reader that you can invent compelling characters, and show the editor that we may alter them if we can think of a better way.

Do those things, conscientiously, and you maximize our ability to turn your brainchild into something you can be proud to have authored.

New release: Chad Stinson Goes for a Walk, by Shawn Inmon

This short story is now available on Amazon. I was substantive editor.

Shawn brings me story ideas early in the process, which I wish more of my clients would do. I am very frank with him. Some of his ideas, no likey, and I tell him so in a style I call tactful bluntness. If he still wants to write it, of course, I stand ready to help him as best I can. For some reason, he seems to be surprised when I like an idea very much, which is not justified because he has a lot of good ideas, and I tell him so.

This was one of the good ones, and after the first read, I told him as much. Shawn’s horror/supernatural concepts are maturing, and his characters grow more original with his advancement as a writer. The best thing about Chad Stinson, in my view, is the witty mix of social comment and growing macabreness (macabrosity?).

Any author who can pull you gradually into something freaky, while making you laugh at society, accomplishes in two different directions. A great, quick read with broad appeal.

The fiction writing advice most people are too tactful to give you

If you always dreamed of writing fiction, okay. Great, I like fiction.

Then do not do some things, and do other things. I feel like going with the don’ts first.

Please, DO NOT:

–Keep tweaking it forever. At some point, your book needs to be done. It’s done when it’s ready for copy editing, then proofreading, then typesetting, then publication. If you get back the edited and proofread ms, and then go back to work on it, you undid its doneness. Tweak it for decades if you wish, but just don’t ever call it done until you can think of nothing more to do yourself that will improve it.

–Show people your work as you write it. “Because I just want to see if I’m on the right track.” No, you should not. I believe that you should create, and keep it to yourself, and start showing it around when you’re done. I believe that serializing the chapters to your friends will wear them down, whereupon they will eye-glaze and begin to avoid you.

–Worry too much about your grammar and punctuation problems as you create. Just know that you have them, that a competent editor will address them and teach you what you did wrong, and that you’ll improve. They are the least of your worries, because a great story told awkwardly can be fixed, while an insipid story told eloquently is just well-written insipidity.

–Mistake your self-editing for what a professional editor would do, because it is not. Of course you will modify, edit, change, fix, rip out, add to your own work. Excellent; improve it all you can. But understand that it’s different than what I, or someone like me, will do.

–Ask people like me for advice, then ignore it. The reason I’ve come to dislike the phrase “I want to pick your brain” is not because I’m unwilling to help. It’s because, quite often, the person asking plans to heed only those reactions that confirm his or her pre-existing notions and plans. You could get that from your personal cheerleaders. Pretty much all writers have them, and they serve valuable purposes, one of which is to tell you that all your ideas and plans and adverbs are excellent.

Seriously. Have a heart. If you are just looking for confirmation, and will ignore anything else, why go to an objective source? Just ask your personal cheerleaders, like your mom and your spouse and so on, who are guaranteed to endorse everything you need them to. “But that won’t mean anything!” Of course it won’t. But if it’s really all you seek, go where you will find it, without self-deception.

–Get needy. A needy author is irritating to those close to him or her. A needy author needs praise. He or she asks for critique and claims to want honesty, but deep down, wants only honest praise. People run like hell from needy authors, so this is bad for you. It’s one thing for me; I get paid to deal with writers’ emotions, at least to some degree, including neediness. (I mostly ignore it.) People who do not get paid to put up with neediness should not have to: friends, co-workers, family, corporations.

–Use your personal cheerleaders as your ‘first readers.’ Anyone who would never say to you “I’m sorry, I can’t even get through this; it’s terrible” is not objective enough to be classified as a first reader. Sure, your first readers mainly like your work, but if they’d never criticize a thing you did, they are no help to you, because their praise means nothing. My wife can be a first reader for me, because she is willing to say things like: “This makes no damn sense at all.” “I don’t get it. How was this Höss guy different from Hess?” She’s not a personal cheerleader. She likes my good writing, and doesn’t like my bad writing. She is the one who will intercept my worst tendencies.

–Use the term ‘beta readers.’ Beta is a term that applies to programming and electronics. To apply it to literature is to fart in church (or in a dignified museum of natural history, if you revere that instead). They are early readers, or first readers.

–Start out with something semi-autobiographical, a common shortcut. I see a great deal of this; it may account for over half the first-time fiction I see. It poses a number of problems:

  • We all think our lives have been very interesting. In reality, your life is mostly interesting and exciting to you and your mother. That’s one sale. You will need rather more. Okay, your spouse. Still only one sale, since  your spouse gets to read it on your computer.
  • Your editor will view your work as fiction, but you may reject worthwhile changes because your knowledge of the real persons will conflict. “No. I–I mean, he–would never say that.” The first time your editor refers to your protag as if he were just another character, it will likely impact you. And when your editor points out that what you have the main character doing is idiotic, you may take it personally.
  • You could find that you are too sensitive and defensive about the content, especially if the semi-autobiography covers traumatic events in your life. You may give them words that don’t make a good story. “But I have a right to say that! Those are my feelings! She hurt me bad! That’s why I wrote this! Damn it, I get the final say and I say it stays!” You’re too close to it. Negative reviews might sting you more than they should. You may tend to take any form of rejection too personally–as a rejection/invalidation of your personal story, rather than a fictional tale. That’s tough, because rejection is going to be part of the experience, and reviewers just don’t give a shit.
  • It isn’t as creative as original fiction. When you write semi-autobiographical fiction, you still haven’t really conceived a story. You’ve only lifted a real one and spiced it up. What if it succeeds, and you then have to come up with something new? You will not have proven to your own satisfaction that you can.

–Let that discourage you from incorporating aspects of life you know. It’s okay to write about a fictional molested child and draw upon your own experience of molestation, for example. Just give yourself some distance from the child: gender, background, personality, whatever, so that if someone criticizes the character, it’s not an invalidation of your personal experience. It’s fine to write your autobiography, even, though this is advice on fiction writing, thus only selectively germane.

–Accept Oxford’s lamentable ruling that ‘literally’ can now mean ‘very.’ No. No. No. We needed that word, one that helped us separate exaggeration from reality, and Oxford has surrendered to barbarism. In my eyes, the institution has forfeited its moral authority over the English language, used its prestige for evil. I need to retrain myself to refer to ‘the comma formerly known as Oxford.’


However, please DO:

–Read Stephen King’s On Writing. I am a non-fan of King’s fiction. In fact, I can’t get through a page and a half of it. Doesn’t matter. His level of success dictates that anything he has to say about the craft of fiction deserves attention and consideration. If you’re writing fiction and have not read this, now’s the time. If you read the whole thing, sniff “Sorry, that’s just not my creative process,” and disregard it all, never ask me for free advice on writing again, because I tried and you blew me off, which means my guidance can not benefit you.

–Answer this self-honestly: is it a vanity book or a commercial book? Unless you’re willing to develop a getting-published plan beyond ‘luck out with agents and New York,’ and a marketing plan beyond ‘wait for my genius to be discovered,’ it’s a vanity book. Just accept that and give yourself permission for it, if it’s the truth. Of course marketing is icky. So is diapering. Just think of marketing your work as changing your baby’s diapers, and that if you refuse to market your work, you leave it laying there in a soiled condition. Also, the soiling won’t stop just because you decide not to market it. It’ll just get deeper until you change the diaper or stop feeding the baby.

–Check out a writers’ group or two. It’s a great way to learn how not to handle yourself (that is not a typo), and you might even find one that you like.

Invest time and energy in grasping how the opposite sex tends to think, feel, and approach life. There are those who insist that gender identity is an artificial construct, a set of chains supplied by a small-minded society. While they might be right, in the meantime, you have readers who are of both genders, are comfortable with that identity, and know when characters don’t ring true.

I do not think this is more difficult for either gender, because it is my opinion that most people don’t exert an honest, compassionate effort to understand how and why the other side thinks. They may just fall back on stereotypes, comfortable perceptions with bases in reality but which cannot safely be assumed. If you’re a man, your female characters will not be credible until you learn to see the world through feminine eyes. If you’re a woman, you’ll have the same issue with male characters until you remedy it. There is no expectation that you change your own world view, but you will create and storytell better characters when you can extend yourself far enough to perceive opposite-sex actions as reasonable and rational given the acting character’s perspective.

–Read some writers’ message boards. They’ll show you all the self-assured, egotistical, bon mot-dropping pretension I hope you’ll choose to avoid. You might even meet some down-to-earth fellow travelers who are more interested in writing than in showing off wit, or talking about how cool it would be to write.

–Decide whether your approach will be plotted or situational, and go with it. In general, fiction is either planned out (Dean Koontz, I am convinced, uses a bracketing system like the Final Four) or flows like a good D&D game, with the story unfolding based upon how the characters would behave (King’s method). Either can work well, so it’s a matter of what best flows your creative process while avoiding the tar pit of contrivance.

–Write something daily. If your day sucked and you cannot bear to write, just do one sentence that introduces a misfortune for a character, then call it a day. Break her nail. Spill his coffee. Have him almost throw up while brushing his teeth, like I do each and every morning. Take it out on your imaginary people. If you cannot even manage that, write “Today sucked and I cannot bear to write.” Tomorrow, you can delete it and write something more pertinent. Thus, there is no excuse for not writing at least one sentence. Today, one day after drafting this, I had a day of infuriated non-writing frustration. I nearly went to this very spot and took my own advice. 90% of the time, when I sit down to do that, I come up with something more worthwhile.

–Your research. If you are putting fiction into a historical backdrop–what we might call Michenering–great, but research it well enough to give your milieu the ring of reality. Going to tell the story of a Roman legionary in Caesar’s army as it invested Vercingetorix at Alesia? (Someone do it. I want to read that.) Know the full story of the campaign and battle, the various Gallic tribes opposing Caesar, how legions were organized, how they camped, how legionaries were equipped, what sorts of men actually comprised Roman legions of the period, and how battle unfolded in the era. If you know all this, you will get the details right, and your writing will feel informed and authentic. (And I will buy that book.) “No way! I don’t want to read about all that! I just wanted to write about some Romans!” Then don’t. Not if you aren’t willing to do a little work. Go back and write what you do know.

–Be cheerful, unless your entire personality and motif involve Poeish, dystopian gloom. Laugh at yourself a little without cruel mockery. You ripped out a part that introduced a character, then realized later that you did this, orphaning later references? Laugh at how that would have looked to the reader, fix it, and move on. You wrote something that could have been a Damnyouautocorrect moment? Let yourself laugh. Take the process seriously, but not without light moments. It’s writing a story, not planning a lethal injection or having an intervention for a meth addict. Work out your humor muscles. “A mandrill of below average literacy would reject that sentence.” “That joke would silence a pack of hyenas.” “If I publish that paragraph, a reviewer will think I wrote the ms in old crayolas.” “Archaic construction much? I can see the review now: ‘Must surely have read better in the original Sumerian cuneiform.'”

–Overcome bad habits. Too many adverbs, too many ellipses, too many em dashes, too many italic emphases, too many exclamation points, too much tell and not enough show, all the new writer addictions. This is a work in progress, so get started. If all those are your style, then your style has room for improvement. Doing it wrong doesn’t make you a gutsy avant-garde rebel; it makes readers put down your book.

–Read the infamous Village Voice blog entry by Josh Olson titled ‘I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script.’ This is a concentrated summary of what first-time writers need to understand goes on in many literary professionals’ minds. It will help you understand why your author friend doesn’t want to read your ms. She can’t win; from the moment you bring it up, all her choices are unpleasant, and further infuriating her, she knows that she will come off as the ogre in a situation she did not instigate. It’s somewhat different than asking your friend the plumber to come over and look at your toilet tank on the weekend, because you aren’t asking the plumber to evaluate your months of work and perhaps tell you it’s a mess. Also, you will probably make the plumber lasagna or cookies or something, whereas you won’t do that (or anything else nice) for the literary professional. And if she does it and gives you helpful feedback, she opens herself to the possibility that you might rewrite it and expect her to look at it again. And again. It’s not as bad as asking her to read your child’s work and critique it–the ultimate lose/lose–but it’s close.

In case you were wondering, no, that article is not a neat summary of what goes on in my mind every time I’m asked. For one thing, I don’t read or edit screenplays. For another, I’m nicer (and it works to my detriment). But have I ever, at one time or another, had most of the thoughts he describes? Yeah. Honestly, I have. I think the worst time was when I went to interview to volunteer at my local library, and the guy made clear early on that the library had no use for me unless I wanted to baby-sit. But it wasn’t pointless for him, because his reason for inviting me in was so he could pitch me his autobiography. (“But it’ll be a really interesting story!” “Okay. Where’s your nonfiction book proposal?” “I don’t have one, but it’ll be a really interesting story!” “When you come up with one, let me know.” “Yeah, but it’ll be a really interesting story!”) Of course, his vision was that I should ghost it for a share of royalties. He saw absolutely nothing strange about what he’d done, nothing impositional. He heard the word ‘writer’ and his brain cramped up.

There are, of course, fictional forms to which some of this guidance may not apply. That’s okay. You decide.

And if this blog entry makes me sound like Sauron, please consider that I devoted three hours of my life to writing and finishing a bit of pro bono work meant mostly to help people I’ll never meet.