Reply All: that venomous email ability that you must use in some settings, but absolutely shouldn’t use in others. It also seems that several people always use Reply All, no matter the context.
I have been in several email chains for the anthologies in which my shorts have appeared, and there’s usually at least one chain in which someone loses their minds and does an ill-advisable Reply All. It’s bound to happen when there’s 10+ people per email and several emails out there. However, it’s also an enlightening experience; many people don’t view publishing the way I do. Without someone screwing up, I might never have found the following out.
The Power of BCC
Blind Carbon Copy is amazing.
Shooting out an email to a large number of people, but don’t want those people to annoy each other with Reply Alls? Send it BCC. That way when people inevitably do click reply all, it just goes back to you and perhaps one or two organizers.
The other big time to use BCC is if you don’t have permission to blast another person’s email address out there in the ether. As someone whose real name is very private, I made a “writing email” so that I show up as H.R.R. Gorman no matter what I do. However, if I used my personal email to sign up for something, I wouldn’t want you weirdos finding out the legal name.
Lastly, BCC will prevent embarrassing hiccoughs or instances where someone explodes. Publishers and other authors are trying their best, but sometimes we just fail or disappoint other people. If someone’s trying to be malicious, BCC will protect the innocent sensibilities of those who don’t need to see that.
Anthology Publishers and Editors Have Limited Time
When one publishes in an anthology, usually the publishers do editing – sometimes all of it if editing is their thing. Sometimes they send it off to a professional editor. Either way, you can be certain someone is looking over your work and polishing it up.
Reply All has taught me that many people don’t care about this until it’s too late, or they’ll get back a couple weeks/months late and say “it’s ok.” No matter how hard editors and publishers (and you!) work, books are large and it’s easy for small things to get by us all. It’s good to do your agreed part and take a look at everything. Do your work on time; other people could have used that money the publishers paid you, even if it’s a small amount. You don’t want the black stain of being “unresponsive” or having a typo in your story!
Publishers BOUGHT Your Story – Let Them Have It
You also know there’s two main types of editing: copyediting, which includes proofreading and fixing for grammar or simple language/structure errors, and content editing, which includes changes to story elements. A lot of times I’ve seen submission places online say they will no longer accept short stories that will need content editing because it “takes too much time” or requires changes to the story.
My friends, Reply All taught me what “too much time” means. The reason these people will no longer accept good ideas is probably due to people being overly protective about it and fighting. If you agree to the editing process and sign the contract, abide by the contract. The publisher wants to publish, and holding them back helps neither of you. No story is worth blowing up over.
If you send out a story and an editor wants you to make edits you don’t like, certainly say you don’t like them, but never, never Reply All saying so. Think about how you sold your story, and now it’s up to them to get what they wanted to purchase from you. If the edits make it such that you wouldn’t want it going out into the world, read your contract and see what you agreed to do. Explain what you liked about your story and think the edits took away from it, then suggest a path forward. Construct with your editor, not against them.
What about you?
Have you been on any interesting Reply All chains? Have you learned anything when in anthologies or working with other authors/editors? Let me know in the comments!
Religion is extremely important on a personal level to many people, and it affects everyone indirectly if not directly. Conflicts over differing opinions on the essential qualities of deity, creation, and human society as it relates to mystical importance abound in the real world.
Fantasy worlds can be equally convoluted. Even a fantasy world in which everyone is atheist or agnostic is still a world with a designed religion, but it can be elevated to a world with designed intent.
5. Know What Beliefs Real Religions Espouse
People can be led to believe in almost anything (just research QAnon), so it doesn’t really matter how mad you make the premise of your religion. What does matter, however, is how your religion makes adherents feel. How does it encourage your characters to act?
Successful religions have all encourages some form of morality and altruism tied into their beliefs. Do good things for the poor, don’t steal things, and respect your elders are common traits. At its core, a fantasy religion should include elements of good. Why?
Well, I’m glad you asked. See, remember that horrible set of books I read last month? Remember The Tombs of Atuan? In it, the gods only take, harm, and maim, and the king uses the reality of their existence to enhance his power. The gods in Tombs of Atuan don’t do anything good – so what was the use of worshipping them? Solely to prevent evil from happening? That lack of benefit – even lack of a theoretical benefit – to the gods in Tombs of Atuan made the entire religion a bit less believable.
People prefer to believe:
The deity will bring peace and health in return for faith and worship
The deity will support their people group, even at the cost of other people groups
The deity will bring prosperity to the faithful
The deity will enforce a social order, especially one beneficial to the adherents
Read up on how a religion uses these promises in order to attract followers. If you don’t know much about the Abrahamic religions, I encourage boning up on that because of their importance in English language literature. If you’re interested in polytheistic beliefs, study Hinduism, currently the polytheistic religion with the most followers. Strangely enough, I also strongly suggest watching Leah Remini’s Scientology and the Aftermath – if nothing else, it shows you how religions can successfully draw people in (though Scientology is a bit crazier than others) by using good acts as a sort of bait.
4. Define Your Society’s and Characters’ Goals
In that last section, we defined what a religion can give an individual. Individuals, though, don’t enforce religious rules and standards: communities do, and communities need reasons to keep the religion going. Society as a whole has goals, just like characters in a book. People often imagine countries as characters, and any group of people can be seen similarly. What does this group want?
Some societies struggle for survival. The Pentateuch (the Torah or first five books of the Old Testament) tell the story of a people fleeing persecution and establishing themselves with the safety God provides. Safety for yourself, even if it means the destruction of others, is a very interesting societal goal. I love that sort of thing because it can be easily twisted to develop a genuinely evil society while still giving the relief of moral goodness. Whether or not God physically did much to help them, the faith at least allowed the Jewish people to band together for their survival.
Remember, society tends to be out for itself. The word “genocide” wasn’t even invented until the 1940’s; even Winston Churchill called the Holocaust a “crime without a name” because nothing had been invented yet. That’s right – people didn’t care about wholesale slaughter of a people group enough to make a word for it until less than 80 years ago. Your society will want to survive and win.
3. Make a Creation Myth
There’s elements to every religion that go beyond creation myths, but almost unilaterally there needs to be a creation story in order for it to work. Part of what has empowered atheism in recent decades is the extremely plausible creation story* that didn’t exist prior to the increased pace of discovery in the Industrial Age. Atheism has always been around, but a “creation myth” was necessary to give it a boost and make it palatable to masses.
The order in which things are created is important in all myths. In Cherokee myths, there is the heavens and there is an expanse of water below. Animals came down from the heavens and dug up the mud from beneath the ocean, then tied the land to the heavens with cords so it wouldn’t sink.
Now, what does that say about the power of animals? How do you think a believer of that story would feel about animals vs. someone who believes animals a passive creation of a human-like god? They’d probably think the animals are much more important!
So what is important in your mythology? Start them early, give them a job, and give them power. Consider when “evil” is created, because that will determine much about the morality of your world.
Your myth can be as crazy as you want.
2. Create a Power Hierarchy
Your religion starts with one prophet, for whatever reason, but then the prophet leaves or dies. What next?
All groups, from companies to unions to religions, must have a hierarchy dedicated to protecting itself. Just like any society, as mentioned in number 4 above, church hierarchy will organize itself to carry out its goals of 1) spread religion and 2) get power for the religion. The Catholic church has a very complex and well-defined heirarchy, and honestly you really can’t get a better example when it comes to religious hierarchy and how it works. They have everything planned out, and it just gets deeper the further you look into it. Though the church hierarchy has done a lot to spread goodness and charity, it has also been used to cover up heinous abuses as well as entrench heinous beliefs. Whether or not the deity of your fantasy religion is good, the believers of the religion are still people, still flawed.
I grew up Baptist, and I didn’t realize there was a church hierarchy beyond just your deacons and a pastor until I got into high school and took history classes. Believe it or not, Baptists have no creed, no real external leadership structure beyond each individual congregation (there are “conventions”, but honestly churches leave those and get kicked out or join all the time, and no one really cares). There’s probably a looser-structured religious group out there, but believe it or not, Baptists have very little structure to their church despite the outsized political power they enjoy.
1. Entrench Your Hierarchy
After you’ve created an organization (or a lack of one, in the case of Baptists and the like), it’s time to look at the part that will really make your religion pop: how does it interact with politics?
There are two main ways you can entrench your hierarchy politically: an outright state with a theocracy (think Iran), or a sort of shadow state that influences government leaders and enforces itself through the power of a deity. A religious hierarchy with sufficient elaboration and order will be able to organize itself effectively and perform both its moral duties and lobby governments of any kind to do its will. Hold souls hostage, get what you want.
If you don’t have a great hierarchy, you’ll probably need to have extremely charismatic individuals that carry a lot of power. As a Baptist, I immediately think Billy Graham. He was crazy influential in politics, and it was probably him who made Baptists so much more powerful. He was able to move masses with a word and cause voting blocs to shift. Following his death, there is no single voice to fill the void, and that is also a risk for a less-organized religion: lack of continuity and lack of singular goal. It’s way harder to entrench loose confederacies for long periods of time.
Do you include a fantasy religion in your works? I’d love to hear about your deities and myths! Let me know more in the comments!
*These creation stories can be entirely right and still don’t disprove most mythos. However, they can be taken alone, which makes them both interesting and powerful.
Music’s important to a lot of people. I know I have excellent taste in music:
Because music is so important to people, I’ve seen it discussed in literature quite a bit. Sometimes, it’s done well – and other times, it’s not.
Here’s what I’ve gleaned over my brief years in life.
5. Keep Poetry in Prose Short
Songs written out in a book appear as poetry, unless you’ve figured out a way to use magic and include actual noise in your pages. Though songs are usually longer than a few lines, you probably don’t want to include the whole thing in your book.
I would say that about 95% of the time, I skip poetry of any sort – including songs – when I’m reading a prose novel. The last 5% is either the REALLY impressive stuff (like the songs in The Lord of the Rings) or something on the order of 3-10 lines long. And I’m someone who reads poetry on my own!
People who don’t study poetry often don’t even like poetry. Poetry in English is strange because the forms are all sorts of weird. In East Asian poetry, the number of syllables and shape of the poem is important and gives it life. In the Romance languages, the words flow and rhyme easily. In English? Our bastard tongue makes either of those types of poetry difficult difficult lemon difficult.*
That means the quicker you get your poem out, the less likely you are to throw off a prose-liking audience. If you want my suggestion for how to include poetry (and thus song fragments) in a book, I would suggest reading Where the Crawdads Sing.
4. Keep the Lyrics Relevant
Poems and songs carry a lot of weight in real life, and it should be even moreso in a novel. When you take the time to include a piece of a song in your mostly prose story, that break in the narrative needs to pack as much punch as possible.
Luckily, poetry can shove a lot into a small space (which I still don’t understand how). While poetry rarely forwards the plot, you have an array of important things you can include to enmesh it more fully with your story. Here’s a brief, brief list of things you can include in your poetry to help glue it into your story more fully.
Foreshadowing (SO common with poetry and songs in books – just read the Tolkien songs in LotR)
Background information (but be careful! it can bog down easily)
Once you get that done, it’s still important to carry through what you wrote. Make the foreshadowing come true, perhaps call back to the song without being explicit. People will carry the words of a poem on their hearts – let the words fall in when you crack their shells rather than shoving the poem in. Soft, yet forceful.
Like I’ve said before, do at least two things at once when you write. Don’t just put in a bit of poetry as a puzzle and expect it to be important. Make it be a part of your story and carry it.
3. Music Doesn’t Define a Character (and yet it does)
Does your character only listen to the darkest things like “Homicidal Retribution” by Dying Fetus**?
Sure, that defines the character… but it could easily define them in the wrong way. Hear me out.
When a character is very into a certain type of music, it doesn’t just define them: it puts them in part of a group. Music is rarely enjoyed by a single person, and the group of people then becomes important. Characters who are loners? Music still puts them in a group. It’ll give them a label.
For good or ill, yes, music and the groups that listen to them are usually defined in middle and high school (or whatever you foreigners call school for people between 12 and 18). The group you associated with in high school will forever have a certain place in your heart, and you’ll see the music you listened to differently from someone who hung out with a different group. Same thing for age – you’ll have different feelings about music from your time period in high school than other people will.
So when your character listens to “Second Death” by Abysmal Torment**, you may see them as a hero of edge, sass, and darkness. Other people will see them as losers. Other people will see them as scary. Clowns like me will be like “lol”.
Your character’s music may define them, but it doesn’t define them in the same way for every reader. It’s such a double edge sword that it must be considered very, very carefully.
2. Music Doesn’t Define Your Setting (and yet it does)
This is going to have a lot of similarities to the above, but it really has more to do with talk about technical things.
A relatively common trope I’ve seen is the use of songs to give a sense of place and, more importantly, time. Just name-drop the Beatles and put in a “Yellow Submarine,” and you’ve set your book in the 1960’s (or you’re trying to say your character listens to old music, but you can see #3 for that). The time period in which certain musical styles, songs, and artists were popular can easily be defined.
At the same time, it’s all just references. References are good for people who get them, but no one else.
Ready Player One is the grand poo-bah of all reference books. Including elements of music as well as everything else, the book makes extensive use of anything 80’s pop culture in attempt to build its world. From what I can gather, it works.
But only for people who already knew the information.
People who weren’t around during the 80’s (such as yours truly) and who haven’t studied up on it will get only a smattering of references. While dropping names of people and songs can help your intended audience feel in the moment, it can cause readers unfamiliar with it some stress. Any time something needs to be researched, it dampens the narrative.
My suggestion is to not reference music unless the information is almost universally known. The Beatles, for instance, are a household name and common knowledge. Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley also maintain a similarly important cultural niche (for now at least). Lyrics are almost impossible for people to catch, as well, so I wouldn’t rely on them as references at all.
In the end, know your audience and make your passage easy to read.
1. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON’T RELY ON A SONG’S WORDS
I said earlier to avoid lyrics for the purpose of setting. Now I’m going to tell you why you should just avoid putting in lyrics at all:
Yes, that’s right. You can usually get away with referencing things or including small bits of a song, but here’s the thing: every time I’ve seen this done, whether in an indie book or a traditionally published book, it’s usually not… good.
Like with the danger for characters and for settings, music evokes different feelings for different people. Your feel-good music could scream “PSYCHO KILLER” to someone else. Trying to find depth in lyrics is hard (with the exception of American Pie, I guess).
Most people reach their peak “into music” phase as a teen. Many teens define themselves by what music they listen to, and defining a book by a song reminds me of that. It makes me, at least, feel like a book is a teenager. Regardless of the defining song, it seems…
By a long shot, this article has been the one relying least on research and most on my opinion so far. Do you agree with what I’ve said? Have a bone with me to pick? Let me know in the comments!
*difficult difficult lemon difficult is supposed to be making fun of easy peasy lemon squeezy.
**I enjoy listening to the local college station at 5-7pm on Friday night. The DJ is this Aubrey Plaza sounding woman who explains why the maggots on such and such album cover thrills her, and it makes me laugh endlessly. I just have to put up with vomit sounds, oinking, and people singing about putting pig blood on their penises in order to listen to this fantastic, anonymous person.
No, I’m not talking about how fast you write, walk, or work. Today we’re talking about narrative pacing, or how fast your story feels.
5. It’s About Them Feels
Unlike commas (which have rules often non-intuitive and aren’t well-predicted by feelings), pace is almost entirely subjective. It’s about how quickly a piece of prose seems to go by relative to the amount of time spent reading. It’s something vague, and it’s not something I’ve yet heard many editors focus on despite the importance it has on the book’s feeling and success.
What’s worse? You almost can’t determine pace of your own work. My pacing disaster is characterization-based. I’m a plot person, through and through, and it shows in most of what I write. American Chimera was written in part as a way to explore character and setting in a format that forced me to do it. Without that forcing myself, I often make characters that are mere plot vehicles. That means my pace errs on the side of too fast. It’s important I know this so I can improve in the future.
From beta reading, though, I think it’s equally likely for pacing to swing the other direction and be too slow. Here’s some signs to look for when determining if you could improve a scene’s pacing:
Signs of Good Pacing
You wonder where the time went – and why you read so long – but in a good way
You don’t have any confusion about what happened in a scene
You read every word
You were never bored
Signs of Slow Pacing
You feel tempted to skip a sentence/paragraph/page
You can skip a sentence/paragraph/page and not lose track of the story
A slight hint of boredom; even if you think it’s because you’re re-reading, there’s the possibility you could improve pacing
Though not a sure-fire tool, lengthy paragraphs can be a sign of slow pacing
Signs of Fast Pacing
Slight confusion (especially with beta readers)
A feeling something is missing
The events are hard to keep up with
No single event in a scene feels important because there are too many important events
4. Dialogue vs. Narrative vs. Philosophical Diatribe vs. Math
When working your pace, the length of paragraphs, sentences, scenes, and chapters all determine the speed at which the reader feels. The fastest flow is with dialogue. I found this example by Joanne the Geek of a story written entirely in dialogue. It’s very short, but it gets across a LOT of information and is understandable. Entirely dialogue flash fiction is a good tool to have in your pocket, especially if you can pull off giving the characters distinct tone (which is something Joanne did well).
Shorts, novellas, and novels all have different rules from flash. Dialogue can sometimes be fast enough that information is lost. It’s full of telling rather than showing, for obvious reasons, which can lead a reader away from immersion in the story.
This is where narrative comes in. Narrative is the bit where action happens, some introspection, and most descriptions of environment or characters. It’s the bit where the story’s mind tells what it sees. In our heads, we remember life events and scenes complete with feelings and analysis (was it fun? did it taste good? did I love that person?) even if we don’t realize it. That narrative voice helps give life to a scene.
The narrative voice can also go too far. Spend too long describing a small piece, and you’ll stagnate. Or, worse… wax political or philosophical.
Unless you’re writing Atlas Shrugged or some other political treatise, you’ll at best stroke the egos of readers that agree with you and piss off the readers that disagree. That’s at best. It’s also possible that the metaphysical arguments or blatant discourse about political or philosophical items will become boring. If someone’s looking for fiction and finds philosophy, there’s a good chance the passage will feel dense and slow to them. That was my experience with Atlas Shrugged.
There’s one item that is even slower than philosophical or political diatribes: math.
Don’t do it. Even in engineering school we’re taught to avoid putting equations in a presentation unless absolutely necessary, and that’s presenting to people who enjoy math. Don’t make bets that your audience will consist of people who love math enough to enjoy paragraphs about it.
3. One Scene, Two Purposes
One important method to make sure you don’t slow down too much is to make sure everything you write is important. In order to help ensure importance, give your scenes two purposes.
By two purposes, I mean use the scene to advance the plot and do one other thing. This “other thing” can be advancing a second plot, providing characterization, developing a worldbuilding element, or focusing on some literary device such as theme or symbol.
When you include two purposes side by side, the slower-paced items such as characterization or worldbuilding can be enhanced by inclusion with the faster-paced plot movement. You can balance things more readily. As well, having two goals in one scene makes it so that every piece has importance. If you divide the two goals into two different scenes, the scene exclusively dedicated to characterization is going to be slower. Sometimes a slower scene is good in order to de-escalate the tension after a mini-climax, but even in these slower scenes you want to accomplish enough goals and push in enough meat that a reader gets something from it.
Try it. Take a scene where you’ve done characterization exclusively, then try to jam it into a scene where you’re just doing plot. Once you start doing double duty, it gets much easier to do it again.
2. Don’t Hide Information
Subtlety is useful in cases where you’re building to a twist, but making small hints at information that are easily forgotten leads to exactly the problem you think it might have: it’s easily forgotten. If that forgotten hint comes up important later in the story, the reader could become either confused or disinterested. This moment of confusion can lead to a slow in the pace one takes in information, as a reader will have to start combing through earlier pages or they’ll be overly scrutinizing within the rest of the passage. Be less subtle with your hints, and the times of confusion will lessen.
At the same time, there’s the opposite problem: telling everything. If you throw too much information out there, what’s essential gets lost and nothing matters. To a lot of modern people, that’s the problem with books such as Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Christo, or other 19th century works in which the authors drag on and on about things that don’t matter. You can get away with giving too much information at times in modern works, but it needs to have a reason.
1. Simplify the Story
Multiple plotlines, complicated backstories, symbols and themes and – oh my! So much to fit in, so little space!
Congruent with much of what I’ve already said, one of the easiest ways to make a story have great pace is to KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Most people comfortably read at a level below 8th grade, and fiction is best when read comfortably. In addition to the need for understandable phrasing, words, and sentence structures, maintaining storylines and artistic moieties that are easy to understand (for your intended audience, I might add) is key.
Do you need multiple narrators to tell the story? What does this side-plot add? Does everything fold together, or do they remain as two separate tales throughout the book?
If a piece of information is not essential, consider cutting it. Kill your darlings, as it were.
You might also consider letting someone else read the book as a beta reader. This will help you know what parts they liked, if nothing else, and may help you determine if one storyline didn’t add to the overall quality of the book. Don’t be to attached to any scene being in the final version of the book before it’s time to ship out and sell.
How do you handle pacing in your stories? Any hints, especially for flash or blog-oriented things? Tell us what you’ve got in the comments!
I love me a good plot twist. I love writing them, I love reading them – but they so often fall flat, and they’re hard to get right. What makes a twist good? How do you stick ’em in there?
Well, I think I’m pretty good at twists, so I’m here to help you out.
Fair Warning: Major spoilers for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Star Wars, and The Kite Runner are present in this post.
4. Know What a Twist Is
Normal development includes elements of discovery, addition of information, mystery solving, relationship building, and (in some books) fights. A twist is where some additional, unexpected (more on this later) complication arises. For example: losing a fight isn’t a twist. People, even the good guys, lose fights all the time. But losing a fight to a guy who suddenly reveals he’s your father? That’s a twist.
That twist, the famous one where Luke discovers Darth Vader is his father, is epic. Honestly, it’s the best twist in the Star Wars film series as it changes the entire dynamic. There’s not enough build to it for my tastes, but the fact that it’s an unexpected addition to the plot and forces a massive change in the characters’ outlook is what makes it a twist.
If you think you’ve inserted a twist, ask your beta readers what they thought of the twist. If they don’t know or if they say it’s not a twist, think about how you can either change it to make it better or if you shouldn’t think of it as a twist in the first place.
3. Placement of Twist(s)
Where your twist goes in the story is important to get the biggest effect. Every story follows a certain format wherein you build tension during the large portion of the book then end it after the final part of the conflict. You’ve probably seen one of these plot diagrams before.
A common place to put the twist is right before or during the climax. When the twist is finally revealed, the tension and stakes are at their highest. The twist might also give the characters the last piece of information they need to complete their goals (though, as we’ll see later, this needs to be done carefully).
Though the diagram above is simple, you can also imagine multiple, smaller rises and falls of tension during the conflict period on the plot. A twist can be placed before one of these mini-climaxes in order to show just how difficult the characters’ journeys will be. It can add a new player to the game, turn an ally into an enemy, or add an element of social anxiety.
Twists should never be in the exposition – they aren’t twists there, just explanations. A twist in the falling action or conclusion might feel like a cop-out, or it will feel like difficulty for no reason. For example: at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the hobbits return to The Shire and there’s a problem with Saruman/Sharkey screwing it up. It’s a twist and just one more problem that wasn’t necessary for plot (but is 100%, absolutely necessary for theme and allegory, so I don’t knock the decision). Without that thematic importance, the little addition is just like, “What the h*ll? We just killed the guy who threatened the entire world, and here’s this little sh*t screwing around for nothing?”
A twist is, in a way, a betrayal of the reader’s trust in your narrator. Even an unreliable narrator must provide enough information for the world and setup to make sense. When executing a twist, something has been held back from the reader, or perhaps lies were fed to them, in order for the twist to be surprising. Twists expend trust, and every time it’s expended, it’s harder to get it back.
For a short, I’d have one twist (two if they are synergistic). You don’t have enough space to build trust or information after a second twist. Novellas can handle a little more, but not much. Novels, in my opinion, can handle up to one per minor climax, but that still can be tricky.
1. Unexpected, Yet Obvious
The Darth Vader twist was great in that it changed the entire dynamic of the story. It wasn’t great, however, in that it didn’t feel like there was any build to it. Once revealed, you couldn’t look back at the prior movie or the first half of Empire Strikes Back and be able to tell that Vader was the dad. It’s greatness in film history has more to do with the cultural impact of the moment and the movie than it does on the quality of the twist itself.
A better twist would have been built if Lucas had danced a fine line of information that pointed toward the parentage but did not reveal the secret outright.
Now, a great plot twist build: in Kite Runner, Khaled Hossini builds the relationship between Hassan and main character Amir’s was done so well. Throughout the book, Amir’s father wishes Hassan had come with them to America. He pays for Hassan’s cleft palate surgery, and he forgives Hassan when Amir frames him as a thief. When it is revealed that Hassan’s father, Ali, is sterile, there’s enough information that the reader automatically knows what’s coming next: Hassan and Amir are half brothers, biologically. Though I was just “meh” about the book as a whole, the twist was bang on.
Though building information that leads to the culmination of a twist can create the most satisfying reader situation possible, it also runs a major risk: readers could be able to figure out the twist long before it happens. This is ok if you’re going for dramatic irony, but if not, providing information in a different way could be better. Some ways you could funnel the information differently:
Try a more limited narrator scope. If you’re in third person omniscient, try first person. You’ll feed information to the reader differently since the character you’re speaking through may not be aware of every element of the conflict.
Toy with how blatant a clue is or how often you repeat it. I’ve found that it’s best to be very blunt about my clues, but only do it once. If you’re too repetitive, the clue can be too much of a hint. If you don’t speak about it clearly enough, a reader won’t remember the clue when it comes time for the reveal.
Time your clues appropriately. You can give a big clue early if it seems disconnected, then build back around so that clue comes back into play. By that time, the event will have faded some in the reader’s memory, and you’ll be able to help the reader sew together the clues to form the twist.
Read mystery novels! Mysteries are almost always twist-oriented, since otherwise there’s no real payoff for reading them.
Do you like plot twists? Do you have a book you’ve written that’s got a great twist and want to share information in the comments? DO IT!
(Beware – sometimes WordPress eats link-containing comments as spam, so you might want to just provide the name if you’re new to the blog!)
Yes, WordPress users are all in the boat now: use the Gutenberg block editor, move to a different blog host, or leave the blogosphere forever. With those sorts of options, it makes sense to at least try the new system before gutting all your work.
I’ve seen tutorials around and about, but there’s some neat tricks and hints the Gutenberg process lets you do that you couldn’t on the old version. If you want a good, basic intro on using the Gutenberg Editor, visit Colleen Chesebro’s site.
5. Quick Way to Start a Block You Want
Something I didn’t like when initially starting the editor (and, if I’m being honest, still don’t like) is how pressing “enter” starts a new block. At least it assumes you’ll be using a text block!
But what if you don’t want to use the text block? You have to click the stupid plus, find what you want – aaagh!
– OR – you can use the handy dandy backslash button.
When you start a new paragraph/block, type a / as the first thing. A dropdown menu will appear as so:
You can then click the block you want, or you can finish typing. Typing /twitter, for instance, will let you embed a twitter post. You couldn’t do that shiz with the old editor very easily!
Also, follow me on Twitter. And Instagram, because apparently those are things I’m supposed to tell you to do.
4. Figure Out Which Shortcuts Work
I’m the kind of person who likes keyboard shortcuts. The Gutenberg editor has a lot of shortcuts, but they’re not the same as the old editor. Depending on your OS and your browser, you may find difficulties in using CTRL+U (underline). Underline, for example, often doesn’t work on Chrome and opens the source code page on Firefox. Because of this, I’d suggest trying your usual shortcuts almost immediately when you start using Gutenberg.
If (or when) a shortcut doesn’t work, you may also need to look for the button. On the classic editor, most things a typical blogger would need were available in the toolbar. With the text toolbar much abbreviated in the new editor, you may need to expand the menu more often than you used to.
To get to the underline function (which I use because my theme doesn’t easily show the difference between link text and normal text), I do:
This is also where you’ll find justify (because apparently that doesn’t count as an alignment under the alignments part of the toolbar).
Issues with shortcuts or some functionalities may be caused by one of a host of issues, including OS incompatibility, browser incompatibility, browser plugin inability, or WordPress plugin incompatibility (I’ve seen on the forums that a plugin called TinyMCE causes issues). My assumption is the WordPress team will eventually fix a lot of these issues, but as of this posting, just be aware and figure out what you need to do.
3. FINALLY COPY PASTE IMAGES WITHOUT SUCKAGE
For the love of all that is holy and just, you can now copy an image and paste it directly into your post without having to insert it into your media library first. Sure, you can still do that, and it’s a good idea to curate your images in such a way that you can re-use them (remember, your storage space hasn’t changed).
Those images I added above? I took snips of my work, then copied it and pasted them directly to the document. Without any extra effort, they’re ready and available for me. This year, when I do a book review, I’m not going to have to do the process of adding the covers with care and pain. All I’ll do is paste the image, and its ready for me to edit and change the name.
2. Add .gifs Without Destroying Your Storage Space
That’s right – animated gifs. When you used the old editor, you’d have to download them from Giphy or Tenor or something of the sort. Then you’d have to upload them from your computer into your gallery. Out of my 7.7% of memory space taken by images on my blog, I’d have to say most of that space is probably taken by .gifs – despite them being a tiny fraction of the number of images I’ve uploaded. They’re just enormous files.
Now, you can use the /gif block, search for your animated trash, and plug n’ chug.
Problems with that:
No size control. Your theme determines the size.
If you try to delete the block with backspace, weird crap happens.
CTRL-Z or Undo won’t work right on it.
It’s huge in the editor, so you may have to move it before you can see the “remove block” clicky bit (because, like I said, the backspace thing can be screwy).
1. Just Wait and Let It Improve
Honestly, the biggest problem with the editor is that it’s now less similar to MS Word, which is still the absolute gold-standard for what people learn to use as a word processor. Even if Gutenberg will be better (which I am not holding my breath for), it’s not part of our typical mindsets yet. That makes it hard to wrap around. That being said, I think it’s not just in our heads and genuinely needs improvement.
People are out there lobbying on forums to get the Gutenberg team to change things to a more understandable and useful format. The easily broken shortcuts, shortened text editing bar, changes to the coding method, and compression of Classic posts in the mobile app are real issues among a thousand real issues. As of this post, the Gutenberg editor has over 2,000 1-star reviews, an overall rating of 2 stars, and a slew of vitriol in the written comments. Things will probably change because WordPress is, ultimately, a product. You have to keep your product competitive, and time will tell if these new changes actually help or hurt the site.
Personally, I find the new editor just enough of a pain that I don’t spend nearly as much time on the blogosphere as I used to. I can feel myself drifting off because making a post is just no longer fun. User engagement is one of those statistics WordPress will be measuring – so don’t feel bad if you’re slower now, either.
Only time will tell what happens next.
Do you have any quick tips? Any complaints about the new editor? We can have a secret pow-wow in the comments where we spew all sorts of polluted words concerning this monster! Bring it!
Ever wonder “is my writing/book/character worth a dime?” Well, there’s a few things you can do in order to make sure. None of them are fool-proof, and all of them have their pitfalls, but you can improve your work and have new and improved ways to ensure you’ve done things the best you can.
Also, long article today. Fair warning.
Reading Level Test
This test won’t be able to tell you if your book makes sense or if it has deeper artistic merit, but there is something to be said about the ability to string together words into a sentence. Your story idea could be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it won’t matter if you can’t communicate it.
Probably the easiest (and safest) way to do a readability test is through MSWord’s “editor” function (used to be spellcheck, for you fellow fogies). Unfortunately, the new version of MSWord makes you go through all of the spelling and grammar “mistakes” before the analysis will show up. If you are writing a fantasy, sci-fi, or other piece with a lot of non-standard words, the MSWord built-in statistics might not work for your whole book. However, you can copy a more manageable selection into an alternative document and perform the test on that. Sampling errors may apply.
In MSWord, your output window will look like this:
Don’t let a “low” grade level scare you. A book with a sixth grade level score will be easy to read for a large number of people, which is good. I took the excerpt Penguin offers for A Game of Thrones, and the Flesch-Kincade Grade Level on MSWord was 5.6. Remember: the grade level your book is scored doesn’t mean the book is for kids or isn’t literarily sound. It means the book may be easier to read. If you’re writing fiction, remember that most adults who read for fun aren’t going to seek a book that will force them to look up words every few minutes. They’re going to put down books with sentences so wordy they’ll have to re-read them. A book for adults should be easy enough to read that they won’t have to try.
However, let’s think about this from the other end: if you go much lower than a 4th-grade level, your sentences may feel repetitive or so simple that a reader could get bored. A children’s book has simple sentences so children can learn to read different words and gain confidence. Once that confidence is built, they can move to grander sentences.
In my opinion, anything between 4th and 8th grade should be sufficient for an adult fiction. YA shouldn’t be much different in terms of reading requirements, just in the grander content and character age.
If you don’t have MSWord or you have too many fantasy words in a passage, online tools such as this one exist.
Number of Characters
This isn’t like Twitter – it’s not a count of letters. It’s a count of how many persons are in your book.
Because, believe me, it’s far easier to get your book filled with too many characters than to not have enough. Don’t believe me? Think of your favorite episodes of TV: many people love those episodes with just one or two characters trapped in a cave, or a spaceship, etcetera. The episode “Fly” in Breaking Bad is this way. These “bottle episodes” are hugely popular because they explore the activities and relationship of only a couple characters, or maybe even just one character.
If you’re in my audience or if I’m in your audience, though, we’re probably thinking about fantasy, sci-fi, or some other form of fiction. So let’s use a good ol’ standard: The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien’s prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy has 40 characters, and that’s including everyone from Bilbo and Smeagle to Carc, a raven. That’s a fair amount of characters, because you can keep up with them.
Here’s another way to think about it: how often do you introduce a new character? I once beta’d a book (probably for a young person, so I’m sure they’ve improved since) which included something on the order of 200 characters for 100,000 words. That’s literally a named character introduced, on average, every 500 words. Tolkien’s The Hobbit has 95,000 words. On average, that’s a new character every 2,400 words. I find that if you have at least 1,500 words per character, you’re going to be fine. I aim to be right there where The Hobbit is when I write a novel.
So yes, here’s the test:
[Number of Words in Book]/[Number of Characters in Book]
And that’s it. It’s up to you if you want to include unnamed characters, which I tend to do. I keep a running list as I write.
I love these tests because it can help you realize when you’ve done something accidentally wrong, and it does so in a recognizable fashion. The tests I’m going to suggest are based on the Bechdel Test and theMako Mori Test.
The Bechdel Test is a very basic test for female representation. In this test, the requirements to pass are:
Have two female characters with names.
These two characters talk with each other about something other than men.
That’s it. It’s also incredible how many books fail – including the aforementioned The Hobbit. You can also apply similar characteristics to characters of color, LGBTQ+ persons, persons with disabilities, or whatever.
There are two caveats to this test I want to talk about, though: one is that, sometimes, it doesn’t make sense to pass. Let’s say you’ve got a story set on a war ship in WWII. It’d take a very special situation for a woman to be on the ship, much less two. To pass the Bechdel test in that situation would be odd. Similarly, if you don’t have multiple races present in the location or setting (i.e. Ancient China or pre-exploration Australia), you might not be able to pass the test with a racial slant.
The other caveat? There are stories that would fit a feminist slant without passing the Bechdel Test.
For example: Mako Mori was a character from the 2013 film, Pacific Rim.
The Mako Mori test requires the presence of one female character who has her own plot arc, and neither that character nor that arc exist to supplement or serve a male character. To me, this test helps detect one thing the Bechdel Test can’t: tokenism. You can pass the Bechdel Test and have those characters still not matter. Once again, the test can also be applied to any sort of diversity marker.
Just to be real, though: there is no single way to get this right. You can do any number of tests, any amount of study, have sensitivity readers, everything – and still fail. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try or that your shouldn’t include diversity in your books. It just means you will always be limited by your own life experiences, and learning is the key to your expansion.
Mary Sue/Gary Stu Test
Someone out there is inevitably asking: what is a Mary Sue/Gary Stu?
A Mary Sue (we’ll just use Mary Sue for now) is a character who has too strong powers or overworked personality traits. Physical appearance can be indicators of Mary Suedom, especially as they veer away from anything “normal.” As a whole, I classify Mary Sue traits as almost anything that can be “cringey” but not in a “creepy, touchy uncle” kind of way.
Think: something a teen would write (poorly). Something a middle schooler would think so dark it makes a black hole look light. See the wordy and very crude/insulting/awful/potentially-triggering Coldsteel the Hedgeheg meme below for the most stereotypical Mary Sue nonsense:
But for those of us who don’t have a main character named Coldsteel the Hedgeheg, there’s more reasonable tests like this unsupported one. That test is no longer suggested by its creator, and I understand: the scoring at the end doesn’t really work. I suggest it, though, so you can think about what’s going into your character and what other people could see. Not all of these things are bad for every character, and often nuance can make many of the Mary Sue traits work. Breq/Justice of Toren from Ancillary Justice is an example of a Mary Sue that works. What’s important is to know what sort of pitfalls you may have fallen into. It’s more useful as a thought-provoking test than anything else.
That’s right. You can do all of the above alone, in the comfort of your own home, without a single scary foray into the minds of others. If you want to share your writing – for what is writing but a plan to share an idea with someone, even if that someone is a future version of yourself? – you’ll want to get a second opinion.
That’s where beta readers come in. Get opinions on your diversity, your character quality, and some idea of common grammar mistakes you make. Try to get a variety of readers, and have fun.
For more information on beta reading, I’ve got a slew of articles under “Beta Reading” on my Writing Resources Page.
Do you put your stories through other sorts of tests? Let me know in the comments, or look through the comments for additional thoughts!
Welcome to the Witty Nib Writing Club, where we study all things writing and look to hone our craft! This week we look at a subject that can be very touchy to a bunch of people for a bunch of reasons: eating.
Sometimes, when we’re on a writing binge, it can get pretty intense and we don’t want to stop and consume a calorie or two – here’s a few quick recipes that may float your boat.
5. Lazy Nachos
Fair warning: dogs will beg aggressively when you make this.
Chips of any variety
Microwave safe container
Sprinkle chips on the plate, keeping them to a single layer if you can.
Sprinkle cheese evenly over chips.
Microwave like 30 seconds or something to melt the cheese.
Shove it in your face hole.
You can add other things like salsa, black beans, hot sauce, cilantro, or other things to enhance the flavor profile. Or olives if you’re Satan.
4. Creatively Eaten Cereal
Cereal has several calories and other things people need to survive.
Viscous, sticky food (I suggest peanut butter)
Bowl (suggested, not required if you eat this over the sink)
Put a bunch of viscous, sticky food on your spoon.
Pour the cereal somewhere. This can be your hand or a bowl.
Stick the sticky food onto the cereal.
Lick off the cereal and a layer of sticky food.
Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you run out of cereal or sticky food.
You can change this up by choosing a different viscous, sticky food:
Peanut butter or other nut butters
Corn syrup (bowl required)
Honey (hard, but can be done without a bowl)
Sweetened condensed milk that has been in the fridge overnight
At least a fork, but preferably fork + pancake turner
Melt the butter in the pan.
Dip one side of one slice of bread into the melted butter, then set aside.
Melt some more butter.
Put a slice of bread into the pan.
Put some cheese on that.
Slather some pepper jelly on the non-buttery side of the slice of bread you set aside.
Put the jelly side of the bread down on your cheese.
Squish the sandwich with your fork or pancake turner.
When the cheese is melty and the bottom of the sandwich is browning, flip it.
Brown the buttery side of the jelly bread.
Take it out of the pan.
I guess you don’t have to use the pepper jelly, but screw that. It’s fantastic. Pepper jelly also BELONGS on burgers.
2. Drinkable Cake
Because it’s not technically liquid calories, right?
About a tablespoon butter
Teensy bit of salt
Microwave safe Container (I usually go with a mug)
Melt the butter in the microwave.
Add all the other crap. Amounts don’t matter, but I try to make the flour, sugar, and milk be approximately the same volume.
Adjust ratio of sugar/flour/milk to get better consistency and flavor.
Drink it some more.
Wallow in self hatred.
You can make this chocolate by mixing cocoa powder in with the butter at the beginning. You can’t mix the cocoa in after nearly as well, which I don’t understand because theobromine should be sufficiently hydrophilic, but whatever. Maybe it depends on your cocoa processing and particle size.
You can also get a better texture by replacing some of the milk with an egg. You’ll just have to go for a desired texture rather than any sort of measurement, and it’s really hard to fit it in just a cup.
By adding just a touch of salt and baking powder, you can also put this in the microwave to cook and come out with a burning wad of disappointment instead!
A tasty, calorie-dense disaster that even drunk people can cook.
1 pack of ramen (not a cup noodle)
Some water to cook the ramen in
2 or 3 eggs, it doesn’t matter
A pat of butter
Microwave Safe Bowl
Almost any utensil
Microwave cook the ramen noodles in the bowl. Measure the water or not, it doesn’t matter. I also don’t care how cooked it is, but I suggest at least until the noodles flop.
Drain said ramen. Save the bowl on the side so you don’t have to dirty another one later.
Put the pan at medium heat. Melt butter in the pan.
Put the damn noodles in the pan. Stir them some.
Crack the eggs in the bowl you just cooked the ramen in.
Stir the ramen seasoning into the eggs.
Pour eggs over ramen, then cook it like an omelette.
You can complicate this but make it next level by frying some onions in the butter before you add the noodles. You can do other, fancier stuff, but let’s be honest and admit we’re not making a Rammelette to be fancy. We’re making it because we’re desperate and not wearing enough pants to go to Denny’s.
Technically, you don’t have to cook the noodles, but it just doesn’t have the same effect. You just don’t have to dirty a bowl.
Do you have any go-to, super-easy meals or foods that you enjoy when you’re busy? Tell me about it in the comments!
Welcome to the Witty Nib Writing Club, where we study all things writing and look to hone our craft! This week we’re examining something that can be jarring when people read it: bathrooms and lack of bathrooms. I’ve read plenty of bathroom scenes that are pretty sh*tty, so come right in, sit on the throne, and have a read.
5. Consider that Most People Pee and Poop
Believe it or not, most people happen to have bodily functions that end with excretion of undesirable by-products. And, even more unfortunately, most humans experience several instances per lifetime of food to excrement processing time being less than desirable.
Do your characters even think about going to the bathroom? Does no one experience the urge, whether at critical or non-critical moments? Isn’t that unrealistic?
When you read about someone going to the bathroom, it’s often meant to give one of the following feelings:
Some kind of sex thing
Give a character an excuse to not be on screen
Get a character somewhere it’s just them and the narrator
Bathroom scenes need to accomplish something, or they’re just a waste of space. If the scene doesn’t add anything to the story, people will notice. People remember poop stories because they’re so jarring; don’t make an empty scene be the thing readers remember.
4. So You Want to Add Grittiness?
If you want to add grittiness to your story, start by taking out the TP and replacing it with sandpaper.
More seriously, grittiness of feel is one step away from putting in a scene solely for “realism”. “Realism” The difference between grittiness and an attempt at realism is worldbuilding.
Why is opening your sphincters different in your world? Do you live in Arizona and worry about scorpions in the toilet on the regular? Are you in space where everyone and their mother (even if dear ol’ mom won’t admit it) wonders how you use the poop chute in zero G? Those types of situations are things you could do to reinforce your world.
You may even use the opportunity to reveal the stringency of social norms. Let’s say your characters have to perform a makeup regimen on the regular, and deviation from this protocol will cause major social blowback. That’s worldbuilding. That’s grit, even if it’s not bloody awfulness.
And, then, you can use a bathroom while a character’s bleeding out, adding some grittiness in that there’s no other option or it’s a terrible place. Bathrooms make us automatically feel a little dirty (and by us I mean most people), so adding dirt to a vulnerable situation can often make it feel grittier.
3. Are Your Characters Into Bathroom Sex Things?
Pretty sure this is a thing some people are into, also sure it’s not me.
However, this is something you’ll need to think about if you ever have two characters in the bathroom at the same time. I’ve read several stories where there’s two women in a bathroom, and that (at the moment) doesn’t seem so weird because society has taught us it’s not weird. But when you have two men who do any talking – ANY talking – in the bathroom, there’s a weird feeling that leaves the question of eroticism or sparks open.* A girl and a boy in the same bathroom? Slow down, Nelly, that’s gonna require some ‘splainin.
Enough people appear to have a sex thing/expectation with bathrooms that you may want to consider how to mitigate it (unless, of course, your raunchy characters are fixin’ to bump nasties). Battlestar Galactica (the new version) includes bathroom scenes with teeth brushing and face washing with men and women using the same room, and they do a great job taking their super-sexed-up characters and somehow showing greater-than-real-life equality between men and women with their weird bathroom scenes.
So yes: if you want sex clues in a bathroom, go for it. It’s easy. Otherwise, think about it and get Beta Readers to help you figure out if there’s some lascivious feelings laced up in that mess.
*I’ve heard this mostly from my husband and an interesting conversation about the placement of the urinals in the library bathroom during Korean Music Appreciation class in undergrad. You may disagree with my friends from Korean Music Appreciation class.
2. Give a Character an Excuse to be Off Screen
This one’s pretty common.
Spy says “Gotta take a piss,” or a woman says, “I’ve got to go to the powder room.” Next thing you know, they’ve left through the bathroom window and come back with the mafia to kill the hero. Alternatively, tne character in the group leaves and everyone else instantly starts telling secrets the missing individual can’t know.
But be careful: this sort of thing is common enough that it may be noticed. When a character leaves to go to the bathroom, a reader may get this twinge of “Ok, so why are they going to be absent right now?” Taking a piss is rarely the point of a bathroom in a book, and getting a character off screen can provoke a reader to pay attention or start being suspicious. Use this to your advantage by allowing for the hint, but be sure to let the absence pay off. Otherwise, it’s just “realism for the sake of realism” again.
1. Get Your Character ALONE
My favorite instance of this is inThe Long, Long Trailer, a 1954 film by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. It’s not the same characters you know of Lucy and Ricky, but they’re “Tacy” and “Nicky”. They buy a long, long trailer to live in while the travel the country, and it progressively makes them both miserable.
In the bathroom scene, however, Nicky (Desi Arnaz) tries to take a shower. He can’t seem to get the shower head to suit him, and everything keeps falling. It’s a wonderful symbol of his growing resentment, of his marriage, and of his life. It’s humorous while at the same time foreboding and telling.
The best “alone in the bathroom scenes” have a definitively literary examination of the story. It adds to the characterization and plot in such a way that nuances enter your mind, even in subtle, sneaky ways. Get your character alone, and let them pour out secrets while they’re in a very secret place.
Have you ever written a sh*tty scene? Remember any that you’ve read or watched? Dump something in the comments for the rest of us to read while we’re taking our own dumps!
Welcome to the Witty Nib Writing Club, where we study all things writing and look to hone our craft! This week we look at something I personally have struggled to get better at: writing about technical things.
Do you want to write a book in which cars take a central role? A fighting style? A complex system of magic? All of those things can get technical, and there’s a fine line between not enough and too much information!
5. Do Some Research
Unless you are already an expert on the subject, you’re going to want to bone up on what you’re writing. Let’s say your main character uses a bow to hunt or, like Katniss from The Hunger Games, kill people. You might, then, want to know words like “fletching” or “nock” and what that means. And there’s two ways to do your research.
One is to experience it yourself. Go to a shooting range and get someone to teach you about bowhunting. Your experience will sharply deepen your ability to understand your characters. It will also help you speak with some authority on your subject.
Unfortunately, gaining real life experience is often expensive, time consuming, or completely unavailable. If that’s the case, it’s a good idea to read as much as you can, look at pictures and – most definitely – watch YouTube. There’s tons of videos of people doing sword fighting, bow hunting, almost anything that ordinary people won’t be experts on. Keep a list of resources, and follow some of the tips in my Research post.
If you’re doing a fantasy or hard science fiction system, of course no one else knows what you’re doing; the difficulty of this research is looking into yourself and establishing the rules of your world’s system. This can be hard because you’re inventing the knowledge yourself!
4. Establish the Limits of Your Knowledge
Unless you’re an expert who can’t be easily questioned or pressed about their knowledge, you want to better understand where you are and how much you know. There are two main reasons you should do this: one, and the most obvious, is to see if you’re ready to write extensively about a technical subject.
Another, and the more devious, is to avoid the Dunning Kreuger effect. This is when a person who doesn’t have any expertise considers themselves to have more knowledge than they really do. Think about the last time you talked with someone about driving, and you’ll realize almost everyone says they’re an above-average driver. That statistically can’t be true. And, what’s worse, I believe I’m an above-average driver and there’s no reason for me to think that.
We tend to over-inflate our skills when we think about things we’re just ok at or even just dabbling in. When we’re talking about our driving skills, it probably won’t affect us much (as it never has). When we’re writing a book, though, it does matter. Establishing how much you know and how much is possible for you to know will help you avoid saying incorrect things, help you establish a path forward, and decide when your research stopping point will be.
3. Figure Out Your Target Audience’s Typical Knowledge
Most fans aren’t going to be like the Game of Thrones superfans who know more about the setting than the author. You really can’t write for those people because you’ll always be wrong. But, if you’re writing any specific genre (which, let’s be honest, you’re inevitably writing some genre), fans of those books have an idea of what to expect. If you’re writing a steampunk story and put your characters in polyester, the fans are going to call you out on that. If you have a medieval fantasy and your character uses a steam engine, your readers won’t stand for it.
One way you can do this is be familiar with your genre. If you’re writing historical fiction, how do other authors handle the information about the time period? How do other people review this author’s book, especially when it comes to analysis of the period pieces? How do people of that time period write about themselves?
Another wonderful thing the internet and modern technology is extreme connectivity. You can look up forums in which people discuss the topic or books relevant to your interests. Connect with people and figure out what other people know.
2. Less > More
If there’s anything I can’t stress enough in this article, it’s this one:
Don’t. Over. Do. It.
Yes, you just gained all this information and have thought critically for untold hours. You’ve just decided exactly why your plot will work given the constraints you’ve researched. You’ve established where your readers’ knowledge ends and yours begins.
And now, I swear to you, you don’t want to go much further than your average readers’ knowledge – if at all.
When one is reading a novel, we’re reading for characters and plot. We’re reading for themes, symbols, metaphors. Technical information gets in the way very easily.
If your reader wanted to know the extra tech, historical, or other info that you’ve gathered, they’d have done the research themselves. And, you know, there will be readers who know that info. You don’t need to tell them about it as long as you’re self consistent. Consistency is what you do your research for, not for your writing.
What I’ve experienced happening with runaway explanations of technical information is that they either bore a reader or they make them feel stupid. Use the most common terms as you can without being incorrect. Don’t talk about numbers if you can avoid it. Even if you’re talking about cars, it’s probably best to avoid things like horsepower or torque unless essential to the plot.
Most of all: don’t brag or act like you’re bragging. There’s nothing worse than feeling debased by reading a book.
1. BETA READERS
You’ve done all of the above. You think you’re spot-on. But it’s not over!
All sorts of guesstimates about your average reader can be off. Once you do enough research, it’s hard to go back to where you were before. For example, I recently wrote a story that includes 19th century cannons, and I used cannon terminology like “caisson” and “limber”. Both these words are common in books about the Civil War or the Napoleonic Wars, but when I tested it with a purely fantasy audience, I got a lot of “wtf” and “this is confusing – I’m going to ignore this word.”
That means I estimated using the wrong standard! I shouldn’t have chosen a Civil War buff as my standard audience. The people willing to read the book showed me that. A test audience will help you figure out just how technical you need to be – and it’s almost never as technical as you believe it should.
What obstacles have you come across when reading or writing technical things? Have any opinions about info dumps? Let me know in the comments!