Don’t Quit – You Didn’t Mess Up Your Blog!

I’ve blogged seriously for long enough to have done several dirty deeds, yet somehow I’m at what I find to be a satisfying position regarding growth and participation.  So how did I come back from blog-killing mistakes?  There’s a key lie in that question:

There are almost no blog-killing mistakes.*

you right about that sugar

Here’s some hints to handle some of the boo-boo’s and uh-oh’s that come around.

I Accidentally Turned My Comments Off for Like A Week!  How Do I Survive?

I just got through this mess – and Lord knows it ain’t fun.

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If you’re lucky, you’ll have friends who’ll take the time to make the way over to your contact page (MAKE ONE IF YOU HAVEN’T) and submit something on that little form.

If you’re just starting out or your readers are on the new/untested side, you might want to schedule a check to make sure your comments are on your new posts.

Right now, you can check each article by clicking on ‘more options’ on the post maker and finding the “Allow Comments” checkbox.

WP Comments

Unless you’re really neck deep in trolls and hackers, do a double check before you post.  It’s way easier to comment if the comments are on!

Oh Snap – My Post Didn’t Make the Reader!

Sometimes this happens, and I’m not even sure why.  Most of the time it’s because you accidentally backdated your post so that it appears on the reader last year or something silly.  Sometimes blogging software is like, “Screw it, just not going to work.”

But that SUCKS.  Having your post not make the reader is about the same as missing a post entirely – and if you’ve been looking at any how to blog help articles, you know that consistency is important.

But don’t panic.

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There are some silver linings to this. First, a post not making the reader doesn’t mean your post was bad.  You can try to rescue it.

If you want to rescue it now, make a copy of the post, check all the settings, and publish it.  Take down the old post so people don’t think you’re spamming (and so comments don’t get strewn around), then leave a note explaining potential email shenanigans to your readers.  You should still get most of the benefits of the original post with only a trifle more effort.

Something else you can do?  You can easily mark that post to reblog again on a later date.  With so few people seeing the post, you should be able to publicize it again without seeming lazy.

And those people who still read your blog post anyway?  Well, it means someone loves you.

Why Are Other People Politically Idiots!?

Tip one: stay out of politics if it’s not your professed thing (oops, I suck at that).  But, you know, sometimes you just gotta get some dip and speak the truth:

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And those fools out there just don’t understand!  Still, the best thing to do is to ignore it or block them.  Here’s how you can do that: Go to Settings, then click the Discussion tab.  Scroll down to Comment Moderation.

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You can also block annoying people without political aspirations like I have (I reserve the rights to moderate anyone with the words ‘sexy,’ ‘id,’ ‘.website,’ and ‘.ru’ in their names, comments, or URLs – this has blocked quite a few annoying spammers, actually).

The bigger problem is if someone is being real mean to you.  Do you ban them?  Try to ignore it?  Or do you spread dirt around about them?

Just ban them like an ordinary spammer.  There’s nothing you can do to make yourself look like the winner of an argument like that.  Who knows – that person may even be popular or influential, and you don’t want to tick off your mutual friends.

But, you know, what if you’re the person spouting stuff and getting banned?

Well… you’re gonna have to get off that high horse.

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There are a couple things you can do to save yourself if you say something obtuse:

  1. Ignore it and DON’T KEEP STOKING THE FIRE.  Wait and see if the blog author thought it was funny too, or if it’ll slide away unnoticed…
  2. Apologize privately if you can, publicly if you can’t.  This will let the person know you recognize the mistake.  As long as you’ve not been mean in the past, they’ll probably understand the limitations of written word and forgive you.
  3. If you can’t stand letting them win, write up the argument in a document you’ll save on your computer and NEVER POST.  Once you take the bait, you run the risk of becoming a target.

As far as I’m aware, the goal of most writing bloggers isn’t to win arguments – it’s to meet people, improve our craft, and create a community.

But I guess if your goal is to put the smackdown on as many people as possible, go for it?

Have You Nearly Killed Your Blog?

What’s happened on your blog that made you want to quit?  Is there anything frustrating that you wish could be done better?  Let me know in the comments – maybe I or someone will know some work arounds!

*You may be able to kill your blog if you do something illegal or so distasteful that you get permabanned.  Be reasonable, folks.

5 Devious Ways to Improve Your Writing

I’ve written as a hobby for a long time – as such, I’ve had a lot of inspiration from friends, family, people on the internet, and (a few times) teachers. I’m not formally trained in linguistic arts, so I try to keep the best tidbits of advice close at hand whenever I put my fingers to my keyboard.

5. Comma Rules on Coordinating Conjunctions

When I was a freshman in high school, I found out that my elementary and middle education had been sorely lacking in grammar. I taught myself parts of speech and some other pieces of basic grammar, but as a sophomore I got a red-inkedCommas paper back from my teacher that showed just how lacking my skills with grammar were. I got a book from my teacher and taught myself one of the most easily forgotten and easily broken comma rules.

The rule states that if a sentence has two independent clauses separated by a coordinating conjunction, it needs to have a comma before that conjunction.  Just as importantly, if one of those clauses is dependent, the comma should *not* be there.

I wrote an entire series on my favorite comma rules, complete with examples, mnemonics, and other goodies.  If comma rules are something you’d like to brush up on, these are some of the most easily forgotten and useful rules.

Click here to go to my first of a series of comma articles

4. Minor Characters Can Enhance a Story – Or Bog it Down…

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Justice League Unlimited – somehow I liked it, but wow… terrible idea.

In high school English, I had a teacher who made the class spend a long time focusing on how Beowulf, titular character of the English epic, made certain to pay tribute to the poor sod who had to remain with and guard his ship.  With that one action, in just a small stanza, Beowulf’s honor and concern for the common man is accentuated.

When minor characters serve as foils, drive the plot, or serve to embellish a main character’s traits, they are extraordinarily useful.  Minor characters can have as much depth through what is left out as what is written plainly.  Named or unnamed, minor characters add a richness and depth that you can’t get without them.

At the same time, I’ve beta read and edited enough books to know that there are ways to overuse minor characters.  One book I read introduced a named character approximately every 1,000 words, and in a 100,000 word story, it became entirely untenable.  It was impossible for the writer to do justice to each of the characters with so little time dedicated to any of them.  If a character is invented just to show off an item, have a magical skill, or sit around being pretty, they may be better off excised from the story.

3. The Hidden Way to Indicate a Speaker During Dialogue

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If you’ve followed my site for a while, you may remember that I am an engineer by trade.  I learned this technique very late in the game, so I’m pretty sure it’s not obvious.  I even made a more detailed post about it here.  There are three ways to indicate speaker: directly tagging, back-and-forth with no tags, and interspersing with action.

Direct tagging serves a great purpose and makes it easy for the reader to pick out the speaker with almost no effort.  This is the way that you learned in grade school, and it should definitely still be in your repertoire.

Using actions around your dialogue adds another dimension to your writing and makes it more interesting for your reader.  The reader forgets that you’re telling them who said something and instead falls into your narrative.

Click here to read a more detailed article about dialogue.

2. How to Seek and Reduce Passive Voice

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Passive voice can be really useful, but it can also make a passage drag.  Being able to identify, assess, and change passive voice sentences tightens writing and draws a reader into the activity.  While passive voice has its uses, they are a bit more obscure (and for obfuscation!).

A quick and dirty explanation of passive voice sentences is a sentence where the actions are performed on the subject, and the subject seems to take a passive role.  I.e.

The dog was rewarded.

vs the active version:

I rewarded the dog.

Note that in the passive version, the actor – the person giving the reward – is completely missing.  If you want the focus off the true actor and onto the person receiving the action, that’s when you want passive voice.  It’s not quite as powerful or engaging for any other purpose, so identifying the voice and being able to change it is important.

For greater detail on passive voice, I wrote an article you can find here.

1. The Best Word Isn’t Always the Biggest Word

This is something I would have balked at before reading Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.  It doesn’t just serve to use a word with more syllables or more arcane qualities.  The goal of writing is to communicate thoughts, not to impress people with your intellect.

Aim for clarity, precision, and ease.  Sure, you’ll probably use a couple words your readers won’t know just out of general differences in people’s vocabularies, but people in your target audience shouldn’t have to look up many words as they read your book.  Be wary – if people reading for fun have to work for it, it’s going to stop being fun.  Once a book stops being fun, people are much more willing to put it down.

For more on this topic, you can find an article here.

See you Around!

Hope you enjoyed this ‘Greatest Hits’ article!  Are there writing tips that have helped you through your ventures?  Any that you wish you’d known long before now?  Craft books that you love?  Pop that in the comments!  I’d love to find out more things that I need to learn!

SEEK AND DESTROY Passive Voice Sentences

dr strangelove

Perhaps the title is a bit gung-ho (passive voice can be useful, as I’ll talk about more later), but use of the passive voice changes the feel of a sentence.  It clouds true meanings and dulls action.  Though you may choose to use passive voice to great effect, simply knowing how to pick it out of your linguistic soup will help you improve your writing.

What Is Passive Voice?

Passive voice is where the subject and object are inverted from the normal English word order so as to create an interesting, dulling effect.  It’s grammatically acceptable, and I almost guarantee you’ve used it before.  Let’s look at an example:

Active: George smoked the pot.
Passive: The pot was smoked by George.

The two sentences essentially mean the same thing, but the second George is less likely to face charges.  Why?  The first George definitely committed the act.  In the second example, the word order is inverted, and native speakers feel like the act happened to George.  Actors and actions are dulled by passive voice, whereas objects are accentuated.

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Check for “To Be” Words

 

Passive voice needs helping verbs in order to exist.  By checking for this verbiage, you can spot passive voice more easily.

What do I mean by ‘to be’ words or ‘helping verbs?’  Well, they’re the words you use to go along with another verb or, in this article, make passive sentences.  You can sing them all to the tune “Jingle Bells:”

Am Is Are
Was Were Be
Being Been Has Had
Have Can Could Should
Would Might May Must
Will Shall Do Does Did

Jingle Bells

 

Using that info, which of the following is a passive sentence?

  1. I walked down to Grandma’s house and shot a couple squirrels.

  2. Billy Jo tended the garden with a bear by his side.

  3. The turkeys were dressed by my mother.

  4. Mr. McCalister owns the Tallahachee bridge.

Spoiler: it was number 3!  Number 3 takes the object, the turkeys, and makes them the subject.  The action of ‘my mother’ is dulled, indicating the importance is on the dressed turkeys.

This doesn’t mean all sentences with helping verbs are passive, so you can’t just rearrange everything to stop including helping verbs.  Here’s some other uses that you’ll have to pick through:

Future Tense: Suzy will eliminate all survivors.
Continuous Tenses: Mr. Buchard was bicycling.
Perfect Tenses: Jeff will have escaped from prison by 5.
Ownership: The ants have a picnic basket.
Being: I am a douchebag.

Wow – with all those options (plus a few more), it’s not entirely straightforward to pick out the offensive instances of passive voice.  Here’s a set of more difficult sentences to check your skills:

  1. Due to his sharing of military secrets, Renault was a traitor to his country.

  2. “What have you done!?”

  3. She sits alone, waiting for his question.

  4. His lips are dry, her heart’s gently pounding.

  5. She was defeated at checkers.

  6. Alex enjoys watching Le Tour de France despite all the doping controversies.

  7. You guys should love my dog.

The winner?  Number 5!  Though the subject, whoever defeated ‘her’ at checkers, was never mentioned, the subject-object sentence order was still inverted.  Numbers 1, 4 and 7 use the ‘helping verb’ as the sentence’s main verb, whereas the helping verb is used for tense in number 2.

When Is Passive Voice Ok?

Passive voice isn’t just evil, and you’re ultimately the one who decides what happens to any sentence.  Plenty of reasons abound to use passive voice.

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When the Actor is Unknown – Sometimes, things happen for unknown reasons.  Maybe “The solution to the problem was left on the board” sound better than “Someone solved the problem.”  It can add an air of mystery that “someone” or “something” might not be able to provide.

When the Object Is More Important – There are instances where you don’t want the actor to be more important.  Sometimes, the fact that a person was bitten is more important than the fact that a dog bit someone.

When You Want to Reduce Importance of the Actor – This is usually the reason you want to avoid passive voice, but sometimes you just got to mislead a reader.  Reducing the subject’s importance also makes passive voice useful for victim blaming.  Victim blaming is a terrible, terrible thing, but you can make it useful in writing.  If your villain is nasty and psychological, using the passive voice can gaslight a victim and shove blame away from the perp.  I DO NOT CONDONE MAKING REAL LIFE VICTIMS FEEL LIKE GARBAGE.

My Top 3 Dialogue Writing Tips

Three characters in a book are talking.  The scene is heating up, and the dialogue is going faster.  Then, suddenly, you ask yourself, “Wait, who said that line?” and spend a long time figuring out what exactly is happening.

Everyone’s had that experience, and if you’re a writer, it’s something you fear happening with your own works.  Here are some tips and Black Dynamite gifs to help you avoid having dialogue that is difficult to read due to simple mistakes.

Use Standard Punctuation for Easy Reading

CIA

Direct tagging, or using ‘said’ words along with a title for the speaker, is the way your teacher probably taught you to make dialogue a long time ago.  A simple example:

“How are you today?” Sam asked.

In the above, the speaker – Sam – is obviously pointed out.  A bit less obvious, however, are the ways to keep this type of dialogue easy to read and effective at communicating information.  If you do your job right, a reader will be able to slide right over your punctuation without tripping.

Remember to keep quote marks outside punctuation like periods, commas, or question  marks.  When you have the dialogue tag ‘she said’ or ‘he said,’ remember that you should use a comma instead of a period.

This is right:

“I was at the store,” Alex said.

Whereas these are wrong:

“I was at the store.” Alex said.

“I was at the store” Alex said.

These basic rules can be broken, but it should be for good reason and with consistency.  The most memorable example I can think of is Johnny Tremain, a book set in Revolutionary War-era Boston that used apostrophes instead of quotation marks.  Even though the consistency made the author’s use of apostrophes work, it still took time for me to get over as a reader.  Think very carefully if the work your reader puts in will be worth it before you commit to non-standard format.

Indicate Speakers Through Action

When direct tagging is used repeatedly, the effect can become boring.  The tags, rather than melting into the background, become thorns that stick into a reader’s brain.

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This is what happens when you destroy the groove.

I learned this later than a trained writer would, so I know this lesson’s not entirely obvious.  By decorating the paragraph around your dialogue with actions and a specific actor, you can indicate a speaker.  Using action also helps your readers see the placement of your characters, see the setting, and visualize the speech.

Sam wiped his brow, taking the sweatband off with a pass of his hand.  “I’m going to the store.”

So much more about Sam’s situation is apparent in this example. By placing Sam’s movement just next to the quote, a reader can easily associate the action with the speaker.  You can put the actions before, after, or even break up dialogue to indicate who is speaking.

Is it appropriate in every case?  No.  But it is very effective, and it’s the hardest to practice.

Give Your Characters Distinct Voices

you right about that sugar

One of the hardest types of scene to get right is one in which 3 or more people speak.  In a movie or play, each character can be seen talking – but in writing, writers have to indicate who says which line.  That can get tedious real quick.

Instead, label sections with a high density of dialogue by giving your characters unique ways of speaking.

“I was attending a seance at the time.”
“Cal?  She with you?”
“I… I don’t know what to say.”

In the above exchange, it’s pretty clear that there are 3 characters at least.  The first sentence is from a character who uses larger, more mysterious words.  The second sentence is from someone who tends to skip words or information, giving short queries and responses.  The third person, at least in this scene, is nervous.

In addition to these stylistic differences, the characters reference each other to elicit a response from the correct party.  By combining this with voice, you can cleverly get away with using no indicators of speaker at all.  But beware – this can also be dangerous territory, so keep an eye out for confusing stuff.

Wrap Up

Dialogue is important in prose, and it’s something every writer must practice.  Do you have any dialogue writing tips?  Leave them in the comments below!

Roundup For July 2018

I usually post about books I read on Tuesdays, but this month I have a bonus Tuesday to write on.  On bonus Tuesdays I include some of my favorite posts and stories throughout the month, especially as they relate to my theme.  Since time travel is a bit hard to find, I’m going to be a bit eclectic this time.

Time Travel Relevant – THE SCIENCE BEHIND TIME TRAVEL by Voidroid

I’ve looked up quite a bit about time travel this month, and on July 15th I was surprised and thrilled to find that Voidroid had a pretty good, succinct explanation of time travel theory (With pictures!).  It was their first post, and I’m following them to see where they take the blog.  I expect it to be filled with pop science, and that could be great inspiration for me as a sci-fi writer.

Time Travel Relevant – Don’t Shoot Me in the Head by M. Talmage Moorehead

This story had a really interesting, weird way of foretelling the future.  When Mr. Moorehead gets a sci-fi concept going, it’s always really in-depth and psychologically interesting.  His first-person narrators are extremely personable, and the one in this story is no exception.  You really get to feel like the character is talking to you, not just blathering about in some invisible diary.

This story also had that cringe of the uncanny about it that I love so much.

All About Scrivener by Natalya Edwards

imageI’ve been curious about Scrivener for a while, but most of what I’ve seen online made it seem unnecessary for my needs.  Seeing Natalya’s opinions on it and a couple screen shots made me much more aware of the benefits of Scrivener as compared with other software options.  The way she framed the story as a personal search also made it relatable and approachable.  If you’ve ever considered Scrivener, take a look at this post.

The Smartest Woman on Earth by Tom Darby

I’m really glad I wasn’t drinking anything when I read this one, or I would have spilled it.  It’s political, but I swear to you that it doesn’t matter what side of American politics you’re on – you’re going to laugh and feel pain all at once.  This might be my favorite thing I’ve read this month.

 

 

Writing Good Characters of Other Genders

51pr6d7nsblMost characters you’ve ever read have been either male or female – but there are a couple non or ambiguously gendered characters that deserve high praise.  Ann Leckie’s Breq/Justice of Toren from the Imperial Radch trilogy stands apart as an excellent example, as is HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Whenever we think about AIs or aliens, the possibility that they may not express gender the same way as their author must be considered.

Even if you don’t intend to have computers, aliens, or other non-human characters, chances are high your book will include a character of a gender you don’t belong to.  That can feel difficult sometimes, but writing good characters of the opposite gender has similar premises as writing one without gender.

I’ve tried my best to write good characters of multiple sexes and genders, and here’s what I’ve come up with.

Think Critically about Stereotypes

photography of woman in front of man in red polo shirtSometimes this is easier said than done.  Stereotypes can help authors because it allows us to create a character whose traits are known quickly.  Give a female character a tight ponytail or bun, and she’s all ready to get down to business.  Give a guy a scruffy beard,  glasses, and a fedora, and he’ll live in his parents’ basement. A reader will know what to expect from these characters without the need to introduce them.

At the same time, using stereotypes can work against you if the ploy is too obvious.  If your character has very many lines or appears multiple times throughout the book, avoiding these quick-creation schemes can help alleviate the sense that you don’t know how people really act.  Treat every character with as much care as your lead, ensuring to give them depth and motivation.

Give Your Characters Reason

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Most humans are capable of judging and rationalizing decisions on their own.  Almost every human character is able to express rational thought.  Without these abilities, the decisions characters make wouldn’t have a complex set of causes and effects.  As a reader, you look for characters to make decisions based on causes, and you’re able to judge their decision making as a rational creature yourself.

If you wouldn’t make a decision your other-gendered character does, ask yourself ‘why.’  If it’s because of their gender, I’d really consider if your character is doing something reasonable at all.   Allow their decisions to be informed by the same information and feelings you would have.  Make sure that their decision to act otherwise still falls within a range of reasonability, and use your own rationality as a test.

That brings me to another robot trope: the inability to feel or express emotion.  If you make this choice, you have to be very careful to keep this character unfeeling.

Describe Appearance Respectably

Appearance is where it seems male writers of female characters fall into the most trouble.  Recently, there was a Twitter hashtag where female writers wrote about male characters like they perceive male authors write about female characters.  What I noticed most vigorously when I read some of these hashtags was the focus on appearance.  (Also, I desperately hope my female characters are better written than some of the ones the Twitter people pointed out!)

 

If you were to describe the people above as they appear, would you take them seriously later when they’re landing a business deal or piloting a ship to save the empire?  Whenever you describe a character’s physical appearance, you run the risk of idolizing that appearance rather than conveying their personality.  Even if you add personality or action for your characters, focusing on appearance can degrade any of the work you put into them elsewhere.

Parting Thoughts

If you’re writing erotica, all of these rules can be thrown out the window.  I’m not much of an erotica person, but I can tell you that it is not the same as other writing.  Stereotypes help you get straight to the sex, and appearances matter a lot with vicarious scenes.  So there’s that.

Otherwise, these tips mostly help set you on a path to respect your characters.  If you respect your characters, your readers will too.  Take yourself and your words seriously.  If you have questions about a character’s portrayal, try to get other people’s input – especially those of the gender or sex you’ve written about.

I like writing characters of vague, interesting sexes and genders (robots and aliens mostly, I’ll admit).  Have you ever had difficulty writing a character of a different sex, orientation, or gender?  Do you have any tips?  Let me know in the comments below!

Animal Characters in Writing

This month is animal month on my blog, and in honor of that, I’m going to focus on getting into the mindset of a non-human character.  These principles can, at least in some respect, be tied to alien or fantastical creatures, but for now we’re going to look at the creatures that share the planet with us.

In writing, animals exist on a sort of continuum from “Real Animal” to “Human,” and deciding where the characters you want to write should exist on that spectrum is a good place to start for your research.  You probably already have an idea on just how human your animals need to be, so I will focus here on ‘next steps’ to add extra flare to animal (and, in some cases, non-human) characters.

Completely Inhuman

AnimalAnimal thoughts are unknowable.  They can’t communicate (in most cases), and even when they do, conversations focus on food and other needs.  Alex the African Grey Parrot remains the only animal to ask an existential question “What color am I?”

Because it’s hard to create characters, either dynamic or static, writing about true animals usually takes either an informative stance or focuses on the relationship of the animal with a human – and almost always through the human’s lens.   Both of these try to be didactic, usually having a conservation message.  Typical popular books about real animals are about soft, fuzzy, or cute animals, and choosing the correct animal is important.

Another strange place to find writing about real animals is children’s books.  Often devoid of a narrative or deeper information, the books are intended to teach a child what kinds of animals there are, what colors they come in, and sometimes the body parts of the animal.  Though lively creatures with voices and forethought are more common in children’s literature, basic information about animals is abundant.

True animals as main characters are difficult to write –  I have tried – since the narrator necessarily can’t be the animal itself.  If the animal cannot communicate, its feelings and needs must be interpreted by the author and presented through the animal’s actions and reactions.  An animal also has very little sense of time, and thus planning or forethought would be missing from their narrative.  An animal’s struggle is far more instantaneous than a human’s, and goals that can span a story are difficult to come by.  After writing a mere short story from the perspective of a real mouse, I also thought that it became dull; there was no development or chance of development of my character, and writing anything longer than what I had would be both difficult and likely unrewarding.

The most interesting true animals in narratives, then, are often secondary characters or characters that have a close human companion.  I think the perfect example of this is Old Yeller (getting out my extremely manly tissue box while I think about it), where the titular dog is a stellar companion to Travis and his family.  Though the dog never has any real goals, Travis’s bildungsroman allows us to see the dog as an important character.  It allows the viewer (or reader – it was a book first, believe it or not) to import human feelings onto an animal.  Out of all the ways to psychologically explore true animals, doing so in relation to humans may be the best method.

Semi-Human

AnimalBy adding even a modicum of planning ability, including the ability to seek a longer goal, animal main characters become much more tenable.  Some famous examples of books in this realm include the unstoppable classic, Watership Down, in which characters that are physically and – in many respects – mentally rabbits are capable of being the subjects of a novel.  These characters have complex stories and emotions, and they are capable of communicating those emotions to an audience.

In Watership Down, which I will probably brag on until the day I die, the rabbits obviously lack an element of logic.  When Blackberry, the smartest of the lot, comes up with the idea of using a raft to get the weaker rabbits across a stream, most of the remaining rabbits are amazed and confused by the magic.  They have the goals of eating, sleeping, and mating like ‘true animals,’ but it is their ability to plan for the long run that makes them excellent characters.

To me, these are the most interesting characters to analyze psychologically.  Because they must necessarily miss some element of human logic lest they become human, a self-consistent story requires the characters to have interesting thoughts.  Richard Adams, in writing Watership Down, did so by studying Ronald Lockley’s Private Life of the Rabbit and incorporating several instinctual features.  Nilanjana Roy in The Wildings included a prey drive and knowledge of cats based on years of living with them.

I suggest researching your animal well before writing this type of story.  Being loyal to the animal’s nature, at least in a ‘truthiness‘ sense rather than a ‘true’ sense, is important to make these books and stories feel right.  As the two examples I mentioned (and will review later this month!) show, these stories can target an adult audience.

Mostly Human

AnimalThese characters act human, have human logic and planning capabilities, and often do things like cook, wear clothes, and have genuine wars (rather than just fights).  Other than their appearance and body parts, such as whiskers, these characters may have some animal traits (like an excellent sense of smell) but are otherwise mistakable for human.  Trading out human characters for animal ones would not necessarily change the course of the story too much.

One of the best examples of this is the Redwall series by Brian Jacques.  In it, animal protagonists and antagonists come together to fight in a D&D-like war.  There is deep folklore passed down among the peoples, and it is often easy to forget that you’re reading about (mostly) mice.  Only when there are multiple species present in the story do you really need to remember that you’re reading about mice.  It’s rarely relevant to consider the animal nature of the characters.

That being said, I don’t think Redwall would have been quite so good if it hadn’t included animal characters.  I don’t think I can put my finger on it, and perhaps it’s just in the way their society developed, but I don’t think the tale would have been as complete in a world populated by humans and orcs, etc.

In this story, research about animals need only be minimal.  Picking and choosing animal traits to examine is fair game.

How To Write Biology In Science Fiction, Part 2: Evolution (Including How It Affects Religion)

In the first installment in this series, we thought about what DNA itself was, and we delved into ideas about genetic modification in science fiction.  What I was building up to was this article, which was a terrible thing to tackle in such a short space. Multiple scientists and philosophers have considered what to think about evolution, and many have struggled. What I intend to do here is show how evolution is theorized to work, show some of the common misconceptions about evolution and why using them makes for a weaker story, and then have a brief aside on the religious aspects of evolution.

How Evolution Actually Works

1. Cartoon version of Peppered Moths in their natural state.

Let’s say you have a spotted moth that lives on a tree.  They might look something like what you see to the left.

As long as the moth doesn’t get dirty, it will remain somewhat difficult to see by a passing bird.  A moth like this exists in Britain – and it has for quite a long time.   It’s the peppered moth, and it’s a lovely example of how natural selection and evolution work.

2. Cartoon version of peppered moths after their trees become covered in soot.

In the early 1800’s, right when Britain was industrializing and producing more coal smoke, people began noticing these moths.  Judging by the picture to the left, it’s pretty obvious why this happened – the dirty trees made it easy to pick out the mostly white moths.  Humans weren’t the only creatures to begin noticing this moth, though.  Birds, the natural predators of the peppered moth, were also better able to pick out their prey and eat them.

3. Some peppered moths are born with defects that make them darker than the normal moths.

Sometimes, mutations happen in DNA that cause interesting effects, or sometimes DNA combines from parents in interesting ways to create a new effect.  At one time, a moth or some moths were born that contained a darker pigment.  This sooty looking moth wasn’t easy to see, and the birds also did not notice them as much.  The white moths were eaten at an increased rate, and so were not able to lay eggs and make as many new white moths.  Meanwhile, the black moths were getting it on.

4. Eventually, nearly all the moths were black. The black moths remained predominant until environmental laws got rid of the soot and, in some areas, the white moths returned.

The black moths became more common, since they had babies and weren’t eaten.  Eventually, as many of the white moths died off, the dark version became the main color of moth.  Humans were able to notice this change because the lifespan of a moth is so much shorter than that of a person’s.  The moths evolved over the course of several generations, and the changes were thus relatively slow.

Common Misconception 1 – Passing On Adaptations

Let’s think about the above moth scenario again.  This time, though, a moth isn’t born looking darker.  Instead, it flies into some soot and happens to look like the dirty trees, sort of like wearing makeup.  When it mates and has babies, this moth’s genes are still the underlying white.  Its children are no more likely to breed than any other moth because they have no natural advantage.  That first moth that got covered in soot simply had a lucky break.  Experience or changes in an individual don’t result in evolution.

Here’s a potentially better example.  Let’s say you have a pig, and you need to tag it so your neighbors won’t steal it.  You thus poke a hole in its ear where it’s not going to hurt.  Later, since this pig is a good pig, you decide to breed it.  Even though an offspring pig would be better off if it came with a pierced ear (since you wouldn’t need to do it and risk infections or pain later), there’s no way your offspring piglet will come with a pierced ear.  Neither of its parents had this advantage, so without random mutations, it won’t either.

Things that happen to an animal during its lifetime won’t affect how its offspring look.  Those are individual adaptations, or things that an animal can go through without dying.  To pass on a trait, the organism must have had that trait to begin with.

Common Misconceptions 2 – Metamorphic Evolution

This is more like what happens with butterflies or Pokemon.  It basically means that you start out with one organism, and that organism changes into another organism sometime during its life cycle.

If you ever watched a butterfly metamorphose, though, you know that the stages it goes through will be the same stages its offspring will go through.  It’s not quite accurate to call the stages of a butterfly as evolution, since pupal, larval, and adult stages are all the same insect.  Deciduous trees go through stages during the seasons, but just because it doesn’t have any leaves doesn’t mean it’s not an oak or a maple anymore.  It is impossible to start with an animal of one species and end up with an animal of another species.

Am I Doing Something Immoral by Writing About Evolution?

Long story short – only you can really determine if writing about evolution is immoral for you, but if you’re looking at this section with any sort of seriousness, you’re probably looking for an excuse.

If this is true, look at this.

Pictured: Proof of humanity’s hand screwing with God’s master plan.  Adorably, though.

This is a Pomeranian.  While it’s my favorite breed of dog, it’s still a 5-lb ball of fur that needs a human to comb it lest the fur mats, skin develops hot spots, and the animal gains tons of health issues.  It has no way to fight against almost any predator or prey despite being (mostly) a wolf by genetics.  In fact, the actual dog pictured to the left was incapable of killing a betta fish out of its tank (he just cried instead, which did allow me to save the poor fish from suffocating).  If this dog were to be left to the wild, I have no doubt in my mind that it would fail to survive.

I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household.  Like straight-up ‘7 modern-Earth length days of creation with no leeway’ kind of fundamentalist.  I appreciate that upbringing, and I totally understand where people who do think that way are coming from.  There is no way to prove them wrong, because in their mind God is too great for things that are so limiting as carbon-13 testing or the speed of light.  If you are in this camp, that is totally ok.  If believing in a strict 7-day, young earth interpretation of scripture is what makes you feel like God is the greatest of gods, then you should believe that.  If you believe that by writing a story with evolution in it, you are leading people away from a loving creator, you should strongly consider whether the story is worth telling.

I’m going to return to the Pomeranian, though.  Humans MADE that.  There’s no doubt in this fact.  They did so by selective breeding, or by making dogs with similar traits have puppies until they came out with the adorable fluffball.  The peppered moth above is a true story about how animals changed over a few generations without the direct (though, I admit, indirect) influence of humans.  While there are some gaps in evolutionary theory, like how eyes came to be, the basics makes a lot of sense.  I began to feel uncomfortable denying evolution as an undergraduate when I realized that dog evolution had to have happened.  Yet, at the same time, I felt uncomfortable leaving what I had learned growing up, especially when Biblical texts, interpreted literally, are pretty devoid of evolutionary theory.

But I could never leave the idea that God is too great for things that are limiting at all, whether through science or through our meager interpretations.  I decided that to read the text and limit God to 7 days as modern humans understand the time frame, to reduce his voice to a sound rather than a force which humans are barely capable of fathoming, or to reduce God’s workings into anything less than what God actually did is just as much a sin as forcing God out of the picture.  To deny the possibility of evolution, in my opinion, is wrong.  I suppose I can believe in both God and evolution because I don’t see them as mutually exclusive, but they are ideas I can hold in tension, at odds with each other in some ways, and yet believe both are true without believing everything is true.

If you can hold the ideas in tension, and if you believe that other people are just as intelligent and thoughtful as you, then no, it’s not immoral.  C.S. Lewis wrote fantastical stories like the Chronicles of Narnia or Out of the Silent Planet that have moral implications many believe trump the fantastical or evolutionary elements.  At worst, I think people are made in the image of God, and that means people enjoy creating.  Evolution can be a literary tool that, at least for us mere mortals, allows us to form ideas and imitate the creator that loves us.

My insight is probably not unique.  I’m probably not breaking any new ground or changing any minds, but perhaps I’ve given you something to think about.  That’s all I really wanted.

Pantsing With Myself

Some people plan out their stories, writing in detail an intricate set of plot-lines, character traits, background information, and more all before beginning.

Other people – like me – don’t.

I write by the seat of my pants, and my planning often starts and ends with something I thought of while showering or shitting. I accumulate a large amount of world background information as I write, and editing for consistency is a total pain, but I love how my plotlines come together. Sometimes I have to break down and plan out a scene (like when I write it four or five times and the characters simply will not act appropriately), and I like how many guides are out there to help me plan.

That got me thinking… what about those people who already plan heavily? What if there’s a scene where they’d like to ‘pants’ it? I surfed around and found some advice, but most of it focused on how to pants entire books or stories.  My thoughts are if you’re trying to figure out how to write spontaneously, you probably want the help for a couple of scenes before returning to planning.

The problem is that pantsing doesn’t really feel like something you can study and learn.  It seems like something you’d need to practice.  Here’s some quick tips on training to write by the seat of your pants.

Practice Improv

Pantsing is often hailed as organic or natural writing, and I find it the most exciting to pants while writing dialogue.  The characters say and do as they please, taking you as the writer on a journey – sometimes ones you don’t expect.

Listening to the voices in your head sounds fairly schizophrenic, but there are ways to cultivate the ability.  Improv in high school drama class probably taught me more than I realized, and it definitely helps teach getting in the mind of a character.

Playing in a heavy RP Dungeons and Dragons group can also help.  When you put yourself in the place of your character, you have to think and act quickly enough not to stall the game.  This forced interactivity and roleplay can get you accustomed to thinking through the mind of someone else, which is important when divining character action.

If neither of those options work for you or seem too socially daunting, I have an even dumber, less communal offering: play an RP video game with the intent to only choose the actions or words most suited to the character you are writing now.  I did a playthrough of Shadowrun as the main character in my novella, and I made a Mass Effect trilogy playthrough as the primary villain in my long series (that may be coming here soon if I decide to publish it that way!). Though video game roleplay is somewhat limiting and not quite as effective as the Dungeons and Dragons version, it does help you think through your character’s set of logic and personal rules.

Learn to Think Better

Pantsing starts with an idea, a character, something very small.  If you get stuck or need new ideas, having a good sit down and thinking can work wonders. Talk with your characters in your head, think about premises.  You can even feel free to write down notes about these ideas, especially if you are naturally a planner.  There’s no requirement to dive headfirst into pantsing without any idea where you’re going.

For me, most of my ideas come from one of three places:

1) A dream
2) Thoughts during a shower
3) Thoughts during a long poop

In only one of those scenarios do I have the ability to whip out my phone (or other things) and take some rather germ-laden notes. I keep creative writing notes on my phone as well as in a memo pad between to-do lists and work stuff, and I do so with alarming regularity (fiber, man).

My advice here is to start keeping an idea journal if you don’t already.  There need be no formality, no pressure, or even a real, physical journal: just thoughts you promise to keep alive.  Find where and when your best thoughts are made, then make sure you have note-taking supplies present.  You will come up with more trash than gold, but one day you may be inspired to take an idea forward.  My best work to date is borne from that mechanism.

Learn to Rewrite

Planners often have less work on the back end of a story.  If you’re just sticking your toe into pantsing, you may have difficulty leaving a sentence un-perfected.  You may have a need or desire to stop and adjust, make your story better while you write rather than put it off to later.  Maybe that works for you, but the closer I work to the speed of speaking, the more likely I am to be satisfied with the character’s actions.

Try altering how much editing you do as you write.  Edit more, edit less, and see if you like what comes out after combing it over.  Of course you will have to edit after the scene is done, but perhaps the act of just writing will help you get through a scene you’d like to pants.

How do you write? Pants or plan? Leave comments below with your own tips, especially if you have some good nuggets!

How to Get the Best out of Beta Readers

Welcome to the second post in a series on beta reading! I love beta reading, especially for science fiction or fantasy, and I believe the practice not only worthwhile but necessary. (If you would like to have me beta read for you, feel free to contact me using the form at the bottom of the page or through the comments.)

You may be gearing up to recruit beta readers – but what should you do when you have volunteers?  These tips are meant to get your noggin rolling and help you craft a good beta reading experience for your friends, family, and other volunteers.

Today’s Tip – Ask Good Questions

While I love beta reading and do detailed analyses for fun, most of your friends and family will be reading as a favor to you.  The easier you make their job, the more likely they will be to complete it.  Sometimes people will put in-line comments that are very helpful, but other times you’ll receive your lovingly crafted file back with one of a couple sentences at the end: “It was good” or “I wasn’t a fan,” some of which is determined by how much they like you as a person.

By placing questions at the end of the chapter, you do a couple things:

1) You direct your reader’s attention to items that you’re concerned over
2) You make it easy for your reader to interact with you by explicitly showing them what you want

Even if you get people like parents to beta read a book, offering questions to answer will help your readers return more useful information with less effort on both of your parts.

What Kind of Questions are GOOD Questions?

A good question is one that asks about specific information yet leaves enough open room for the reader to truly comment on your writing.

I recently had a fantastic beta reading experience, and I asked E. Kathryn, author of Fire’s Hope, if I could talk about it here. I thought her questions were posed very well. She left between five and eight questions at the end of every chapter, referencing events (primarily) in that chapter. If you join the bandwagon soon, you too can beta read for her.

Some examples of good questions inspired by my recent read:

Were the fighting descriptions easy to follow?

This type of question helps the reader consider writing style without seeming too ‘high school English class.’ Fight scenes, especially, have a tendency to focus on weapons, powers, and movement, which can get tedious or confusing to read. This type of question will ensure a scene is up to snuff.

One thing to keep in mind is that the more specific the scene you point out, the more likely the reader is to respond with information you need. Is there dialogue you’re concerned about? A transition of scenes? A sudden occurrence? Ask about those certain places you’re unsure about.  Feel free to point out specific paragraphs, especially if you’re able to put links in your document (as with MS Word).

Do you have predictions about what will happen next?

When your story is plot driven, it is especially important to make sure that the proper elements are set up to build plot twists and, eventually, the climax. E. Kathryn did a good job directing me to think about the trajectory for specific characters or items, and I replied to her with my predictions. If I replied with something completely out of left field, she now has the option to either scale back her surprise factor or ratchet it up.

You want to have a certain amount of your book predictable, but not too much. Keeping up with reader predictions will help you gauge the creativity of your story as well as how well you’ve built plot twists.

Do you think the main character’s angry attitude in the middle of the chapter undermines his role as a “savior” archetype?

This is an excellent question. It makes the reader think symbolically and simultaneously about character growth. I liked how it asked about an opinion on the main character and his ability to seem believable as he carried out the actions necessary to drive the story.

Character growth is essential for most stories, and there may be times where you feel your character’s actions are strained. Think about what you want from your character, and ask if that came across. If it didn’t, you may need to think more critically about who that character actually is or consider changing the scene to get what you wanted across.

What was your favorite/least favorite character/scene/setting element?

This is an easy question to ask, and anyone is capable of picking out a favorite (or defending their reason to avoid doing so). If your goal is to sell your book, you should hope that people do have favorites.

Least favorites, I find, serves more to allow the reader to vent; there’s always going to be something wrong with a story, and it’s often easier to find what’s wrong when you’re going in with a judgmental eye. It would be great if your readers take these questions seriously, because then you might get information about where potential buyers would stop reading prematurely.

How Often to Ask Questions

This is ultimately up to you, but at the end of chapters works well since a reader can answer during breaks. You can also have larger chunks of multiple chapters, perhaps in each of the pieces that you send, with a single set of questions.

One thing to be careful with in your questions is how much you want to spoil in the story. Make sure you read them over and consider if it’s going to give away romantic tension, plot twists, or other information that a reader without the questions wouldn’t have access to.

Good luck with your writing!

Want a good beta reader?

Not to brag, but I’m fairly good at beta reading. I’m confident with grammar, excellent at catching plot holes, and very experienced with science (for you science-fiction writers). Hit me up if you have something you’d like honest feedback on, especially if you have specific (and good) questions!