The “Ten Thousand Hour” Rule — Does It Actually Mean Anything?

CLOCK’S TICKING BRAH. Photo credit: wwarby on Flickr.

While chatting with my partner-in-crime Tracy McCusker of Dusty Journal this afternoon, we started talking about the hoary old guideline of 10,000 hours to master your writing (or whatever skill you’re attempting to master). At which point she dropped this delightful bomb of bitterness into the conversation:

If I see that 10,000 hours, I CAN MAKE YOU DO IT QUICKER tidbit on another blog, I am going to hate-spew a geyser.

First of all, 10,000 hours? That’s a handy approximation that may or may not be supported by scientific testing. Instead it is provided as *whatever kind of metric* everyone can use! But bam! with my SHAM-WOW WRITING COURSE I can cut that down to 8,000. What a bargain?!

Disclaimer: I haven’t read Outliers, the Malcolm Gladwell book in which the “Ten Thousand Hour Rule” is first mentioned, and I don’t really have a problem with the rule by itself. I believe the myth of “overnight success” is one of the most poisonous lies in our profession. I do, however, think that obsessing over the raw numbers themselves is a mistake. If you’re truly seeking mastery of your craft, there are better places to put your focus than how many hours you’ve clocked.

1) Make mistakes.

There’s a reason all the books on writing tell you to write every day, or at least as much as you can. It’s because all the theory in the world won’t teach you anything until you dive in and start getting dirty. The 10,000 Hour Rule is less about the hours themselves than about cultivating passion, routine, and a wish to learn from your mistakes. Of course, you can’t learn from your mistakes if you don’t start making some. So strap on your helmet, get in there, and start screwing up.

2) Fail outright.

One of the shaggiest adages from life’s Barrel-O-Advice is that “you learn more from failures than from successes.” There’s a terrific Ira Glass quote about this that sums it up more beautifully than I ever could, so I’ll just post it here.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.

Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.

Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Note that Glass doesn’t mention “hours” at all, but rather a body of work. Of course, building a body of work takes time, but the work matters most. Time is the means. Work is the end.

3) It’s not the hours, honey, it’s the mileage.

Say you were to write twelve books, all featuring the same plot, the same characters, and the same basic story arc. Maybe you change a few details here and there, but essentially you write the same book twelve times. Have you really gotten any better? Have you learned anything? If you have, it was probably by accident. The hours you spend should not be comfortable hours, breezily covering the ground you know well. Push yourself. Write something scary and exhilarating. Make some mistakes. See how it all fits together?

4) It’s not a numbers game.

Seriously, no Hours Police are going to show up at your door in overcoats and porkpie hats and chastise you for not putting in enough time. If you have indeed turned out a book before it was sufficiently polished, or sent out a query before you really have it nailed, your time deficit is likely to be reflected in unhappy readers, poor reviews, and rejection slips. Again, the real point of all those hours is to fire up your passion and your drive, not check off ten thousand tiny boxes with a #2 pencil.

5) Find what works for you.

Of course, all writing advice is ultimately disposable, including the advice you’re reading now. Maybe you’re a prodigy with enormous talent and you’ll make the squishy, uncertain status of “mastery” in 5,000 hours. Maybe you’re busy and unfocused and it will take 20,000. Either way, you’ll get there when you get there.

Which is not to say you should just relax and assume it’ll all work out — quite the opposite. One of the biggest lessons you learn as a writer is what a cruel and cunning enemy time is. His arsenal of weapons (deadlines, fatigue, scheduling conflicts) is enormous and daunting, and you’ll have to fight him every step of the way.

Don’t focus on how long you’ve been fighting. Learn to fight smarter and fight better. And above all, keep fighting.

That Thing You Do

This kitten is winking. Your argument is invalid.

Reading Julie Glover’s I’m Awesome! I’m Awful! Epiphanies While Editing post this morning, I was struck in particular by this passage:

  • I apparently think people wink a lot. My characters need to tone down their eye issues.
  • I used several rhetorical devices without realizing it (e.g., anaphora), and adding a few more helped with pacing and intensity.

After I was done laughing, I started thinking about the things I tend to use a lot in my prose — either things I’ve caught myself, or things other people have pointed out to me. Since I’ve been doing a lot of editing lately, here’s what I like:

1) Characters nonchalantly examining their fingernails to show how unconcerned they are with the situation they’re in. I’m so fond of this, apparently, that one of my readers said he expected it during a certain scene and wondered why it wasn’t there. Apparently that’s my shorthand for “I could kill you right now, but you’re not worth the trouble.”

2) The desk confrontation! Character A sits behind his desk, clearly plotting something. Character B bursts in and demands ALL RIGHT SUNNY JIM WHAT IS ALL THIS MONKEYSHINES. They then spar verbally until someone gets mad and leaves. I know, this is awfully specific, but it shows up a lot — so much so that I try to weed it out when I see it coming. I’ll set it somewhere fresh and inventive, like an underground parking garage, or… hmm. You know, forget it.

3) The Inept Bad-Ass. I love characters who are apparently hapless, but have some inner reserve or talent that overcomes their generalized lameness. I’m also fond of “Fool” archetypes who are too clueless to know any better, but get through the story through a combination of blind luck and the charity of others. Fortunately, I don’t usually make that guy the protagonist.

4) Characters raising one eyebrow in consternation or amusement. I’ve chopped that out so many times. No one wants a book of people doing Spock imitations. I also write people “barking” laughter a lot, which I suppose we could all live without. Woof woof!

In sufficient volume, these become risible cliches. You can’t read a discussion about Jordan’s Wheel of Time without someone mentioning the constant tugging of braids and adjusting of articles of clothing. I’ve never read WoT, but apparently it’s legendary for this kind of thing.

On the other hand, these personal chestnuts can add voice and character. Stephen King’s characters, for example, tend to fall back on a library of homespun Maine aphorisms and turns of phrase. Chuck Wendig’s characters lay out some of the most blistering and inventive profanity the written word has ever seen. Predictable? Maybe. But not necessaraily evil.

The key, I imagine, is whether these elements derive from character and contribute to story, or whether they’re filler because you can’t think of anything better to write. If the former, keep them around. If the latter, jettison them without mercy.

So what’s “that thing you do?” Any confessions you’d like to share?

You’re Reading It Wrong: How to Not Treat Your Readers

First of all, I want to thank Terri Long for the opportunity to participate in BlogFlash 2012. Although I didn’t make it across the finish line — and, in fact, determined that daily, manic blog posting contests are not for me — I had a blast participating.

And now, on with our regular long-form blog posts.

The Problem With “Pearls”

If you’re a fiction writer, you may have caught wind of the controversy over Victoria Foyt’s Save the Pearls. For those of you who don’t know, Save the Pearls is a book about a future where an environmental cataclysm has wiped out most of white humanity, leaving the dark-skinned people (or “Coals” as the book calls them) in charge. In this dark future (get it?), the Coals  ruthlessly oppress the light-skinned “Pearls,” who must endure such routine humiliations as wearing blackface in public. There’s even a book trailer featuring a young blonde girl wearing blackface.

I am not making this up.

Predictably, this met with some controversy. Weird Tales made plans to reprint the opening chapter of Save the Pearls, then quickly reversed that decision when it proved unpopular. Facing a barrage of criticism from the internet, Foyt wrote a defense of her work on Huffington Post that asserted that she wasn’t racist, it was the readers who were racist for making accusations of racism.

Like so many other critics, I haven’t read Save the Pearls, nor do I have any interest in doing so. Even if the premise itself didn’t strike me as ill-advised and problematic, it still wouldn’t be my thing.

I won’t go into exhaustive detail about how wrong-headed I think this concept is — although I will say that “what if black people were oppressing everybody and the white women were super-afraid because they weren’t in charge anymore?” is not what I call meaningful satire or social criticism. It’s runaway privilege masquerading as racial sensitivity, and Foyt should have known better. Maybe there’s something brilliant in Save the Pearls that saves the core idea from itself — but I doubt it. At best, this is like the kind of idea one should sit down and think twice about before pursuing.

However, I do want to take a moment to talk about Foyt’s reaction, which I think is a textbook example of how not to deal with your audience. Foyt’s defense on HuffPo basically amounts to “you’re reading it wrong,” telling her audience that if they have a problem with her work, that’s only because they don’t understand it.

Readers with long memories might recall Anne Rice’s meltdown on Amazon a few years back, in which she called her own readers big dummy doo-doo heads for blasting Blood Canticle, capping it off with rating her own book five stars. (The review was later pulled by Amazon, but replaced by a fan of her diatribe.) Rice went one step further, saying that she had outgrown her editors: “I have no intention of allowing any editor ever to distort, cut, or otherwise mutilate sentences that I have edited and re-edited, and organized and polished myself… for me, novel writing is a virtuoso performance. It is not a collaborative art.” (Incidentally, the number one criticism of Blood Canticle? “Needed an editor.”)

Here’s why this kind of thing generally doesn’t work in your favor.

You don’t get to decide how readers react to your work.

Once you finish a book and put it out there, it pretty much has to speak for itself. You don’t get to tell your readers how they’re allowed to interpret it, or how to feel about it. If they find what you write offensive or objectionable, that’s their right.

This may come back to bite me someday, but I believe that once you release a creative work into the wild, to some degree, it belongs to your audience. George Lucas has taken no small amount of static over fiddling with his beloved movies long after fans began to think of it as their own. Lecturing your readers on how they’re supposed to react — what they are and aren’t supposed to like — will do nothing but alienate people and undermine your credibility.

Your readers are smart.

Not every criticism is valid, or even worthwhile. Yes, some critics will willfully misinterpret your work because they want a good excuse to hate on something. But readers, and genre fans in particular, aren’t all dunces with no sense of subtlety or detail. If anything, the most hardcore fans are often  incredibly detail-oriented, analyzing every last paragraph for weaknesses, like a sapper preparing to lay siege to a fortress. If smart, educated people gather in force to tell you in detail why your work is problematic, maybe it’s not because they lack the brainpower to comprehend your awesomeness.

Also, if you must rail against your own readers for daring to question your work, don’t end your defense with “well, my book won a bunch of awards, and [name-dropped celebrity] said it was good, so clearly I’m right and you’re wrong.”  That’s pure clown shoes.

If your book requires a separate, detailed explanation of its own premise, you may have a problem.

After the opening salvo of  “no, you’re the racist,” Foyt’s article moves into a defensive recap of her book, explaining why all the problems in the book aren’t actually problems. You say “coal” is an actual racial slur against blacks? No, see, that doesn’t matter because “coal has energy, fire, and real value,” and that exempts me from having to do any historical research. You say the title of the book loosely translates as Save the White People? No, it’s okay because I’m being provocative. You say that “confronting racism” by making it all about the poor white people being oppressed is incredibly problematic? Well… um… provocative! And you’re dumb and racist!

I’m not making the case that fiction should be so watered-down and easily digestible that it will offend no one — but if you go to this level of detail to explain why people have no right to be offended and why you’re not a huge racist, you might want to take a look at your elevator pitch and rethink it  — or maybe come to grips with the realization that you don’t have the chops to pull off a brilliant racial satire.

Don’t call your readers racists, and don’t obliquely compare them to McCarthy.

Foyt responded to criticisms of her work by saying “this kind of blind attack is exactly what creates racism or condemned many progressives as communists in the Fifties.” Attempting to martyr yourself with this kind of thing will win you exactly no points with anyone. Go ahead and feel like a persecuted outsider all you like, middle-class white lady, and feel free to compare your critics to blacklisting scaremongers from a bygone racist era — but don’t expect your readers to swallow that kind of insult and pick up anything you write ever again.

What do you think? Am I being too hard on Foyt? Not hard enough? Sound off in the comments. 

Your Emergency Minimums

Photo credit: tsaiproject on Flickr.

I have a close friend who’s been going through a very tough time. The kind of tough time that would reduce most other people to a quivering pulp. He’s under pressures I can barely imagine, and is still such a fantastic guy that he takes the time to sit down and listen to my problems.

So when I told him that I’d been having a hard time getting any writing done, he asked me: “what are your emergency minimums?”

He went on to explain that long ago, when his free time suddenly diminished dramatically, he decided on a few “emergency minimums” for his daily routine — things that were important to him that he would do every day / week / month, no matter what. It might be something as simple as a daily meditation, or a bit of reading, or an exercise routine.

He wouldn’t make excuses for himself, or put these things off indefinitely and then feel bad about putting them off. He wouldn’t mourn that he wasn’t able to put as much time as he wanted into his projects. He didn’t concoct elaborate schemes with catchy code names. He’d plan, and then put a little time in, wherever he could, without fail.

And at that point, I had to confess — I didn’t have any emergency minimums. I didn’t have any minimums at all. I had planned to fail by failing to plan, as the platitude goes.

I have clinical depression. I’m on medication for it. My therapist once classified me as “high-functioning” and in general, that’s true — I have it a lot better than a lot of people who struggle with depression on a daily basis. Thanks to medication and therapy, I get through most days just fine.

But there are bleak days when I don’t feel “high-functioning” at all. I’m not talking about feeling a little grouchy, or in need of coffee. That’s a daily occurrence I’m well-equipped to handle (hint: the solution is coffee.) I’m talking about a gray fog being drawn across all of reality, where your own psyche becomes a schoolyard bully who has singled you out for an extended ass-kicking.

I’m not mentioning this to throw a miniature pity-party, complete with kazoos of despair, but rather to give some context. I’m just saying, there are days when even writing the crappiest blog post imaginable might as well be the twelve labors of Hercules. My fiction all starts looking like the worst dross a rabid chimp ever typed by accident. In short, the thought of neglecting one’s work, of just letting it go until things brighten up, becomes downright seductive.

This is not uncommon among writers. Ours is not a special snowflake of pain. Sometimes it’s life, or depression, or fear, or good old-fashioned laziness.

Any writer will tell you that writing daily is essential. Hell, I’ve said it, probably with a lot of pomposity and finger-wagging, too. I talk a big game (like many a blogger), but my money and my mouth often occupy different space-time continua. Balancing writing with our daily lives is something we all contend with, to some degree or another. We all have our excuses, legitimate or not.

This is where emergency minimums come in.

So I’m going to start setting some modest goals. Not sweeping, punch-out-the-universe goals, but manageable tasks that I can reliably complete. I may not be able to spare four hours a day for writing, but I sure as hell can spare thirty to sixty minutes.

A person can get a lot of work done in that time. Or not. But the point is to do the work.

So what are your emergency minimums?

Surly Questions: Yuvi Zalkow

If you aren’t already watching the brilliant, funny,  videos of soft-spoken and self-deprecating Yuvi Zalkow, you should be. A self-confessed “failed writer,” Yuvi nonetheless keeps turning out content, including his latest novel, A Brilliant Novel in the Works, which is available on Kindle now. Which is a great hook for some cheap, “Who’s on first” type comedy:
“I have a brilliant novel in the works.”
“What’s it called?”
“A Brilliant Novel in the Works. “
“Yeah, but what’s the title?”
Thanks for the great interview, Yuvi!

1. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I was pretty late to the party. It wasn’t until my college years (when I was studying to be a computer engineer) that I realized how badly I wanted to tell stories. I was a bit of an emotional wreck during those years and I was dying to get those feelings out of me and onto the page. Those first stories were way too self-absorbed and melodramatic, but I kept at it. It was another ten years before I got any good at telling stories. Now with 33% less self-absorbed-ness and melodrama!

2. The tagline of your website reads “novelist, failed writer, schmo.” What does “failure” mean to you?

I just got asked that question over lunch recently and I realized that I change the meaning of “failure” on a weekly basis. In one of my Failed Writer videos I try to tackle the subject. That attempt is probably as good as any. But to sum up, my take is that feeling like a failure is a state of mind. And not necessarily a bad state of mind. There is a constructive aspect and a dangerous aspect. The bad part is the way I can carry around a paralyzing feeling of shame. The good part is the attitude that I always have a lot more to learn and I should never pretend like I know what I’m doing. I move between these worlds more than I’d like to admit.

3. What inspired your video series?

I knew I wanted a venue for having a conversation with other creative types. I started out attempting to blog but it just didn’t flow right for me. A week after every blog post, I’d delete the post in disgust. In 2010, I did a video slideshow as part of a lecture when getting my MFA at Antioch University. A few months later I started thinking just how much fun it was to make that video and present it. And so I tried another one. And another one. They got more complex and quirky each time — that goes for both the content and the way the videos were made. I started animating them using my terrible artistic skills. Pretty soon, I realized that a common theme running through my videos were about the crooked writer’s life, and in particular, the ways I’ve slipped up along the way. So I created the I’m a Failed Writer video series using that theme.

4. What equipment do you use to produce the videos?

This could turn into a very long and very geeky answer if I’m not careful. The main screen recording software I use is ScreenFlow ($99) for the Mac. This is a nice, easy way to capture the screen, as well as edit video and audio. I also use my iPhone to film video footage. I have a Blue Yeti USB mic ($99) for audio. And I use other tools, depending on the video. It seems like each video, I try to learn something new. Which explains why it takes me so many damn hours to make these things. I’m constantly stumbling through new tools.

5. Self-deprecation seems to play a big part in your videos. Is this just your sense of humor at work? Is it a way of coping? Both? Neither?

Both. Definitely. It was born out of a deep sense of shame I felt as a child. But at some point (between the ages of 18 and 30?), I learned to intentionally use self-deprecation for humor. Both to cope with a genuine, low self-esteem, but more and more because it is so much fun to watch others get caught off guard by how willing I am to throw all my flaws out on the table for them to look at. My novel is an exploration on how far I can go with that sort of persona.

6. What does your wife really think of your writing and your video series?

Wow. Now that’s a question from someone who has really been watching my videos! Nice. Just last month, when I made my wife review my video Beyond Microsoft Word, she said something along the lines of, “You know, I don’t *really* get that upset with you.” And that was when I realized that I make her out to be a lot more annoyed with me than she is. The wife character in my novel (which is about a writer named Yuvi) is also an unrealistic depiction of my real wife. Don’t get me wrong, she gets annoyed with my many quirks, but not quite like how I portray her in my storytelling… Then again, maybe I’m lying here too 🙂

7. What has been the most rewarding thing about connecting with other writers through social media?

I never thought I would join the social media game. And I’m still horrible at Facebook (even though I stupidly have an author page, a book page, and a personal page). I do feel more at home with Twitter: I love its brevity. What is satisfying for me is to see people who really know how to shine on these forms of social media… not just annoying self-promotion, not just stories about their pets, not just complaints after going to the post office, but the right balance of many things. It’s easy to make fun of people who spend eight hours a day on Facebook instead of writing, but I think there’s also an amazing aspect to the virtual communities that form in these social media realms. Having a satisfying banter with smart, funny people on Twitter every few days is a real joy for me.

OK. I haven’t answered your question. I guess I don’t know what is most rewarding. But it’s nice, especially for writers I think, to have this way to connect with others during their lonely and isolating pursuit. You don’t even need to put your pants on. Which is a plus.

Just don’t ask me about Pinterest. I still don’t get it.

8. What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

I honestly don’t know if I made this up or someone actually told it to me but the advice goes like this: “follow the advice that speaks to you and disregard the rest.” It’s sort of a meta-advice piece of advice. But it was helpful for me because there is so much good-sounding advice out there that is actually bad to pay attention to, depending on where you are at in your writing and in your life.

9. Can you give us any hints about your “next big novel”?

Well. I do have a novel in the works. It’s about this Polish Jewish immigrant family who moves to rural Georgia in the 1930s. It’s quite different than novel #1, largely because this one doesn’t play with the novel/memoir boundary. And I actually have to do some (AHHHHH!!!!!) research. I’ve got a completed draft at this point, but I can tell it needs LOTS of work. Much harder and more audacious a project than anything I’ve attempted before. So look for it between 2013 and 2043.

10. Are there any other exciting projects in your future?

My next projects involve working on novel #2 and finding a new angle on the Failed Writer series. Let’s see how well I fail at those two things.

11. What are your top five “desert island” books?

The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, Herzog by Saul Bellow, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky… and Sugarcane Island, by… somebody… It’s a Choose Your Own Adventure story that was my favorite as a kid. I haven’t read it in 30 years so who knows how corny it is now. But it seems like good stranded-on-an-island material.

Oh wait. Scratch that Sugarcane Island crap! What about Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Chekhov, Cheryl Strayed, Alice Munro, David Sedaris, John Updike, Malamud, IB Singer, Kafka, Marquez… I NEED MORE TIME! GIVE ME MORE TIME! I can’t decide! Too many choices!!! For the love of God, give me more f!@#$!ing time to choose my desert island books!!!

Are you an author looking for an interview? Know anyone who is? I’m always interested in talking with authors. Email me

Learning is Not Doing

Photo credit: andy_carter on Flickr.

When people ask me for writing advice (and God knows why they ask me in the first place) the first thing I tell them is: go find some books on craft and read them. There are plenty of great ones:

  • On Writing, by Stephen King
  • The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, by Jack Bickham
  • Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
  • The Art of War for Writers, also by James Scott Bell

And so on. I firmly believe that passion and intuition will only take you so far. There is a craft and a design to good fiction, and it’s not always subjective and elusive. Not every piece of fiction should slavishly follow a wildly complicated, Robert McKee-esque diagram — but there is, all the same, a formula, and even if you don’t want to follow it, you’d be well-advised to at least know what it is.

But there’s a limit.


Like a lot of writers, my shelf groans with how-to books on writing. I have more of them than I’ll probably ever read in their entirety. I have more still in my Amazon wish list, and have gone so far as to ask people not to buy them for me because I already have too many, thus defeating the purpose of a wish list. Now it’s a list of dread and moral horror.

The first four books I put on my Kindle? How-to writing books. All free, because man, if there’s one thing we writers know how to do, it’s how to give our advice away for nothing.

I’ve spent many hours reading up on craft, and it’s served me very well. But there comes a point where you have to set the driver’s manual down, get behind the wheel, and start causing some accidents.

Learning Can Be Resistance

I’ve talked before about Steven Pressfield’s notion of “resistance,” the sneaky deceiver that creeps into our subconscious like Gollum and cranks out excuses for us not to write on its tiny jack-in-the-box of failure. As Pressfield points out, resistance isn’t always obvious. It can take the form of things we think are productive, like:

Creating elaborate filing systems

  • Drawing up a four-page backstory for that cabbie in our novel who shows up in one scene and is immediately shot
  • Drawing plot diagrams
  • Reading about drawing plot diagrams

In other words, self-education on writing craft can itself become an obstacle.

Learning Can Paralyze You

A lot of writing advice is flat-out contradictory, especially when you read around the blogs of your writing peers. Everyone has a process that works for them, and while some elements of fiction are universal and axiomatic, others are highly subjective. If you take everything at face value, you’ll soon find you can’t pen a single paragraph without violating someone’s deeply revered First Rule of Writing.

Does all that information you’re absorbing convey any benefit if it paralyzes you into not writing? Not really, no.

Learning Takes Time

As I said above, you can read the driver’s manual all you want, but you’re not going to really start learning until you get behind the wheel and start the engine. Theory is just theory. It doesn’t mean anything until you put it into practice. I think it’s vital that writers learn the tools of craft, but every hour spent reading writing advice is an hour spent not using those tools. The rubber’s got to meet the road sometime.

How Do You Know?

So are you learning, or stalling, or possibly both? Fortunately, there’s a handy measure that can, beyond any doubt, determine whether all that sassy, irreverent writing advice is doing you any good. Ready? Here it is. In your mind’s eye, check one of the following boxes:

And it’s not multiple choice.


If the answer is “no,” then yeah, you’re stalling. Shut down the browser, put down the book, and get to work. It’s as simple as that. Optimally, take some of the stuff you’ve just learned and kick it into play. Find out if it works for you — because hey, maybe it doesn’t.

Just keep writing. That’s the game we’re all out to win, and, to butcher a WarGames quote, the only winning move is to play.

The Woeful Writing Warnings of Superman III


If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then I’m about to compare JM Bell to Jesus Christ incarnate, because this entry is basically “What Can Superman III Teach You About Writing?” without any useful pedagogy.

If you haven’t checked out Bell’s “What Can So-And-So Teach You” series over on Start Your Novel, you should check it out. Bell offers lean, well-researched cuts of delicious insight on how to be a better writer. I serve up heaping slabs of snark with a side of sarcasm gravy. I am the Fuddrucker’s to his Morton’s Steakhouse. So pull up a chair, stick your napkin into your collar like some kind of animal, and prepare to chow down!

As this post might imply, I recently watched Superman III. Yes, on purpose. Now, I know what you must be thinking: why? The truth is — heresy alert — I prefer the campy idiocy of Richard Lester’s film to the bloated, galumphing Donner films (that would be I and II). I realize that among comic geeks, this admission places me in good company with Stalin and Pol Pot, but that’s a cross I’m willing to bear rather than sit through the original Superman again.

Not that Superman III is actually any good. In fact, it’s terrible. (This is just the kind of blistering insight you keep coming back for.) It has writing lessons to offer, but nearly all of them are outstanding examples of What Not to Do. And while I realize that bagging on Superman III for being crappy is like calling out Milli Vanilli for lip-synching at this point — it’s basically taking the low career point of a bunch of people who are now mostly dead and saying “hey, mostly dead people, your past work sure did suck!” It also dates me rather badly, but that’s inevitable at this point. Y’damn kids!

But, being wildly unfair and obvious never stopped me before, so let’s get started, won’t we?

Superman Laugh-In

Blind man operating dangerous machinery: metaphor for the film and its director?

Not one to keep the audience waiting, Richard Lester chose to disappoint everyone right away by starting Superman III with a bunch of slapstick. You know, mimes, flaming penguins, people getting hit with pies — basically an all-star lineup of unfunny sight gags. You think I’m making that flaming penguin thing up, don’t you? Nope. Now, I didn’t love Superman Returns by any means, but at least that movie had a good sense of how to begin — with a high-speed flight from Krypton to Earth.

The lesson here being, don’t start your story with something that sets entirely the wrong tone.

Gus Gorman, The Funniest Murderer-Genius

Well, Burger King didn’t work out, maybe I can murder the Man of Steel for a job!

Last week, when I was asking around for blog post recommendations on Twitter, the inimitable Angel King (@KingsElementals) recommended I do a piece on schizophrenic characters and how to avoid them. Cool, well, here’s my quick guide.

1) Watch Superman III.
2) Observe the actions of Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor)

I hope you appreciate all the hard work I’ve put into this tutorial.

But seriously, Gus Gorman is a terrible character in almost every sense of the word. He’s funny (if you consider Richard Pryor funny), but he makes no sense at all. We first see Gus as an unemployed nincompoop who can’t even hold down a job mopping floors. Then, in the space of a few minutes, he becomes a sort of computer savant who manages to program computers without knowing anything about them. Since computers in movies are magic (see below), his genius is established by him typing things into a terminal in plain English like “DO AMAZING UNBELIEVABLE STUFF.” And then the computer does it. Damn, that Gus Gorman is brilliant!

Now, I can forgive that, because the movie itself is so goofy and clearly doesn’t give a tinker’s damn for verisimilitude. What I can’t abide is Gorman casually trying to assassinate Superman halfway through the movie by synthesizing Kryptonite. Gorman makes a big green chunk of Kryptonite, walks right up to Superman, and hands it to him. When Superman doesn’t die, he calls his boss in mild bewilderment. SUPERMAN, Y U NO DIE?

Now, the story has already established Gorman as an unsuccessful janitor, so it’s not really a surprise that he should also be an unsuccessful assassin of superheroes. But then, in the third reel, Gorman goes berserk when the super-computer he designed — which was built specifically to try to kill Superman — attempts to kill Superman. Gorman takes an axe to his own creation, crying out “stop it, you’re killing him!” Um, yeah, a-hole, maybe because you designed it to? That’s been your whole arc. And what leads him to change his mind and give up his dream of super-homicide? Nothing, really.

This is Crap Characterization 101. Gorman has one motivation through most of the movie, then changes his mind for no reason other than the story calls for it. A good character has clear goals and sticks with them unless some important catalyst turns him from his chosen path. Protip, “because it screws up my story otherwise” is not a valid catalyst.

Computers “R” Magic

C’mon, LOTUS 1-2-3, scan the galaxy and make me some Kryptonite! Ctrl-Shift-K!

I don’t expect much from Hollywood computers. Actually, scratch that — I do expect almost everything from Hollywood computers, and that’s pretty much the problem. Hollywood computers are wizards. The Eighties loved pulling this kind of crap — WarGames being a prime (although entertaining) example.

My favorite part of Superman III (aside from the “Shoot Superman With Rockets” video game built into the defense system, complete with Atari 2600 Pac-Man sound effects) is the bit in the middle where Lex Luthor Lite (Robert Vaughn) tells Gus Gorman that since weather satellites can predict the weather, it should be a simple matter to make the weather satellites change the weather. And then Gus agrees, and then that’s what they do.

I’m sure there’s a great story to be wrestled out of the conceit of surveillance equipment being able to directly manipulate the things it observes. Since parking garage security cameras can watch you park their car, it should be a simple matter to make them drive cars themselves! Watch for my upcoming screenplay, P2 II: Killer Kameras, starring Rachel Nichols’ ample cleavage against a murderous cadre of Prius-driving electronics.

Granted, the lesson here is a tad feeble, perhaps something like “please do basic research and do not make your Commodore 64 into an omnipotent sorcerer.” Unless your story is about a Commodore 64 which is actually an omnipotent sorcerer. That plays Archon. Against itself. And is patched into NORAD somehow. And then tries to checkmate… the world! HOW ABOUT A NICE GAME OF CHESS?

Plot Sagging? Just Add Kids! Better Yet, Don’t

“Natural selection is telling you something, kid.”

I don’t have much against cute kids in movies. I recognize them as something of a necessary evil. No superhero ever scored big points with audiences by saving asthmatic octegenarians from runaway wheat threshers. But there are limits to my patience, and the “cute” kid in Superman III scampers right past those limits and triumphantly spikes the ball in the End Zone of Annoyance.

For a cute kid to work in a story, he shouldn’t be completely worthless. By which I mean, he should be able to go five minutes without breaking something expensive or wandering obliviously into an obvious deathtrap. The kid in Superman III, Ricky, is pretty much without redeeming virtues. He’s a terrible bowler. He lies to his friends about Superman showing up for his birthday party, then sulks when his birthday party is turned into a town-wide parade. Lana Lang takes her eyes off him for five minutes and he runs directly into the path of running farm machinery, nearly getting himself violently hay-baled and forcing Clark Kent to break cover in the middle of his nice picnic. Great, now his feast of unlabeled dog food is ruined.

Later, Ricky knocks over a bunch of stuff and then goads Evil Superman into a murderous frenzy with a torrent of high-pitched whining, which is arguably the only positive act he commits in his fictional lifetime. Does Ricky learn anything from this? Does he even show signs of rudimentary sentience? No. He continues to be a clumsy imbecile until the final moments of the film.

I could probably write an entire post called “Unlikeable Characters: That Little Bastard Ricky From &%^$! Superman III“, because Ricky is a great example of how to write a character no one will empathize with. In general, the point of a “cute kid” archetype is to either amuse or garner sympathy when they’re endangered somehow. If your audience is praying aloud for their violent dismemberment by the time they get to the “endangered” part, you’ve blown it.

One Good Character, One Outstanding Moment

Behold, the movie’s only smirk-worthy joke.

So we’ve firmly established by this time that Superman III does plenty of things wrong. There are, however, a couple things it does awesomely right — much as it pains me to admit it.

First, the character of Lorelei, the bubble-headed, poodle-haired arm-candy of Lex Luthor Lite. She’s flighty. She’s dopey. She’s dumber than a bag of hammers — except that she isn’t. Where Gus Gorman is presented as a hapless dolt who is somehow a genius (just take the film’s word for it and don’t ask questions), Lorelei actually is a genius pretending to be a hapless dolt. We discover this through a couple key moments of dialogue, where the story reveals that Lorelei’s brain-dead blonde act is just that — an act — without hanging a lantern on it. The movie doesn’t do as much with this concept as it could, but it’s still a nice touch, and for me, one of the only genuinely funny things in the movie. (Which is still not very funny, but it’s better than the concentrated, Neil Hamburgerian anti-humor of, say, the opening credits.)

Last but not least, I’m going to talk about the movie’s crowning moment: the junkyard fight between Superman and Evil Superman. I won’t lie — this sequence is awesome from beginning to end. It’s Superman kicking his own ass. It’s Superman calling himself names and tossing himself into a car-crusher. Why wasn’t the whole movie like this? I mean it. Why isn’t the entire movie made up of the junkyard fight? Ninety minutes of Superman clouting himself in the face. I’d watch it. Of course, I watched the movie as-is, too, so we’ve established my standards aren’t high.


My favorite moment in this sequence comes early on, when Evil Superman lands in the middle of the wrecking yard and starts screaming in agony as the employees look on. Does anybody try to help him? No. They clear out at top speed, because they have the good sense to know that when Superman shows up at your workplace shrieking like a banshee, you better clear the hell out.

What I love most about this scene is its simplicity. We don’t get any Zack Snyder-style slow-mos with gravelly voice-over explaining why this battle is important, or its psychological implications. There’s no monologue. Clark Kent just chokes his alter ego to death and then goes back to taking care of business. The way it ought to be.

Howard Hawks once said that to make a good movie, all you needed was “three good scenes, and no bad ones.” Well, Superman III has bad scenes falling out its wazoo, and I’d argue that the junkyard fight is the only good scene in the whole flick, aside from the supercomputer turning Lex Luthor Lite’s hag of a sister into a killer cyborg for twelve seconds. An audience will forgive a lot if you give them one spectacular, memorable sequence.

Social Media and Indie Authors: How (Not) to Behave

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(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A while back, I wrote a post on how not to respond to reviews. Oddly enough, the author who lashed out at me in the first place recently followed me again on Twitter. Which made me wonder if she simply forgot how totally wrong and dumb I was about everything, or whether some piece of software followed me for her. And then I moved on with my life. But that (along with an anecdote from another Twitter-er-er), got me thinking.

Which brings me to today’s subject: how not to behave on social media. First, the self-evident stuff, because what is Internet pedantry without presenting common sense like it’s some kind of mystical Zen key?

Don’t Be a Jerk

Everybody loves sarcasm. Oh, yeah, everybody in the world just loves sarcasm. Go on, ask them, I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to tell you all about it.

Witty complaints or acidic barbs can entertain and enthrall — in moderation. But no one’s interested in a constant bitchfest. Your followers do not want to hear about what a burden it is to have so many fans, or how angry you are that so many authors are promoting their books(instead of yours).

I recently read a blog post in which the blogger (who shall remain unnamed) complained at length about how readers were lazy, fickle, had no attention span, and only enjoyed reading genres that he held in contempt. And that’s why his sales were crap. Well, gosh, let me run right out and buy your book, mister. Nothing captures my interest like an author telling me what an idiot he thinks I am. You’ve got a fan for life, sir! Was his screed aimed at me? Probably not. But it doesn’t actually matter — here’s an author who finds readers in general to be an inconvenience. Pass.

When interacting with your (potential) audience, keep your energy positive. If you have some kind of trouble that you think others can help with, just ask — people love sharing their expertise, especially if it gives them a chance to dispense advice like an obnoxious blowhard. (Cough.) But don’t go on your social media platform of choice to let the world know how terrible you think everyone is. Dale Carnegie would not approve.

Don’t Be a Machine

I’ll be the first to admit it: I use automation software for social media. I’m part of several tribes on Triberr. I use Buffer to tweet when I’m not at the computer. Mostly I do this because I’m terrible at scheduling and can go days without being on Twitter (or any social media) at all. But there’s a danger to overusing this kind of tool.

People don’t get on social media to interact with machines. They want to interact with people. The more you rely on software and automation, the less human you become to your followers. Twitter is already more of a link-sharing tool than a social engagement platform at this point, but don’t let the software do all the talking for you. Log on, start some conversations, say something funny or insightful. Engage. Like Jean-Luc Picard, it’s not that hard. There’s a horrible, soul-blasting filk song in there somewhere.

Don’t Oversell Yourself

Though I disagreed with him on the prophetic nature of Hunger Games, Jeff Goins wrote a great article on why your ideas aren’t spreading. This is internet marketing 101. People don’t want to be sold to. They don’t want to be shown an advertisement. They want to engage and participate. Give them that opportunity.

Try this experiment. Scroll back through your Twitter feed. If you follow any number of writers, you’ll see plugs for their books. Probably a whole barge-load of them. Which ones truly catch your attention? Are they the ones that include excerpts? Reviews? Quotes? The ones that say “HEY BUY MY BOOK C’MON DO IT”? Personally, the more sales-y the pitch becomes, the less interested I become. In an arena with such fierce competition, where the price point is quite often “free,” you need to be a bit more clever and engaging to make a sale.

A recent positive example that comes to mind is the contest Michel Vaillancourt ran for his Sauder Diaries cover. If you don’t know the backstory: Some months ago, Michel found out that his cover art was plagiarized. He pulled the book off the shelves, and, instead of just hiring another artist, held a competition. Not only did he manage to turn a negative event into a positive one, he engaged his audience and got people participating by creating art and voting. Did he get any more sales out of it?

I have no clue. But he got attention, and that counts for a lot.

Just Say Hello

On the internet, attention is currency, and you might be surprised at how much good will you can buy just by doling a little out. If you’re an author with a fan, just saying hello can make their day. Even if you’re an indie author with a small audience… in fact, especially then. If you’re an indie, those people who take time out to read your material, comment on it, and engage with you — they are gold. They’re the ones who will spread the word about you, leave you reviews, lend your book to friends. Neglect them at your peril.

No one’s time is infinite, and the more one’s audience grows, the harder it becomes to carry on conversations with complete strangers. As authors and human beings, we have limitations on our time and energy. Chuck Wendig, for example, recently posted a set of “rules” detailing all the things he will not do, and the reasons why. Wendig has a pretty big audience and gets a lot of comments and tweets aimed at him — yet he takes the time wherever he can to acknowledge people, when they’re polite or funny. And a lot of the time, that’s all it takes.

Big thanks to M.K. Hajdin for the inspiration behind this post! (See? I’m SAYING HELLO OVER HERE.)

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Surly Questions: JM Bell

The triumphant return of Surly Questions! When JM Bell isn’t writing hyper-articulate comments on Google+ or blogs, he blogs at Start Your Novel, a rich resource for writing tips and inspiration. He was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions — thanks, JM!

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

At the age of 11 I discovered metaphor and started writing poetry. I wrote poems for more than a decade — a few of them I turned into song lyrics, as I fronted three bands for about seven years. At one point it became clear to me that I wasn’t much of a poet, but writing was pretty much a part of my identity, so I started experimenting with short stories. All of them are trunk stories, deliberately weird and unpublishable. That’s OK, though, they were practice.

When I was little I’d see writers on TV or hear them talk on the radio, and oh, what superb creatures they appeared to be. Learned and old and sage. Who’s that man?, I’d ask my grandmother. That gentleman’s a writer, she’d say. (She was a rich man’s daughter, my grandma. Brought up to be a lady and little else. She gave piano lessons for a living.) And I’d go ooh and ahh with my little mouth.

So I can’t tell you when I realized what I wanted, or whether I made a conscious decision. I started writing before I knew what I was doing.

Why did you start

All these ideas were floating in my head and I didn’t know what to do with them. Couldn’t turn them all into stories. I knew I wanted to blog, but had trouble finding a topic and then it hit me — I should take advantage of my story ideas. They were my unique value proposition, if you’ll pardon my using a marketing term. I was disappointed with most of the writing prompts out there and decided to do something different.

Have you, in fact, started your novel?

Two, rather. The first survived two exploratory drafts and a complete reimagining in terms of genre, but I let it go after I realized it was about an unsolved issue in my life. The second, well, my protagonist was basically Red Sonja in an imaginary Southeast Asia. All of the other characters found her very exotic, and I had a couple of viable antagonists but no plot.

Right now I’m looking into material for a new project – just gathering stuff, really. Not much I can say about it except that I’m going to avoid old mistakes and make new ones. Probably.

Has your translation work informed your writing in any way?

Definitely. When I started out 10 years ago, I had no idea of the challenges some business and legal documents would pose. And I’m not just talking about research — many people in banking and public administration draft memos, reports or articles for the in-house magazine because they’re saddled with the task, not because they enjoy writing.

I’ve had to handle stuff that defies understanding, which is great practice for a writer: turning convoluted syntax into something that flows. Language for actual humans, you know? And you learn to be less poetic. One of the reasons I could never make it page 10 of Something Wicked This Way Comes is that the imagery is so profuse and over the top, you lose sight of the story. Too many similes ruin your macaroni.

You pick up a thing or two when you translate internal surveys for large companies. You get a glimpse into the workings of rather complex organizations without actually being there under the same kind of pressure as the employees. When you translate employee feedback for company bosses, that’s when you get to grips with the disconnect between truth and propaganda. There’s a number of corporations out there that would like to become their employees’ new religion.

And there I am as an outside observer and enabler, because I’m helping to convey these corporate gospels, as it were. But the fact is I get this kind of work through agencies, I don’t specifically go out and ask for it. Doing work that is sometimes at odds with my values has made me understand that survival is a complicated game. Lots of gray areas.

What about your photography?

Writing has informed my photography, not the other way around. …I think. What I believe is that all successful photos are narrative. The most enduring ones all tell stories and evoke artistic tradition. Just look at the work Sebastiao Salgado did with children in refugee camps. Those apparently simple portraits have a depth to them, a crushing surfeit of emotion. You don’t have to know much about the children, you will feel moved anyway, because each portrait is a thing of wonder.

Good photography is visual literature, and good literature is photography-in-writing. Writing and photography aren’t so different after all. I like surreal imagery and people-free landscapes, which is why so many of my stabs at fiction have started with weirdos living in the middle of nowhere.

You like to inspire others… do you have any stories about inspiring someone?

Once I met this guy in a bar who’d seen my band play live when he was 14 and apparently we blew him away. He decided to grow his hair long there and then, and start a metal band of his own. Now, the guy told me this at the age of 26 and he still remembered me.

You regularly post features on “what can [X] teach you about writing”… what one  character or author has taught you the most about writing?


No, I’m kidding. Getting to grips with Samuel Beckett ripped my eyes open. His work illustrates all too well the rewards and pitfalls of postmodernism. In terms of sheer daring it would have to be W.S. Burroughs, however. Burroughs managed to shock Beckett at a dinner party when he explained his cut-up technique. Suppose I take your Molloy and a pair of scissors, said Burroughs, and then I cut up the pages into tiny bits, I cut through the pages until I get the text to say what I want it to. Samuel Beckett was flabbergasted.

Beckett, though — respect to the man who can start a novel with

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

Philip K. Dick, Gene Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut and Ursula LeGuin are definitely influences. Dick knows how to portray people on the verge of total collapse — people about to lose everything, including their sense of self. People dumped into a world that isn’t even cruel but just cruelly absurd. PKD more or less converted to Valentinian Gnosticism late in life, so he deploys his characters in worlds that are ambiguous and deceptive for a reason. Dick taught me to write from a position of doubt.

Now, LeGuin, she writes beautiful human beings and her universe is more or less optimistic. She’s a genius when it comes to introspection; she takes you where the character is at her most honest and vulnerable and you want to keep reading to learn more. I don’t know how else to explain this, but with certain authors, you start to read their books and you feel at home inside the story. That’s what my favorite authors taught me and teach me still, that you should make the reader feel at home.

What has been the most rewarding thing about connecting with other writers through  social media?

The feeling that we’re an ecosystem. Things are a lot more competitive among photographers, believe you me.

The jokes.

A conversation that starts about Freud turns into a discussion of beards.

What’s not to like? It’s been a wonderful experience so far. My only regret is not starting the blog sooner.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

“Receive” may not be the most fitting verb in this case. Ezra Pound says that, if you want to write a novel, you should read one that you admire. Of course Pound meant you should study it and dissect it every which way. He was the kind of writer that doesn’t make concessions and one hell of an editor. There’s a facsimile edition of his work on Eliot’s poem, The Wasteland, and you see the guy wasn’t playing around. He went at it hammer and tongs and turned The Wasteland into a memorable poem. But I digress.

I couldn’t go without mentioning James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure. It was the second book on craft I picked up and it helped me identify several weaknesses in my writing. There’s a good tip in there: “Maintain the tension in the story up to the last possible moment.”

Are there any exciting projects in your future?

Right now I feel I should hop on a plane, go to Switzerland and check out the Giger museum. No, it’s not a writing project, but something I owe myself, having admired Giger’s work for years.

What are your top five “desert island” books?

In no particular order: The Collected Poems of Hart Crane, The Bodhicaryavatara by Santideva, Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, some Wordsworth, some Emily Dickinson. If I could add a sixth, it’d be John Donne’s sonnets. A seventh? Kafka’s short stories.

On Writing Strong (Female) Characters

Every once in a while, the question makes its way around the writing circles: how to write strong female characters?

Well, I’m a guy, so I probably shouldn’t be the first person you ask. In fact, definitely not. But, because I’m a guy, here comes my opinion anyway. (Right away with the gender stereotypes — buckle up!)

Often, some wiseacre will reference the acidic, sexist crack from Jack Nicholson’s character from the movie As Good As It Gets: “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.” This is best used ironically, or not at all, as it’s not really constructive. It’s also wildly sexist. So there’s your example of What Not to Do, I guess.

Also on the list of smartass responses is this comic strip by Kate Beaton, which takes a swing at the tropes some writers seem to think make female characters strong, but actually really don’t. (I particularly like the lengthy justification of the boob armor, which I’ve seen in many an online argument about revealing superhero costumes.)


If you look at your typical urban fantasy cover, the answer seems to be “crop top, big knife, and tattoos.” This is a pretty hoary complaint by this time, and I feel a little self-conscious even making it, but seriously, show me a bad-ass vampire hunter with her midriff covered, and, well… I’ll be mildly surprised. Not that this is a bad thing in itself, beyond being something of a cliché at this point. But it does seem to reinforce the idea that “violence = strength.” Not that I mind ass-kicking characters, but groin-punching is a behavior, not a personality trait. The most iconic modern-fantasy female of them all, Buffy Summers, much more going for her than just beating monsters senseless.

The question’s also been kicking around the blogosphere recently. Oh, I just said blogosphere. I’m sorry. Anyway, for example, “The Fantasy Feminist” by Fantasy Faction (say that five times fast), points out some of the most common gaffes in writing female characters:

These issues are, at their core, character issues. The problem isn’t the warrior or promiscuous personality in itself; rather, it’s the idea that to be a strong character, a woman must act like a man or shun feminine things or use her body to manipulate people or some other misconception. And even then, it’s really only a problem if the writer believes that the character must act that way to be strong. If the character believes it, then the writer has taken a first step toward creating a multi-layered person.

Michel Vaillancourt, author of The Sauder Diaries: By Any Other Name, relates how he carefully researched and constructed his female characters. Vaillancourt sums up the problem neatly: “Within our North American pop culture, we have built a mystic divide between the principle genders.” What’s most interesting about this post is the mixed reaction Vaillancourt got from female readers  — proving that there is no One True Way when it comes to writing characters, nor should there be.

My favorite answer to this question, however, came from a recent Google+ thread in which a writer asked, “how do you write female characters?” and someone answered:

1) I think of a character.
2) I make them female.

I love this answer, because I think it gets to the heart of the issue: gender plays very little part in what makes a good or strong character. So why start with gender at all?

What It Takes

So what does it take to make a (female) character tick?

1) Agency. The character makes things happen. They move the plot forward. They make choices — even if they are bad ones — that propel the story. They make a difference. They do not wait for the story to happen to them. They do not wait to be rescued. They do not let somebody else handle the hard stuff. If your character is sitting around the house gnawing their knuckles and hoping everything will work out okay, you need to punt them into the middle of the action.

2) Relatability. A character doesn’t have to be likeable, but they do need to have distinct goals and desires  — in short, the things that make us human. Female characters in particular seem prone to fall outside these boundaries — they’re presented as mysterious, otherworldly creatures, their actions random and without reason — basically, all the worst parts of some stand-up comic’s outdated “women want the toilet seat down” routine.

If you’re putting this kind of thing in your writing, please, for all our sakes, knock it off. Women aren’t magical creatures from another planet. Stop writing them like that. Give them human hopes, fears, and motivations. It’s not that hard. A female character shouldn’t be measured by her sexuality, or the cut of her clothing, or how many people she can wheel-kick in sixty seconds to prove she doesn’t need a man. Violence doesn’t make a character strong. Neither does sex. Not by themselves, anyway.

3) Integrity. Look at the list of characters in your latest work. Describe each character in a single, short sentence. If the words “love interest” appear anywhere in that sentence, chances are your character is a bit crap. Look, it’s nothing personal. I’m guilty of this. I’ve created the character who exists only to be dated, desired, or unceremoniously boinked. Is there a place for such characters in a story? Maybe — if, as Michel Vaillancourt says, they’re strictly a plot device. But you could probably do better. If your character’s sole motivation is to be someone’s girlfriend, you can’t pretend they’re well-rounded and still keep a straight face.

Characters must also have integrity of motivation — not from stereotypical gender expectations. A common example of this is Ripley going back to save the cat in Alien. I’ll be the first one to say that while Ripley in Aliens is a great example of doing a female character right, the first Alien drops the ball in a few places. Do you think Hudson or Hicks or one of the other badass space marines would have gone back for the cat? Yeah, me neither. Chances are they wouldn’t strip down to their underwear in the final reel either, but whatever. My point is, characters should make decisions based on their character — it doesn’t matter if they’re bad decisions, so long as the reasoning isn’t “well, she’s a woman and women are so crazy so she did the crazy thing.”

Is That All?

Well, no.  Because I won’t pretend for one second that there’s one true formula for writing characters of any gender. People are different. And, like it or not, while men and women might not be from other planets, they’re not identical either. They process emotions differently. They’re shaped by different societal forces.

There’s a danger in writing against stereotypes without going deeper than just defying the stereotype. A female character can ask her boyfriend to open the pickle jar, or hate taking out the trash, or follow her intuition when her brain is telling her a different story. That doesn’t magically make a character weak. What makes them weak is defining them only by that sort of thing. But take that too far in the other direction, and you may end up with a bunch of stereotypical male traits… the proverbial “man with breasts.” You’ve essentially traded one set of cliches for another at that point.

So, as usual, the answer is somewhere in the middle. The most memorable female protagonists (the ones that come up constantly in conversations like these: Buffy, Ripley, etc.) show us that they can feel terror and charge into peril anyway. That they can love, or grieve over love lost, without pining forever in their room. That they can hold their own without being invincible.

“Strong” does not mean “flawless,” because invulnerable people with no weaknesses are the most boring characters imaginable. There’s a big difference between characters flaws and a character who’s just written poorly. To quote from the blog 42nd Wave Feminist:

I think many of Mr. Whedon’s critics think that because he is a professed feminist who supports Equality Now and has been honored by them, and because he enjoys writing strong female characters, that somehow every female character he writes should fit some sort of feminist ideal. I think that’s a ridiculous expectation and would most likely result in colossally boring television.

This is a complicated issue, and I could probably go on for several more paragraphs, but I’m not going to. In short, if you want to write good characters, then start with character — not with gender. Write human beings, not stereotypes or sex object. It’s not rocket science.

Your turn. Tell me your thoughts. I’d love to hear them.

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