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. 

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

twitter fail image
(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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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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Writing at the Speed of WTF

Ripley's 0059
Ripley’s Believe It or God Will Spear You in the Face With a Metal Pole, I Swear I Am Not Kidding

For me, being a writer is sometimes akin to being a submarine commander — long stretches of inactivity punctuated by moments of sheer panic.

I’m not a Type A writer by nature. There are days when I’ll do just about anything to get out of writing. I’ll clean my desk. I’ll clean the toilet. I’ll clean the house. Hell, I’ll clean the neighbor’s house, while they’re not there, and then enjoy the panic and outrage that ensues from such well-meaning vandalism. Officer, someone came in here and tidied up and I can’t find anything! Good heavens, Miss Sakamoto!

The madness doesn’t end there. I’ll alphabetize my DVDs. Or my books. Do you have any idea how many books I have? Well, you’re reading a writing blog, I guess you probably do. Chances are you’re nodding your head right now, thinking of your own bookshelves and saying “yeah, you poor dope, better you than me — oh wait.”

I’ve considered buying a bicycle just so I could blow the tire on it, and then say to myself, hey, I’d love to write but I got this bicycle tire and chances are it ain’t gonna change itself. And then I’ll have a cup of coffee or two and watch the tire, just in case it does change itself and I have to call Ripley’s Believe It or Not. And I spend some time looking up the number for Ripley’s Believe It or Not, since I’m nothing if not well-prepared. I also look into some means of arming myself, should the now-sentient bicycle tire be out for vengeance. And so I construct a rudimentary lathe–

Well, the point is, some days I try to avoid writing.

Most writers know how that goes, even the disciplined ones. The myriads of whys and hows barely matter; unless you get some words on the page in the allotted time, you’ve flunked your daily test as a writer. And I will not chide you. Not today. If you can relate at all, I’m sure you’ve devised much more scathing criticisms than I could possibly level at you. You lazy bum. How much Ace of Cakes can one person watch? Do you call that research? Do you? Yeah, whatever, I’ve got my eye on you.

But then there are those other days, the ones few talk about. The days when you cannot possibly write enough.

I don’t mean the jacked-up rush of inspiration mode, where you chug three Red Bulls and stay up for forty-eight hours, writing until you can physically see the arc of your plot like a luminous vibrating parabola. I don’t recommend that anyway. It hurts. I mean the days where feel the keen sting of procrastination and what it’s cost you.

For me, those days usually come after I get some sort of great reader feedback, or attention from someone whose opinion I  value, or even a  great blog comment. Also, when one of my fellow indie authors releases a new book. There’s a sudden rush of activity in my email and on Goodreads and Twitter and suddenly I’m thinking: what am I doing? Must write faster! And then I throw the sandwich I’m eating out the window, because I’m a hardcore writer of writerliness and who has time to eat? Only to discover I didn’t actually open the window, and there’s now an apocalyptic Rorschach blot of turkey and mustard sprayed across the glass, and I’m back to cleaning the house.

Don’t throw food, is the moral there. It does not make for good writing, except for this one anecdote just now, which is too good to be true anyway. I’d never throw away a good sandwich like that.

Writer's Block 1
Photo credit: OkayCityNate

But dubious and fictitious food-hurling farragoes aside, there is very real danger to the “all or nothing” approach to writing. It can make you impatient. It can make you skip things like editing, proofreading, or devising an ending, or finding out what happened to that missing character you added in Chapter Fourteen. I think we all know at least one indie writer who has clearly released a book before it was ready. No one wants their Amazon reviews to be all about how they misspelled “reprobate”. No one is fooled by re-releasing your own novel with “2.0” or “Director’s Cut” slapped on the cover. Pump the brakes and finish it right the first time. A sloppy, half-finished book is a great way to ensure your readers turn tail and never come back. A good reputation can take months or years to build, and a handful of typos to ruin. Don’t blow it.

The need to see some sort of progress, right now, to write All the Books — well, it can lead to burnout and bad decisions. So I guess it’s more like being a drunk than a submarine commander. Or, possibly, a drunken submarine commander. Which, incidentally, is the subject of my next book. I’m trying to come up with a killer title, perhaps Land Whoa!

And that’s why you slow down and think before acting on your impulses.

Finally, thank you to everyone who left such awesome comments on the previous entry. You guys are truly wonderful.

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How to Blog Like a Total Hypocrite

Cover of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
Consider the lilies of the goddamn field, or look to Delmar here as your paradigm of hope.

There’s a scene from the Coen Bros. movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? where the main characters — themselves fugitives from the law — pick up a lone hitchhiker, a young blues guitarist named Tommy Johnson (based on the famous Robert Johnson). When they ask Tommy why he was at the crossroads, he told them he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to “play this here guitar real good.” In astonishment, another character asks “for that you traded your everlasting soul?” To which Tommy replies: “Well, I wasn’t using it.”

For the past couple weeks, that’s a bit how I’ve felt about my writing.

To explain. I started this blog for a number of reasons: to connect with other writers and readers, to share what I knew, and to learn from others. Anywhere you read blogging advice, you’ll read this mantra: share your expertise. For the most part, readers don’t care what you had for lunch, or that killer hangnail, or how you’ve tried nothing and you’re all out of ideas. They want some utility. They want some meat, or they’ll just click away.

About two months ago, my life got busy. These things happen. Illness, work woes, you find out your downstairs neighbor is a vampire and next thing you know you’re schlepping it to Home Depot to get some lumber for stakes and you find out the wife donated all your good knives to Goodwill because “six knives is enough for anybody.” Whatever, woman, we’ve got a Nosferatu downstairs. Do you want to get bit? Is that your problem? Next you’ll be telling me you donated my steel collar and leather pants — no! I told you, those were for vampire hunting!

Well, anyway. The point is, I stopped writing. Neglected it entirely. And there’s only so much you can say about the subject once you’ve stopped, especially on a blog devoted to the subject. “Hello, and welcome to my writing blog of writing. Speaking of writing, who’s doing any? Not me, that’s for damn sure. So, who wants to talk about pancake syrup?”

Of course, one could argue that I could still blog about writing, even if I wasn’t doing any at the moment, and so that’s what I did. But it started to make me uncomfortable. I felt like a Mennonite trying to sell iPads. “So, here’s this thing… you probably want this. Somebody does, anyway, God knows why, but… I don’t know, it has apps, or the wi-fis, and… some birds are angry for some reason… look, just buy it so I can get out of here.”

Cover of "Superman III (Deluxe Edition)"
Deluxe Edition. Over three times the suck!

What’s the point of dispensing advice? I wasn’t using it. I began to feel that if I wrote one more motivational article, my personality would split, and I’d turn into an evil doppelgänger of myself, flicking peanuts at the mirrors at my local pub before staggering off to throw tires at myself in a junkyard. Yes, a Superman III reference. That’s what we’re down to now.

The point is, I felt like a hypocrite. And so the blog stalled out. My presence on Twitter became notable only for its rarity, as friends and followers invoked arcane chants to summon me, like Yog-Sothoth, from the abyssal depths, so that I might live and tweet again. Mostly by calling me short or grumpy. Which is very unfair. I am not the least bit short.

I’d love to tell you that I did something romantically self-destructive during my blogging hiatus, like living on Scotch and cigarettes while I cranked out a gritty tale of a writer living on Scotch and cigarettes while he cranked out a gritty tale. Or possibly reading 50 Shades of Gray. Grey? Gray? Anyway, I did neither of those things. I mostly watched a lot of television, which is just the regular, stupid kind of self-destructive. No cachet to it.

But finally, I realized I was being foolish. I started this blog because I wanted to talk about writing, not to fulfill some holy calling. I’ve never had a desire to become a guru of any kind. Yeah, blogging is about sharing your expertise, but it’s also about sharing yourself, your thoughts, your personality. I’m not some robotic dispenser of motivational platitudes. I’m just me. And if I’m not writing, well, there’s a simple solution to that, isn’t there? We must remember that we are human, and as humans, we dream, and when we dream, we dream of money. Wait. That isn’t the message I wanted to convey at all.

In summary, this is a very long-winded way of saying I’m back. So! Speaking of writing, who’s doing any?

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Be Inspired Blog Hop

Cover by Tracy McCusker at

I’ve been tagged by Bullish Ink to participate in the Be Inspired Blog Hop by Vicky Orians. I’m a little late to the party on this one, but I hope you’ll enjoy reading anyway. Here are the rules:

1. Answer the following ten questions about a book you’re working on or have completed.

2. Tag five other writers, making sure you put links in your blog post so we can all hop over and see their answers.

3. Thank the writer who tagged you. (Thank you, Ruth!)

I’m going to pass on tagging five other writers, because I think the writers I most want to hear from have already participated. That, and I feel a bit like I’m coming in with the appetizers after the party’s broken up and everyone’s gone home.

The questions:

1. What is the title of your book?


2. Where did you get the idea for the book?

I was on a heist-movie kick (Ocean’s Eleven and the like), and I wanted to write a “fantasy heist” novel. That isn’t really the novel I ended up writing, but that was the seed of the idea. The good news is, I can still use that “heist” angle in the future, although I’m not sure I actually ever will.

3. What genre would your book fall under?

Fantasy. Or sword-and-sorcery, if you like.

4. Who would you choose to play your character(s) in a movie rendition?

Story – Emmy Rossum. She does “scruffy” very well. She also does “fearless” quite well, and I think she’d convey Story’s boldness.
Mar Dunnac – Temuera Morrison. He needs more ass-kicking roles, and Dunnac’s a mercenary soldier.
Wrynn – Martin Freeman. I’d watch him read the phone book, and I think he’d fit Wrynn’s intelligent but slightly hapless nature very well.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Oh gosh. I’m terrible at these, I’m afraid.

In a city ruled by unstable magic, six rivals struggle over an artifact that could shift the balance of power — not just in the city, but the world.

6. Is your book published or represented?

Nothing’s signed yet, but I’ve had an offer.

7. How long did it take you to write?

A month for the rough draft, several more months for the edits.

8.What other books within your genre would you compare it to?

That’s a tough one. Probably Matthew Stover’s Heroes Die or Blade of Tyshalle. Maybe the Mistborn books, although I’ve only read the first one.

9. Which authors inspired you to write this book?

Again, I’d probably have to say Matthew Stover. I think he’s a criminally underrated writer. He’s done some of the most hard-bitten, fast-paced fantasy out there, and I wish his books were more widely read. Also, Glen Cook. The Black Company series informed a lot of Orison‘s voice.

10.Tell us anything else that might pique our interest in your book.

While Orison started out as a “heist” story, it eventually became about power — what it does to people, and how different personalities handle the ability to change the world around them. I think I’ve created six distinct, colorful characters and I had a wonderful time setting them into conflict with one another.

Oh, and the book has a female protagonist who doesn’t wear scanty clothing, doesn’t get captured, doesn’t fall in love, doesn’t get rescued by a man, Because I think we need more of that sort of thing.

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Rest in Peace, Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

Photo of Ray Bradbury.
Photo of Ray Bradbury. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ray Bradbury passed away today at the age of 91.

It’s no secret that Bradbury was one of my literary heroes. His book, Zen in the Art of Writing, is the subject of my first blog post on Surly Muse. He’s high on the list of authors I quote most often. Zen is one of the few writing books I re-read, almost yearly, to rekindle the fires of inspiration. Bradbury shaped my entire way of thinking when it comes to writing.

There are others far more capable of recounting his legendary influence, so I won’t attempt to recap his lifetime of achievement here.

I will only say this.

As writers, we yearn to touch the lives of others, to give of ourselves in the hope that our words will have some effect — on the world, on the market, on a single soul — and in the giving, we are ourselves enriched and made whole. No one understood this like Bradbury, who said: ” if I let a day go by without writing, I grow uneasy. Two days and I am in tremor. Three and I suspect lunacy. Four and I might as well be a hog, suffering the flux in a wallow. An hour’s writing is tonic.” He embraced the joy and necessity of writing, of the frantic need that drives us all to put words on the page, and the power those words can have.

Ray, I owe you more than I could ever possibly repay. Possibly everything. You will be missed.

Thank you.

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Writing as MMORPG: Building Your Writing Addiction

World of Warcraft

Back in 2010, Cracked published an article called 5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted. The article explored the science behind keeping people playing long past the point of their own best interest, and how games manipulate people into losing their hard-earned time and money to games.

Also in 2010, Jane McGonigal gave a TED talk about taking the reward strategies in games like World of Warcraft and using them to solve real-world problems.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, nothing yet, but give me a second.

Anyone who’s played World of Warcraft (or any other addictive game) knows how easy it is to lose hours to the game. You sit down to play for a little bit, and your goal of a few minutes of fun becomes the goal of one more level… or one more crafting recipe… or one more quest chain… until it’s one in the morning and you’re looking forward to the next workday with queasy horror.

The addictiveness of this experience is deliberately mechanized. The mechanics of World of Warcraft are designed to keep you playing through a series of small, incremental, easily achieved rewards that lead up to bigger incremental rewards. Getting a new level or achievement gives you a tiny rush of accomplishment, making you want to play more. There’s a huge and ever-expanding market of iPad games whose entire business model relies on exploiting the thirst for a reward and the impatience of the average gamer. Do you want this widget? Well, just click here and wait twelve hours. Or, if you just can’t wait, just pay 99 cents and you can have it now. That kind of thing.

So wait — what does this have to do with the writing process again?

Addictive behavior doesn’t always have to work against you. With some work, you can make it into another tool in your writing toolbox. You can gamify your own writing habits and build your writing addiction. Instead of losing productive hours to a distraction, you can create your own “writing Skinner box” and transform yourself into a veritable juggernaut of productivity. A very small, benevolent, desk-bound juggernaut.

Set Smart Goals

To build your writing addiction, the first thing you should do is break down your goals. Most writers I know tend to look at things in terms of big, daunting, sweeping achievements that must be met. They have to write 70,000 words, or cut 20,000 words, or edit 200 pages. Right now, today! These statements are usually accompanied by a groan of weariness or disgust. Some even say to themselves, “I’ll just play a few minutes of this game first,” and they’re off to the non-writing races. And no wonder. I’m exhausted just hearing about it.

Of course, there’s no way to avoid those big goals entirely, but you can (and should) break them down into smaller, more manageable units, rather than trying to body-check the whole world into the ropes like Atlas on roids.

Let’s go back to World of Warcraft for a second. In WoW, there’s always that one quest that you have to travel all over the map to complete. Collect one widget from here, another from there, and basically spend a ton of time waiting around while your character flies (or runs) from place to place. When players talk about these quests, it’s usually with venom and disdain. Almost no one likes them — and why would they?

Most quests, however, come in easy-to-swallow chunks, with a little reward at the end of each. You can approach your writing tasks in the same way. Instead of saying to yourself that you have to edit 200 pages, set a goal of editing 10 pages a day for 20 days. Collapsing those numbers down can make them seem not quite so daunting — and anyone who’s ever done Nanowrimo knows how fast 20 days can go by.

Applying this to your writing process is easy. You can use a method like the Pomodoro Technique to write in fifteen-minute units of time — or you can join #wordmongering on Twitter and kill a half-hour in friendly, competitive competition.

Give Yourself Tiny Rewards

Attach a small reward to each one of your goals. Write five hundred words, then go get a cup of coffee. Edit ten pages, then go take a walk. Cut five pages, then go play with your cat for twenty minutes. Edit forty pages and take the whole damn weekend off.

Whatever works. Just make the goals small and the rewards proportionate. Don’t set a goal of writing a blog post and reward yourself with two weeks of hard drinking and Simpsons reruns. The goal is to maintain forward momentum and prevent discouragement, not enable bad behavior — a principle that can be surprisingly difficult to keep in mind.

Run the Dailies

World of Warcraft also has “daily” quests, which are repeatable quests that give a set reward. The advantage to these is that they’re a known quantity. You know what the goal is, you know what the reward will be, and it will never change. You can redo the quests until you’re sick in the face, or until they no longer give any meaningful reward.

Again, you can make this work for you. Set yourself some daily, or even weekly goals, and do them no matter what. Make them small and achievable, and grant yourself a reward at the end. Again, keep both these things small and sustainable.

Rinse, Repeat

The whole point of this exercise is to maintain balance and build a habit, retraining your brain to look forward to your writing and not get stalled by the intimidating size of a task (and if you aren’t, why on earth did you read this far?) If you can do this for a few weeks, chances are you can do it forever.

Now go forth and level up.

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