Write Tips: The Importance Of Risk Taking In Writing

I once had a fortune cookie which read: “Some good things will happen, but there will be bad, too.” I thought: now there’s a writer who’s afraid of risks. Seriously.  They covered all their bases and what was the result? A pretty unsatisfying fortune. I mean, I knew that already. Where’s the excitement in that? What do I have to anticipate? More of the same.

I mention this because this is an important lesson for all of us who write: to write with an impact, you must take risks. Seriously.

How many times have you read something and thought: ‘I’ve seen this before’ or ‘how cliche?’  We’ve all been there, right? I think this occurs most often because writers play it safe. They’re afraid to take risks.

Although I’ve gotten really good notices for my debut novel, The Worker Prince, I did get some criticisms. Among them were comments suggesting I could have been more innovative at times. Even the reviewer who listed me Honorable Mention on his Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Years Best SF Releases for 2011 said this. So I challenged myself in The Returning, sequel to The Worker Prince, accordingly. The first book got notices for its complicated plotting. But in book 2, I wanted to step it up a notch and really surprise readers and myself. The fact that I succeeded seems obvious from the fact that as I went back into the manuscript after two months away to edit it, I found myself surprised at plot points I’d forgotten. ‘I didn’t remember doing that! Cool!’ is a good reaction for you to have to your own stuff. It’s even better, of course, when readers react that way. After all, we’re often so close to our own work, we can’t be subjective. Setting aside a manuscript and not looking at it for two months really does help though, but still, the final test remains what will readers/reviewers think?

Not that I’m suggesting we write for readers and reviewers. You can’t do that. But once you put a book out there, that piece of your heart, that part of you, it becomes part of a community who read it, and their interactions with it and responses to it become valid measures of its success, good or bad. That’s all the more reason why taking risks is so vital. We’ve all heard the saying: there’s no new plots, only old ones told in new ways. In Science Fiction and Fantasy, in particular, this is a common quote. And you’ll often find it true. But being original in your basic plot isn’t what gives your book the “Wow!” factor. It’s the approach you take which does that and that’s where risk taking can really pay off.

What are some risks you can take? Here’s a few examples:

1) Kill A Character—we all hate to “murder” our babies. (It’s a good thing to hate, I’m not arguing.) But it’s important to remember, these are fictional beings, not real ones. And sometimes what’s best for the story is what’s worst for them. Bad things have to happen to your characters to keep your story interesting, to raise the stakes. Otherwise, you’re setting readers up for a pretty bland read. So sometimes, killing characters, especially ones readers love, is a great way to add new energy to your story and the character dynamics of those who remain and surprise readers with unexpected twists and turns. In The Returning, the death of characters transforms the story, changing the course of other characters’ lives as well as the conflicts faced by the world itself.

2) Switch Genders—have a character who might fill a traditional role, such as male sidekick to male hero, be female instead or vice versa. You can develop all kinds of unexpected interactions and chemistry from that alone. For example, what if the traditional spiritual advisor to the king in your fantasy was a woman? So often we see that role as a man, a sorcerer or a priest. By making it female, new dynamics come into play. The male/female dynamics which now have a role allow you to examine gender roles in your world. What would the queen or other women think of this woman’s power? How does it affect their relationships? Those are just two examples of the dynamics which might come into play as a result.

3) Use A Non-Traditional Setting—Ken Scholes did this exceptionally well with his Psalms Of Isaak which has a mix of traditional epic fantasy setting elements and postapocalyptic SF elements (swords and bows, blacksmiths, horses, metal men, desert, sand, ruins, etc.) By setting his epic fantasy story in such a milieu, he keeps it fresh and fasncinating, even when familiar elements appear. And the furthermore, the setting encourages risk taking how he uses any traditional elements, including magic.

4) Do The Opposite Of Instinct—if your first thought is to do one thing, search for something else. Often our mind goes to the most familiar or obvious first, but the search turns up more interesting options. For example, in deciding about killing a character, I had to choose between a likable character and one who was more challenging for readers. I chose to kill the likable character because the ideas I had to further develop him were less interesting and his death created all kinds of dynamics for the hero and less likable character to work through. It just made sense. Both of them have dramatic arcs as a result of the death, whereas killing the less likable character would have actually removed tension.

5) Take Unique Approaches To Themes—Especially if you’re using oft-repeated themes (and let’s face it, so many of them are), it’s important to look for a new angle. What hasn’t been done or done the way you do it? Thematic elements add depth and wholeness to your fiction, but they can also be cliche, which makes it important to find ways to infuse your thematic elements with a freshness. For example, the Moses story which inspired The Worker Prince is about slavery, and to me, a big part of that was founded on ideological bigotry, so when I wrote the book, even though my main goal was to provide a rip roaring old fashioned space opera adventure, I worked in themes dealing with ideological differences and used real world religion as an example of how our own egos can lead us to judge ourselves better than those who don’t share our ideals. It can be a very subtle thing we don’t even realize we’re doing. But what if we did it so much it became normal and grew larger and larger? Could we really believe others are not equal to use as human beings as a result? Would we actually enslave them? It’s an approach I hadn’t seen taken to the story before, and so far reader response has been positive. Ironically, using Christianity as a real religion in my book, even though it’s not preachy or trying to push religion on anyone (their words) was a risk. I’ve had a few people who shy away from the book because of it. Ironically, those people often admit if I’d written it as Christianity but called it something else, they would have been fine. So there’s two examples of risk in regards to themes. (For more on Themes, click here.)

I’m sure you can think of plenty of other examples. Please share them the comments so we can all learn.

My point is that risks are what keep your writing fresh and unpredictable not just for readers but for you. And the result of having to make risky or unexpected choices is being led to unexpected places in your character arcs and plotting. These, in turn, pull more out of you and push you in ways you’d never have been pushed. The result is a better book and you becoming a better writer. Recently I saw a friend’s debut novel get slammed by some reviewers who focus on fantasy. The reason? They said it was too much like what they’d seen before; too predictable; not risky. I’ve read the book and enjoyed it far more than they did, but how would you feel if this happened to you? I’m sure my friend’s next book will be far riskier in many ways. The reviews will push him to strive harder and think more about his choices and the result will be a better book.

We all have room for growth in our journey as writers. Where should you be taking more risks? When are you going to start? Beginning 2021 by taking some risks would be a great way to start, wouldn’t it? For what it’s worth…

WriteTip: Training Your Sensory Observation Skills for Better Description

When I was first starting out as a writer, I came out of screenwriting, which I’d studied in college, so one of my chief weaknesses was visceral description using the five senses. I wrote entire drafts of novels and stories with no mention of smells or tastes or touch, for example, and only used eyes and ears because they came more readily to mind. One of the beta readers of my first novel The Worker Prince wondered if everyone was naked because I never mentioned clothes, so I did an entire sartorial pass to add clothing descriptions here and there.

Over time, however, I’ve done a lot of work on this area, and learned that one of the most helpful skills you can develop is good sensory observation of the people, places, and things you encounter in the world around you. Like me, this may not come naturally, so here’s a few techniques to help you better develop this skill.

1) The Emotion Thesaurus by Becca Pugliosi and Angela Ackerman is an essential if you lack this natural ability. It is the one single writing book I carry with me wherever I go and might right, just to have handy, and it is the most worn out—page corners bent, cover bent and stained, and so on—of my writing books. This books is broken down by emotions and provides lists of physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, and cues of acute long-term or suppressed experiences of that emotion. It is so well thought out and detailed that I have used it to create a whole new visceral vocabulary. Now I mainly refer to it when I feel stuck in a rut. I don’t call many writing books essential but this one is if you, like me, lack natural ability to describe by the senses.

2) Location Scouting—Just like movie crews scout locations for their work, so should you, if you need to improve descriptions. Go to the location or somewhere similar if you can, sit quietly, and observe. Take note of what you hear, what you see, what you smell, what.you taste, and so on and write them down for later reference. Then you will have distinct descriptive cues to pull from when writing that location or one similar. Obviously, if it’s a specific and well-known location, you are best off to go there directly to make these notes, but sometimes such travel is impossible, in which case, somewhere close can suffice.

3) Web Research—From Google Maps satellite and street views, which can be used to describe visual cues, to eye witness accounts written or on video, the web is filled with resources to help enhance your descriptions with first person accounts of various locations that can enhance your stories. Maybe the lighthouse they describe isn’t the one in your book, but it’s similar enough. Chances are the weather, the sights and sounds, and so on will be close and those fodder for your writing, so browse.

4) People Watching—My go to spot for people watching in the age of fading malls is Costco or Sam’s Club food courts. In a matter of a few minutes, you can overhear dialogue of people from a variety of age groups and ethnic backgrounds just sitting there nursing a soda and a slice of pizza as you jot down vocabulary or snippets of potential dialogue. Out of touch with how young people talk, you’ll get a refresher here. What about immigrants or senior citizens? All of them will be within earshot every few moments at a busy club store like these. I can spend an hour easily just making notes on my iPad as people walk by me. Don’t worry, if it looks like you’re writing, they’ll never know…or care.

5) Reading— Some writers are really good at visceral descriptions. Nicholas Sparks, for example, seems to be an expert at it, love or hate his stories. Regardless of your taste for genre, studying writers like this can give you whole new vocabulary and perspectives on how to approach description effectively in your own work, so don’t dismiss or blow them off just because the books they write “are not for you.” Consider it work research, not reading for pleasure, and take notes. It can greatly enhance your skill set.

6) Practice, Practice, Practice—It’s easy to overlook this last one because you may feel like it’s a waste of time. But you rewrite passages all the time when drafting your books, right? So what’s the difference with sitting down to practice description by writing down as many difference ways to describe a particular person, place, or location as you can come up with, one after the other? By practicing your descriptions, and varying them, you can learn a lot about describing and discover all kinds of new approaches and phrases that don’t readily pop to mind when you write, thus improving your arsenal for when you do write.

7) Patience—Last but not least, let’s remember this is a skill that like any other takes time to develop. Improving any skill is work. Don’t just expect to pick it up over night and move on. You will probably need to work at it. Why else would I suggest so many different techniques and approaches? The best way to improve is to employ all of them multiple times, until you don’t need to any more. And that will be a matter of months or years, not days or hours. Be patient with yourself. You’re trying to become better at your passion, remember? And being better will lead to better success and greater satisfaction—prizes well worth the effort.

So there you have seven ways to improve your sensory observation skills for better description. A write tip I hope is truly worthy of the name. For what it’s worth…

Write Tips: 7 Tips For Surviving The Art and Challenge of Collaboration

I have had a lot of opportunities to collaborate in my creative life, as a musician, as a writer, as an editor, and so on. I’ve had some bad experiences, and I’ve had some good ones. Thankfully, most of them since I became a writer and editor have been good. And I wanted to talk today about both the art and difficulty of collaborating.

First of all, collaboration requires humility. You have to recognize that you are working with an equal force—someone who is going to have an equal number of ideas and passions going into the project and an equal stake in the result. That requires you to be cooperative and considerate both in how you navigate and respond to the collaborator’s input. Sometimes, it helps to decide up front who will be senior collaborator. For example, when working with Jonathan Maberry in his universe, I deferred to him creatively. After all, Joe Ledger his IP, created out of is head, and his is the ultimate boss of what is canon and what isn’t. Interestingly though, when we did the Joe Ledger anthology together, Jonathan deferred to me more than expected on the editing role. He still edited and had input on story order and of course worldbuilding, but he respected my abilities and experience as an editor enough to let me take responsibility for some details that I could handle on my own without his involvement. We were thus able to divide the labor in some key ways that made it easier for both of us and saved time and back and forth.

Second of all, collaboration requires consideration. You are not creating your own work. It is a group effort. Whether the group is two people or more, the end result will come from both of you, not just one of you, and thus, it is important both of you feel satisfied with the result.Thus it is impossible to be a dictator and control freak when collaborating. You have to find a way to work together and separately in ways that compliment each other. And you must understand and respect that the final result will be something that encompasses both of your creative ideas and visions for the project, not just your own. In fact, inevitably it will be something Neither of you would have created on your own.

Third of all, collaboration requires mutual respect. Don’t collaborate with people you don’t respect. You’ll just be in for trouble. I’ve had the case where someone I collaborated with as an equal instead regarded himself as my superior and expected me to defer to him accordingly. Now, in experience, sales, and so on, we really were fairly much equals. He was not more famous or more respected, nor did he have an established body of work far exceeding my own. He just, I learned later, was a guy who believed he was a better writer than most people he collaborated with, and, as such, would be “in charge” of such collaborations. Needless to say, this made for trouble.

Fourth, collaboration requires deference. There are many times during collaborative ventures when you will find the need to allow the other to take the lead. For example, you divided a story into scenes and they wrote some, you wrote others, then polished each other. Well, when final decisions are made, unless you agreed in advance one of you would be the final arbiter, you will have to defer to your partner on his/her scenes. It’s theirs, and, after all, you’d want them to do the same on your scenes, right? You may have to defer to them on things they have more expertise or immediate knowledge of. If your partner is more experienced with a particular aspect of the project, let them take the lead and see it as an opportunity to learn from them so the next time, you can take the lead. This is appropriate. Let the person who has the experience and wisdom take the lead. They should do the same for you. And so on.

Fifth, collaboration requires mutual commitment. It’s kind of like the biblical concept of unequal yoke in a marriage. You need to be on the same page with your commitment to work level and time deadlines and so on. If not, one of you will feel they are more committed to the project or even doing all the work, while the other slacks off. So agree in advance on when things will be done by each of you and endeavor the best you can to meet these expectations. Otherwise, you are in for conflict.

Sixth, collaboration requires patience.  Like any other situation when you might be working with other people, you must learn to be patient with the other person’s different way of doing things, different abilities, different expectations and so forth. You can’t expect two different people to see everything exactly the same or work exactly the same. It’s rare. If you find it, though, run with it and embrace it as the gift it is.

Seventh, collaboration requires communication. You must learn to discuss things more than you might normally. Operating on assumption is a pitfall that can derail any relationship, especially a collaborative one. It’s much better to anticipate and discuss potential problems or concerns before they arise than to try and deal with them after they happen when you are irritated or frustrated with each other. So communicate. Set some expectations and boundaries for your collaboration in advance then commit to meeting them so you are in it together. Most of all, remind yourselves constantly it is a team effort. Not “mine” but “ours.”

So there are a few hard learned tips for better collaboration. Can you think of others? Please feel free to contribute in comments. For what it’s worth…

WriteTip: My Beta Training Checklist For Helping New Readers Provide Useful Feedback

A lot of people ask me how I recruit beta readers. And while I addressed7 Tips For Being Good Beta Readers in a prior post, I thought maybe sharing my Beta Training Checklist might also be helpful. The goal of the checklist is to help betas identify key types of problems they encounter throughout your book in a helpful way. In some cases, if they have notes to add, those are to be encouraged to clarify. Sometimes what they see as a problem, isn’t one. Other times, knowing their state of mind may help you narrow down a problem you couldn’t identify on your own.

For simplicity, the checklist is built on a lettering system, with each letter signifying the type of critique it is meant to provide. Without further adieu, here they are:

Instructions: Please use the following Checklist to identify any problems or issues you encounter in reviewing my manuscript. Mark the letter in the margin or in between lines at the spot the issue occurs. Feel free to use track changes to add additional comments and explanation if you feel they will be helpful.

Mark (A) For anywhere you feel Anger or some other emotion. Add a note if you feel the emotional reaction is not the one intended by the author.

Mark (B)  For anywhere you feel bored. If you are bored a lot, it needs to be addressed. Sometimes it just requires trimming, sometimes there’s a larger issue. If you have an idea what the issue is, feel free to add a note. If not, leave it to the writer to figure it out.

Mark (C) For anywhere you are confused and feel lost.

Mark (Q) For anywhere you have questions that you feel need to be answered and have not been. Keep in mind though that if intentional, the questions will probably be answered later as you keep reading.

Mark (G) For anywhere you laughed, smiled, or really enjoyed. These don’t necessarily require comments but they encourage the author and let them know they are connecting with you as intended in those spots and you are having some fun outside the various criticisms and issues you’ve identified.

Now some of you may think this is overly simple, but it’s designed to be that way. As they learn to read critically, beta readers’ notes will get far more complex and helpful. But starting out, you need to make it as easy as possible for them to learn how to provide helpful feedback. The five areas signified on the checklist should encompass the key problem areas betas will encounter in any manuscript. When employed, they should reveal most of what you need to address to make the book better. Once memorized, the letter coding should also help you prioritize them as you review the notes and employ them in revision.

Hope it helps. Happy writing!

For what it’s worth…

 

WriteTip: 5 Tips For Better Networking

Like it or not, networking is a necessity for anyone who wants to succeed in the arts. And given so many creatives are introverts that makes networking a big challenge. But as someone who considers networking a key element in my career success so far, I have learned a few tricks I can pass on to make networking easier.

1. Networking is a long haul game. Networking doesn’t happen instantly. It takes an investment. So don’t plan to go to one event or convention and meet all your networking needs with one encounter. Each encounter/event is about laying groundwork that will pay off down the road, and you should approach them accordingly.

2. Networking is not all about you. Don’t approach networking as if it’s like handing out your resume. Networking is far more about other people. What you want to do is be friendly, fun, and interesting as you ask others about themselves and interact. Talk about their work, if you know it, or the latest movie or TV show, and so on. Find out what they do, what they like, where they live, and show genuine interest. Once the ice is broken and they are comfortable with you, they will eventually ask about you. That’s your chance to talk about yourself. And it may not happen in the first meeting but that’s okay. Networking is a long haul game, remember?

3. Networking is easiest if you avoid controversy. Artists are passionate people, and we tend to have strong opinions. But take it from someone who’s learned the hard way, there is nothing to be gained from engaging in controversial conversations with potential contacts. Politics, religion—anything prone to divisiveness—are not your friend and should be avoided. Save those conversations for private scenarios with people you know well and trust. There is a whole lot to be lost here, including not just potential relationships but reputation and so much more in the cancel culture environment. You lose nothing by staying away from those topics.

4. Networking requires taking chances. It’s intimidating to meet new people, especially for introverts. But that’s why you want to focus on what you have in common. Ask yourself “where are we and why are we here?” The answer already points to something you have in common. Build on that. Introduce yourself and ask about them, then take it from there. Let the conversation develop and flow naturally. It’s okay if it takes place in a  circle of people or more than one-on-one, too. You are laying the groundwork for what pays off later, remember?

5. Networking can be a lot of fun. Don’t assume that every person you network with is the one who can buy your story or hire you. That’s usually not the case. But networking is all about who you know. Some of the best friends I have I met networking at various conventions or events. We discovered what we have in common, hit it off, and stayed in touch. And since networking is all about who you know, sometimes those people introduced me to people who bought my stories or hired me, and sometimes I introduced them. Or sometimes they just tipped me off to opportunities that I could explore and those turned into work. Networking is about building a network far beyond the “yes men” and power brokers so that you position yourself in the right place at the right time with the right avenue to reach out.

So hopefully this post has helped you rethink the process of networking and devise a new approach. Now you just have to put it into practice. Good luck! For what it’s worth…

WriteTip: No Deal is Always Better Than a Bad Deal

DISCLAIMER: I am no lawyer. And I am not an agent. So I am not one to give legal advice. This counts more as common sense so keep that in mind. I want to say this about contracts, and it’s learned from experience:

No deal is always better than a bad deal.

Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time negotiating contracts, and it’s got me thinking back ten years to when I first started out as a writer. For the first two or three years especially, it seemed like I was never going to get a sale, let alone a pro sale. And that made me feel like my legitimacy as a writer was very much in question. So one day, when a deal came along that paid pro rates and offered me that opportunity, I faced a real delimma. See, they were paying me ten cents per word. And that was at a time when 6 cents per word was the pro standard, so this was great pay. But in exchange they wanted my copyright and along with it the right to rewrite me however they chose without my involvement if they decided to do so.

Man, I really liked everything about that project. I really wanted to be a part of it. Until I heard the deal points. It’s evidence of my desperation that I spent a few days actually weighing it before turning them down. Now a days, it would be a nonstarter, and, in fact, a sign that I should never do business with those people again. That’s outrageous. Writers are not slaves. Our intellectual property is our most valuable commodity, and if our name goes on it, you shouldn’t change a word we don’t agree to. It doesn’t matter how much you pay us—that’s nonegotiable. But as it was, I really wanted to be seen as a pro with a sale to prove it, so I did spend a few days considering what to do before I made the decision to decline. And just to prove what shitty people they were, the editor told me how I’d regret my decision and what a fool I was being—clear signs, I now know, of sharks and jerks I should never go near. But at the time, I had a lot to learn, so I wondered for a period if I should have taken the deal.

Seven years or so later, I have zero regrets about that decision. In fact, I have found myself in the position on occasion as anthologist defending my writers against that very type of rights grab. To me, it’s a nonstarter. And it should be for you and any creative. Unless the work is an exiting IP work for hire situation, you should never be asked to relinquish control of it by anyone. Now, if you are unreasonable about reasonable edits and copy edits and style changes, then they have every right not to publish you. And you should expect as much. So don’t be a dick. Be reasonable. But that’s not the same as rewriting someone’s work without them. I would never want my name on work that was not entirely my own, would you? In work for hire, you might not have a choice but with your own original work, you always should and do.

So, again, I advise you to remember this one thing when it comes to selling your work or negotiating any contract:

no deal is always better than a bad deal.

Of course, I also advise you to seek advice of knowledgeable people so you know what is reasonable and what to expect. After all, some deal points are standard, and you may not understand or like all of them, but that’s part of the business and there are reasons for them. Publishers are in the business to make money, and the goal of each side in any contract negotiation is to negotiate terms most favorable to them. There’s always some give and take involved. But when you know industry standard terms, you can tell when you are being treated fairly and reasonably within bounds and when people step over the line, and to me, that is the difference between a bad deal and a good one. The thing is that the industry standard terms have been negotiated or hard fought by writers organizations, writers, agents, and publishers over a number of years and represent the most reasonable compromise between both groups’ expectations. You are never going to get a deal with a publisher that is not at least somewhat more favorable toward the publisher because they are the ones putting out the money and assuming the financial risk, and they also have more overhead than you do on a number of levels. But over time, writers and their representatives have worked hard to work out terms everyone can live with in regards to not only royalties but exclusivity clauses, options, reversion rights, and so on. So familiarizing yourself with what the standards are can ease your mind and reassure you that you are making the best deal possible, all things considered. (Hint: The boiler plate almost never reflects these standards, so never take the first thing offered. Always  expect to negotiate a bit. The exception may be contracts with magazines and such, but most of the time, negotiation is expected.)

In the end, a bad deal is very hard to live with. It will haunt you and come back to make you hurt over it and regret it many times over. Whereas the deal you thought you regretted passing up, will disappear with time. That deal I mentioned that could have been my first pro sale? This is the first time I’ve thought of it in several years. Why? Because I long ago moved past it and had successes and learned what is and isn’t fair and reasonable, and that gave me perspective that I had done the right thing.  But bad deals cannot be undone, or at least, they are very hard to undo—and very expensive. So never let yourself be talked into a deal that doesn’t feel comfortable. Because it’s far easier to wonder over and over “what if” than to ask yourself over and over “how could I have been such a fool.”

And that’s why no deal is always better than a bad deal. For what it’s worth.

WriteTip: 5 Keys To Writing Plot Twists

Today’s WriteTip is a guest post by Desiree Villena from Reedsy.

By Desiree Villena

When every TV show, video game, book, and film these days is competing to out-thrill the public, any author could be forgiven for thinking that “mind-blowing” has lost all previous meaning. But the truth is that writing plot twists well is a careful craft — not a simple escalation of arbitrary shocks.

To get it right, you need to come up with the plot twist in the first place, work it into the plot, cover up your trail appropriately, and then make sure that the sumtotal delivers as you intended. Here are 5 key tips for writing plot twists that actually work.

1. Eliminate the obvious.

All plot twists may be equal in a vacuum, but in actuality, some are more satisfying than others. A good plot twist is one that both surprises the audience and is narratively sound. You want to blow your readers’ minds away, not blow their minds up. Your twist shouldn’t arrive completely out of the blue — but your readers also can’t see it coming from the very first page. Try to strike exactly the right balance for a twist that makes readers enjoy the new angle that it provides.

How can you come up with such a plot twist in the first place? First, get the ‘surprise’ element right. Eliminate the obvious. Don’t underestimate your readers, no matter your genre: they’re smart, and they’ve seen it all already. Some plot twist tropes are more popular than others. Peruse them all to understand what the classic books and films did to make them exciting and original in their eras, and then add your fresh take to it.

2. Make it matter.

To the point of “narratively sound,” a plot twist can make a reader sit up and go, “Wait, what just happened?” It should not then make a reader wonder, “Why did that just happen?” A good twist won’t contradict the established story: instead, it should develop the story’s central premise, moving it in a new direction that absolutely makes sense for the characters. You can tell a poor plot twist from a good one when it’s obviously more interested in shocking readers than in furthering the story.

Spend some time asking yourself if your plot twist actually possesses a purpose and will offer payoff to the reader. If you find that you’re writing a plot twist solely for shock value, you’re probably doing it wrong. To see bad plot twists in action, just watch seasons six, seven, and eight of Game of Thrones and then observe all of the irate reaction posts that they birthed.

3. Clue the reader in.

There are two types of plot twists: those that come out of nowhere, and those that are built up through clues that are carefully positioned throughout the story. In A Song of Ice and Fire, the death of (spoiler alert!) Ned Stark exemplifies the former. On the other end of the spectrum is the second — the kind that tends to induce that famous “Oh, so that’s why all of those things happened!” revelation.

If you’re going for this second type of plot twist (hint: you should be), then you’ll need to get the game of Clue down pat. Work interesting clues into your story that will build up to your plot twist, but don’t be too obvious or draw unnecessary attention to them. Think about it as a breadcrumb trail: readers can successfully follow your path, but only if they’re paying close attention to the tiny crumbs on the floor. The Sixth Sense is a classic example of this; the reveal at the end might shock you, but upon re-watch, all of the clues are there for you to trace.

4. Avoid outright lying.

How exactly can you go about this subtly? Don’t forget the other foolproof trick up any twisty author’s sleeve: misdirection.

The Harry Potter series, for instance, is a minefield of misdirection: Harry thought in Sorcerer’s Stone that Professor Snape was the one working with Lord Voldemort, when in fact it was Professor Quirrell. He believed that the villain in Prisoner of Azkaban was Sirius Black. Spoiler alert: it was actually Peter Pettigrew. Your misdirection, too, can easily go so far as your POV character’s understanding of the events, and any red herrings that you plant can distract readers from the truth. But never forget the golden rule of plot twists: never outright lie to your reader.

Neither should you overdo it. Some writers get so carried away with their own “brilliance” in creating red herrings that there’s ultimately more evidence in the story for the red herrings than for the truth. This is a red flag to any reader — indeed, your manuscript might not even then make it past a discerning literary agent if this is your strategy.

To that end, take a step back at the end of your draft to make sure that your story remains sturdy under inspection. Is it crystal clear what the truth is upon re-read? Did you balance the red herrings and the real clues? Do your details give away too much? Or not enough?

5. Test it on beta readers.

Film studios will conduct screenings months prior to a movie’s official release to test the audience’s reaction to said movie. Negative feedback can send the film back to the set for re-shoots, and even change the script substantially. (Can you say “panicked third act rewrites”?) But the primary goal of such trial runs is to ensure that the finished product doesn’t get any damning reviews on the day of its release, and so you should also share your manuscript with trusted beta readers to make sure that your story delivers as you imagined (after you self-edit your manuscript, of course).

Prepare a tally of questions for your beta readers to answer. Were your plot twists unexpected? Did any of them become plot holes? Did your readers feel cheated at all throughout the course of the story, or was the reveal (and the payoff) satisfying? When they answer to your satisfaction, you can be confident about (no plot twist in sight here) your book release in the future.


Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories. Naturally, she’s a big fan of plot twists (when they’re done right).

WriteTip: Using The Rule of Threes To Up Humor, Tension, and Nuance

Today, we’re going to talk about The Rule of Threes, or rule of three, as some call it. It is a technique where you set up gags or bits so that they recur three times in a story, each time successively bigger and funnier or more dramatic. Wikipedia defines it as follows:
The rule of three is a writing principle that suggests that a trio of events or characters is more humorous, satisfying, or effective than other numbers in execution of the story and engaging the reader. The reader or audience of this form of text is also thereby more likely to remember the information conveyed. This is because having three entities combines both brevity and rhythm with having the smallest amount of information to create a pattern.

The repetition makes the payoff greater. In comedy writing, the first occurrence tends to be a smaller laugh. The second, medium. The third is hopefully a real guffaw. The actual events of the joke don’t recur each time. For example, if a banana peel were the joke, you might start by having someone fall on one. The second time they might dodge a banana peel because they expected to fall and someone else falls instead. The third time they find banana peels falling from a truck and everyone is slipping and sliding. A lame, silly example and a cliché, but it illustrates the point. Each successive recurrence gets bigger with a twist, until the third recurrence is much bigger and much funnier. The payoff breaks the pattern enough that it surprises us but not so much that it is a non sequitur. It is about something unexpected that breaks the pattern yet is connected to it enough so that we recognize it. Hence, the first two times, someone drops a banana peel. The third time, a truck full of banana peels breaks the pattern.

Using the rule of threes is a great way to plant humor in stories and pay them off over time for bigger laughs. The catch is that it must be familiar enough for the audience to understand, and it must be specific. The more specific, the better for comedy. As comedian Simon Taylor explains:

The rule of three creates an assumption by listing two similar items, then a third one that differs in a fundamental way: I like red wine, classical music, and committing brutal homicides. They then become more elaborate by having introductions to the items: I didn’t have time to pack much for the weekend, just: socks, undies … my ninja sword. To add to these, you can reiterate the assumption at the end of the joke by using what comedians call a “tag”: Man, I love the horse races: the big winnings, the fashion, the woman collapsing in a pool of their own vomit. It’s all fun.
(https://mrsimontaylor.wordpress.com/2010/ 12/03/the-psychology-of-comedy-rule-of- threes/)

The extra elements of introductions and tags act to reinforce the assumptions created by the first two items in the list. To take the second joke as an example, we hear the word “socks” and subconsciously associate it with categories such as “clothing,” “basic,” and “essential.” When we hear that “undies” is the next item, those categories are reinforced. In comes the “ninja sword” to contradict those categories, which is what causes some nice little chuckles.
In comedy movies and sitcoms, we see this rule applied time and again. Sometimes it occurs so often that audiences can see it coming and have come to expect it.

The same principle of repetition can be used to increase dramatic effect in more serious works because audiences pick up on the pattern and remember. Take “The Three Little Pigs,” the three ghosts of A Christmas Carol, or “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” even Goldilocks and her three bears. The three encounters each play out differently with different emotional and dramatic effects to raise the stakes and challenge the character, each adding to the one(s) before and forcing the character to confront something. In the end, they leave the character changed—usually for the better.

The first occurrence is a setup with a milder dramatic impact but an impact nonetheless. However, each successive recurrence increases in dramatic effect because the stakes go up with the repetition as the audience connects the character’s emotional and physical experience (nuance) dealing with the original occurrence and then each successive recurrence to up the tension of having to deal with a similar situation yet again. The ultimate result is increased drama and audience investment and a deeper emotional resonance and sense of nuance throughout your story.

If you haven’t employed this method before on purpose, chances are you have on instinct. Go back and look at some of your previous works if you’re not sure and see if that’s the case. If not, now you have a tool, but even if it is, being able to understand it allows you to use The Rule Of Threes to greater impact and effect.

[NOTE: Portions of this post were repurposed from my nonfiction book HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL: The Fundamentals of Fiction, which you can download for free on ebook here.]

WriteTip: Don’t Forget To Read

This week’s WriteTip is a bit of a departure from usual form. No craft tips or lists. Just a passionate statement about something many writers often fail to do: keep up with reading.

It happens to all of us as we become writers—we get so involved in writing and craft and everything surrounding it (promotion, social media, etc.) that we slowly see our reading time disappearing or eroding to almost nil. And soon, there just isn’t time to read. Or so we tell ourselves. But it’s a lie, a big lie, and it is a dire one.

I once fell into this trap, and I can tell ya, my happiness suffered, but more importantly, my writing suffered. When I started reading again, my writing productivity and satisfaction with the results climbed. I now regularly read two novels a week, and still write an average of 1800 words a day when on project (there are breaks for edits, polishing, and so forth from time to time). And I am so glad I rediscovered the joy of reading.

For me, the challenge came from reading too many books in the same genres or sub genres. When I started writing science fiction  and fantasy in 2009, for example, I had not been regularly reading in those genres as I had during childhood, so I found myself out of touch and behind and wanted to catch up and get a sense of the field. Because I enjoy such things, soon I was devouring everything I could find in those sub genres, and because when I write, reading in the genre I am writing is helpful, it was fine. I am not one of those writers who is prone to copying plot and characters from what I am reading, so my stories were not negatively effected by reading in the same genre I write. Instead, I was inspired and reading helped me create the feel I wanted. When I wrote my Saga of Davi Rhii books, I wanted them to feel like Star Wars: A New Hope, so I rewatched the original trilogy and reread the Zahn tie-ins and mission accomplished. I realize not every writer can do this, but I can, absorbing a feel and elements that I incorporate into my own voice and style to enhance my book. If you can’t do that, I am sorry. I really am, so you may have to try a different approach, but this works great for me.

But after about 8 years of nonstop science fiction  and fantasy with rare breaks to read anything else, I started to burn out. Not only did my ideas dry up, but my enthusiasm waned greatly, and so I found myself slugging through books and reading half the usual number if that. Deciding that perhaps it was time for a break, I started reading other genres, with particular focus on procedural thrillers—which I have always loved on TV but had not read much—and boom, I was off and running again. The best part of reading outside my genre was I didn’t find myself interrupting my reading constantly with subconscious literary analysis or craft breakdowns. Instead, I could just enjoy the reads. Now that I write thrillers, I let myself entertain such thoughts a bit more but I have disciplined my mind so it usually occurs when I am not reading so as to avoid spoiling the experience.

An additional benefit is that I have learned new vocabulary and turns of phrase I can then incorporate into my own arsenal to enhance and expand my voice. We sometimes forget our limits. And it is good to see how other writers use words in masterful and interesting ways to remind us, even show us, how we might use them better and more interestingly moving forward. In the process, we can gain not only useful insights but words and phrases that expand our palate and reinforce our craft.

To me, reading is one of life’s joys, and by losing it, I lost something important. After all, reading is what made me want to write and helped me decide what stories I wanted to tell. Now, I read a variety of genres and some nonfiction (not always research related though often it is with a few writing books thrown in), and I really find I write better, I feel better, and I am more creative as a result.

So this week’s write tip is a bit of a departure from the usual craft how tos, but I just wanted to encourage and remind my readers that reading is still important and probably an activity that was a large part of why you write, so please don’t let yourself lose touch with that experience. Finding time for it will be one of the best gifts you give yourself all year.

For what it’s worth…

WriteTip Classic: 9 Tools For Character Development

Character Development is core to good storytelling. After all, characters are whom readers connect to and if they are stagnant and unchanging, the story can fail to hold reader’s interest. Growth of characters creates drama and propels the story. So what tools can you use to develop characters well? Here’s ten suggestions:

1) Treat Your Characters As Individuals–People are unique, no two the same, and so should it be with your characters. So each character should respond differently to a situation as any other character. In particular, fight scenes, for example, can often be a place where characters blend into one, as they all react the same. Instead try treating such common scenes as opportunities to reveal character through uniqueness. How would one character fight differently than another? Work this in and your story will be richer, your characters stronger. There are many other common scene types where you can similarly emphasize the uniqueness. Look for them.

2) Vary The Vocabulary–People use words differently, so your characters should as well. One of the best ways to distinguish and develop characters is through dialogue. Educated people use more sophisticated words, while less educated structure sentences  differently. Think of this as you develop each character’s voice and use it to set them apart, create conflict and develop them throughout your story. Vocabulary, in fact, is far more effective than attempting to create accents. Phonetically, accents already pose problems and can even devolve into silly or, far worse, confusing dialogue styles which detract from the story.

3) Scene Point Of View–Another way to develop character is by choosing the protagonist whose point of view will tell particular scenes. I tend to consider who has the most at stake in a particular scene and make the scene happen in that POV but there are varied theories. Whatever your method, your characters can be developed well through use of POV. For example, I had a scene where a couple are fighting. At the same time, an old enemy is stalking them, intent to do them harm. I told the scene from the enemy’s POV, even though he never interacts with the couple because it allowed me to further both the romantic storyline and the antagonist’s storyline in one scene through his internal monologue as he witnesses their discussion. Three character arcs and two plotlines were thus furthered in one short scene.

4) Sartorial Style–People’s tastes vary, and so should characters’. What they wear, how they choose it, etc. can be a part of characterization. Everything from color to fabric choices to scale, formality, and even clothing cost can be used to establish character. We use such things daily as we observe others to determine things about them, and readers will use such details as clues to define characters if you include them.

5) Naming–Names say a lot about who we are, and so choosing character names is another way to develop them or establish particular impressions almost immediately in reader’s minds. Someone named ‘Timothy’ and someone named ‘Theodore’ will be considered differently by readers. The first sounds more common and less formal, while the second sounds a bit more haughty and implies a different educational level or even class level. Now that’s stereotyping, of course, so sometimes naming a character contrary to the impression the name gives can also be a tool you use. But whatever the tactic, character naming is a very important tool in their development. In addition to formal names, nicknames can also be employed as well. Whether a character has a nickname, uses it or likes it, can say a lot about who they are.

6) Props–We all have our favorite do-dads, don’t we? Things we take with us everywhere we go. The cliches for women are purses and for men, perhaps, favorite hats, but we all have something. Sometimes it’s small enough to fit in a pocket. Other times, it’s carried around for all to see. Props are a great tool for revealing character. Spend time observing people around you. What props does each person have? Keep a spreadsheet or list of potential props for characters. Yes, when writing fantasy or science fiction you might have to be more inventive than just copying from a list you made at the mall. That’s called writing, dears. In any case, props can add great flavor and speak volumes about characters.

7) Companions–Fellow characters, animal or otherwise, can be great for revealing character. We see how they interact with each other and we learn volumes about who they are. Think about it: what would the Lone Ranger have been without Silver or Tonto? What about Batman without Robin? There’s a reason Michael Keaton quit after two movies: he was lonely (Ok, that might be just a guess). Who a person spends his or her time with says a lot about them and so use it to develop your characters well.

8 ) Backstory–It seems obvious but sometimes it’s easy to forget to dig deeply into a character’s past for material to develop the character. Even things you know about them but don’t include in your narrative can be of value. All the experiences of that character’s past serve to shape who he or she is becoming, from determining responses to various stimuli to emotional hotpoints from happy to fearful. When your character seems to become stagnant, review what you know about his or her past, then ask yourself if maybe there might be more to uncover which would help you as you write. You can only have too little backstory, never too much. It’s core to the internal battles all people face and will enrich your ability to write your characters with depth and broadness that stretches outside the boundaries and limitations of your story itself.

9) Traits–Another that seems obvious but developing your character’s likes and dislikes can take you all kinds of places, especially when you examine how they might clash with those of the characters around them and even the attributes of the world around them. All kinds of instances will soon arise where you can reveal more of the character through actions resulting from these traits. In the process, your story will have built in conflict and drama and perhaps even humor you might not have thought of before. Character traits are a great way to add spicy detail to your story, surprising and entertaining readers at the same time. And don’t just limit yourself to personal preferences either. Character traits can also include physical ticks like clenching hands when angry or a slight stutter or even a limp or other defect.

Okay, there you have them: 9 Tools For Character Development. Have more? Please add them in the comments. I’d love to hear what tools and tricks you employ. Let’s learn from each other.

For what it’s worth…


For more tips, come back next Wednesday. For previous WriteTips, click here.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is a national bestselling author/editor and Hugo-nominee who’s edited over a dozen anthologies and hundreds of novels, including the international phenomenon The Martian by Andy Weir and books by Alan Dean Foster, Frank Herbert, Mike Resnick, Angie Fox, and Tracy Hickman as well as official entries in The X-Files, Predator, Joe Ledger, Monster Hunter International, and Decipher’s Wars. His debut novel, The Worker Prince, earned honorable mention on Barnes and Noble’s Year’s Best Science Fiction. His adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction books have been published by publishers such as St. Martins Press, Baen Books, Titan Books, IDW, and more. Find him online at his website bryanthomasschmidt.net or Twitter and Facebook as BryanThomasS.

To download How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction free one book, click here.

To check out Bryan’s latest novels, click here.