WriteTip: Unauthorized Tie-Ins: If It Ain’t Yours, Don’t Write It

This tip isn’t about fanfic of the free kind fans write and post on various online forums for such. This post is about something related but troublesome. This post is about unauthorized novels and fiction written in existing universes owned by others people are planning to profit from and promote.

As a freelance editor, I get all kinds of submissions. But lately I have had to field several of this type, and it was deeply concerning. Here were people who were huge fans who actually had the audacity to think their ideas were so good they had the right to publish material based on a major franchise without permission or coordination with those who own and manage that intellectual property. Folks, if you want legal trouble, this is a great way to go after it. But it’s a lot of effort and wasted at that, for you to go about it this way.

Let’s talk about how tie-ins actually work. Someone, usually a publisher, buys print prose rights for doing tie-in works for a particular property (Predator, Alien, Star Wars, whatever). They then hire writers to pitch stories that they pass on to the licensor who decides which to green light and which get a pass. The next phase are extensive outlines and approval by the publisher and licensor before the person goes off to write. Then, when all that is settled, they write the novel or story, then yet another round of editing and approval takes place, then the book goes to copy editing, layout, proofing, and so on. All this before it gets published. Almost never does it happen from someone writing a novel or story on spec and selling it to a licensor. You don’t know the inside scoop on what else they are developing, the secret rules of either where they want the universe to go or where they want to avoid, and so on. So anything you write on spec will most likely be seen as an intrusion because it was not approved properly first and did not go through the various steps.

Seriously. I can probably count on one hand the number of times anyone successfully sold a prewritten novel in an existing world on spec to a licensor.

So why write it? Seriously. If it ain’t your world, don’t write it. Not without permission.

It takes a long time and a lot of effort to write good fiction. Especially novels. And tie-in novels require extra work—attention to detail, long research and reading everything in the universe you can find, and so on. Additionally, since many fans have different ideas what is best about the IP and where they want it to go, you are very unlikely to write something that the licensor will totally agree with from the start, and once you commit it to a full manuscript, chances are it will feel very final to them in a way that seems past the point of input and revision, at least to the degree they think it needs. So to them it’s easier to just pass than actually try to negotiate and discuss with you how to fix it or have you write it over from scratch. Additionally, many writers are resistant to changes anyway, so that could also be problematic and why risk the aggravation when they have their own ideas and plans and they are the only ones with the right to pursue them anyway?

I get that you are enthusiastic. But there is a difference between enthusiasm and presumption. Presumption is misplaced. Enthusiasm is not. And writing a novel in someone else’s IP without permission is the height of presumption.

It just makes way more sense, if you’re going to put out that kind of effort, to expend it into developing your own intellectual property—characters, world and story—that you can do whatever you want with. That’s something you control and you alone have final say on. Sure, you will want editors and publishers to sign off and help you make it better. And believe me, they will do their best to do that. But in the end you are working for yourself. And all the rewards—credit and financial and inner satisfaction, the most important of all—will be yours.

And speaking of money, here’s the thing. When you do tie-ins in someone else’s IP, it is work for hire. You may get an advance, and sometimes you get royalties (sometimes you don’t), but the bulk of profit is theirs. And usually the royalty amount is much smaller than for an original novel because the licensor will take more than the publisher and force them to accept less so they pass it on to you. Now, if you have not been hired, it’s pretty arrogant to undertaking working for hire on your own. You are assuming a lot. And that’s not necessarily a trait people admire or respect. But more than that, you are risking a lot. Months or years of effort could be a total waste, with a manuscript stuck in a drawer for life with no output for you to share it.

I know you’re thinking: I’ll just post it as fanfic. But what if the licensor hates it and, in fact, hires lawyers because you violated their copyright by writing it without permission and in order to avoid a lawsuit, forced you to turn over all copies to them and promise to destroy all files and never speak of or share it again? What if they force you to sign an NDA or something that you will never publish it or risk a lawsuit? Where will all the time and effort get you then?

Okay, these are worst case scenarios. They are likely rare too. Not worth the effort. But they are possible. And there are assholes out there who might just do it to make a point. It’s happened. So why risk that if you’re going to work so hard on something?

The point is there are way more reasons why it makes better sense to concentrate and dedicate your effort on doing something that is yours and totally benefits you rather than expending it and risking it on someone else’s intellectual property that might not only go nowhere but not benefit or hardly benefit you at all.

So that’s why If it ain’t yours, don’t write it is a good rule to live by, and it’s why when people bring me such projects, I usually decline to work on them. And that’s not even mentioning the liability I could be sued as a coconspirator or something if the licensor gets mad. Those legal matters are a whole separate post.

So just don’t do it, please. If you want to write fan fic, post it on the forums, but don’t dedicate serious effort to producing fan fic you hope to sell. Instead, write something so awesome, the licensor or publisher might see it then invite you to pitch and write authorized fan fic. THAT is the real prize, and having done it, I can tell you it never gets old. But only if you do it the right way.

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 magazine 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.

WriteTip Classic: 10 Tips For Writing Better Dialogue

Writing dialogue can be a challenge for some writers more than others, but it’s an extremely important part of good fiction. There are many tools and techniques one can use, the most important being to use your powers of observation. By listening to dialogue of the real people around you, you can learn how people talk, especially people of different socioeconomic, educational and age groups. But there are craft elements involved as well. Here’s 10 Tips For Writing Better Dialogue:

1) Use Simple Tags Sparingly. Fancy tags like “he expostulated” or “she espoused” are less clear and more distracting than anything. So keep the tags simple when you absolutely must use them. Instead, convey the manner in which a character speaks instead. Make it obvious from what is said.

2) Instead Of Tags, Use Actions. People talk while actively engaging in activities. So should your characters. Giving them business to do during dialogue allows you to identify who’s speaking without resorting to overused tags. Some can come in the form of characterizing the speaker: “His eyebrows lifted with menace,” for example. “Bob’s fist clenched as he spoke.” “Tears rolled down her cheek with every word.”

3)  Avoid Expositional Dialogue When Possible. We’ve all violated this rule, but especially when two characters should already know the information being imparted, it seems unnatural and distracting. In such cases, internal monologue is a better tool and more natural. Characters may think about stuff they already know but they wouldn’t tell each other stuff each of them knows.

4) Keep It Short. People talk in choppy sentences. Long soliloquies are rare. So in dialogue, use a combination of short sentences to make it flow and feel like real people talking. Let them interrupt each other, too. People do that in real life. It adds to the pace, tension and drama of it.

5) Avoid Phonetic Spellings For Accents. They are difficult to read. Indications of dialect can be used instead to get the reader to do the rest.  Overuse of a dialect becomes distracting to readers and can actually take them out of the story. Keep the words your characters say as unobtrusive as possible so your story flows seamlessly.

6) Dialogue Is Conflict. Conflict keeps the story moving. People talk like they’re playing table tennis–back and forth. This moves the story forward. Lace your dialogue with conflict. It adds dramatic urgency to every line the characters say and keeps the story’s pace.

 7) Use Other Characters. Let a character imply who’s speaking to them by saying something specific to only that person. If you use business well (see number 2 above), having a character refer to something the other character is doing is a great way to do this.

8 ) Give Each Character A Distinctive Voice. Overdo it and its caricature but we all have our own speech tics. Create some for your characters and sprinkle them throughout. Readers will learn them and know who’s speaking. For example, Captain Jack Sparrow loves the term of affection: “love” and uses that a lot. He also says “Savvy?” a great deal as well. He has others you can probably remember, too. Study characterization and see what other writers have done.

9) Speak It Aloud. Talk it out. Get inside the heads of your characters and say the lines. Play out the conversation you’ve written. Does it sound natural? Does it flow? Your ear is often a better judge than your eyes and hearing it will give you an idea how readers will hear it.

10) Remember What Medium You’re Writing For. TV and Film dialogue and novel dialogue are not necessarily the same.  There is no third party to use intonation, facial expressions and/or body language to bring it to life. Your words alone are the conduit between yourself and the reader and your prose skills and the readers’ imaginations make it work.

Well, those are my 10 Tips of the moment for writing better dialogue. Do you have any others? We’d love for you to share them in the comments.


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.

WriteTip Classic: 10 Tips For Writing Good Action Scenes

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been a fan of action. Movies like the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series always entertained me. I like action in my reading, too. Space opera is my favorite science fiction genre and sword & sorcery tops my fantasy favorites. Is it any wonder that I find myself often writing action in my stories? But writing action can be a challenge for writers. When making movies, you have visual and other clues to use to inspire the tension and pacing in the audience, but when writing prose, this can be more difficult. So here are a few key tips I’ve learned.

1) Write in short snippets as much as possible. Action scenes are not the time for long internal dialogues by characters. Think about a time you were involved in a high adrenaline situation. You didn’t have time to take long pauses for deep thinking. You had to react and do so quickly and so must your characters. The same is true of long speeches. People tend to be interrupted in speaking by the need to act or react. So dialogue and even action should be described in short spurts. If you have more than four sentences to it, think twice about whether it should be split up.

2) Use action to break up dialogue and dialogue to break up action.Intersperse the two components in short segments to add a sense of pacing and tension. Writing long sections of dialogue and long sections of action will tend to read slow and thus stall the pacing. This is especially true of dialogue as noted above. Alternating them adds a sense of realism and keeps things moving.

3) Get to the point. Long descriptions of weapons and scenery don’t belong here. If things need to be set up, do it before the sequence occurs so you don’t have to interrupt the action to do it. You want to focus on sensory details–what the characters see, feel, touch, etc. Are they sweating? Are they hurting? Not on what the building behind them looks like or even the street itself. You don’t want to spend pages like Tom Clancy describing their weapon here. We need to know what it is and how it works and their skill level so we can not be surprised by their actions, but set that up elsewhere. During the action, we should already know.

4) Don’t make it too easy. Yes, the hero will likely win. But make it a challenge. Be sure and make the opponents threatening enough that the hero is in real jeapordy, otherwise the dramatic impact will be greatly lessened. No matter how skilled your hero is, he or she must have to face obstacles. In action sequences the odds should seem stacked against him.  Let them bleed from a wound. Let them misfire or miss with the sword. Let them sweat and even have to run, barely escaping. Sometimes it’s even good to let them lose one time only to have them win later on. Force them to stretch themselves in some way to succeed. Make them human or the reader’s will struggle to care.

5) Keep it believable.  This goes hand in hand with number 4. Real people are imperfect. They make mistakes. They fail. Make sure your action sequences are well researched and realistic. Besides humanizing the hero, don’t have vehicles or weapons performing beyond their capabilities. You may assume readers won’t know the difference but some will. And writing without limits rings hollow. Make sure you respect the limits and use them to up the tension. A man stuck with a sword fighting men with guns will face tense moments. A man against incredible odds is a man we root for.

6) Keep it tight. Anything absolutely not necessary should be cut. This includes long descriptions and dialogue as mentioned in number 1 but also the scene openings and closings. The rule I learned in film school was to get in a scene as late as possible and out as soon as possible. Nothing hurts pacing more than disobeying this rule. Be sure you start the action as fast as possible and end it the same. Don’t drag it out unnecessarily in your desire to make it more dramatic or a “cooler” sequence. Make it exactly as long as it really needs to be to serve the story and no longer.

7) Give the readers breathing space. Be careful about putting too many action sequences too close together. Movies build to a climax which may have twenty minutes of action but before that action scenes are interspersed with slower moments. Make sure you intersperse your action sequences with moments of character building and reflection, dialogue and discovery–slower sequences which allow readers to breathe a bit before the next intense action scene. In between scenes are where you make action sequences matter.  Action is not just about a character we care about surviving but about stakes he or she has in that victory. What is the character’s driving need or goal? This gets set up in other scenes and provided driving undercurrent to the action which makes us care.

8 ) Pick your moments. Action stories tend to have several sequences spread throughout. Be sure you consider in choosing which sequence to include where the overall dramatic level of them. You want the biggest action sequence in the entire piece to be either at the closing of the piece. Those in between should leave room for a build up to the major action sequence to come. Ideally, each scene builds up to those that follow but this can be accomplished in ways besides upping the stakes and tension or odds. With proper character arcs, character’s emotional stakes can be developed in such a way that each later sequence matters that much more, making the readers care more as well.

9) Make it matter. Action scenes do not exist solely to entertain readers and add tension. They have a greater purpose to serve the story. Something must happen which ups the stakes or increases the challenges with each scene in your story and action scenes are no exception. Don’t write action for the sake of action. Write action because it serves the story. Every action sequence should move the story and characters forward in their journey, if not, they don’t belong int he story.

10) Incorporate humor. Humor is a great tool for not only breaking the tension but building character during action sequences. It’s no accident characters like LEthal Weapon’s Riggs and Die Hard’s McClane engage in witty banter during such moments and your characters can as well. From funny actions to funny dialogue snippets, this makes the action both more enjoyable and less tense when done at the right moments and can add a lot to reader enjoyment. Don’t be afraid to incorporate it when you can. It doesn’t have to be cheesy catch phrases either. It’s all in the wording.

Just a few tips I hope will help you in writing action scenes for your stories and novels. I know these lessons have helped me.

As an example, here’s an excerpt from my latest novel, The Sideman:

The Sideman Teaser

For what it’s worth…

WriteTip Classic: Special Punctuation—How to Properly Employ Ellipses, Em Dash, En Dash, and Hyphens

Flashing back to Feb. 2012 when I posted this post that I think might be useful to some of you still.

Ahhhh punctuation. A gift and yet a bane for us all, isn’t it? Editors fix way too much of it. Writers get confused and abuse too much of it. And the rest of the world scratches their head and gives up with a bevy of messages which start to look like this: cumin 2c u ok so b thr & b readE.”

Sigh.

Today’s Write Tip is the first in what will be an ongoing series on Editing. Why am I starting with this? Because it came up first in my freelance editing and I think it’s an area all of us need clarification on. I keep my rule of thumb handy and refer to it regularly, so here goes.

Let’s examine the most common special punctuation characters we encounter:

… Ellipses

— Em dash

– En dash

– Hyphen

Here’s my simple rules for their use, based on reviewing several style guides and online resources as well as grammar books. Yes, some variations do exist, but those can get pretty complicated. If you follow these simple rules, you’ll please most people, and at least use them well. (You can’t please everybody, so let’s not pretend that we can.)

RULE OF THUMB:

Ellipses (…)

An Ellipses (…) is appropriate if the speaker trails off leaving an incomplete sentence.

Example:“Well, I was going to talk about it, but…”

This could end a sentence or be mid-paragraph as their mind wanders:

Example: “Well, I was going to talk about it, but…hey, cool hat! I really like that. So where was I?”

 

Ellipses are also used for omission of words, phrases, lines or paragraphs from a quote, in which case they replace the missing portion(s).
Ellipses can also be used for missing or illegible words.

Example: “Bryan Thomas Schmidt’s “The Worker Prince” will appeal to readers of all ages…deftly explores a world where those who believe in one God labor against oppressors, and a single man may have the power to change their situation for the better….” — Brenda Cooper, Author of The Silver Ship and the Sea and Mayan December

One last note: Ellipses at the end of a sentence should always be followed by a period thus …. at the end of the quote above.

 

Em dash (—)

An Em dash (—) is for when the speaker is cut off either by an event or another speaker.

Example: “I think we may have a problem here, but” BOOM (car explodes).

Example: Tom was excited. “I think we may have a problem here, but” “Just shut up and follow me!” Sara said and started running.

An Em dash (—)  is also appropriate when a thought is interrupted with a clause such as: “The bass—the biggest fish Josh ever caught—was only six inches, don’t let him lie.”

 

En dash(–) 

An En dash(–) is used when demonstrating numerical ranges such as 100–200 or when making compound adjectives with more than one word “pro–German Army campaign.” In this case, the proGerman Army are two words which must function together as one adjective.

 

The hyphen (-)

The hyphen (-) is often mistaken for a dash but a dash it is NOT. The hyphen (-) is for joining words, separating syllables, simple adjectives, such as “pro-German,” phone numbers, multi-word numbers, or in prefixes and suffixes.

Examples:

twenty-eight 

co-star

ex-wife

girl-next-door

314-555-1212

syl-la-bi-fi-ca-tion

fighter-sized

line-of-sight

shell-like

anti-intellectual

I hope you get the idea. All of these can be greatly abused, of course, and paragraphs wind up looking like this:

I was hoping…well, anyway…never mind.  Would you like to go to the zoo—the new one—with me? It’s not really that far…just down in line-of-sight of twenty-eighth in that pro-Italian community, you know?”

This is simply abuse. Please remember that the purpose of punctuation is to provide clarity, not make things more complex or unclear. They are designed to help readers and speakers know where to pause, where the clauses come together, where lines of thought diverge, etc. So use them wisely. Remember that if your publisher or editor has a style guide or subscribes to specific manual, such as The Chicago Manual of Style,  you really need to consult that guide first before finalizing usage to avoid problems. It’s a matter of being a pro.

I hope the above rule of thumb is helpful. It certainly helps me. I’ll be working on more of these. Do you have requests?


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.

Write Tip: Writer’s Block Is Not a Myth But Keep Writing (3 Steps)

One of my pet peeves is when I hear fellow writers advise others writers that “writer’s block is a myth.” Having experienced writer’s block for myself, I find this condescending, and I’m not sure why those writers need to feel so superior to others by denying a problem so many have experienced. There’s nothing more frustrating than writing along making good progress until you reach that spot where for some reason, your mind just stops—blanks, or freezes, or whatever you want to call it—and you can’t seem to put words together to push on to the next scene. It’s a phenomenon most every writer has experienced, so calling it a myth feels dismissive and condescending. “Hey, you may be so lucky you’ve never had the problem, but I haven’t, and I don’t appreciate your denying it exists because that doesn’t help!”

But here’s the thing: writer’s block is not a myth but it’s also not an excuse to stop writing.

“What?” You say. “But isn’t that the definition of Writer’s Block, that you can’t write?” Yes and no.

Writer’s Block is finding yourself stuck at a particular point in the story. Maybe a particular scene or line, maybe even mid-scene or mid-sentence. Try as you might, you can’t seem to get past it, and the problem seems to drag on hour after hour, sometimes even for several days.

The mistake many writers make is to let that keep them from writing, but that’s a mistake, and here’s why. Writer’s Block happens when there’s a problem in your story your subconscious knows about that your conscious self hasn’t realized yet. That’s right. Your subconscious is warning you the story isn’t working but you can’t see it because consciously you haven’t identified or recognized the problem yet. Usually it’s something you’ve already written that has a logic or other issue. Sometimes it can be what you are about to write next.

For linear writers, this is particularly frustrating because your normal pattern is to write scenes chronologically and not skip around. So when you get stuck on your next scene, the whole project comes to a halt. You literally feel like you can’t write until you get over the block so you can create the next scene in order like you’re supposed to. But I submit that this type of wrong thinking only exacerbates the problem.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it gives you an excuse not to write. And every time you give yourself an excuse not to write—essentially violating your discipline and your commitment to productivity—you make it that much easier to use the same excuse the next time. So day after day of using Writer’s Block as an excuse not to write—“I can’t write. Writer’s Block.”—can allow the problem to stretch out even further.

Instead, I argue, you should work the problem. And here’s how.

First, look at your story. Go back and think through any scene or moment where you felt even a little uncertainty and ask yourself about it. What bothered you? Why was that troubling? Is it still bothering you? If so, that’s a spot you might want to look at. If not, then move on to the next one. In doing this, you will do things. One, you will stimulate your mind to think about story problems and reexamine your overall story subconsciously even as you look at each moment one by one. Two, you may uncover the very problem that’s causing the block, thus moving you that much closer to the possibility of a solution.

Second, write something else. Professional writers like myself often have multiple projects going on at once. When we’re writing one novel or story, we have another waiting to be rewritten or polished or edited. So switch to that for a while. Writing, rewriting, and editing take different brain space from each other, and just by shaking up what you are focused on and doing something else, the problem may reveal itself subconsciously and work its way out to your conscious mind. Relieving the building stress and frustration of being blocked is also one of the best ways to solve the block and resume writing. So anything you can do to keep writing and not feel stressed about productivity or progress is a win.

Now, I can’t write two novels at the same time, because juggling all the complex plots and characters is really too hard and tends to weaken both projects. But what I can do is do a rewrite on something else, edit something else yet again, and write a short story and/or screenplay while writing a novel, so I often have those other projects to choose from.

3. Write a different scene. Even if you don’t multitask, you can always find a scene ahead in the story that you’ve pictured in your mind with some clarity. So think through your story and identify such a scene then try writing it.

I know what you’re thinking. “But I am a linear writer, that’s not how I work.” Exactly! The point is to push through the block, so switching up how you do things is a great way to shake things up and free your mind to find the solution. So what if the scene you write out of order may need a little tweaking once you go back and write what leads up to it? Rewriting is part of the process anyway. You’ll be doing it one way or another at some point so no harm, no foul (to use a sports term). But in the process of writing past where you’re stuck, you may also discover a new angle or plot twist that opens up new possibilities you’d never thought of before that paves the way to solving the block problem. And just by becoming conscious of those possibilities, you allow your mind the freedom to work through the problem and find a solution. It happens to me all the time.

Again, while I strongly disagree with those who dismiss Writer’s Block as a myth, I also strongly disagree with those who use it as an excuse to stop writing. When you’re under contract, you’ll find that most of the time, not writing isn’t an option. Your deadline isn’t blocked. It’s not going to move. You still have to meet that to get paid. So writing something is a whole lot better than writing nothing  because at least it’s progress. And if it has the bonus of freeing your mind from the block and allowing you to approach the story from a new timeframe and angle that illuminates the problem causing your block, then that’s even better! So find a scene you can write and write that. Trust me, even if you throw most of it out, you’ll feel better because the frustration and stress will be relieved, at least for the moment.

So there you have 3 Steps you can take to Work The Problem of Writer’s Block and push through to keep writing and being productive. Do you have other tips? We’d love to hear them in comments. Meanwhile, I hope this helps you. Happy writing!