Some time ago I stumbled across a story on fanfiction.net, and one can argue I was asking for it, looking on that site. But, this one story I saw had ALL the faults and fell in ALL pitfalls I could think of. And so I sat down and tought of what advise I would give to fellow writers if I could.
1) Don’t introduce too many characters at one time. It get’s confusing, and the last thing you want is for the reader to go back in your story, to try to figure out who some person are. You are not writing the Icelandic Sagas, you don’t need a family tree. Introduce your characters slowly, and tie them to something that will help people remember them. So spend some time with each your characters as you introduce them. If you introduce a bunch of people, like a group of friends, a platoon or family, that needs introduction at the same time, I recommend that you still use the ‘spend time’ mantra, and while you might mention them all, then pull one character out at a time and tie them to something.
2) Make your characters unique. the art of writing is similar to the art of drama on a stage. When you act on a stage you have to overdo everything, or the audience down in the back won’t see. And it’s everything from your speech pattern that has to be loud and clear, and your makeup that is way overdone. All to help everyone see what you want them to see. I think writing is the same! You don’t have the aid of images or movie, and therefore you have to spell everything out. Always remember that people are not inside your head, and everything is important when you build a character, from eye color to favourite cigarette brand. Everything tells the reader something about the character. So if you feel like you characterize your characters a little much, to the point of caricature, it’s okay. You need to get your mental image across.
3) Don’t be an idiot, research the stuff you don’t know. I can’t begin to tell you how much I hate people who say ‘You write what you know’, nothing is further from the truth! It is true that you of course pull stuff from a pool of knowledge inside yourself, but you can’t live that many different lives. Just as an example, I have never lived through a Zombie Apocalypse, and I have never been a soldier. This doesn’t keep me from writing it, but it does mean that I have to use my google-fu, or ask people around me, because I can only assume what would be a logical reaction to some specific situation. Don’t fool yourself to think that Stephen King knows what he’s talking about all the time, I am sure he does research too. And you can never research too much. And don’t be a wuss. If you write a story about child abuse, and you really don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, in respect for the people who might be able to relate, you owe it to them to get it right, and so you for instance google it, and you don’t google ‘sad children’, you gotta google the right stuff, and in the process you get info that you just don’t want, and you could have lived out your life happily never knowing. But then you should maybe write about something else. And for the sake of everything holy, if you never had sex, please, please don’t be a prude if you want to write about it, go google it kids!
4) Don’t hold back, you are never too much. Don’t think there are subjects that you can’t write about. As long as you ‘warn’ the readers in your summary, all is good. You should write what your muse tells you to, it makes you a happier person.
5) Sometimes insinuation is your best tool. It’s really hard to be subtle on text. And I don’t mean you have to write everything out, because sometimes insinuation is the most powerful tool you have. Like for instance one of my favourite authors H.P. Lovecraft, he rarely actually wrote anything scary, he just set the scene and let the reader draw their own conclusion. But you need to make sure the scene is set, you don’t want your reader not to understand what you are hinting at. Lets for the sake of this say that you are writing about spousal abuse, then you can for instance write the verbal fight, and have character 1, drag character 2 into the bedroom and slam the door. No one would be in doubt that the abuse would continue behind that door, but if you didn’t make sure that we as readers understood that it’s abuse we are talking about, then we would just be confused. It’s always more scary to try to guess what is under the bed, than it is to actually see it. And sometimes less is more, remember that!
6) Stay true to your characters. Nothing will justify a sudden turn of a characters reasoning to do something, not unless you put something in the story that will explain it. Something like a near-death experience, newfound religion or something like that. Characters are imaginary people, but they are no different from you and me in that aspect. You wouldn’t just wake up some day and think, ‘omg I think I should stop killing people’, or whatever. For you to make a major change in your life, something often happens that makes you question your existence. And it’s the same with fictional characters! There are of course exceptions, if you make a character that doesn’t give a shit about anything, you can basically do whatever with that character, but always remember to justify it somehow, if it’s trough dialogue with another character, a letter, or internal dialogue. Otherwise i promise you, you will unhinge your readers.
7) Listen to your readers. Well unless they are complete twats, but don’t be an ignorant bastard yourself. It is really hard to give constructive criticism, and it’s equally hard to receive it. But if someone tells you that ‘Bill’ is confusing them, or that Karl Urban isn’t German. You should listen! Feedback is a great tool to get better at what you do, be it good or bad. We all like being told we are fantastic, and that what we wrote is awesome, but truth is, that it just isn’t all that stellar all the time. You can of course just ignore it, or tell them off, but I would advice you to listen when people have something sane to say. I promise you that when you go back and read that story in 10 years time, you will cringe, and admit that what people told you was probably right.
8) Make a plan before you start. I think most authors on the internet had one of those long ass stories that just goes on for ever. Mostly this happen because it’s a popular story, and you and/or your readers don’t really want it to end. But honey, all stories have to end some time. Personally I have more than once forgotten what I wanted to write, and where I wanted to go with some specific story. That is why I am telling you that making a plotsheet is essential, and no one is telling you to stick to it word for word, you can move stuff around like you want, include stuff in chapters that suddenly fit in when you write it, but you didn’t think would fit when you made the rough sketch. I have had stories be 5 chapters longer than I expected, and also 5 chapters shorter, it doesn’t give you any ‘safety’ like that. It just means that you know where you are roughly going with the story, and believe me, the story does benefit from it.
9) Writing is an illusion. And your job is to make the reader ‘buy’ your universe. It really doesn’t matter if it’s a story about Horatio Caine as a little blue fox in the fairy princess’ castle. You have to drag the reader into it. I often have this mental image of pulling a bedsheet over the reader, untill they only see and hear, what I tell them too. In theory you should be able to make a child rapist ‘understood’ if you so choose. Think of you as a guide into your fantasy world, and you take the reader by the hand and bring them there. I promise you that if you can make the universe believable and interesting, no one will notice that a character suddenly stopped being in the story (pulling a Tolkien), or your bad grammar, (unless it’s truly atrocious). You have to fool the reader to believe a lie.
10) Chill with the metaphors. Please, please, please, don’t get caught in the metaphor jungle. I believe in minimalist writing, as in, you don’t explain more than you have to, but you use words that cannot be misunderstood. Please call a penis for a word that everyone understands, don’t call it flesh-rod or manhood. It just makes your reader break out in giggles (Unless you are writing a bad fic, and you aim for laughter) Also a pet peeve of mine is ‘orbs’ I hate that word in any context! But it is especially bad when people are describing eyes, it just makes me think of dead doll eyes. Get your shit together, you know when a word is lame or unsexy, I suggest you use http://thesaurus.com/ if you can’t come up with a decent word. That site is also great for avoiding repetition of a word, you can basically say ‘despair’ 20 times, but if you use 4 different words no one is gonna notice. If you don’t know how to explain something you can always save it with writing something like ‘the picture frame looking thing’ because then the reader has a reference of a thing they know what is. And i will say this again, no one wants their readers to go WTF?
11) Don’t fall into the Mary-Sue trap. You are not your character unless you write an autobiography. True that all good authors leave a little of themselves in every character, and every story. You research something and add your own logic, that is what makes it yours. For the sake of the argument, a character like say Gandalf the Grey, wouldn’t break down crying if he cut his finger, or someone told him he was wrong. Maybe you would, but he wouldn’t. Always remember, never forget! To write is to drag your illusion over reality, not to thrust yourself into a fantasy.
12) To write is to explore humanity. There is no better way to see light, than when it’s surrounded by darkness. I once wrote a story about a neo nazi who fell in love with an Asian woman, many people felt it was a bit much, but for me it was a great way to tell a story about love sees no color, social status or gender. But I did sit down and read up on everything I could find on said subjects, but in that process I found myself on some very questionable forums and homepages, but I took what I could get, and filed that away for the characters. It was a hard thing to write, even for me, the process of this neo nazi from hateful to accepting, and some of the opinions he had made me count to 10 before I could write it, but if I didn’t it just wouldn’t work. My point was that I didn’t judge my character, because i knew exactly why he was the way he was, and my job was to make the reader see that too, I needed them to see the boy under the swastikas, and later root for him to kiss the girl. And THAT is what you want, you want your readers to cheer and cry with your characters, no matter how full of flaws they are. And this is where fantasy is better than the real world, because redemption is a key stroke away. And honestly where would we be if no one dared to explore subjects that makes both them and others uncomfortable?
Lastly I have a small plea for myself. If you can’t write a decent summary, take the first two paragraphs from the story! Also don’t write ‘fb makes me write faster’ because that is just unappealing and pathetic. To write is a world of patience, you have to keep on writing, posting your stuff around and with time someone will notice. But don’t think you can just write a semi inspired fan story and everyone will fawn over you. Also don’t worry that you will be judged as a person on what you write, if people can’t see the difference between you as a person and the stories you tell, they are idiots.
Thanks for reading. 😉
(Subject line quote is by Ernest Hemingway)