Who’s in charge here anyway?

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I’ve written before about how I think a lot of writers ask the wrong questions.

Like here: https://morgansmithauthor.wordpress.com/2017/02/25/how-should-my-character-die/

It’s a serious problem.

Because it feels as if the writer asking thinks there is a “right” answer to things that someone who is not the writer should be able to tell them.

From “What should I name my Main Character?” to “Should the villain be allowed to have a pet?” – writers keep asking other people to do some serious heavy lifting for them.

First off, there is rarely One True Answer to any writing question…even the thing about “Use ‘said’ as your only dialogue tag” comes with editorial caveats, because there are occasions when that is not the answer at all. (But – mostly it is. Never mind what your grade nine English teacher told you. Unless they were a working editor for a major imprint, they have no more idea what editors like than you do, and very likely, a whole lot less.)

The writer should LOVE naming characters (and have an idea about how to do it. I mean, at the very least, you can google baby name sites, right?).

Writers should know their villain so thoroughly that they know that the meanie has a cat named Jewels and that Jewels is the only being on earth that Miz Nogoodnik cares for.

They should not be asking someone else to make those kinds of decisions for them.

The problem might go a lot deeper than the usual response I get when I raise this issue. Most of the time, I am chided about being uncharitable and too demanding when I point out that the whole joy of writing is in deciding for yourself about these exciting bits of trivia, and in the way that those bits inform not merely the characters, but the theme and the plot.

I am told that “beginners need help, not criticism”.

And – as you might have guessed – I beg to differ.

What concerns me is not that beginners might get discouraged by my words. Since every one of them assures me that not only have they known in their bones that they were a writer since they were in diapers, but that writing is as to breathing for them – they simply could not exist were writing to be taken from them – I am certain that no words of mine can deter them from their path.

 

What concerns me is that they think that someone else can and should be able to answer these kinds of questions, which suggests that they see “story” as some kind of analyzable, quantifiable *formula* that can be worked out, parsed, and then faithfully reproduced.

 

What concerns me is that they view writing not as an exploration of their own internal soul as a metaphor for the eternal human condition, but as yet another advertising algorithm that can be “mastered”.

And that’s not where any of us want this all to go, is it?

 

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Twitter Don’ts

Or how not to win readers or influence people…

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Totally, I’m telling you what not to do.

Generally, I try not to. I often *fail* at that endeavor, but I do try.

But this time? Oh, yes. Straight up, Imma tell you what not to do on Twitter. (And probably FB, as well, but YMMV.)

 

Stop with the non-stop self promos. That’s job 1, and you know it. Everyone keeps telling you to not do this, and every day I open my Twitter feed and start muting new followers because all I can see for the first screen-and-a-half is the same one or two promos (which their mom dutifully retweets immediately) (and that part I completely get, because what else are moms for?) five times for five minutes, before they go off to work or brunch or whatever.

Many experts have done the math for you. Bad Redhead shows it all here: http://badredheadmedia.com/2016/05/04/which-social-media-channel-sells-the-most-books/

And I know most of you have seen this and/or similar articles…and yet…

It doesn’t work. It doesn’t. The numbers tell you: Twitter is to build relationships and name recognition. Twitter doesn’t get you sales.

And doing it for someone else? You think somehow that’s going to work better?

Frankly, there’s a strong chance that when it comes to the annual Twitter cull (come on, you know you do it, too) you’ll be on the block, because when you do this for someone else, the immediate assumption is that you are a bot.

People want to follow other members of their own species, not some algorithmical construct formed solely for the purpose of begging for spare change on the corner of Bits Avenue and Byte Street.

I’m not saying you cannot ever post about your work. You absolutely should have your header and a pinned post that reflects your status as an author, and showcases at least one title available.

And occasionally, a cute or clever promo is no bad thing.

Even better are very infrequent “progress reports”, RTs of good reviews, and perhaps an announcement of a new release.

But note the caveat: “infrequent” means that AT THE VERY LEAST, you let a week or six go by between promos.

Because I swear to Cthulhu, if I have to scroll past 47 identical promos of your paranormal romance thriller with a hot sex scene concerning three government spies more than once in the same 24-hour cycle, not only will I mute you forever (I never block unless you suggest you are a Nazi I need to punch) but there is now no way in twenty-six separate hells that I will ever RT anything about your book.

And still less chance I will buy it.

Worldbuilding – a thought exercise

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In fantasy, world-building is considered crucial. You need a strong sense of terrain, of architecture, of locations. You need a plausible and detailed history, a few thoughts about language (or at least, ways to introduce concepts/objects of an arcane nature), and probably a cuisine.

And, nine times out of ten, you need a religion. (Actually, if there is more than one country/culture involved, you need more religions, but since most fantasy authors just stop at one, we will, too.)

You’ll need gods and goddesses.

Well, you’ll need one, at least.

How will this work? Is your deity omnipotent and omniscient? Or are they removed and limited – are they bound by the law of physics at all? Are they kind and wise, or impersonally cold and unfeeling? Do they communicate through human intermediaries, or deal directly with their creations?  Where’s their “morality quotient” going to be set?

How can they be propitiated?

Often, they will respond to “offerings”, of course, but I would caution you against live animal sacrifice. Killing off protagonists and their friends willy-nilly has become de rigeur since GoT hit the public consciousness, so much so that we expect character deaths of even the most graphic nature to figure prominently now. But gratuitous (or even logical) depiction of the death of any other creature correlating to any cute or beloved earth-based animal is sailing into treacherous waters.

(Trust me on this: I killed off a horse in my first novel, and I have received more angst-ridden complaints about that than about any other single event in either that or any subsequent novels yet.)

How about prayer? Prayers are pretty unthreatening, right? Does your pantheon or singular god respond to those?

I mean, supposing you need some kind of catastrophic natural event to move the plot forward, but you have this benevolent, know-all/control-all Supreme Being(s) in place, who can be communicated with…and while you want to partially level a small city or bring down a mountain, you’d like to keep the mayhem under completely nuclear-holocaust proportions, so maybe the collective prayers of the faithful could limit the disaster?

 

And that is where, with the best will in the world, my internal critic just stops cold.

If I postulate a benign and omnipotent divinity who cares for all of Creation, one who can control both weather and geological movements, why would my character need to pray, and what good would it do, anyway?

I mean, that disaster didn’t come out of nowhere, did it?

That god/dess made that storm or earthquake to begin with.

That god/dess sent those people into the maelstrom, by prophecy or design.

That god/dess chose the solution: if they need the hero to survive, they could bloody well do it themselves without killing off thousands of innocent bystanders in the process.

 

They didn’t need that disaster at all, if they truly are a loving, all-powerful  Higher Power with limitless abilities to shape every individual’s destiny.

 

As in fantasy, so in the real world you and I inhabit.

#NotAll fill-in-the-blank

Or: Whose ox is being gored here, anyway?

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Have you ever had a FaceBook friend or Twitter follower who seemed to share your values, speak your “language”, and agree on the nefariousness and malice aforethought of some particular subsets of humanity…?

You think they’re cool. You think they’re on the same wavelength. You think they “get” you…

Right up until the moment you make a passing, mildly amusing generalization about some other subset – moms, or men, or deciduous trees – and all of a sudden, they are mortally offended and taking it all personally and serious, as if you had called out their mom, their husband, or the maple tree in their front yard: explicitly and by name.

It happens to me about once a month. I’ve tried to sum up a general economic problem like the foreclosure debacle of 2008, calling attention to the ways in which many people contributed to the bubble that inevitably burst by acquiring property with the full intention of doing cosmetic renos and then flipping that property just to make a few bucks…

And wham! Someone I respect and love goes ballistic about how *they* went under and were bankrupted and lost their home because of trusting the real estate agents and the banks and how dare I imply that their misfortune was in any way their fault?!?

I lost longtime and valued friends because I once used the @yesallwomen hash-tag to discuss the many, many ways in which women in western European cultures are dishonoured and robbed of their essential agency as human beings, every day, in small but significant ways that open the door wide open to the more egregious and frequently violent actions that destroy them.

A wardrobe-mistress of a ballet company, someone I had been close friends with for nearly two decades, unfriended me almost immediately,  because apparently, according to her parting DM, she had never once been disrespected by anyone identifying as male in her entire life, and that was proof positive that I was a hatemongering feminazi.

Because #notallmen, right?

The woman who loved my memes and snarky comments about “husbands” went ballistic on me when I made a similarly generalized comment about stereotypical toddler behaviors and the over-the-stratosphere reactions that their mothers frequently resort to.

“Not my child” and “How can I possibly understand how hard it is to raise a child in this world?” was the least of it.

It’s totally human and it’s everywhere, all the time, and I’m willing to bet that even a lot of people who pride themselves on being uniformly positive, empathetic, and kind 100% of the time have still, occasionally, met this reaction to what they thought, sincerely, was a mild and affirmative post or tweet.

 

As writers, we’re taught to use our knowledge, understanding, and experience of the world and its inhabitants to bring realism and believability to our work.

But if we had a character that did this in a novel, the editors and the readers would flag it IN NEON LETTERS A MILE HIGH as completely inconsistent, unbelievable, and wrong.

Go figure.

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The Hard Stuff

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I want to talk about loss.

 

The fact is, as a writer, you have to deal with some pretty problematic stuff, sometimes. To make it real, to make it true, you have to think about things in ways that might seem almost clinical – you have to get underneath the clichés and the skin of it all, so that when you write, it comes from a place of honesty and understanding.

And loss – well, it’s pretty easy to fall into the familiar ruts and to parse it all out in the most common of terms. It’s less painful for the writer.

It’s less painful for the reader, too.

But it sells you short, and it robs your work of power, so it sells the reader short, too. You push those easy emotional buttons, and you know what? Maybe you get the reader to cry, a little, but you’ll also get them to forget about it really fast, too.

You have to bring something new to the table, every time.

 

I want to talk about loss. I want to talk about grief.

 

When you lose someone/something you love, you grieve.

Hell, when you lose someone/something you hate – you’ll grieve.

You grieve, because you’ve lost someone/something that was important to you. You grieve because your life is a little less.

You grieve because that life has changed its shape.

It doesn’t matter if the loss is from death, or misadventure, or just because that person or thing has decided to let go of you, or you have let go of it.

And I’m not saying your grief is not pure. I’m not saying your grief is selfish.

It isn’t.

I’m not saying it’s not real.

It is real.

But after that first tidal wave recedes, you need to know that some of your grief is not for the person or the circumstances or the thing that is now gone.

 

It’s for you.

Or rather, it is for the you that also died.

Everything you were before is irrevocably changed, and you will never be that person again.

Parts might survive, but they, too, are changed.

And so you need to understand that you mourn as much for the “you” that you have lost, as for the loss itself.

 

And when you incorporate that into the mix, when you next come to write about loss – even wholly fictional loss – your work will be richer for it, and your reader will understand how much more of a human you and they both are.

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