When Should You Publish?

March 29, 2015

So, you’re writing a story. The two main questions are: how should you start exposing your story to your readers, and what preparation should you put into it? We will look at these separately.

Exposure Option 1: Full story

The idea here is that you will write your complete story to your satisfaction, then distribute it to your readers. For some platforms, this seems obvious: such as publishing on Amazon, but even there it’s not the only choice. The advantage of this approach is that you can carefully make sure you don’t have any plot holes, and it lets you change things early on without causing problems. The disadvantage is you can’t slowly generate interest.

Exposure Option 2: As you go

This is the most common option on various fanfiction sites. The idea here is that you write a chapter/section, then publish it. Of course, you can edit it if you’ve got some issues you must correct, but it’s harder to make changes, no matter how bad a corner you’ve written yourself into. While this works well on fanfiction sites, it can piss people off on sites like Amazon. Some people absolutely despise serials, for example, while others love them. Here, you have the advantage of generating interest, and sometimes getting ideas from your fans. Of course, if you lose interest, you can end up with an abandoned, incomplete story.

Preparation Option 1: Raw draft, comment-based edits

This option is probably your worst possible option, but it happens often. The idea is simple: you slam out as much of your story as you intend to publish for this round, and then you put it out there. In the worst case scenario, you don’t even run a basic spell-check. If you’re publishing as you go on a fanfiction site, you can at least take feedback from your readers to fix mistakes. This puts your readers in the unfortunate position of being your beta-reader, and they don’t get your best. Unfortunately, many readers, myself included, will not put up with such low quality. Your story probably won’t be popular with this option.

Given how strongly I’ve spoken against this, it’s worth discussing why people do it. I’ve seen people say, “I know it needs to be edited, but I just wanted to get this out for my fans!” Okay, first of all, I’ve seen that on chapters that were published a year ago. Often, the editing simply doesn’t happen. Second, if you’ve put out a first chapter where the shift key was never, ever used, then it wasn’t about getting it out for your fans, it was about making sure you have no fans. Yes, I’ve seen stuff like that. No capitalization at all. Respect your readers enough to give them your best, not your laziest.

Preparation Option 2: Self-edited

This option is really your minimum acceptable level of effort. Again, the idea is simple: you write your story, and then you read over it. You fix as much spelling and grammar as you can. You make sure your sentences flow well. You make sure your material is consistent with what as come before. Depending on your skill level, this can give you a very good product, or only a mediocre one. Regardless, this will give you the best you can give.

Preparation Option 3: Beta-reader edited

At this point, you take one of the above options and give it to another person to help you. I have a story that is twenty-three pages long. I wrote it, and then edited it three times. Punctuation: perfect! Spelling: perfect! Plot: perfect! Then I gave it to Sybil. She noted that I used the word “vegetarian” instead of “vegan”. She noticed a couple spelling errors. She noticed that I was talking about chickens soaring through the air. Perhaps my story hadn’t been quite perfect, after all. She also gave me feedback on what worked particularly well. In this case, with a good beta-reader, your story can be better than what you could make yourself. On the other hand, a poor beta-reader can drag you down.

Writing About Sex

March 22, 2015

For many people, writing about sex is one of the hardest things to do well, or at all. There are a number of valid reasons for that, and we want to help guide you through the process. As a warning, we will be using examples throughout this that may not be appropriate for younger readers, though nothing blatantly vulgar. Please exercise discretion before proceeding.

Should your have a sex scene?

In the 1960’s through 70’s, science fiction novels had an unusual requirement: they had to have at least one sex scene in each book, unless you were a top-tier author. Even second-tier, established authors still had to comply with this requirement. The reason was simple: publishers believed that nobody would read sci-fi just for the sci-fi’s sake. Instead, they felt there had to be the promise of sex to get people to buy. The result was a useless sex scene that interrupted the plot, instead of advancing it.

You need to determine whether your plot requires a sex scene. WingedPanther has some stories that skip over the sex scenes, and others that go into graphic detail. Sybil usually writes implied sex scenes, or occasionally a low-detail scene. In every case, it’s about what furthers the plot, and what information needs to be conveyed.

Usually, sex is not a vital plot element. If you’re writing a story for the sole purpose of writing a sex scene (Plot, what plot? – PWP), that’s fine, but if you’re writing a larger story, you should definitely think about whether the sex should be implied or not, and if not implied, in what detail.

Remember, every scene you write should have a purpose. It should further your plot, develop your characters, or strengthen/weaken/transform relationships. Unless the purpose of your plot is to write about sex (trashy romance novels), it’s usually not necessary. In other words, never feel like you have to write a sex scene if you’re dabbling in a romance. WingedPanther has a horror story with explicit sex, and a romance story with only implied sex.

How much detail should you write?

First of all, think about where you’re going to be posting your story. Some sites have strict limitations on what level of detail you can write. For example, fanfiction.net limits you to non-explicit suggestive adult themes. Detailed descriptions of sex are not allowed. You can have your story or your account revoked. Other sites allow detailed descriptions, but may have limitations on the ages of the participants (18+ participants only is a VERY common restriction). This means your decision on where to post may restrict what you can write.

Even if detailed sex of various levels is allowed, make sure you give them appropriate warnings. People may like certain types of erotica, but not others. Some people like slash (gay sex), others don’t. Warning a person does two things: it lets people avoid something they don’t want to read, or more easily find what they do want to read.

Next, write what you know. This doesn’t mean you have to have sex to write smut, but at least be educated about it. Readers who have had sex, or even certain types of sex, will be quick to call “BS” on certain things that are not written well. Certain actions that may sound sexy are actually painful, or even potentially deadly. Others can only be performed by circus contortionists on a Twister mat. We’re not saying you need to try everything you write, but a few google searches can help clarify what makes sense and what doesn’t.

Finally, write within your comfort zone, or just slightly outside it. Many people force themselves to write smut, and it gets extremely stilted because they have trouble writing or editing it. We’ve both read a number of fictions where a perfectly edited, eloquent story turns into a train wreck the instant things get hot and heavy.

What happens is the writers get so self-conscious, that their brains shut down. Sentences can become completely incoherent, eloquent descriptions get replaced by something a third grader would write, and the entire scene turns into rubbish. If that’s happening to you, it’s a sign that you shouldn’t write this scene. When in doubt, get a mature beta-reader to scan over it for advice.

Finally, if you want to start writing sex scenes, start by writing one you do not intend to distribute. Removing the pressure of other people reading this will help you relax. Also, easing into it helps. If your first scene is a menage-a-trois with tabs A-C entering slots D-F simultaneously, you will probably not do well. Starting with low-detail/high-emotion scenes and slowly adding details as you get comfortable with it will usually work best.

How do you make it believable?

First, it’s very, very important to understand that men and women experience sex differently. Each person is somewhat different, but when we get to genders, the wiring is totally different. A guy can go from getting ready to done in about two minutes. A woman can take over thirty minutes. To write the experience of the opposite gender, you need to find someone you can have a frank discussion with.

Winged went to Sybil when he started writing explicit scenes to ask how she experienced just about everything. Observing her reactions as a married couple was totally different from understanding what she was experiencing. Similarly, Sybil had a gay beta-reader who gave her a lot of advice about writing male-male relationships (hint: they’re both male!). If you can’t have one of these frank discussions, it will severely limit the POVs you can write from, or perhaps even your ability to write sex scenes at all.

As a quick summary of some key points to help, here are a few things you need to be aware of for sex scenes as far as gender is concerned. For a woman, her entire body is, to one degree or another, an erogenous zone. For a guy, the genitals are almost the only erogenous zone. Women tend to be cued in to touch and words (bodice busters). Men tend to be cued in to sight (Playboy).

Beyond gender differences, there are a few other things to consider. There are a lot of stories out there that describe things that make no sense whatsoever. When a five foot tall woman is making love with her six foot six beefcake, there is no way he can thrust into her while his mouth is latched on her chest. It’s just not going to happen. Ever. If your reader is visual, they will try to picture it, fail, and you just ruined the scene. Squeezing fingers between bodies pressed tightly together, anal sex without lube (and no, blood doesn’t count), flinging bodies about as if they weigh ten pounds, or twisting couples into pretzels all confuse the reader and interrupt the flow of the story.

If it’s not physically possible, don’t write it. It doesn’t matter how “sexy” it sounds, you’re ruining it for at least some of your readers, and they will complain or quit reading your story.

How do you make it sexy?

First of all, let’s get one thing out of the way: you have to get the technical aspects of your writing perfect. Nothing says unsexy like “He thrusted inta her hole with her member, fasterer and fasterer, until she cummed like a bansheee.” Your readers will be too busy scratching their heads or face-palming to appreciate the glory of this moment. Side note: when Sybil first heard the quote read out loud, she started laughing like a hyena. Not the response you want to your great sex scene. This is a one-way ticket to being read on Bad Fanfiction Theater.

You cannot allow any distractions or points of confusion to get into your writing. Put two or three times as much effort into editing your sex scenes as any others. For reference, this post took two rounds of editing after it was initially written, and we weren’t feeling nervous about the content. Make sure your beta-reader hits them hard (no pun intended). Ideally, you will choose a beta-reader who has written sex scenes, or at least won’t get flustered by reading them. No, not all beta-readers are effective when things get hot and heavy. Also, some beta-readers will not beta-read certain types of sexual content. Shop carefully and be up front about what you’re writing.

Second, word choice is vital. Sex and comedy are the two areas where word choice matters more than anything else. Many people get insecure about what they’re writing, and come up with various euphemisms to avoid stating what they’re trying to say. We all know there are hundreds of phrases for the male and female genitals. However, if you start talking about how he “thrust his Rod of Lordly Might into her moist chamber,” the reader no longer knows if they’re reading a sex scene or a Dungeons and Dragons adventure.

“Penis” is probably too clinical. “Dick” or “cock” are common. “Hard member” is also common. Word choice reveals not only your own comfort with various words, but also your character’s. So, for example, if you are writing the POV of an inexperienced female, the descriptions need to communicate that inexperience, intimidation, etc. She won’t think, “he whipped out his tallywhacker and waved it in her face.” Instead, you just communicated silly dismissal of his masculinity.

At this point, it’s important to start thinking about what sex is. Sex is, under normal circumstances, the culmination of an intimate relationship. It implies trust and intimacy as two people seek to give each other mutual pleasure. This is also why rape is so horrible. It violates everything that sex is meant to be.

Of course, with trust and intimacy comes feelings of vulnerability. Further, the process of approaching orgasm comes with an increase in both physical and mental tension. This means you, as the writer, need to be describing how the character is experiencing these increased sensations. The details will vary by gender, experience of the partner, and the level of detail you want to write. Regardless, however, it should be about bonding two characters closer together.

With this in mind, to make your scene sexy, you have to talk about how this is achieved. Above all, keep in mind who your characters are, and the POV you are writing from. If the POV character is nervous, write about it! If the POV character is getting excited, write about the increased heart rate and breathing.

For the “first time”, the characters might not even culminate their experience, simply having some heavy petting. This will heighten the tension and anticipation for the next scene. Above all, stay VERY clear about which perspective you are writing from! Nothing is as confusing as switching from the feelings a woman is experiencing, to the discomfort of a rigid, throbbing cock that is desperate for relief.

There will be dialogue. People normally talk to one degree or another before, during, and after sex. It can be playful, talking dirty, or even the simple, “Yes! Right there!” However, avoid cheesy dialogue. That is you, as the author, trying to avoid the intensity of the scene you’re writing. Unfortunately, that means you’re robbing your reader of the intensity of the scene they could have been reading. If you find yourself cheapening the scene, just don’t write it! This is true of all scenes, not just sex.

Finally, more than anything else, a sexy scene is an emotional scene. It’s all in the head. It’s cementing trust, allowing themselves to be vulnerable, taking risks with another person. Men fear being inadequate. Women fear not looking good enough. Both fear not being able to give pleasure. In a world full of high expectations, sex is one of the scariest things two people can do. It is also one of the most rewarding, as two people deep in a loving relationship can use it to express their love and appreciation for each other.

A sex scene means something. It shouldn’t be a cheap thrill for your reader, unless you’re going for that PWP one-shot, but is a deep connection between two characters. Don’t get lost in how one person touched the other in this, that, and the other place on their body. As the characters get lost in their passion, they lose track of what’s happening and it all blends into a rising pleasure and tension. Porn isn’t sexy unless you use cameras. You’re using words, go for the emotional punch. Don’t write Tab A goes in Slot B descriptions.

Creating Religions/Gods For Stories

March 14, 2015

One of the issues we sometimes face as a writer, especially when creating an AU for a fanfiction, or doing an original fiction, is the need to build up a mythology for the world. Whether you’re building up a fantasy world, or developing a sci-fi death cult, sometimes you just need to round out your world with religion.

Before discussing various tips for this, I think it’s important to discuss whether you should try to build a religion. Frequently, you can make use of something that already exists. We already have a rich set of religions in the world. Greek/Roman mythology, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Norse mythology, etc, etc, etc. If something that already exists will work for you, then don’t reinvent the wheel. You can change names to protect the innocent, if need be.

The role of religion

One of your first concerns will need to be the role of religion in your world. For many cultures in our world, religion provides color, dictates some customs, and determines holidays. Judaism and Christianity gave us the five day work week. Hinduism affects beef consumption in India. However, the reality is you can make a lot of tweaks to the religious practices of many people in our world, or eliminate them altogether, with minimal impact.

In a case like this, religion is more about color. Many werewolf romances feature prayers to the Moon Goddess. Normally, nothing really happens as a result. They could be praying to God just as easily and nothing would change. We know wolves are associated with the moon, so this is a simple swap for color.

Another option is that the religion strongly affects the behavior of its followers. Radical Islam is an example of this. Catholic nuns and monks are another. Religion can inspire its followers to great acts of violence, charity, compassion, or hatred. In cases like this, a society’s laws, standards of behavior, etc can all be dictated by religion. In this case, an outside observer won’t notice a direct influence by the god(s) of the religion, but it dictates the culture.

Next, there can be a supernatural influence. Priests of death may be able to kill with a touch. The Moon Goddess may bless certain werewolves with extra powers. Sailors may travel with priests of Neptune to ensure safe travel and favorable winds. In this case, the gods don’t make an appearance, but their existence is very hard to deny. Sure, these might be examples of various psychic powers, but it is more likely they are just what they appear to be: manifestations of the favor of the gods.

Finally, the gods may walk among us. Ares may stride about the great battlefields of World War II. Zeus may rain lightning down on those who dared to build a spacecraft. When gods are present in the world in a tangible way, it becomes a question of how often they interact, and to what purpose.

Religion in your world

So, with the above in mind, you have to think about how religion fits into your world. Knowing your genre is not enough. A werewolf romance could have vague references to the Moon Goddess, blessings of the Moon Goddess, or her brothers Apollo and Ares may be the head werewolves in the world (yes, I’ve run into this).

You absolutely must decide how big an interaction with gods you will have. If there will be direct contact or blessings, you are going to have to make sure you know exactly who they are, relative power, personalities, interactions with each other, interactions with followers, etc, etc, etc. You have a LOT of work to do. If you’re hijacking an existing mythology, it turns into research instead of creative work, but still a lot of work.

On the other hand, if all you’re doing is justifying some cultural quirks, you may only need a couple paragraphs of explanation, with regular references to the teachings of the Buddha or the Prophet. For this, you may only need a few key guidelines, and perhaps some typical quotes that “everyone” says.

Also, regardless, you’ll need to consider what various levels of devotion to a god/religion look like. Many Christians show up at church for a couple hours every Sunday, and do little else. Some, however, commit their lives to traveling the world helping the poor. A goddess of love may have a temple that sponsors orgies. A god of war may demand adherents spend all their time preparing their minds and bodies for battle.

Balance of power

This is where things can get interesting. Consider the history of Christianity. Being a Christian has, at various points in time, made you a criminal, been mandatory, been a sign of subjugation, or been a sign of esteem. Being a priest has been just powerful, at times, as being a king. At other times, being a priest has been nearly guaranteed prison time.

You will need to determine the role your religion takes, and how high-ranking members fit into society. A king may get his authority from the pope, or the pope may be granted his authority by a king. Priests may be the judges, interpreting laws handed down by their god, or they may be in hiding while barely holding their followers together.

In the end, religion and government may be the same thing, in a power struggle, or indifferent towards each other. You have to know how they fit together. It makes the difference between whether your characters are outlaws or power-brokers.

A word of caution

Religion can be a very touchy subject for people. As a Christian, I often avoid religion entirely when writing. Depending on who your writer is, most any decision you make related to religion can upset most any reader. If you discuss Christianity in an unflattering way, you are likely to offend Christian readers, while pleasing various others. If you make up a religion, you may offend readers who are strong adherents of most every religion.

As a result, you need to think about how your readers will react to your story’s religion(s)/mythology. Fantasy worlds, or worlds in other cultures, are usually safe to do what you want. As you get closer to your own culture, you will want to be sensitive to how your readers may react.

Pacing

March 8, 2015

Pacing is the art of controlling how rapidly the action feels to the reader. It’s similar to the use of cut scenes, slow motion cameras, and close-ups/distance shots in movies. All the tricks used in movies to control the audience’s focus have corresponding techniques in writing. Further, it helps you focus on a character, their mental state, and their personality. Of course, if you don’t use the techniques for pacing well, you can end up with fight scenes shot all in slow-mo, and romance scenes that feel like they were shot with a shaky cam.

How to write action scenes

Before you do anything, you have to know what type of scene you’re writing. Let’s start with a fight scene. Fights are all about high-speed action. They’re about constant motion, intensity, and pumping adrenaline. The way to achieve this is through short, punchy, standalone sentences. Back them up with short words, and you will have action.

Consider these two sentences:

1) Neo successfully threw a rabbit-punch to Smith’s face, snapping his head back.

2) Neo carefully looked for the opening, finally finding it and snapping his fist forward, aiming for the right side of the jaw; he was rewarded with a satisfying smack as Agent Smith’s head flew backwards.

Both sentences describe the same activity: a fast punch to Smith, which connects powerfully. However, the first sentence is quick to read, and conveys motion as well. The other slows the reader down, and slows down the punch. The reader can only envision the action as fast as they read it. The result is the second sentence was “shot” in slow-mo. Unless you want to convey slow motion, the second sentence is a complete fail.

Notice something else: the fist sentence has one comma. The second has two commas and a semi-colon. Each of these punctuation marks indicates a slowing down of the sentence, and thus a slowing down of the action being described. These also indicate that the second sentence is more complicated. This means the reader will have to think harder to process the sentence, further slowing down the action in the reader’s mind.

So, for fast pacing, such as in fight scenes, you want small words in short, simple sentences. Of course, that suggests the opposite for slow pacing. Let’s look at some examples where this applies.

How to write reflective scenes

Suppose we want to have a character reflecting on their situation. Our poor character, Neo, has just had it revealed that everything he thought he knew about the world is a lie. How will he process this information?

1) Neo woke with a start. His eyes darted around the room. Suddenly, he remembered that he was in the puny craft Morpheus flew. Morpheus had “awoken” him with that crazy pill. Now he was cold. Now he was hungry. Now he was trying to understand his new reality. It was overwhelming.

2) Neo woke with a start. He felt himself on an unfamiliar bed, and cracked his eyes open. He was in a small, dank room. As he took in the room once again, his mind drifted back to his “awakening” after taking the pill, being ejected, and being caught by the crazy ship Morpheus flew. He took a deep breath, his mind coming more alert. The robots had done an amazing job of replicating the feeling of a deep breath, but it wasn’t quite right. A cramping feeling in his stomach, hunger, pushed him out of bed and into the chill air. He wasn’t sure he cared for reality; it was still overwhelming. (Sybil demands Winged post this as a fanfic.)

So, let’s consider the impression these two paragraphs convey. The first has short, choppy sentences, exactly what we’d expect in an action scene. In this case, they convey anxious thoughts, an almost panicky mental state. It’s reasonable to anticipate his next actions to be an escape attempt of some sort. Also, we don’t really get a sense of his thoughts or attitudes. With no introspection, it reinforces a sort of panic-mode mindset.

The second, on the other hand, has longer sentences, more complex sentences and word choices, and more sentences. Rather than him simply being awake, he’s slowly coming awake. He’s experiencing a moment of disorientation before he recalls where he is. He’s being reflective as he recalls how he got into the room. He’s focusing on what it’s like to be real, rather than in the Matrix. He’s noting subtle differences and processing them. There is no sense of panic in this, but a slow coming awake and processing of his reality. This is what you would expect of a naturally thoughtful, intelligent person.

So in this case, using short, punchy sentences on a character’s musings speeds up the “action,” to the effect of making the character come across as mentally disjointed and panicky. Using longer, more complicated sentences and wording slows down the speed of the “action,” to the effect of making the character come across as calmer and more reflective. Note, also, that we’ve mentioned word choice a couple times, now. More advanced words slows down the reading, and conveys a more intellectual state. Simpler words speeds up the reading, and conveys a less intellectual state. More advanced words also tend to have more nuance, making the scene deeper and richer.

Know what your scene is, and write to it.

Now, let’s reverse the process and be deliberate about what we want to achieve, and chose the pacing to reflect it. For our example, let’s consider a tender moment when Trinity and Neo are having some “alone time.” There are a few options for how we can want this to work. Option one: they’re having a tender moment, just cuddling together. Option two: they’re getting hot and heavy, expressing their animalistic desire for each other.

For option one, we need to think about what makes a moment tender. It’s not about hands rushing to various body parts, but about emotional closeness. For this, we want our characters to mainly be holding each other, and reflecting on their love for each other. We’ll be using emotion-laden, long sentences.

1) Trinity felt relief course through her as Neo suddenly breathed again. His heart began to beat, and she threw herself on him, fresh tears coursing down her face. She couldn’t see what he was doing in the Matrix, but heard amazement in the voices around her. All she knew was that she loved this man. He was determined. He was noble. She was drawn deeply to his character as she vowed to herself that she would do anything, anything, to protect him. He was The One, and she would be his one, if he would have her. When they finally unplugged him from the Matrix, she gave in to the impulsive desire and kissed him.

Notice the emphasis on emotion, hopes, and reflections. Long sentences structured together with plenty of commas and subclauses. We choose words carefully to get very specific nuance to each sentence, and use adjectives and adverbs liberally. The goal of this is to show Trinity’s epiphany.

Now, let’s consider later in their relationship, where they share a room together. Neo’s The One, and he is confident in what he is. Alas, he’s about to go into danger, and they both want to share the joy of being alive with each other. This is about raw, primal sex (not graphic). It will be somewhat emotional, but mainly carnal.

2) Trinity pulled herself tight against Neo. The room always felt slightly chilled, but there was a sheen of sweat on her skin. “I’ll miss you,” she panted, before pressing her lips firmly against his. He gripped her tight, pulling her flush against his naked body. “I’ll be back soon,” he gasped, when their lips parted. Trinity pulled back, shoving him down on the bed. She straddled him. His hands roamed her body. As death threatened from every side, they reaffirmed life. Soon, she collapsed on him. They were exhausted, but happy. Finally, he rolled her off him, “I have to leave now, Trinity. I’m sorry.”

In this case, we want faster action. They aren’t thinking, they aren’t reflecting, they’re just being together. In your version of this, you could certainly expand on the details of their passion, but the goal is motion. Short bursts of sensation, motion, touch. This is physicality, with an emotional undertone, unlike the first scene, which was emotional, with some physical expressions. Sex is action. Emotion is mental. As a result, sex uses short, punchy sentences, while falling in love uses long, complicated sentences.

Additional tips

Pacing doesn’t just apply to individual scenes, but also to your chapters and story as a whole. An action scene will have shorter paragraphs and shorter chapters. A reflective scene will have longer paragraphs and longer chapters. Also, the choice of content will become very important.

Think about your own life story. There are probably some interesting times you could talk about if you wanted to share it. WingedPanther got run over by the family car when he was five. Sybil got burned on her leg when she was three. Those are interesting stories, but the day-to-day details of kindergarten are probably of no interest to anyone, since they don’t even remember those details themselves.

Many things that you could write in your story are things that you shouldn’t write. You want to skip from important scene to important scene, not relate the daily life of your characters. For example, we know that Neo is a programmer. We don’t know if the concept of marriage exists in Zion. What we know is only what is needed to establish relationships between characters, and to advance the plot. What you share in your own story should only be the things you need your reader to know.

We’ve all read stories where the story seems to bog down. Often, it’s because there are scenes, or even entire chapters, that have information that doesn’t advance the story. It turns into a vanity piece about characters (OC or canon). Often, it comes down to the author running out of ideas for the plot, and just writing stuff down. The readers, however, just feels that things have stalled out. When chapter after chapter of the “evolving love between Mary Sue and Gary Stu” grinds out, everyone becomes bored. You need to have a goal, and then make sure that each chapter, scene and bit of dialogue advances your characters towards that goal.

Finally, be careful, when writing, to make sure you have knowledge of what you’re writing about. This doesn’t mean you have to get married to write about weddings and marriage. You can observe married couples, hopefully your parents, to learn about it. Similarly, you don’t have to be gay to write about gay characters, but it helps to know someone who’s gay (or have a gay beta-reader as Sybil once did).

Winged and Sybil often discuss what it is like to be male or female in various situations, in order to do a better job with their characters. If you write about things that you are ignorant of, your writing will flounder, and your pacing will become derailed as you struggle to express yourself at all.

Pacing boils down to choice in words, sentence length, paragraph length, and content. Make deliberate choices in all these things, and you can have successful pacing in your story.

AUs and Cross-overs

March 1, 2015

There are two, closely related types of fanfiction that have some unique challenges: Alternative Universes and Cross-overs. Alternative Universes are where the writer deliberately changes the setting the characters are in, from changing one event early in the story, to completely moving them to a different time/place. Cross-overs are where you take two or more fandoms and merge them together somehow.

Two of the more common AUs are the vampire trope, and the high school trope. In the vampire trope, one or more of the canon characters are turned into vampires. This obviously changes things, as characters suddenly become immortal, nearly indestructible, etc. Of course, the bad guys may be vampires, too, so the dynamics can be basically the same, just with new powers. This AU trope seems to vary in popularity, with spikes happening when Interview with a Vampire, Laura K. Hamilton’s series, and Twilight came out.

In the high school trope, adult characters are put into a high school setting, often as students but sometimes as teachers as well. Since many fanfiction writers are in school, themselves, this setting pulls the characters into a place with established dynamics that they know well. There’s something fun about having Bruce Banner as the temperamental science teacher, or Wolverine as the cranky football coach.

Another style of AU is to leave the setting alone, and ask yourself “What if this event hadn’t happened? What would have followed from that?” This can be things like Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben not dying, Jean Grey choosing Wolverine over Cyclops (and let’s be honest, Cyclops was a douche), or that first battle going different (worse or better). This can result in changes to characters’ personalities, or the way they relate to each other compared to the canon version. DC and Marvel comics have a long history of doing this type of “what if?” resulting in a “canon” that is so twisted, almost anything can be claimed as canon.

Another style of AU is to move the characters into a different time. For example, what happens if you move the Fantastic Four into 1692 (another what if that was actually done)? Suddenly, you have to reinterpret the characters in terms of the technology that existed at the time. They couldn’t be irradiated in space, but it could be something mystical. Moving characters from modern Japan to feudal Japan, or vice versa, is another possibility.

For all of these things, the challenge is to preserve the essence of the canon characters, while making them fit the new setting. For example, Wolverine will always be a reckless, loose canon, even if he does have the current love of his life with him. Then again, he’ll be haunted by all the other women he’s lost, and the fear of losing one more. Cyclops, on the other hand, would turn into more of a wannabe tyrant. Bruce Banner as a teacher might not turn into a green monster, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t flip tables and cause gas explosions that destroy the school every other week. But keep in mind, he will always be a nerd.

The purpose of all this is to keep the fans of your fandom able to identify with the characters that they love. Things will change, but part of the fun is keeping the characters recognizable through all those changes.

A more interesting “AU” is the cross-over. In this, you look at multiple fandoms and find a way to somehow merge them into a single story. For example, who doesn’t want to see the Hulk smash that goody two-shoes Superman into the core of the planet? Normally, this would be impossible (Marvel vs DC), but in cross-overs, this is what we want. For some settings, it’s as simple as pretending they didn’t happen to meet before. For example, Aliens/Predator is a canon mixture. Wouldn’t it be neat to watch Wolverine become the leader of the Predators as they tear through an alien hive? How would Wolverine deal with a race with fake claws? How would the Predators react to a puny human with built-in claws? How bad would alien blood-acid hurt Wolverine? Is adamantium immune to that acid?

When you have the characters from different fandoms meet, you have to take special care to think about how they’ll react to each other. It is very easy to let one group of characters or another fall out of character. For example, what if Bruce Banner and Clark Kent became besties? What if Hulk and Supes became gay lovers? At last, Supes found someone who can withstand his “passion”, and Hulk can give someone a hug. We are NOT recommending this! Hulk is violent, not tender. Superman protects the innocent from all threats, which Hulk certainly is. This is a ridiculous example, but some people would try to do just this sort of nonsense, warping both characters beyond recognition.

When the settings are more different, new challenges arise. Crossing Star Wars with Teletubbies, for example, probably shouldn’t ever be done. But if you want to, you have to justify how they encounter each other. The intergalactic travel of Star Wars will be your key, here. Magic, super-science, and time travel can all be used to justify a variety of cross-overs. You can also mix a cross-over with an AU, moving several groups of modern characters into medieval Europe, for example. The Dark Knight Vader and his marauding army of knights could run into the Hulkish Ogre. The AU setting justifies bringing whoever you want in.

All the things being discussed here are just extensions of why we write fanfiction. The difference is that with cross-overs and AUs, we’re deliberately moving away from canon. Sometimes, it’s far, far away from canon. Despite that, you still have to remember the elements that makes a good fanfiction. Have good characters that the fans will recognize. Have good relationships. Have a good story.

How to create a good Original Character

February 21, 2015

Okay, as promised in a couple Facebook groups, Sybil and I have some advice about OCs (Original Characters). As we go though this, we’re also going to be using M*A*S*H for our practical examples of how they work. Hopefully, you’ll find this entertaining and informative.

First, It’s important to understand that OCs are just one of several categories of characters. Using broad strokes, there are: Major Canon Characters, Minor Canon Characters, Background Canon Characters, and Original Characters. Major Canon Characters are the stars of the show. They appear in almost every episode/chapter. Hawkeye Pierce, Hotlips Houlihan, and Frank Burns are great examples of this. Minor Canon Characters are the ones that show up regularly, but generally only serve to help move things forward with the Major Characters. Radar O’Reilly, Sidney (the psychologist), and Klinger are good examples of this. Background Canon Characters are the ones that have to be there for setting, but almost never reveal anything about themselves. The cook (Igor), various MPs, and a handful of the nurses/orderlies are in this category. Then there are the Original Characters. We’ve decided to name ours Charles Emerson Winchester, III, a brilliant and talented surgeon whose wealthy family lives in Cape Cod.

There’s an important reason we have these four categories. A Major Character is someone that every fan knows. If you get their personality even slightly off, you will be in for a flame-fest the likes of which could do more damage to Tokyo than Godzilla. These are the characters that drive everything, and make people love the fandom. M*A*S*H would never be the same without Frank Burns getting tortured by Pierce and Hunnicutt.

Minor Characters are less well defined. They enable the plot, rather than driving it. You could swap out Klinger for Radar as the company clerk, and things would more or less run the same way. Things would play out somewhat differently, but they could both accomplish the same plot tasks. For these characters, you have a certain amount of freedom to interpret them as you wish. There are major personality elements you have to stick with, but they’re less rigid in a given situation. For example, we all know Klinger loves to wear dresses, but he wouldn’t change that much if he wore standard army issue fatigues.

Background Characters simply exist. We know there’s a cook that serves crappy food, and his name is Igor. He gets harassed for the horrible slop he produces, but he’s really just there to take abuse. If you focus a story on this character, you will essentially be developing an original character. There’s a brief outline of what he should be, but nothing that really limits you.

An Original Character is where you get to make up everything. For example, we’ve decided we’re sick and tired of having to write about that loser, “Ferret-face” Frank. He’s a nut, so we’ll just write him out as having gone insane, and have Charles get assigned to the MASH unit for some reason or other. Maybe have him slaughter a general at the gentleman’s game of cribbage or something. With the open bunk, he’ll be able to hang out with Hawkeye and Hunnicutt, and give them a bit of culture. MASH really needed more Wagner in the background.

If you’ve been paying attention, up to this point, you’ve no doubt noticed that this Winchester chap is starting to sound a bit like a Gary Stu (the male version of a Mary Sue). So at this point, we need to discuss what a Mary Sue is, and why it’s a problem. A Mary Sue is a character who is one of two things: either a character who is SO fabulously wonderful that they overshadow all the other characters, especially the canon heroes/female characters, or a character who exerts such powerful influence that they warp the personalities of the Major Canon Characters. If there’s a romantic bent involved, a Mary Sue would become Hawkeye’s permanent girlfriend/fiancé/wife, and would cause him to become a tea-totaler who never cracks a joke. Often, these characters are the expression of the author’s desire to be in the story (self insert) as the romantic interest of a given Major Canon Character. The result is a perfect character, with a perfected lover, and all other characters reduced to Minor Characters, at best.

The problem with that is simple: you have now twisted all the characters’ personalities and relationships into something that never existed in canon. Character flaws are essential to making a character relatable, and challenges are important for making a story interesting. Mary Sues destroy everything that made the fandom enjoyable: flawed characters driving the plot to the best of their ability, quirks and all.

So, Winchester could be an issue. We have to limit him a bit. No problem! First, let’s make him a blowhard. That should irritate Hawkeye and Hunnicutt, making him an immediate target of their pranks. Second, let’s make him a perfectionist surgeon. He can replace every organ in a person’s body with no problems, just give him twenty hours in a sterile environment and he’s good to go. Oh wait, he’s doing meatball surgery with artillery shaking dust into open wounds and missing supplies and no time. Third, he can neither relate to “commoners,” nor inspire them. Instead, his personality just irritates those around him, who view him as an arrogant snob with no empathy. If we toss in a scene where Hawkeye operates circles around him, we’ll finish establishing him as imperfect, and set the stage for all kinds of plot-driving interactions/conflicts.

The key to all characters is flaws, and we’ve just given our OC some big ones. We’ve strongly implied a background, we’ve provided a personality, and most importantly, we’ve established that the other characters will remain who they are. Now, to keep Winchester from being a villain, we need to give him some good points, too. He will be a good surgeon, and perhaps he’ll be a bit of a prankster, too. Maybe he’ll even be a decent guy when no one’s watching.

So, overall, the key to a good OC is the same as for any other character: you need a three-dimensional character who has flaws and strengths, has a relationship with the other characters that may alter the group dynamics, but won’t significantly change the individual characters, and ultimately feels like a real person. So here’s where we’re going to give you a few ideas to help you make sure you have a solid character. Many of these can be done with Canon Characters as well.

First: one of WP’s favorite exercises is to write “A Day in the Life of…” one-shots. For a Canon Character, he likes to pick a single scene, and write it from that character’s perspective, perhaps expanding it out to include breakfast, etc. Maybe write about Igor getting up in the morning to see the meager supplies in the kitchen, and desperately attempting to make something edible while anticipating getting verbally beat up by Hawkeye yet again.

Second: one of Sybil’s big tips is to make sure your OC is on an even footing with all the other characters. This means having a similar number of flaws, good points, abilities, etc. For example, Winchester and Hawkeye are BOTH great surgeons, but with different areas of expertise. Hawkeye tends to be an alcoholic, whereas Winchester tends to aggravate everyone around him (mainly with Wagner).

Third: when dealing with supernatural/super-powered fandoms, keep things under control. For examples, WP wrote a parody story about Mary Sue meeting the Cyborg 009 cyborgs. She had ALL their abilities. Her powers tended to interfere with each other, or her lack of practice would cause her to fail dramatically. With real Mary Sue stories, the fails don’t happen, and the OC makes all the others useless.

Fourth: you don’t need to described EVERYTHING about your character’s appearance/clothing/eyes. If you are spending three paragraphs painting a picture of your character, you are not worried about the things that make your character three-dimensional. Winchester is prematurely bald, tall, and slightly overweight. ‘Nuff said. Freaky colored eyes/hair is a no-no.

Fifth: Not everyone comes from a tragic background. Sometimes normal people or people without hardships, like Winchester, can be just as interesting to work with, and get dragged into these situations just as easily. Moreover, a character who is used to physical hardship will handle being in a MASH unit far better than our pampered prince.

Sixth: that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a background. Know who your character is, where he comes from, and why he’s in the story now. Winchester’s sister, the poorly named Honoria, stutters. His wealth gives him arrogance, but also causes him to annoy those around him with his “high culture”. His snobbishness actually prevents him from having fun with those he’s working with. You should have a clear idea why your character exists in the story.

Seventh: if you’re writing this story specifically so you can show off your wonderful OC, you’re probably a Suethor (writer of Mary Sues). This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write your story, but that you should be VERY cautious about what you’re doing. Here is a link to a well-done OC that was integrated well into the canon: http://embyquinn.tripod.com/gatchaman/miyabio.html . Miya has a history that is tightly integrated into the history of the canon characters, was a member of an actual bad-guy group, and has comparable abilities to the canon heroes. When she joins the canon heroes, she simply integrates as a sixth member of the group. She isn’t the star, she doesn’t drive Jun into the background, she simply is. A background as detailed as Miya’s is not necessary, but it’s a good example of what makes a GOOD OC. Unfortunately, it’s more likely that you’re writing something akin to My Immortal Beloved, where Harry Potter never even appears. In fact, the only canon thing is Hogwarts itself.

Eighth: make sure you think seriously about how your character will interact with the canon characters. WP made a bunch of Gundam Wing Mary Sue parodies specifically to show how the Major Canon Characters would actually interact with someone attempting to overwhelm their personality. Hawkeye is an alcoholic dealing with a hellish situation. Radar is a naive kid who happens to be a psychic and doesn’t really understand what’s happening. Winchester will wrap himself in snobbery and arrogance so he doesn’t risk feeling loss. When he fails to save a patient, he’ll have a breakdown. Being human will nearly destroy him. Ironically, it will be an alcoholic and an ignorant kid that help him recover.

As you should well know, Winchester is not our character, but when he was introduced to the story, he was, for all intents and purposes, an OC being thrust into a group of established characters. He had to blend in to be successful. What made him interesting was the friction that existed between him and the other characters. He was no more or less important than the others, and was forced to learn humility the hard way. Once that was done, his honor and nobility had a chance to show through, even when it trapped him in hell with the others. In the end, Winchester became another Major Canon Character, and the greatest prankster in camp.

Reading the Qu’ran

November 8, 2012

I’ve started reading the Qu’ran. It’s an English translation for Android: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.verypositive.Quran

I’m on the fourth Sura, and have come to one major conclusion: the Bible and Qu’ran can NOT both be true. The Qu’ran refers to a number of passages in both the Old Testament and the Gospels. When you compare them, it becomes very obvious that they are inconsistent with each other. Saul is credited with Gideon’s filtering of his soldiers by how they drank water. In the Qu’ran, Zechariah’s period of muteness is measured in days, not months.

While it should be obvious which I believe to correct, my point in this is that these are just two of many examples where they cannot both be true. Despite this, Muslims are encouraged to refer to the Old Testament and Gospels (it’s not clear to me that the letters are considered authoritative by Mohammed).

It begs the question, how do Muslims account for this discrepency? I’ve heard that Muslims believe the Biblical documents were altered into falsehoods, but it then becomes important to consider WHEN that alteration occurred, and whether we can reconstruct what the unaltered documents might be.

I’ll probably add more as I proceed, but these are things that really jump out at me.

How Do You Forgive?

April 23, 2012

One of the things my wife has struggled with for a long time is how to forgive.  Much to both our frustrations, I seem to be able to forgive easily, but haven’t been able to explain to her how I do it.  It’s one of those “you just do it” kind of things, which doesn’t help much when you don’t know HOW to do it. Last night, we had a conversation, where it seems we figured out the answer.  There are a few factors, so bear with me.

The first factor is understanding your relationship with Jesus.  There are many, many churches out there that preach hell-fire and damnation.  If you happen to come from that background, you are very likely to get the concept of “Jesus is Lord”, because you’ve heard about the law and the consequences for violating it.  Often, people from this background are saved by fear.  What they may not be able to identify with is “Jesus is Savior”.  By contrast, if you are from one of the many, many churches that preaches about the love of God, you may experience the reverse association.

The reality is that Jesus is Lord AND Savior.  He judges AND forgives.  He dispenses mercy AND justice.  If you don’t know Jesus is Lord, you are likely to have difficulty understanding how He disciplines us.  If you don’t know Jesus is Savior, you are likely to have difficulty forgiving yourself or others.

So, I think the first key to being able to forgive, is understanding that Jesus is your Savior.  What does this mean?  It means that every single thing you ever did wrong, and ever will do wrong, has been paid for.  However, you need to understand what the penalty was.  Jesus was literally beaten within an inch of his life to pay for it.  When that was done, he then had to carry a log on his shoulders through a  town.  Then he was crucified, the most torturous method of killing a person ever invented.  If you’ve watched The Passion of the Christ, you know what I’m talking about.  That’s what you deserve.  He took that for you.  And understand, you only have to do ONE thing wrong to deserve that.

So, how does that help you forgive?  Think about what makes you mad.  Is it when someone cuts you off in traffic?  Is it when someone is mean to you?  Perhaps it’s when someone disrespects you.  When you think, “I want that person to PAY!”  Understand that you are wishing them to go through what Christ went through for you.  Understand that you are wishing damnation on them.  Or you can forgive them, realizing they may have made an honest mistake, or don’t understand the ramifications of what they’re doing.

How do you forgive?  You love Jesus, and you want to see people come close to Him, too.  You understand the true consequences, and want to see them in Heaven, instead.

What is “Fair”?

October 11, 2011

One of the things I’ve seen a lot of, lately, is people complain about our system not being “fair”.  At that point, depending on which political camp the person is in, the person issuing the complaint will make one of two diametrically opposed types of suggestions.  At the heart of this is significantly different definitions of the word “fair”.

The basic arguments can be summed up in two quotes.  First, “It’s not fair that 1% of the people have 90% of the wealth!”  Second, “It’s not fair that some people pay no taxes and others pay more than 40% taxes!”.  The first definition is based on the idea that people should earn roughly the same amount of money, and that if this isn’t happening, the “haves” are getting more than their “fair share”.  The other takes the attitude that working hard and being more successful shouldn’t penalized by having a higher tax rate.

So what is at the heart of this?  It’s fairly simple.  Consider the statement “life isn’t fair”.  In this idea, if life were fair, everyone would get as much money as they wanted, or at least enough to live comfortably.  What this ignores is that not everyone puts the same amount of energy into living, earning income, etc.  Consider an extreme example: suppose one person sits on a couch all day in his mother’s basement, and the other works 60 hours a week as a greasemonkey in a garage.  Which one deserves deserves a flat-screen TV?  Which one deserves a Blue-Ray player?  If the slug deserves these things, on what basis?

The other perspective is that everyone can work hard, take risks, and sacrifice for a dream.  The taxes suggests that if the above imposer on his mother works 10 hours a week, that 10% of his income should be used to support the government (probably 0%), while 45% of the other person’s labor is needed by the government.  Couldn’t it be argued that the hard working person has done far more to contribute to society, and should pay less taxes?  At the very least, doesn’t the hard worker have as much right to the fruits of his labors as the one who spent little time working?

Ultimately, the question is this: do we want equal results from unequal efforts, or do we want equal rewards for equal efforts?  From the phrasing of my question, which is quite biased, it should be clear which I believe.  Risk deserves reward.  Work deserves reward.  If you compete for a low paying job, you deserve low pay.  If you class yourself so that people compete to have you work for them, you deserve high pay.

More Occupy Wallstreet nonsense…

October 6, 2011

More of their idiocy keeps oozing out.  This time it’s on their blog: http://occupywallst.org/article/September_Revolution/ First, notice that they are calling it “September Revolution”.  It immediately reminds me of the French Revolution, not a very auspicious connotation.  Quoted items will be indented.

This statement is ours, and for anyone who will get behind it. Representing ourselves (not the movement as a whole), we bring this call for revolution.

Uh huh.  This just doesn’t bode well.  They’re putting out a call in the hopes that it will resonate.

We want freedom for all, without regards for identity, because we are all people, and because no other reason should be needed. However, this freedom has been largely taken from the people, and slowly made to trickle down, whenever we get angry.

Errr… huh?  What on earth is this?  They do know that they live in America, right?  While the liberal agendas have taken their toll, we still are the freest nation on earth.

Money, it has been said, has taken over politics. In truth, we say, money has always been part of the capitalist political system. A system based on the existence of have and have nots, where inequality is inherent to the system, will inevitably lead to a situation where the haves find a way to rule, whether by the sword or by the dollar.

Great thing about capitalism: anybody can become a have.  Smaller government that gets out of the way would help, but you get the feeling these people are going in a different direction.

We agree that we need to see election reform. However, the election reform proposed ignores the causes which allowed such a system to happen. Some will readily blame the federal reserve, but the political system has been beholden to political machinations of the wealthy well before its founding.

ALL political systems have political machinations… that’s kind of how it works.

We need to address the core facts: these corporations, even if they were unable to compete in the electoral arena, would still remain control of society. They would retain economic control, which would allow them to retain political control. Term limits would, again, not solve this, as many in the political class already leave politics to find themselves as part of the corporate elites.

OK, which corporations are they talking about?  The reality is that we, as a nation, could put any of them out of business in a few days.  Want Wal-Mart to go under?  Just get EVERYONE to refuse to shop there.  Simple, aside from the great prices they offer. The reality is that every individual has economic power, not the corporations.

We need to retake the freedom that has been stolen from the people, altogether.

  1. If you agree that freedom is the right to communicate, to live, to be, to go, to love, to do what you will without the impositions of others, then you might be one of us.
  2. If you agree that a person is entitled to the sweat of their brows, that being talented at management should not entitle others to act like overseers and overlords, that all workers should have the right to engage in decisions, democratically, then you might be one of us.
  3. If you agree that freedom for some is not the same as freedom for all, and that freedom for all is the only true freedom, then you might be one of us.
  4. If you agree that power is not right, that life trumps property, then you might be one of us.
  5. If you agree that state and corporation are merely two sides of the same oppressive power structure, if you realize how media distorts things to preserve it, how it pits the people against the people to remain in power, then you might be one of us.

These all sound good, but are not descriptions of the problems our society faces. They are asserting the value of things we have, are offering straw-man versions of how corporations work, and generally showing that they are idiots.  They do not realize that management is earning the sweat of their brows, even if it doesn’t look sweaty.  They don’t realize they have the rights they pretend not to have.  Heck, they ARE speaking, but act as if they are somehow being banned from speaking.

And so we call on people to act

  1. We call for protests to remain active in the cities. Those already there, to grow, to organize, to raise consciousnesses, for those cities where there are no protests, for protests to organize and disrupt the system.
  2. We call for workers to not only strike, but seize their workplaces collectively, and to organize them democratically. We call for students and teachers to act together, to teach democracy, not merely the teachers to the students, but the students to the teachers. To seize the classrooms and free minds together.
  3. We call for the unemployed to volunteer, to learn, to teach, to use what skills they have to support themselves as part of the revolting people as a community.
  4. We call for the organization of people’s assemblies in every city, every public square, every township.
  5. We call for the seizure and use of abandoned buildings, of abandoned land, of every property seized and abandoned by speculators, for the people, for every group that will organize them.

We call for a revolution of the mind as well as the body politic.

They are calling for theft of property, right after professing to believe in the value of property.  They are calling for theft of property, right after professing to believe in people deserving to reap the rewards of their labor.  In short, they are hypocrites.  What they believe in is anarchy and collectivism.  They believe in keeping what you earn with the sweat of your brow, as long as you get sweaty.  They want to throw out the managers of companies and manage the companies themselves, even though only the managers may have the perspective to do so.  If their demands are met, our economy would crumble into chaos, and businesses would fail.  Those that survived would find new managers rising in the place of the old, because organization is required to direct purposeful activity.

When someone offers you a new vision, look for contradictions in what they espouse.  If you find them, the vision has not been thought out well, no matter how appealing it sounds.  A self-consistent vision that doesn’t sound as appealing at least stands a chance of working.


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