Making Subplots Necessary

Subplots are, at best, distractions.

That’s a good thing.  When your main plot is moving slowly, or has to wait for something to happen, a subplot can come in and keep people interested.  Or, when something awful is happening and you don’t want the reader to put down the book because it’s too intense, a subplot can be just the thing to gloss it over and help bring the reader through.  In short, subplots are great when you need to distract.

But subplots can’t just spring from nowhere.  If you only acknowledge the existence of subplots for the few moments when you need to distract from the main plot, it’s going to feel contrived.  The subplots must be there already, available to be used for your purposes… but they’re still distracting.  Subplots aren’t as important as the main plot— that’s why they’re called subplots.

Does that mean you’re allowed to ignore all subplots and only go with one plot line for the entire story?  No.  It’s said that characters interact in pairs— there’s a different relationship between each set of characters in your cast.  That’s a subplot for each pair, really.  Not only that, but we’ve seen before that subplots can cloud a mystery or prolong a romance.  Subplots have many uses, from pacing to developing character.  They’re useful, naturally.  But they’re still distracting.

At this point, it seems like subplots are more trouble than they’re worth— putting them in means distraction, leaving them out means less to work with in terms of plot.  There’s no way to win… is there? Read the full post »

Poetic Beginnings and Sad Endings (TCWT)

“What are your favorite book beginnings and/or endings?” 

Thus begins my TCWT post for September, because I couldn’t think of anything cleverer to say.  Since I still have nothing, I won’t bore you with it— right into the beginnings.

One of my favorite beginning is that of The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.  It’s an epic fantasy that doesn’t begin with a battle between the Dark Lord and the few ruggedly handsome who dare to stand up to him.  Instead, it begins with silence.  A silence so layered that you can feel it through the pages.  It’s called poetry, my friends, and it’s beautiful.

It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

Another excellent, poetic beginning is that of The Book Thief.  Poetic, and hypocritical— the narrator tells you the truth no one wants to remember, then talks about colors to help himself forget about that same truth.  It’s a pretty amazing character moment as well as a great hook. Read the full post »

Beginnings as Guides

The beginning of a story is like its pitch.

I think that’s easy to prove.  A pitch must engage a reader and make them curious about the story itself— a beginning must do much the same thing, except it gets more words and leads into the rest of the story.  The pitch acquaints the reader with the type of story it is— a beginning does exactly the same, but in more depth.  Really, a beginning is just a beefed-up pitch.  That’s why it’s so important, and so difficult.

A pitch boils a story down into a couple words that are each loaded with meaning.  Wizards at boarding school— each word there has a very specific meaning to generate the correct picture.  Jane Austen with magic— again, each word is loaded with meaning (except the prepositions, of course).  We all know Jane Austen’s style of writing, and we all have varying ideas of magic.  We don’t need to know exactly what the magic is yet, but those four words are enough to conjure up the perfect image.  Pitches like these use combinations of familiar words with specific connotations to create something new and interesting.

But notice, pitches never include the names of the characters, or the name of the magic, or specific syntax from the story.  Harry defeats Voldemort at Hogwarts— if you didn’t know those terms already, that would mean nothing to you.  It’s one way to pitch the story, but it doesn’t work unless you take some time to introduce each of those terms.  (Note that this sort of pitch can be used for a sequel, because the syntax has already been established.)  Because of these restrictions, pitches must only use terms the layman can understand— words that have very specific meanings, yet are still common to almost everyone’s vocabulary. Read the full post »

Captain America and Corniness

Last month, I went to Europe.  Since our group was large, we stayed in large hotels, which— correctly guessing the average metabolism of a group of a hundred teenagers— kindly supplied each room with a snack, a granola bar.  More specifically, a Corny bar.

Never have I seen such an apt description.  The bar was a standard chocolate granola bar in every way.  The wrapper showed the name in big, curly letters, over a picture of the granola bar itself, which in turn partially covered a couple heads of grain and a chunk of chocolate.  Corny?  Why, yes, and not just because it included corn.

Occasionally, as a writer, I look at something I wrote and find that it is completely, utterly, corny.  The main character is a Chosen One orphan who lives as a farmer/blacksmith in the backwoods of a medieval country with grotesque and snarling beasts that ravage things (who doesn’t believe in magic but sort of believes in the legend of the Dark Lord from whom all ravaging beasts were born); and the plot is just the Hero’s Journey expanded to fit a sassy but lovable rogue (also an orphan) picked up in the first city the hero comes to.  This, my friends, is nothing new— and yet, occasionally I find myself writing something like that.

This used to be my greatest pet peeve in reading and writing: originality.  With the world so stuffed full of fiction already, can there actually be anything original?  My goal as a young writer was to find that thing.  But it’s difficult to break out of conventional genre and define something new all by yourself.  It’s difficult to be completely original.  In fact, almost no one is original— they just know how to work with corniness. Read the full post »

Guest Post: Sunk Costs in Writing

Because of the awesomeness of all my followers, I managed to secure a guest post from one of my good blogging friends, Leinad.  He’s been around for quite a while and has many good ideas and arguments about what I say, and even better ideas and arguments over at his own blog.  In his post he takes an interesting spin on writing motivation— I hope you enjoy it.


Hey, I’m Leinad — also known as Keras. You probably know me as the fellow who writes all those long, but pretty harmless essays in the comments section of this blog. If you participated in the December Teens Can Write Too blog-chain, however, you will know that I’m a much more dangerous sort of bore: I’m the guy who wanted to be the economist of Middle Earth. That’s right, I’m the one who wanted to take your favourite fictional world and curse it with the most diabolical brand of monotonous quasi-science. And I won’t stop there. The next victim of my economics-obsession will be your favourite hobby: fiction-writing.

Specifically, today, I want to talk about sunk costs in writing. Now, a sunk cost may seem like a boring, economic concept whose only redeeming feature is that it contains only words of one syllable. (If you are a particularly verbose writer, even that may not be a redeeming feature). To me, however, sunk costs are fascinating, and relevant to almost every aspect of life.

So what is a sunk cost? A sunk cost is a cost you’ve already incurred, or a price you’ve already paid. Imagine John spent $1 buying the first lot of bricks for the new skyscraper he’s building. He can’t get that $1 back (skyscraper brick-sellers are notoriously stingy), it’s sunk. Similarly, maybe he spent an hour laying the first row of bricks for his skyscraper. He can’t get that hour back (assuming the Doctor doesn’t stop by), it’s sunk. Read the full post »

A Couple Tools for Humor

I decided a couple days ago to write a post about humor, especially workshopping it.  I decided that to figure that question out, I’d watch some Firefly, because it’s one of the funniest TV shows I’ve encountered without ever detracting from the plot.  Funny thing I realized, though, after watching about seven episodes: it’s much easier to keep watching than to write a post about how it works.

I said a couple weeks ago that humor can be learned, and practiced.  I wouldn’t have said that if I hadn’t believed it to be true.  Humor is a tool like anything else, and to learn humor requires the same process as anything else: experience.  I can’t tell you how to make a joke, nor can I dissect humor and tell you what makes it tick.  All I can do is tell you how to make your humor better— how to practice it.

The first thing to realize, I think, is what jokes communicate.  Jokes are, primarily, funny— there’s no getting around that— but they also occur at the expense of someone or something.  It’s your job as a writer to figure out what that is.  If a joke is in the wrong place, it means it’s happening at the expense of something you don’t want belittled.  If it’s in the right place, the humor occurs at no one’s expense, or purposefully detracts from a certain character’s standing, or lends to the mood in that way.  Howard Tayler, cartoonist, has to keep a drama running as he makes a joke every day.  He’s said several times that he can’t make a joke about things that are happening— that would be at the expense of the plot, which would destroy suspension of disbelief.  Since he needs that, he can’t destroy it with a joke. Read the full post »

Short Story: Your Antennae Are Showing

A couple days ago, an idea came to me at about midnight.  Forty-five minutes later, I had nine hundred nearly-illegible words covering two sheets of paper, making up one of the most fun short stories I’ve written.  I’m really glad I forced myself to sit up and write instead of sleeping the idea away.  I hope you enjoy the story.

“Fifteen minutes, Lex.”  I pressed the button to call the elevator and the doors slid open.  “Keep your mouth shut for fifteen minutes, until we take off.  Then you can say what you want.”

“I understand,” Lex said.  “You’ve told me this before.”

“But you haven’t listened yet.”

“I’ve just…”  Lex grinned in anticipation.  “I’ve never seen one in their true form.”

“You’ve waited this long— you can wait fifteen minutes more.  Just until we’re in the air.”  I punched the button for the roof.

“Yeah, fine,” said Lex. “I’ll keep it under control.  Just get us in the air quick.”

This was the fifth time Lex had promised, and it was beginning to annoy me.  Lex was a scientist— an enthusiastic one— with an odd fascination with humans.  He could talk about them all day.  According to him… well, it was best not to know what he thought.

The elevator slid open.  Currently disguised inside and out as a helicopter, our ship sat bulbous and squat on the flat roof.  Standing a good distance away from its strangely thin blades, Marise stood at near attention in her heels and form-fitting skirt.  From the way she clutched at her handbag, and the glances she gave toward the helicopter, she was nervous.  Great, I thought.  She won’t last a minute before Lex gets through to her.  With luck, the anxiety would be for helicopters, or heights, or all her human invulnerabilities.  Let it be anything but fear of strange men asking weird questions.  Lex’s “interest of science” tone of voice was bad enough without anxiety. Read the full post »

Making Things Personal

In Gifts of Rith, my current editing work in progress, I have a villain.  This villain lives up to every expectation of a villain— he fights against the main character, is hugely powerful, and wants to destroy lots of people the main character cares about.  He makes mischief for much of the book, blocking the main character at every turn and fulfilling expectations as to villainous behavior.  Then, at the end, (spoiler alert) he dies.  As villains do.

Unfortunately, his death hit the wrong chord.  Instead of feeling powerful and satisfying, this villain’s death felt… jarring.  Several eyebrows were lowered in confusion, including my own.  Instead of satisfaction, the readers felt slight disgust at how cruel the main character was for killing this guy.  The scene as a whole felt— dare I say it?— unnecessary.

You don’t need me to tell you that that reaction was exactly the opposite of what I planned.  I wanted a dramatic fanfare, a slow-motion shot of the hero straightening up, victorious over the body of his nemesis.  I wanted a good villain death— is that too much to ask?

If the villain’s death didn’t mean anything to the main character… well, yes.  It is too much to ask.  What was the problem?  I needed to make things personal. Read the full post »

The Lost Prince: ARC Review

Thanks to Egmont USA for the ARC of Seaborne: The Lost Prince, by Matt Myklusch.  The real thing comes out next May.  (Is it worth the wait?  Read the review, but the short answer: yes.)  Of course, this review will be spoiler-free.  Here’s the synopsis:

Dean Seaborne is thrown off his ship by the Pirate King and given one last chance to redeem himself before he meets Davy Jones’s locker. He has to spy on the Pirate King’s biggest rival, Gentleman Jack Harper, and find the treasure hidden on the mysterious island of Zenhala.

Once on Zenhala, Dean finds that the inhabitants of the island think he is the lost prince who went missing 13 year ago. In order to fulfill his mission for the Pirate King, Dean undergoes intense and fantastical trials to prove he is the lost prince. But the longer Dean stays on the island, the more he questions his mission.

I had a blast reading this book.  Matt Myklusch is one of my favorite local authors, and while his books aren’t that well known, everyone who has listened to my recommendations has enjoyed them.  (I have already reviewed the first and third books of his Jack Blank trilogy.)  Based on previous experiences, The Lost Prince does not disappoint. Read the full post »

Getting Rid of Parents (Fiction Only)

Many difficulties come standard in the task of writing child protagonists.  To a certain point, a person is a person no matter how small, but there are subtle differences in younger characters.  Their behavior can be slightly different from that of an adult— less logical at times, or not quite sure of morals yet.  Their physical limitations, of course, must differ.  A ten-year-old boy cannot take the same amount of knocks on the head as the adult hero of an epic fantasy (there is considerable debate on whether the hero himself can take that many hits realistically, but the point remains).  Most importantly, however, there is a child’s place in society to consider.

Any middle grade fantasy will grind to a halt when the child’s parents decide she can’t cross the street without permission.

But books about children have been around for centuries, from the Brothers Grimm to C.S. Lewis.  Many people have solved this problem for their stories, many different ways. Read the full post »


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