I wrote this short story way back in June for a competition. The competition required a fantasy story exploring a new world, in under a thousand words. This version, the first one I wrote, is nearing two thousand words. While I did cut it down for the contest, I prefer the longer version. There’s a sentimental value to any short story you write at midnight in pink pen. Enjoy. If you’d like to read the shortened, polished version, you can find it here: http://writetheworld.com/groups/1/shared/2767/version/5257
Stealing cars was more fun when they weren’t magical.
Stu leapt into the third one, pressing the ignition button and the brake at the same time. The cars were all new, meaning his hotwiring techniques set off more alarms than Stu actually ever tripped. They were all magical, meaning at least two of them had tried to melt his eyebrows in creative ways. Stu had never seen such an angry llama.
Stu held the key fob close to the dashboard and tried the button again, with nothing but a beep in response. He had found the key in a tray by the door— it had to fit one of these. He couldn’t survive many more hotwire attempts.
Definitely not this car. The speedometer had a rooster stenciled into its face, and after the acid-spitting llama…
Stu kicked open the door and dove into the next car. He had little time. He could thank his stars, though, that none of these “alarms” had alarmed anyone but him. He was—
The silver convertible screamed. (more…)
Posted by Liam Wood on December 12, 2015
In a lot of my posts, I spend about eight hundred words describing a process. Sometimes it concerns character, sometimes style, sometimes whatever comes into my head. I do my best to be as clear as I can— do this for this effect, do that for that effect. If you do this and you’re looking for that effect, you’re going to be disappointed. If I’m really clear about it, I give an example and explain several times. Somewhere in that eight hundred words, however, I’ll add another hundred words of disclaimer (at least, if I’m smart): this will not work all the time. This rule is not a law. You can listen or ignore.
I always feel like that one paragraph undermines the entire post. It’s like saying to a five-year-old, don’t stick your hand in boiling water— then adding, but you can if you really want to. It turns out that yes, you can stick your hand into boiling water without getting burned (there are gloves for that). Under the correct circumstances, you can get away with it. But that five-year-old isn’t going to have the forethought to create those conditions.
Did I just liken all of my followers to a five-year-old? I’m sorry, that’s not quite what I meant. Here’s the thing, though: writing rules are never absolutes. (Even this writing rule isn’t an absolute; I think I’m going to add a disclaimer at the end of the post somewhere.) When I or anyone else says never to do something, or that this type of character development only works under these circumstances, it isn’t necessarily true. There are always places where you can break a rule.
That said, here’s another rule: if you’re going to commit a crime, confess first. (more…)
Posted by Liam Wood on April 15, 2015
You walk into a bookstore. A promising book peeks out at you from a shelf. You take it out and look it over. Intriguing cover art, thick enough to really enjoy, and the synopsis looks great. You look at the title again to memorize it for next time (you don’t have the funds this time to splurge on unknown books), and wince. Despite all its promise, it has a generic title. White Lie, a contemporary novel. Dark Kingdom, a fantasy. My Perfect Laddie, a romance. Everything else sounds so promising, but someone didn’t know how to title their book.
For me, I wouldn’t be as enthusiastic. A title that brings nothing new to the imagination doesn’t promise much for the rest of the book.
On the other hand, some writers produce brilliant titles. The title gives a piece of the book which, combined with the cover, synopsis, and everything else, produces curiosity. The Scorpio Races, for instance, is rather cryptic in terms of the contents of the book. However, you know immediately it’s about a race, or a series of races. Scorpio isn’t very easy to interpret— it has a couple different connotations, but none of them apply to racing. It seems to imply a bit of danger and some other stuff that means more to people who have read the book. Combined, the words leave more unknown than they clarified. They create curiosity, and if you’re trying to figure out what the book is like, you’re still stuck.
I guess you’ll have to read the book to find out. Sneaky author.
You know what a good title does: it makes you curious, it gives you a taste without shoving it down your throat. But I think you also know how to create a good title. I’m pretty sure I just explained it. (more…)
Posted by Liam Wood on February 17, 2015
Who here knows exactly what pacing is?
Me neither. Pacing is an ambiguous, amorphous mass hanging beyond the edges of perception. We know how to define it, generally speaking (how quickly or slowly the story is moving), but how do you do pacing? How do you write it, how do you perfect it, how do you even talk about it? “Pacing was off,” people say about a story; “It tore along at a breakneck pace,” about something else. But no one talks about it. Sure, you get an episode with James Dashner on Writing Excuses, but it talks about different stuff. Cliffhangers, chapter length, reveals— all things that can help. But nothing that truly encompasses the massive scope of pacing.
Perhaps pacing is just a term that reviewers use. Perhaps writers don’t use it because it sums up plot twists and emotion and everything else we’re trying to balance anyway— boiling it all down into pacing means we don’t focus on the little things that make it happen. And yet… I don’t think so. Anything the reader can complain about ought to be fixable by the writer. Even though pacing is the product of several writerly virtues, it’s much more than just a series of chapter endings.
Joss Whedon gave a screenwriting lecture/chat, sometime just after the Avengers dropped. Unlike his SDCC appearances, he managed to get away from normal fan questions and talk about the craft of writing, exposing a lot of interesting ideas. Among them was a single paragraph describing a language fluke he experienced while working on the script for Serenity. Writing down the initials for specific character phenomena in each scene, he found himself writing the acronym “FASTER” under a scene.
That conglomeration of ingredients, he said, makes the audience crazily engaged in the story, and keeps them moving forward. What is that? That’s a breakneck pace. As you drop letters from the acronym, the pace slows. So, what’s the acronym? (more…)
Posted by Liam Wood on January 7, 2015
As promised, the response to the 24-hour story challenge from New Year’s Eve. I began writing at 10 pm, stopped at 1:45 am, and have made several finishing touches since. I’m pleased with it. I managed to incorporate some new techniques (which will be featured in upcoming blog posts), and I think the story works. I look forward to seeing your thoughts, so critiques welcome. Thanks for joining me.
A date in a haunted cathedral is not as fun as it sounds. I still think someone should have told me that sooner.
Considering the date alone, nothing could be better. Julie Brennan was the one girl who had recognized my clay statuette of Hades and matched it with a slavering Cerberus (no one else from the Greek mythos deserved Hades’ affection quite as much, she claimed). Sculpture and mythology would have been enough for me, but then she had to go and be pretty. Some people are like that.
As for the cathedral, neither of us could complain. I liked the doors best. From the entryway to the alcoves to the little door behind the altar where one could potentially access the bowels of the pipe organ— each one, no matter how tiny or hidden, held crenellations and statues to satisfy the greatest of admirers. I sometimes imagined some tiny person, shrunk by the cathedral’s magic, crawling their whole life and never seeing the end of one of those crevices. I pitied that depressed little cathedral-man. But, someone had to be that guy, and I’m glad I got to stick with Julie.
But the haunted part… Okay, it’s not really haunted. The cathedral does things, and I can’t figure out if it’s supernatural because it’s holy or supernatural because it failed its How-To-Resist-Weird-Stuff class. In any case, it seems less religious than most churches I’ve seen. Most of that comes from its tendency to resurrect gargoyles.
Yes, I knew this before I brought Julie. (more…)
Posted by Liam Wood on January 1, 2015
Comebacks— you can’t find them when you want them, but they abound when you’re alone. Someone insults you, and in two hours you have the perfect thing to say. Except they’re already miles away, and no amount of angry emails will make up for the lost opportunity. Perhaps for this reason, it’s easy to include comebacks in fiction we write; we can make a comment burn as much as we like, for any character we want, and there’s no penalty for taking too much time to think.
However, comebacks can quickly become the cheesiest thing in your dialogue. The more experienced a writer gets, the more they realize this, and the more they edit that comeback to be less cheesy— but by removing all the cheesiness, it becomes less of a “Burn!” and more of a “Huh?” Create a comeback and it becomes cheesy, remove the cheese and it becomes incomprehensible, and thus worthy of deletion. It’s a cycle that quickly makes for grey, utilitarian dialogue.
Comebacks are a tool. A character wants to stand up for themselves, no matter the conflict; they use a comeback to effectively turn the tables on another character. If you need more humor in a scene, a series of insults and comebacks is perfect— even characters who like each other will bandy about insults as their interests cross. It’s what friends do, and a legitimate way of creating humor. Comebacks are useful.
Unfortunately, they’re also easy. Easy to overuse, easy to break, easy to drag on. They easily become corny, undermine emotion, or turn a good joke into a yawn-worthy piece of dialogue. Still, there are ways to fix each of these problems, either in editing or before you even write it down. (more…)
Posted by Liam Wood on December 17, 2014
It’s hard to be funny when you’re trying.
With plot, you can practice easily. Create a character (Bill), decide what he wants (a sandwich), and structure it around that. You can easily gather your antagonist, a couple side characters, and a neat little Hollywood Formula from just that information. You can decide your length, and use that framework to practice subplots, red herrings, and a million other things.
Practicing character is the same. With the same framework as above, you can work on character development, introducing characters without too much exposition, and all sorts of wonderful dialogue. With setting, exactly the same. Brainstorm your setting a little, but don’t let yourself get carried away with either the brainstorming or the description. Even prose is easy to practice, if you take a little more time to work on it.
But humor… ick. It’s hard to be funny on command without falling back to a joke. Something with a setup and a punchline… Sure, it’s fine for dinner table conversation, but for a story? You can’t just stick a couple puns in there and hope everyone will laugh. People know when humor is forced, and that’s what makes it so hard. If you can’t force it, but you want it, how do you include and practice it without, well, forcing yourself to?
You can acquaint yourself with all the humorous tools. You can try subverting expectations. You can try using silly words. You can try everything under the sun, but it remains difficult. Meanwhile, funny writers like Joss Whedon and Howard Tayler keep saying that humor has to arise from the characters, not from the situation. Once you start making fun of the situation, the reader will no longer suspend their disbelief— you’ve destroyed their engagement with the story.
So how do you use character-based humor? How do you practice it? (more…)
Posted by Liam Wood on November 1, 2014
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. (more…)
Posted by Liam Wood on September 7, 2014