The following is a free preview of my science fiction/fantasy adventure novel, The Reintegrators. Available now at Amazon.
It’s an oft-repeated maxim in writing that good ideas are overrated: a good writer can make a good book out of an awful idea, and conversely, a bad writer will take a great idea and usually turn it an awful book. A common story, first brought to my attention by Brandon Sanderson, tells the origin of Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. To quote Wikipedia:
The inspiration for the series came from a bet Jim was challenged to by a member of the Delray Online Writer’s Workshop. The challenger bet that Jim could not write a good story based on a lame idea, and Jim countered that he could do it using two lame ideas of the challenger’s choosing. The “lame” ideas given were “Lost Roman Legion”, and “Pokémon”.
The moral of the story, aside from “don’t make bets with Jim Butcher ‘cuz he really takes that shit seriously,” is: don’t spend too much time worrying about whether your ideas are good or not, when you could be using that time to write (and thus becoming a better writer in the process).
Chuck Wendig’s 250 Things You Should Know About Writing will always hold a bit of nostalgia for me. I was around a third of the way through my first novel when I stumbled across it on Amazon, and at the time I had never read anything about how to write–actually, it had never occurred to me that such books could exist. What clinched the deal was the price, 99 cents, and the pitch, which reads (in part): “Contained within are things you should know about plot holes, self-publishing versus legacy publishing, “on-the-nose” dialogue, story versus plot, metaphors, copy-editing, killing darlings with a claw hammer, cursing like an undead pirate, and generally being a cranky and irreverent creative type.”
Something strange occurred to me today, regarding style and how it develops. I was reading Rudy’s Blog, in particular this post where Mr. Rucker mentions how his work-in-progress novel The Big Aha features “creepy vermin” living in “higher or alternate forms of reality,” and which he later clarifies as being “subtle rats” (or at least that’s my understanding).
Putting aside all the other really interesting stuff in that blog post which I should probably have spent more time considering, I couldn’t help but get stuck on those two phrases. Maybe it’s because the mention of rats make me think of the two fancy rats I used to keep as pets, before their unfortunate passing; particularly Harriet, my favorite, who was a hairless rat (get it?). Now, Harriet was most definitely not “creepy”–she preferred to skitter or scamper rather than creep. Likewise, she may have been “subtle” meaning delicate or faint (she was a small rat), but she definitely wasn’t cunning or wily, unless you count the ingenious methods she devised for storing excess food in piles of shredded paper in her cage. So, if I am ever lucky enough to meet rats who live in higher forms of reality, I doubt that “vermin” would be the word I would choose to describe them.
In multiplayer online roleplaying games, designers and players often make a distinction between two modes of interaction:
- Player vs. Environment, or PvE. In this mode, a player must overcome challenges posed by the environment in order to progress. This can mean “static” obstacles such as terrain, weather, hunger and thirst, etc., but is more often used to describe encounters with computer-controlled entities, such as monsters and NPCs (non-player characters). Players choose to team up with each other or go alone, and get enjoyment by exploring the world, collecting items, defeating particularly difficult monsters, etc.
- Player vs. Player, or PvP. Players in this mode (usually) face the same challenges present in PvE mode, but with the additional caveat that other players in the game may be hostile, and they must be prepared to defend themselves from attack (or perhaps to initiate attacks, if the mood strikes them). Even if there are few or no secondary rewards to be gained from such an attack, some players will invariably choose this mode of play and spend lots of time and effort on the “meta game” of figuring out the best way of ambushing others, leveling up their fighting techniques, etc.
It so happens that in fiction writing, we can make a similar distinction between two types of conflict, sometimes called “man vs nature” and “man vs man.” It should be easy to guess what these terms mean: in man vs man, two or more characters are in conflict with each other. Each of them have their own goals or values, and when brought into contact with one another they will clash until their issues are somehow resolved (note: the “clash” here is usually figurative; wars of words or wills are often more interesting than physical battles). In man vs nature, a character (or group of characters) struggle against something in their environment: pits full of spikes, the vacuum of space, man-eating sharks—pretty much anything without a brain.
Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action. - Kurt Vonnegut
Yesterday I started re-editing my novel after putting it away for six months. It was good to put it aside to gain “distance” from it, but the real benefit was what I learned from all the projects I did in the interim, especially EPIC FANTASY 0.9b. Lack of confidence can be a big problem for new writers; we revise and revise, but always wonder if the changes we’ve made are actually making our stories worse instead of better, sometimes even to the point of going around in circles. But compared to six months ago, I feel much more capable of looking at my own writing and deciding on absolute terms whether it’s where I want it to be, and if not, what it will take to get there. It feels great to bring that knowledge to bear on improving this novel, because I’ve found that even after all this time, I still love its characters and plot just as much as I did when I was writing them. I’m excited to make it as perfect as it possibly can be so that I can share it with others.
In that spirit, the following is my personal editing checklist, which I compiled over the past six months from various sources (mainly craft books, corrections from professional editors and my own experiences). Of course, my list may not fit you perfectly; everyone has their own peculiar set of problems to deal with. But I’ve tried to make it general and included some common issues that I don’t personally struggle with that often. In any case, hopefully someone out there will find it useful.
"Bill and Arlene Miller were a happy couple." - Raymond Carver, "Neighbors," opening sentence.
The passive voice seems to be a common sticking point for new writers. Is there a specific reason for this? Why would the passive voice be any harder to grasp than any other straightforward grammatical rule?