Self-Doubt Doesn’t Care Who Or How Successful You Are (So Just Do ‘The Thing’ & Write Your Novel)

Blog Articles

I’ve been writing since I was a little girl. Mostly, I would just draw pictures and follow my mother around the house and tell her the stories I’d come up to go along with them and be ecstatic when they went on the fridge. I was also a voracious reader, but I was never content to only read; I always wanted to create. I didn’t know what writing was, really; I just knew I had stories to tell.

Writing wasn’t about plotting or world building when I was young; I just wanted to put all my ideas down.

I used to write stories for my friends and then leave them on cliffhangers for weeks while I figured out what came next.

In high school, I was the editor for the paper and wrote several articles. I created “Stickman! The Series!” which was an ongoing comic I passed out to various people in my classes. It was filled with dark humor and constantly skirted the safety of a PG-13 rating in every issue. By the end of my senior year, I was making a handful of photocopies in the library because people I’d never even met before had read it and wanted more.

Screenshot 2018-10-17 03.37.56
“Hello dear sailor, I’m a siren, here to kill you.”
“Kill me? Why?”
“It’s what I do. I gotta be me.”
(10th grade humor. You’re welcome.)

But through all of this, I never once had much doubt about my ability to write. It was just something I did.

Writing was as much a part of me as breathing. But without knowing why, I knew I wanted to get better. So I started researching how to write. And this is where I hit my first real hurdle and my lack of skills became self-evident. My talents were raw; they were unformed clay next to master sculptures. I saw the divide, and for the first time, it bothered me that I wasn’t a better writer. It was like seeing color when I never even knew I was colorblind to begin with. But I was still excited to dive in and learn, so I did. I started reading everything I could find on how to be a better writer.

But the more I learned about writing, the harder it became to write. As technical concepts starting taking root, it felt like my knowledge was actually ruining my ability.

Before, I wrote what I wanted, completely in the dark as to whether it was good or not. But the more I took in, the less the words seemed to flow.

No one ever tells you that self-doubt isn’t just a natural instinct you get handed the first time you put a pen to paper. It’s a creeping sensation that comes out of nowhere. Like walking into a classroom you’ve been in a hundred times before and realizing that something seems different. The desks have been rearranged. You’re not by the window anymore. You have a new seating chart and your buddy is this prick that constantly asks what you’re working on and then compares it to everyone else’s work to make you feel bad.

giphy

And when you start to understand the technicalities of what you’re doing (or not doing, as the case may be), writing isn’t “easy” anymore. It’s not comfortable. It’s not fun. It’s a jerk that looms over you and keeps whispering, “Just quit already.”

So what happened? How did you get dejected from Paradise and sent crashing into this new world? Are you actually a bad writer?!

The moment you become self-aware, your brain is not going to take it easy on you. Suddenly, all those books you loved before aren’t just for you to enjoy. They’re also a model of everything that you aren’t, and that you may never be. And when you compare yourself to them, you’ll feel incredibly foolish for even trying.

By the time I graduated, I was exhausted from “creating” on demand. I shelved many of the books I’d started because I literally got sick of them. I was tired as hell of writing. I had more doubts about my abilities than when I’d started. I was scared of what would happen when I actually finished my novels. When I tried to publish. Would everyone hate it? Would they tell me that my efforts were incomprehensible garbage?

This fear compelled me to quit writing for a little while. I threw myself into work instead and got a position as an editor with several indie publishers. I doubted myself for choosing writing as a college major. I wrote only enough to keep the hinges oiled, and considered jobs outside of my field. But then I got a job with an online magazine as an editor and writer. Inside, I hoped the writing portion wouldn’t come, and for a few months, I got my wish. I was a writer who was afraid to write. The fear of how I would be received had crippled me.

giphy1

The first time I was assigned an article, I had a full-blown panic attack. I had to get up and walk away from the computer because I was petrifiedof writing again, especially for a widespread audience. My biggest writing credits at this point were publications in my college newspaper and some minor poetry anthologies.

But I knew, under the fear, that I wanted to do it. And that I wasn’t going to let anyone—least of all me—ruin it. I decided, pass or fail, it wouldn’t be because I gave up.

I wrote the article. It took hours. I hated every minute of it. I was convinced it was the worst drivel I’d ever produced. But when I was done, I realized that I’d written. I’d gotten through it, and I could breathe again. Sending it in to the editor was like a weight lifting off my chest. Then came the next assignment. And the next. And before I knew it, I was writing 4-5 articles a day on a variety of topics. And so I stopped focusing on the technical aspects of how to “craft” everything. I focused instead on the writing. I had a job to do; I had to produce. So even if it still terrified me, I did it.

Before I knew it, I had written over 200 articles.

And while this was going on, I discovered the drive to just sit and write. I stopped self-editing so much; stopped telling myself I couldn’t do it. I let the technical aspects I’d learned guide me, but I put down the story I wanted to tell (reminding myself every time that I could edit later), and suddenly, writing was happening again.

I think I repeated Terry Pratchett’s quote, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story,” like a mantra, whenever I felt like I couldn’t make it.

giphy2

In late 2015, two years after graduation, I finished writing my first soft sci-fi novel, Mercury in Retrograde. I edited it for months, waffled on my resolve, and then finally wrapped it up and researched query letters. And even though I felt that same doubt that said I wasn’t any good, or that no one would like it, I sent it out. I cried because I thought it was the dumbest thing I’d ever done.

Just over a year later, it was published. And just over a year after that, it got silver in a book awards contest. And even now, knowing what I know, the voice in my had still tells me that it’s not good enough. That I’m not good enough.

The hardest part of writing is the deceptive idea that it should be easy. That it should always feel fun, and that if you’re struggling, it’s because you’re a hack. But this simply isn’t true.

Writing is an exercise. A mental one, sure, but you’re working out muscles you may not even know you have yet. It’s going to hurt quite a bit before it gets better. And just like anything in life, you can either use it to make you stronger, or you can cave in and let it smother you.

Don’t focus on your fears. Focus on what you can control. Don’t wait for inspiration; make inspiration happen. Sit down, write that novel.

Don’t worry about what people will think of your book. Write the story that you want to tell; edit it later.

The voice in the back of your head is never going to be satisfied, even when you exceed what you thought was ever possible.

So don’t let it stop you.

 

 

 

You Probably Have An Unfair Bias Against Indie/Self-Published Authors (For No Actual Reason)

Blog Articles

“Indie authors… there’s a reason none of them have been traditionally published. Most of them need to…leave the writing to the writers who are actually good at it.” — Actual quote from a book group I’m in.

When it comes to writing, criticism is easy to come by but difficult to receive. And given that writers are a notoriously delicate, brooding bunch, it’s not hard to understand why sorting through the criticism chaff to get to the good advice wheat is one of the hardest things to do as an author.

You’ve created this book baby. You birthed it from your own head, fed it all of your fears and hopes and dreams, watched it grow, helped it overcome obstacles and form into a coherent being… and then handed it over to a group of people with eager red pens and asked them to tell you all of the ugly, bad things that are wrong with it.

It’s one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. It never gets easier, no matter how many times you go through it.

And if that weren’t enough, you have to keep going through this process, day in, day out, for the rest of your life, facing criticism, backlash, and yes, bad reviews. And some of these reviews might be nothing more than a misunderstanding or someone who is the polar opposite of your target audience buying the book and making your day suck, but some might have valid points. And those are the ones that will really keep you up at night, wondering if you’re a crap writer after all.

In the writing world, some people are so incredibly eager to cut down someone else’s book, it’s astonishing. And many of these unhelpful remarks get unfairly pointed toward indie and self-published authors by people who have never written a book themselves (or take their job as an indie book reviewer a touch too seriously). It’s completely, totally, unabashedly unfair.

And it’s also an accusation that’s fully baseless.

Just because a book has been published by an indie or self-published author does not automatically make it crap.

It doesn’t mean that the book couldn’t stand the test of going through a traditional publisher. It doesn’t mean that it’s not any good and shouldn’t ever be read. And it’s not even just readers that have this unfair bias against indie/self-publishers. It’s also other writers who look down their noses at self-publishers with scorn because they haven’t “passed the trials” that other writers had to.

“But,” you might say, “there are some really, truly, 100 percent awful self-published books that the writer had no business sharing with the world.”

To be perfectly honest, I agree with you. Some of the self-published books I’ve seen and edited are so bad they could curdle milk. But does that bring down the self-publishing market for everyone? No. Does it flood the market? Sure. Does it make it more difficult for your book to be seen? Not if you’re marketing, no.

That’s like saying because some indie movies sucked, that all indie films are awful and lesser than their blockbuster compatriots and not worth watching. But this isn’t true. Amazing indie films get released all the time while the not-so-great ones continue to pour in around them. That’s just the creative process. And once upon a time, your favorite director or author might have been down among those “lesser” indie creations, trying to learn how to get better.

It’s the same thing in the book market. The only reason that you might struggle to make room with indie or self-published authors is if you’re publishing through Amazon’s Kindle Direct, which encourages everyone to make their books as cheap as possible… But that’s another discussion entirely.

The truth is that traditional publishing doesn’t rest entirely on the merits of your work. Maybe you really struggled to get the words out in your query letter and the reader trashed it immediately. The agent or reader might just have a migraine and not really focus on your work that day. They could read literally the first line and hate the way you’ve introduced your character without reading further than thirty words into your entire 80,000-word manuscript.

This is 100 percent a real issue. I have talked to agents and publishers I’ve met at conventions about this. Yes, it really happens. There is literally nothing more inspirational than remembering that Harry Potter was rejected by publishers twelve times before a kid ended up reading it and loving it. But these stories of inspiration are few and far between, and it’s usually rejection for the majority of writers trying to get their work seen for a myriad of reasons — only a small portion of which might be their actual work.

In the real publishing world, it isn’t just that you’re competing with other writers and vying for that golden pedestal position. It’s a battle against timing, opportunity, and sheer dumb luck. Sometimes you’ve got a great book but you can’t get it in front of a traditional publisher. Maybe they aren’t accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Maybe they’re not accepting new work, period. Maybe they’re full up on the genre your book is written in and don’t have plans to publish more for about a year.

An indie author’s writing and effort aren’t the only things affecting their rejection from traditional publishers. And when you want to publish your book and your traditional options are limited, it’s great to know that there are hundreds of indie publishers with great authors and support staff that can fit your needs and get that wonderful story out to the world at large.

For others, self-publishing is the best way. Sure, it costs more money up front, but it gives you complete control over your book’s content and production, marketing, and even art choices. Plus, there’s no one to split royalties with!

So next time you hear someone suggest that indie and self-published authors are all failed writers who couldn’t cut it, remind them that they didn’t stop watching movies even though they’d seen a few bad ones. We all saw The Phantom Menace, and yet somehow Star Wars is still hugely popular.

Don’t judge non-traditional writers on the failures of others in their same field. Give them a chance. Who knows? You might just find a new favorite author you never knew existed before.

What Is ‘Mental Real Estate’ & How Can It Make Your Writing Better?

Blog Articles

You will probably stumble across the advice to “write what you know” at some point in your career. And it’s great advice! However, as beneficial as it is to “write what you know,” it’s only one small portion of a larger concept you can implement when it comes to storytelling.

Writing what you know can seem both maddeningly simple and alarmingly complex. It suggests that you should draw on your own experiences with people, places, and events to create a more intricate and realistic world for your reader. It’s a great way to add flavor to your writing and make what you’re working on feel that much more intense, gratifying, and yes, even sad or thought provoking.

After all, you’re not just creating your scenario or character, you’re pulling from real-life memories you felt and understand and can describe in detail.

But as a culture and as people that have many elements of entertainment from all over the world, it can be easy to forget our shared experiences — especially when it comes to writing.

This is where mental real estate steps in and sweeps “writing what you know” off its feet. These two concepts are ideal partners. One helps you make your writing fuller, and the other teaches you to write a story people will love!

The brilliant thing about mental real estate is that it’s a concept that holds an infinite amount of information in your mind. If someone names an item — like Mountain Dew, for example — and you recognize it, then that item has staked a claim in your mental real estate.

giphy

Basically, people are all a little Pavlovian by nature, and if you repeat a phrase or word at them enough with a catchy little jingle, soon they’ll start singing along. This is a concept that retailers rely on so heavily that you probably don’t even know how engrained their logos, slogans, and brand names are.

Also, you’re probably thinking about getting Mountain Dew now. Sorry. (#notsorry, that ish is delish.)

Every song you’ve ever loved and sang along to? Mental real estate. Quotes from your favorite poem or movie? Mental real estate. Being able to name the product from hearing, “The quilted quicker picker-upper?” Yep, you guessed it! All of these things take up space in your head. But mental real estate isn’t just a concept that works for retailers. In fact, it works for storytellers — from indie authors to Disney movies — and it can work for you, too.

If you’re asked to name a fairy tale, there’s a 99 percent chance that you’ll know what a fairy tale is and have at least one example, whether it’s Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, or a dozen others.

The point is that you recognize these stories because they’re already in your head. They’re a part of your mental real estate and have set up camp right there on Fairy Tale Lane (which, let’s be real, probably intersects with Fetish Ave. at some point).

But it’s not just the names of these stories that you can recognize. It’s also their plots. The heart of the tales. The lessons they teach. Remember when Avatar came out? It made a crap-ton of money and was hugely regarded by viewers.

giphy1

And then someone came along and pointed out that it was the exact plot of Disney’s Pocahontas set in space with giant blue aliens. And instead of corn, the evil invading humans were after unobtanium, aka the world’s worst placeholder name that somehow made it through every edit into production.

You might think that people would feel cheated if they got told the same story again. But the trick of mental real estate is that your sweet, innocent brain looks at the concept, says, “Oh, I know this one!” and embraces it in a giant pile of squishy, comforting familiarity. So instead of saying, “I just spent $30 to watch blue alien Pocahontas,” you said, “Oh man, how cool was that?!”

And while this may seem like cheating, it really isn’t. People are comfortable with what they know. What’s familiar and embedded in your mental real estate is Hollywood gold. Filmmakers vie for it like crazy. Many of your favorite movies probably share a ridiculous number of similar traits to many of your other favorite movies.

When it comes to writing, if you’re ever stuck on what to do with your characters or where to go next, write what you know! Think back to similar instances in other stories you enjoy, and try and find a new angle for your audience; a new hook that employs a familiar concept.

There’s a reason why Hollywood can get away with remakes and reboots of the same stories. There’s a reason no one admits to watching Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales but it got nearly 800 million dollars in worldwide box office sales.

These are stories you know. They’re comforting. They’re familiar.

So when it comes to being a storyteller, it’s okay to look at other plots, other concepts, and try to come up with something that will introduce a lovable old story with new vitality. Read everything in your genre; learn what worked and what didn’t. What reoccurring themes happened? What tropes and characters do you see repeated, and why?

giphy2

Recognize these things and employ them in your own writing in a new way. If you want to retell Sleeping Beauty, ask yourself what can you do to make it different and yet familiar enough to be “safe” to your reader’s brain. Can you put her in the future? Absolutely! Can she be steampunk and trapped in a moving tower that roams the land? Yes! Does she have to be Sleeping Beauty at all? No! Change her name; her hair; her skin color! Make her a boy and have a mechanical dragon guarding the tower that your scrappy mechanic prince/princess has to dismantle before they can save him!

You can use these shared concepts and themes to make that novel familiar and comfortable to readers while giving them a new journey to go on. This doesn’t mean copying the story, it means understanding what your readers want and giving it to them. In the end, you can write not only what you know, but what we all know and enjoy together.

This was originally published on Medium.com

Your Characters are Probably Terrible – Here’s Why

Blog Articles

Scout Dawson

Even if you’re not currently an author, you’ve probably heard the term “Mary Sue”. It’s a name given to flat, one-dimensional female characters who are so well-rounded and flawless that they just don’t appear human. Sometimes these characters fall into certain cliches or tropes that make the audience collectively groan. You may also have heard the male iteration of this, “Gary Stu”.

The fact is, whilst we all have a secret dream of being the Mary Sue at some point in our lives, writing one into your novel is hands down going to make your novel terrible.

Here is a great example of what a typical Mary Sue character might be like.

She is eighteen years old.

Long brown (or black) hair that seems to frizz and do whatever it wants, she has an unremarkable body boys never look at. She has, against all genetic reasoning, stormy grey eyes.

View original post 588 more words

Why #CockyGate Is Actually Important, Despite Its Ridiculous Name

Blog Articles

Anyone in the small and indie book-publishing community knows how hard it can be as a new or small author to get your name and your series off the ground. No matter how good your book is, one of the most important skills you need to learn as an author isn’t “how to write better,” although that one tops the list, most definitely.

No, it’s actually “how to create a brand and market yourself.”

And since authors are a notoriously introverted bunch who don’t do so well with being forced to tell other people how great they should think we are and to please buy our books, this can be problematic, to say the least.

For those who visit cons, attend writers’ groups and conferences, you typically learn that the writing community is full of wonderful, supportive people who love their fellow authors and encourage aspiring writers. Really.

In general, the indie market is filled with these awesome authors. So it came as a surprise to everyone when authors started complaining about getting letters threatening legal action against them because their books had the word “cocky” in the title.

No, I’m not kidding, even though I wish I was.

Author Faleena Hopkins, a woman who will now go down in infamy, recently started sending cease & desist letters to any other romance author with the word “cocky” in their book’s title, demanding that they change the title immediately because she had copyrighted the word. Yes. She actually went and got a copyright on the word “cocky,” all in an attempt to have the word solely associated with her “Cocker Brothers” series of romance novels. And the first thing she did was go and threaten other authors—even those whose books were published before her trademark—with legal action if they didn’t remove any instances of the word from their titles.

In a way, it seems like a brilliant move. But there’s a reason that people don’t get to copyright common words or phrases and charge money every time someone says it.

It’s a simple case of Faleena misunderstanding what her copyright is actually for. And now that she’s unanimously become the face of evil that indie authors everywhere are uniting against, it’s important to know why Hopkins will lose every court case, no questions asked.

Copyrighting is one of those things that many people don’t think about. Intellectual property (IP) rules can sometimes be confusing, but when it comes to ownership, possession is, as they say nine-tenths of the law. When it’s a totally new idea or concept, that is. So just how was Faleena Hopkins able to copyright a word that’s been around for hundreds of years?

She wasn’t.

Hopkins did go and get two copyrights regarding the word cocky, it’s true. However, her first copyright was strictly in the use of “a series of downloadable e-books in the field of romance”—not for any and all usage of the word. And that was only in a “particular stylized form of the word,” which she also had the copyright for. However, therein also lies the problem.

DcdxIW9VMAAQJIx.jpg-large

When you copyright a word, like “Apple” did for computers, you have to show that your usage of the word is specific, unique, and unlike the common word. This is the reason that Apple got the copyright for computers and software, but you don’t have to pay $19.99 for every apple you buy from the Apple store.

In Faleena’s case, her first copyright was for the word “cocky” in a romance e-book series, in a stylized form. It only covers that single, particular use. Which means that other authors are not infringing on her use of it unless they copy it exactly, in stylized form, in romance novels. Someone could literally write a book of any genre, name it “Cocky,” and have a block-letter form of the word and they still wouldn’t be infringing on her copyright in the slightest.

The second issue is the stylized form of the word itself, which Faleena Hopkins did actually get a copyright on… Even though she doesn’t own the rights to the font that she copyrighted, which will immediately null any copyright she filed.

Someone took the time to track down the font that she used and find out where it came from. The artist’s website says specifically that no one may copyright a word with their font, since the font is already trademarked to the artist, and is only licensed to the user.

Screenshot 2018-05-07 13.32.44

So Faleena’s entire argument for trying to steal royalties from other authors is moot. She didn’t have permission to copyright to begin with. And now, not only does she have thousands of indie authors up in arms against her, but the Romance Writers of America (RWA) is even speaking to the ones that Hopkins threatened in order to bring an IP suit against her.

So yes, #Cockygate may sound really stupid, but there’s an important lesson to learn from it:

There’s nothing wrong with trying to protect a brand that you’ve created, but trying to screw other authors out of doing the same and threatening to steal their money isn’t the way to do it.

And also, before you send out cease and desist letters, you should probably make sure that you understand copyrights and have permission to use them to begin with.

Follow #CockyGate and #ByeFaleena (my new favorite tag) on Twitter for more amazing responses to this ridiculous scandal.

 

Why You Should Be Reading Your Writing Out Loud

Editor's Suggestions

Last weekend I was at JordanCon here in Atlanta, meeting with and talking to some exceptionally skilled people in the writing and publishing world. It was an amazing treat, since I got to experience being a Con author, but also because I got to pick up little things here and there from other people more experienced than I am.

One of the things that came up in conversation with many of the aspiring writers I spoke to was the fact that none of them had ever read their work out loud or had anyone read it for them.

To elaborate, I’d like to state that I (frequently) annoy my husband into letting me read something I’ve written to him. I’ll do this even if I know he won’t really be listening because it’s while he’s reading the news or playing a video game or even falling asleep.

The benefit I get isn’t just for him to listen to the story and give me feedback, though that does help. The benefit is learning where the flaws are in my own writing by hearing them as I read. This one trick has changed many a story I’ve written.

So it struck me as odd that many people don’t read their work aloud. The benefits to your writing are so tremendous it’s ridiculous.

I’m an incredibly fast reader by nature. If I’m pleasure reading, I often have to force myself to slow down so I’m not missing key elements or glossing over words. Reading out loud forces me to slow down, see what I’m actually reading, and also notice errors (like forgotten words) as I go.

If you’re not reading your writing aloud, then you should be. And here are 3 reasons you need to start doing it right now:

1. Awkward lines become super obvious.

giphy

Sometimes when you’re just reading your own writing, it sounds really eloquent in your head. You know what I’m talking about—you’re sure it’s the greatest set up ever. But reading out loud will strip that idea from you almost immediately. And trust me, that’s a good thing!

When you read out loud, you’re going to see if there are any words that you hesitate on, stumble over, or that otherwise sound weird to you. These are areas that might make other readers (who don’t know your inflection) go “Huh?” and reread it to figure out what you meant or to correct themselves. And since that takes away from their immersion in your world, that’s a BIG no-no.

2. You’ll develop a “reading voice.”

giphy1

Reading in front of people is weirdly intimidating. It’s like you’re baring a piece of your soul when you read aloud. This can make it easy to screw up, whether it’s because of a dry mouth, nervous tick, or you’re speed reading and stumbling over your words.

If you practice reading out loud, when you have to do this in the future to a crowd (either big or small!), you’re going to know the pace, be familiar with the tone, and understand how it should sound, which will help lessen screw ups.

3. It will better your writing.

giphy2

Yes, reading your work (or hearing someone else read it) is supremely beneficial. In your head, things might sound fine, but out loud, you’ll start to realize that certain words may need to have less complicated choices, or that dialogue sounds too formal, or you’re trying to create a scene and left out a hugely important part.

It will also force you to picture scenes and situations in a different way than just writing will do. You’ll start to notice immediately when things don’t “look” right in your head, and you’ll realize where you’re lacking to your readers, too.

So if you’re not convinced, just try reading your latest piece out loud to yourself, and I’m sure you’ll notice some problems right away. If you have someone you’re comfortable sharing your work with in the early stages, have them read segments to you, too, so you can see where you’ve still got work to do.

This is an incredibly important part of the storytelling process, so don’t neglect it!

 

 

 

Photo: WeHeartIt

It’s Almost Time For JordanCon!

Blog Articles

And now for a fun announcement!

For those of you who are diehard Robert Jordan fans (or even those who read him a while back and just fondly remember the books), there’s nothing more fun than hanging out with like-minded people and having a good time… And  clearly someone thought this sounded like a good idea, and set out to create the awesome adventure that is the annual celebration of JordanCon, a fantasy and literature convention created in honor of the late author himself.

JordanCon is a celebratory convention held in Atlanta, GA, and this will be my first time attending, so I’m definitely excited. This year, I’ll be joining several guest authors to do panels and share information on the writing and publishing industry (along with whatever helpful advice I might have!) all weekend long from April 20-22!

There are going to be some truly excellent panels available, merchandise booths, and chances to win epic prizes and even support charitable events that donate the proceeds to Mayo Clinic. So if you’ll be in the Metro Atlanta area that weekend, definitely make sure you have your ticket and come by and see me for a chance to win a free signed copy of my book and have a great time.

 

 

Mercury in Retrograde got a 5-Star Reader’s Favorite Review!

Blog Articles

Screenshot 2018-04-06 15.50.27

So I’m awful at updating my site and various social media accounts, and I figured it was high time I started to jump on that bandwagon a little bit more.

I’ll have a couple pieces of exciting news coming up soon, and in the meantime, I’ll leave this here! I got the confirmation a couple of weeks back that the reviewer from Reader’s Favorite loved Mercury in Retrograde and wanted to give it a rave review, which is awesome.

Interesting and frustrating fact: Amazon doesn’t allow professional reviewing companies to leave reviews on either your Amazon or Goodreads pages… but this bad boy is on my Barnes & Noble page and a couple others I can’t recall right now. Books-A-Million? Maybe. I don’t know.

You can read the review here, or make your way over to Amazon to give the book a flip through.

On Cliches, Gimmicks, and Cheap Writing Tricks

Editor's Suggestions

I don’t normally write about television shows or movies, mostly because I see everything years later after its initially premiered since we only use pay-to-play services like Netflix and Hulu. But this is only a review in part, mostly because a show got me thinking about common issues in writing.

I am a huge sucker for all things fantasy, sci-fi, or supernatural, so when I watched Hap and Leonard last year and loved it with a blazing passion, you could definitely color me surprised. The writing was clean, the characters were amazing, the story was part D.B. Cooper-style mystery, part tragic love story, part buddy movie, part clusterf*ck. The villains were insane (quite literally), and the entire thing was so compelling that I was instantly hooked. I think I ended up watching the whole first season in two days.

Needless to say, when Hap and Leonard season two came out, I was excited. I’d been waiting to see it for a little while, but it was… Not that good. Very different from the heart-pounding finale that I’d just re-watched a few days before in preparation.

I wanted to like this season… but unfortunately, it suffers from some really messy writing.

Most of it was one big, lagging blegh that had me begging for a twist that would reinvigorate my interest and throw me for a loop so I could stop predicting everything that was going to happen.

Every. Thing. That. Happened.

This got me thinking: the gimmicks and clichés they used in this season are common pitfalls that I’ve seen plenty of writers do. Was I surprised to find that I disliked the second season of this show almost as much as I liked the first? YES. And after watching it all, I narrowed it down to just a couple of reasons I think the new season didn’t hold water… or my attention, largely.

So, here are 5 writing mistakes (based on what I saw in Hap and Leonard season two!) that you should avoid:

1. Clichéd villains

On the topic of villains, season one of H&L had some amazing ones. These people were dynamic, they were interesting, they were flawed, and their motivations were unique (if not WTF). But season two threw these interesting characters away and replaced them instead with some cartoonish villains straight out of your Saturday morning line-up.

I expected more from these bad guys, but what the writers delivered was some Scooby-Doo-esque caricatures of down south good ol’ boys. The villains in this season had little real motivation or drive. Overall, the bad guys were weak, unmotivated, and boring. And there are few things worse to do to your story than to give someone a boring villain.

Your villain is a tremendously important part of your story. They should be able to drive the plot and force your characters to react. They have to put your good guys in a no-win situation where all bets are off and your characters have to make a decision. Good bad guys cannot be oafish, buffoonish caricatures of people, because you’re never going to take them seriously.

Think of a villain that really got your blood pumping. Why did they make you feel that way? Think about what their motivation was. Think about them as people first, and bad guys second. Give them desires of their own.
Don’t have them crunch beer cans in their hand to threaten the good guy.

Seriously. Don’t.

2. Making side characters one-dimensional

Ah, stereotypes, how we love you—said no one ever. For H&L being set in 1980s Texas, I knew there were bound to be some. In the first episode of season one, for example, our two heroes are kicked out of the rose fields because some cheaper migrant Mexican farmers took thur jerbs.

This stereotype, however minor, ends up becoming a major catalyst to propel the story, so it’s one that probably gets overlooked immediately. Hap and Leonard are clearly down on their luck, struggling to pay their bills, and doing hard manual labor out in the fields. Losing their meager means of employment makes them susceptible to an offer that they would not otherwise take, so it had a decent purpose.

Season two, however, went off the deep end. Given that this season is based around the disappearances of young black children, they attempted to address the racial environment at the time. The writers wanted to focus the tension between cops and the black neighborhood where this takes place, and they have the double task of showing a black detective trying to earn the respect of his white comrades. But for a show that wanted to address many topics of racial inequality, I was confused as to why they filled it with so many racial stereotypes.

Season one gave us deep emotional connections between the main characters. It told the sad story of what happened between Trudy and Hap, and Hap and Leonard’s tragic bond. One of the white characters even stands up against another white man calling Leonard a racial slur, getting more upset at it than Leonard himself. The characters were well-rounded, had their morals, beliefs, and lines in the sand. Season two… not so much. Perhaps it was the addition of so many new characters, but these people often ended up being pointless stereotypes that seem stretched into handy MacGuffins more than anything else.

And basically everyone is a racist. Everyone. Except Hap.

Several black female characters were often mouthy, gossipy, and prone to aggression. Many of the side character black men who got any screen time were drug-dealers, gang members, and on one occasion, murderers.

The beautiful leading lady, Florida, is introduced as an intelligent, well-to-do powerhouse attorney… who ends up a female love interest/MacGuffin. She never really helps her clients out and only actually goes to court one time, where despite her expertise, intelligence, and experience, she’s unable to get the judge to rule fairly… Yet Hap is able to easily strong-arm him to get the outcome she couldn’t.

Leonard himself, a gay man, ends up being put in a situation where he’s sexually assaulted by another gay man. Given the situation and the deep emotional moments of the first season, this could have been a real scene about Leonard’s own struggles with his sexuality/masculinity, or about consent, or vulnerability, as it had been in season one between him and his boyfriend. Instead, they took the easy route, portraying the other gay man as being overly sexed and aggressive while playing twangy country music over Leonard’s jittery escape to suggest that we should be laughing.

At sexual assault. Because he’s gay.

Even Detective Hanson was basically a stereotypical “Uncle Tom” figure, working for the white man and turning his back on his brothers. For his part, his struggle to maintain his racial identity as a police officer in a deeply racist town never really gets addressed, which was a shame and made his character very one-dimensional.

There are situations where stereotypes can come into play (RARELY), but your supporting characters should not be just empty, predictable, baseless stereotypes. Your secondary characters should have as much design behind them as your main character. If you give in to stereotypes, you’re not doing anyone any favors, least of all your writing. Make your characters—all of your characters—robust, dynamic, and unique.

3. Mistaking mystery for suspense

While season one of H&L had me on the edge of my seat wondering what was going to happen next, season two stripped down the tension and replaced it with dumb-luck happenstance that guaranteed no matter how far off the reservation our characters went, they were going to end up going in the right direction. (Because ghosts?) Once that became apparent, the mystery they were trying to solve lost its oomph and the tension became forced.

Mystery and suspense seem to go hand in hand, but those who aren’t familiar with them can sometimes get confused or think that just because there’s mystery, there’s also going to be suspense.

Finding out that your favorite celebrity is pregnant and won’t say who the baby daddy is can be a mystery.

Finding out that she’s going to do a FB Live reveal in a week and it could be someone really, really inappropriate is suspense.

Just because there is mystery in your story, it doesn’t automatically mean there’s suspense; the two are not synonymous.

When you’re writing a mystery, remember to give your reader tense moments that genuinely threaten the characters’ cause. No one likes a boring, predictable plot.

4. Misdirected misdirection

Misdirects can be an intense and wonderful addition to your story. There’s nothing better than getting to that point in a book and gasping or having to pause for a moment or reread the last line in a brilliant plot twist that you didn’t see coming.

Misdirects have to, however, be: a) tantamount to the plot, and b) actually plausible.

There were a ton of misdirects in season two of H&L, but none of them were anything I could believe. These attempted misdirects weakened the plot and made the characters seem dumb on more than one occasion. If me, the TV-at-home viewer can figure out what’s happening and the characters can’t, it makes it feel like the writers expect the audience to not have many points in their Intelligence skill.

It’s also important to keep your misdirection to a minimum. Remember in Mission Impossible 2 how Tom Cruise’s character keeps taking off masks to reveal the truth behind various disguises? First time, gasp! Second time… okay…? And then after that it loses its effect because magic tricks aren’t as impressive if you see them over and over again.

5. Throwin’ continuity to the wind

There is nothing more infuriating than when you catch your characters or plot in a continuity error. I don’t even know how many forums and fan pages there are on the internet devoted to finding and revealing continuity errors in shows, movies, and books, but… it’s a lot.

This is so important in writing. Your reader/viewer/mom wants to feel like they’re really in the world you’ve created. Like they know and understand your characters and everything that drives them. If you break that for them, you’re gonna have a bad time.

Lots of shows end up doing this, but it happens in books a lot, too, which is why you should always know your characters and story.

In season two of Stranger Things, we’re introduced to Dustin’s pet turtle Yurtle when he finds a demodog. He takes Yurtle out of the aquarium, puts him down, and poof! Gone forever. This one issue stuck out so much to some viewers that we started #WheresYurtle on Twitter.

We’re still waiting for answers, people.

Likewise, in Hap and Leonard, Leonard keeps dogs on his property. The dogs play a significant role in the latter portion of the first season, and then in season two, the dogs… just disappear, never to be heard from again. There’s also the issue of a box filled with money that has literally never been mentioned in the entire second season, despite being imperative to the first. And season one was deep, gritty, and had black humor moments that were sparse and well-placed. Season two was filled with several poor attempts at humor that most often fell flat, ignoring the serious, dark tone of the first season entirely.

Nothing in your writing will distract and break your reader’s suspension of disbelief faster than having something out of place in a story. This could be your character’s actions, certain aspects of their appearance, or if elements of your story suddenly disappear or change drastically.

The best way to avoid this pitfall is to keep track of your characters, their appearances, their wants, etc. You should also have a chart that lays out your story and plot points so you don’t forget and just wipe out something important in your world.

Just remember, your story is going to need details, believable people and plots, and continuity that would make any hardcore fan weep with delight. Because the last thing you want to do is leave your audience confused, angry, and waiting to find out where the f*ck that turtle went for the rest of their lives.

 

 

 

Photo: Getty

 

 

Science Fiction Tropes to Drop in a Black Hole

Blog Articles

Books Rock My World

Science Fiction is the genre of limitless possibilities. Literally, without limits on time, space, character or plot. If the author can dream it, they can do it. Why, then, are some clichés so hard to kill in SciFi? Because they are as seductive as the Tenth Doctor when he stutters. It’s easier to blaze from a well-marked trail, and readers expect to see something at least vaguely familiar in the story.

Used well, used sparingly, or even turned inside out, these tropes can make for some awesome literature. Overuse them, and your plot deserves a squash in the trash compactor.

Here are some well-known science fiction plots, accompanied by a recommendation that either subverts the trope or does it well.

1. It Was All The Twilight Zone

Surprise! They were all living in a marble the entire time. Or on the fungus between a giant’s toes, or in the fur…

View original post 437 more words