Reference Desk #12 — DIY MFA

As you might expect from the title, this book is billed as a do-it-yourself replacement for a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. Now, a single book replacing an entire four-year degree is a tall order, and it’s pretty clear as you read that it isn’t really trying to do that. What this book is trying to do is provide a scaffolding for how to build a career as a professional author.

Having never gone through an MFA program, I can’t really compare the two. The impression I get is that MFA programs tend to focus on the fine art aspect of writing and especially on literary, rather than genre writing. I don’t hear much about MFA programs really preparing their graduates for the business of writing as a career. So, while DIY MFA makes for a catchy title, the book is at least trying to be a little more well-rounded than the average MFA program (or at least my slightly fuzzy impression of one).

Breadth Over Depth

DIY MFA is organized around three principles: reading, writing, and community-building. It starts with a brief description of MFA programs, pointing out their weaknesses (as might be expected in a book that positions itself as a direct alternative). Then it goes into the details of each of these pillars.

For Writing, there are chapters on motivation and writing habits, handling rejection and failure, and then more “traditional” technique discussion: developing ideas; outlining; creating characters; beginnings, middles, and endings; voice; point of view; dialogue; world-building. Oh, and a chapter on revision.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. The writing section is the bulk of the book, but each of these chapters is relatively short. Every one of these concepts is big enough to fill entire books. For better or worse, DIY MFA chooses to cover this huge breadth of topics, rather than dig into any one of them in depth.

Next is the Reading section, which talks about reading widely in the genres you want to write, active reading with the intent to learn, and some exercises for more effectively digesting what you read. Compared to the seventeen chapters on writing, there are three on reading.

Finally, there is the Community section. This is really an amalgamation of networking and business concerns. There are chapters on workshopping and critique, crafting an author identity and a website, targeting readers, networking, and submitting work. The book doesn’t play favorites between traditional publishing or self-pub, and generally looks at aspects of the business that can benefit any author.

Who Is This For?

In my opinion, this is a book for younger or inexperienced authors. The framework of Read, Write, Build Community is a pretty good overview of the things you should at least be thinking about if you want to write as a profession. The ideas around goal-setting, organization and learning are the best parts of the book.

The sections about craft and technique are a great jumping-off point, but you’ll need to find other books, websites, resources and mentors if you want to really dig deep into any of these topics, since they’re only addressed by a single chapter of this book.

At this point, it’s worth noting that there is a robust DIY MFA website with a whole team behind it. I don’t know whether the book or the website came first, but the book certainly shows the power of connecting your various media to draw in readers.

The book suggests signing up for the DIY MFA newsletter and BONUS MATERIALS! that you can download from the website. I went ahead and signed up, and the amount of emails is right on the edge of being spammy. If you’re an author who dreams of a media empire, this is an interesting example to look at. They have articles. They have a podcast. They have a newsletter. They have a paid courses and a virtual writing retreat. They have a random writing prompt generator that’s a little bit Story Engine-esque.

The Upshot

I may not be the ideal audience for this book. I’ve read variations of the advice in a lot of these chapters before. I think the best and most important thing the book offers is the overarching ideas about what’s important for a career author, and how to stay organized and focused. It’s a good reminder of what you should be working on if you’re making your living writing, or at least aspire to. It certainly made me think about some of the aspects that I have personally been neglecting.

And while the book offers a variety of suggestions about how to do things, they’re always given with the caveat that what works for one person may not work for another. The DIY mindset requires you to develop your own best practices. This is a refreshing divergence from the many writing books that claim to provide the one and only way to do something correctly.

If you’re a young author (or a not-so-young author who is only recently committed to trying to write for a living) and you haven’t delved too much into the books and blogs and myriad resources out there, this is a perfect place to start. Just don’t limit yourself to the DIY MFA ecosystem. Find the pieces that really interest you and look for more resources on those topics.

Drabbles

I recently went on a foray into Twitter-size microfiction, a story format so short that it’s challenging to even fit the basic elements of a story. It was a fun exercise in minimalism and editing down to the bare bones, and gave me something to do with a bunch of ideas that I had never found a home for. I wrote 21 of these little gems and I was rather pleased with myself.

Well, that was then, and this is now. I’ve really grown as a creator in the last…uh, month or so. My stories need to grow with me. I simply cannot be contained within the narrow confines of 280 characters. No, I need more.

I’m moving up, friends. Moving up to drabbles. “What are drabbles?” you ask. Drabbles are short stories of exactly 100 words. Yes, that’s an astonishing two or three times the length of an average tweet.

On the one hand, a drabble might be harder to write. In terms of pure labor, it has more words. On the other hand, one of the biggest challenges of microfiction is making a structurally sound, interesting story, within the size limit. So the extra space may make the editing that much easier. More likely, I’ll just be tempted to cram more into that luxurious extra space.

How to Drabble

I’ll admit, I haven’t read very many drabbles, so I thought I had better educate myself. There are some examples by well-known authors (and a bit of history) at meades.org. I also found the site Drablr, where authors have freely published thousands of drabbles. They have section on drabble history and suggestions on how to go about writing one (namely, write a short short story, then edit it until it’s exactly 100 words).

When it comes to Drabble construction advice, I think Connie J. Jasperson has the best take I’ve seen. She says to limit yourself to a setting, one or two characters, a conflict, and a resolution. No subplots, and minimal background. She also suggests a dedicating about 25 words to the opening, 50-60 for the middle, and the remainder for the conclusion (and resolution). Check out the whole post over on her blog.

More to Come

My first attempts at this format will probably be expanded versions of my microfiction. There were several that left a lot on the cutting room floor. I’d like to see if they benefit or suffer when given twice as much breathing room. I plan to write some “fresh” ones as well, to get the full experience of writing drabbles from scratch.

It’s worth mentioning a notable benefit to writing drabbles instead of tweet-sized microfiction: drabbles are more practical to sell to online and print magazines and journals. In fact, there are markets like The Martian magazine that only publish drabbles. If there are markets for tweet-stories, I haven’t seen them.

I’m guessing drabbles are going to be a bit harder to write than my microfiction stories, but I’ll have a follow-up post once I’ve finished a few, to describe the experience.

Reference Desk #11 —Writing Comics

I recently read two of Scott McCloud’s lauded books about comics: Understanding Comics and Making Comics. These books have been around for decades, but they hold up well. And when comics treatises are praised by the likes of Art Spiegelman, Jeff Smith, and Neil Gaiman, you can be pretty sure there’s something good in there.

I wouldn’t say I’m a full-on comics nerd, but I did work at a comics shop in high school, and I have a respectable number of comics on my bookshelf and e-reader. I know what I like and dislike. And while I occasionally dabble in visual arts like drawing and painting, I’m happy to be a semi-competent amateur when it comes to producing visuals. As a writer, I’m much more interested in the craft of writing for comics. That’s the perspective I brought to reading these books.

Understanding Comics

This book is, first and foremost, a comic. McCloud understands that the best way to describe the medium of comics is within the pages of a comic. He is an adept artist and writer, rendering his ideas clearly and gracefully, with a dash of silliness here and there.

McCloud has a style that appeals to my personal tastes — he loves to define and categorize. He describes the medium of comics by breaking it down into bite-sized pieces, then showing how those pieces can be combined to build new and interesting things.

First, he goes through pages of effort to justify his chosen definition of comics: “Sequential Art,” or more precisely, “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” He gives a brief history of art that fits this description, from native Mesoamerican codices to the Bayeux Tapestry to Egyptian tomb paintings, and on into more modern examples. This may sound like dry academics, but it’s much more palatable in comic book form.

Next, he discusses iconography and the complex spectrum between words and pictures; how symbols can be more relatable than realism. He categorizes the ways that a reader infers movement across time and space between the juxtaposed images of a comic, in the “gutters.” He shows the ways that words and pictures can interact together to create unique effects within comics.

Finally, he finishes the book with a broad manifesto describing all art as a series of layers, with some art at the shallow surface level, and some digging deep into other layers. This ties into the comics stuff, but it’s more like his ideas of how to make great art.

McCloud is a great observer of comics. He describes many techniques that I’ve seen before, but his categorization and explanation allowed me to understand how they work, and what they’re good at. This book is not prescriptive, it’s descriptive: it’s a fantastic description of comics from his vantage point as an articulate insider.

Even though this book doesn’t describe comics in a “how to do it” manner, it’s incredibly useful for aspiring creators. It provides framework and language for understanding the medium. These are vital tools in the creator’s toolbox.

Besides, when it comes to creation, there’s a related book called…

Making Comics

Making Comics is another comic about comics. It takes many of the concepts from Understanding Comics and uses them as a foundation. This is much more of a how-to manual, split pretty evenly between visuals, words, and general storytelling principles.

Since my interest is in writing, not art, I skimmed some of the more technical parts related to drawing recognizable expressions and body language. I focused on the parts relating to writing, storytelling, and the way the words and pictures work together.

This book will be most useful to the indie comic artist, who wants to draw and write everything themselves, or perhaps writer-artist duos. McCloud does everything, so that’s the perspective he writes from.

There is a bit less in here for someone like me, who is only interested in the writing, despite it being a thicker volume than Understanding Comics. Still, Making Comics is a valuable book, worth reading if you’re interested in any aspect of comic creation. It solidifies some of the abstract concepts of the first book in more hands-on examples.

Am I an Expert Yet?

Reading these books didn’t make me want to immediately write a comic. But that’s a good thing. They do a great job showing how deep comics can go as an art form, and that’s a little intimidating. They showed me enough to realize I’d need to put in more effort before I think about starting a comics project.

I think my next step will be to re-read some of my favorite comics and analyze what makes them great. McCloud’s books have given me the tools to do that analysis. I know I like the stories, but how are they using the medium, the “juxtaposed images in sequence,” to tell those stories so effectively?

I also want to look for good examples of comics scripts, just to learn the ins and outs of formatting. I know there’s an annotated Neil Gaiman Sandman script in some edition or another of those books, and I’m sure there are other examples floating around. I get the impression that comics script format is a bit less rigid than TV and movie scripts.

As I continue to dig into writing for comics, I’ll come back and post more updates. If you have any interest, these two books are a great starting point. And if you’ve come across any other great resources for comics writing, let me know in the comments.

Character Motivation: Tips And Tricks — K.M. Allan

When it comes to crafting your characters, one important thing to include is motivation. It’s not just because motivation will get the story moving forward, but because it will also help you create well-rounded characters readers will relate to and become invested in. If that sounds like something you want to include in your book, […]

Character Motivation: Tips And Tricks — K.M. Allan

Filling Plot Holes

As I’ve been working on the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain, I’ve recently been thinking about plot holes. Razor Mountain is a “puzzle box” story driven by mysteries. While any story can fall victim to plot holes, this type of story is especially susceptible.

I’m doing a few things with Razor Mountain specifically to try to catch and fix plot holes, and I plan to talk about those in my usual development journals. Today, I want to talk more generally about plot holes — what they are, how to find them, and how to fix them.

Two Layers of Story

There are a million ways to dissect and study stories, but for now I want to look at two layers: the action layer and the motivation layer.

The action layer is the “what” of the story. What happens? Who does what? The motivation layer is the “why” of the story. Why do the characters behave the way they do? For a story to have depth, it needs both of these layers. For it to make sense to the reader, the motivation layer should drive the action layer. If the action isn’t being driven by the motivations of the characters, then the plot is either arbitrary, or the characters have little agency in their own story.

Both layers can have plot holes, but holes in the action layer look different from holes in the motivation layer.

What Exactly is a Plot Hole?

For my purposes, I’m defining plot holes as any time when story elements at a particular point don’t lead logically into the story elements that follow. The reader has to stop and say, “Wait, why did that happen?”

Holes appear in the action layer when something happens that shouldn’t be physically possible. If the butler was trapped in the cellar in chapter two, then how can he be serving tea to the duchess in chapter four as if nothing happened? Holes appear in the motivation layer when actions don’t make sense based on a character’s motives or personality. Lucy hates Rachel, and we’ve seen that Lucy only helps her close friends. Why would she step in and defend Rachel when their teacher accuses her of cheating?

Action layer holes are usually obvious once they’re pointed out. That thing that happened is impossible. Did the author forget a scene? Did they lose track of the order of events, or simply overlook that particular instance of cause and effect?

Motivation layer holes are less straightforward. Character motivations are more nebulous than the physical reality of the action layer. Just as it isn’t always easy to understand why real people do what they do (or even why we ourselves act in a certain way!), it’s not always easy to understand why characters take action. Often, as authors, we want to be circumspect and only gently imply a character’s motivations, instead of beating the reader over the head with precise, detailed explanations of why the character does what they do.

How Plot Holes Happen

It’s certainly possible to accidentally write a character doing something that goes against their personality or goals. Plot-focused writers can have this problem, if they’re more worried about the sequence of the plot and not paying enough attention to the motives of the characters driving that plot.

It’s also possible that we intend to make the character’s motivations drive the actions they take, but fail to make the relevant motivations clear enough to the reader. This is one of those challenges where there’s no right answer. Some readers may have no trouble following, while others are thoroughly confused. As an author, this kind of problem is very hard to catch without the help of critique partners or beta readers.

Exploratory writers (a.k.a. “pantsers”) may end up with plot holes due to the way they approach the writing process. If you don’t know the path that the story will take when you’re in the middle of writing it, it can be easy to include accidental incongruities. Usually, exploratory writers will have to look for these inconsistencies in the revision process, once they have a better idea of the shape of the story.

However, just because you’re a planner who follows an outline doesn’t mean you’re immune to plot holes. Outliners can get plot holes because they go into the story knowing a lot of it so well that they forget to adequately explain something to the reader. When you know all the back-story and exactly why each event leads to the next, it can be surprisingly easy to forget to include a vital piece of information that you simply take for granted.

Identifying Plot Holes

We’ve established that plot holes can happen to anyone, and they can happen in the action layer or the motivation layer of the story. So how can we find those plot holes in our own work and fix them?

As I mentioned before, mysteries are magnets for plot holes. You can think of a mystery as a purposeful, temporary plot hole. The author picks specific bits of information to withhold from the characters and the reader in order to create tension. It may be a mystery of what happened (in the action layer), or a mystery of why it happened (motivation layer).

For a mystery to be effective, the reader needs to trust that the author is doing this on purpose. A mystery that looks like a plot hole can bother the reader just as much as a real plot hole. As authors, we need to make it clear from the structure of the story that the mystery is supposed to be there, and understand that the reader will have the expectation of a payoff where that hole is filled in later.

To identify accidental action layer plot holes, it helps to look at places in the story where a lot of action is happening. If you have complex, interwoven plot lines, you’ll want to look closely at those areas of the story. It may help to make simple lists of events in sequence, or even a flowchart for complicated plots. A missing piece in the sequence is often much more obvious when laid out in this way. Does each event lead to the next in the sequence?

To identify motivation layer plot holes, you need to think about how character motives lead to character actions. Complex motivations make it easier for something illogical to slip past, so you might want to pay special attention to a character with several conflicting goals, or situations where multiple characters are at odds with one another, or have shifting allegiances and animosities.

Just as you can map out the sequences of action with lists and flow charts, you can map character goals and personality traits to the actions they take. If you can’t describe why a character would do that thing, you have a problem.

Finally, your last and best line of defense may be your readers. Critique partners or beta readers — really anyone can help find plot holes that you miss by virtue of being too close to the story. Ideally, you want readers who read a lot of your genre. Readers who prefer murder mysteries may have a slightly harder time catching inconsistencies in your politically charged sci-fi space opera. Still, the most important thing is to get extra pairs of eyes on your story to double-check your work.

Fix That Plot

Often, identifying a plot hole is the hardest part, and the actual fix just requires adjusting or adding a scene. A nasty action layer hole may require you to rethink how the events around it are laid out. A bad motivation hole may force you to change what a character does in the story, or change the character. You may find that you can add some backstory or personality trait earlier in the story so their actions make sense. Just try to make it feel organic. If done well, this can add depth to the character.

Instead of looking at it as just a fix for something broken, treat a plot hole as an opportunity to make the character or plot richer than it would have been. You can fill that hole with whatever you want, so you might as well fill it with something great.

Writing Advice…Advice

When I was younger, I would devour a book or blog on how to write, and I’d think, “Okay, maybe this is the one that will stick. Maybe this is the one true path that will work for me.” Maybe I can write just like Stephen King, or Neil Gaiman, or Sue Grafton, or even Strunk and White.

Inevitably, I would do my best for a few days or a few weeks, and then I’d start to drag my feet. Or I’d miss my thousand words per day for one day, and then two, and then I’m hardly on the writing-a-thousand-words-per-day plan anymore, am I?

Trying to follow these myriad, often-conflicting pieces of writing advice can be exhausting. Every time you find a process that doesn’t work, it can be even more dispiriting. They’re a bit like fad diets.

Yet, I have a shelf of books about improving your writing. I follow blogs about improving your writing. My own blog is all about writing and learning about writing. I love this stuff. I love the analysis of the writing process almost as much as the actual writing. So how do we make that learning process more useful, and less painful?

Today, I don’t want to talk writing advice. I want to talk about how we take writing advice. Writing advice…advice. Meta-advice, if you will.

Remember Who You Are

If you go look in the mirror right now, chances are pretty good that you won’t see Stephen King or Neil Gaiman. (If you do, get them a warm drink and a typewriter in a corner and they’ll stay out of your way.)

When someone successful puts out writing advice, it’s easy to say, “Look how well it worked for them.” We focus too much on the “look how well it worked,” and ignore the “for them” part.

We all have different life experiences, different internal machinery. We live in different times, places and circumstances. Even if those wildly successful writers could provide the exact book-length recipe that lead them to their wild success, it wouldn’t work the same way for the rest of us. We have different circumstances, and different mental cogs and flywheels that make us tick.

This gets said sometimes, in various ways, but usually not loudly enough. The first thing to accept is that we each have our own recipe for success. It’s going to be different from everyone else’s recipe.

Instead of trying to replicate someone’s recipe, step back and try some of their ingredients.

Pick and Choose

Let’s mix metaphors. Look at all that writing advice like the classic American buffet. There’s everything from pancakes and steak to crab legs and raspberry ice cream. There’s way too much.  A lot of these things don’t really belong together. Some of it is fresh, some of it has been sitting there a while. See, the metaphors are all food-related. It’s fine.

If you try to take everything from the buffet, you’re going to have a bad time. If you only take one thing…well, why are you at the buffet? Instead, pick a few things that seem to go together. Things you think you’ll like. Pick and choose.

I know myself better than any author with a book on writing knows me. I know what I’m good at and not-so-good at. When I hear some advice, I can think about it and have a gut instinct about whether it will be good or bad for me.

Unfortunately, I don’t know myself perfectly well. There are probably some things that would sound awful to me at first hearing, but actually work pretty well. There are certainly things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but ended up working terribly for me.

When following writing advice, pick and choose what sounds good. Once in a while, maybe try something that you’re skeptical about, just in case it surprises you. Follow that advice for a while. If it works, keep it. If it doesn’t, don’t be beholden to it. Throw it away and try something else.

Let it All Wash Over You

When I think of following writing advice, I tend to think of making a plan and putting it into action. It’s a bit of a science experiment. Make a hypothesis, run the experiment, and compare your results to what was expected. (Okay, this one isn’t a food metaphor. Sorry.)

That’s just my personal default mode. You may be different. But there are other ways to learn. As clever, thinking humans, we are great at acquiring knowledge and skills through purposeful study and experimentation. But we still have an ape brain lurking just below the surface. That animal brain, that subconscious, is great at learning just by exposure.

I’ve read plenty of blog posts and a few books on writing that just didn’t inspire me to go out and try doing something new and different. I’ve read some that I enjoyed, but I didn’t come away with a list of things to put into practice. I think that can still be useful. The act of considering the writing process, and listening to other people’s opinions and thoughts on the topic can still exercise those subconscious muscles. Your ape brain will take bits and pieces, mix them into your subconscious stew, and pour out a big helping the next time you put words on a page. (I did it! We’re back in food metaphors!)

Raise Each Child Differently

As a parent of three children, I know for a fact that my parenting style has changed over the years. My oldest got a different experience that the middle child or the youngest. As a young parent, I worried about things that I now know are no big deal. As an older parent, I have new worries that my younger self never considered. And regardless of order and what I’ve learned along the way, each of my children is their own person, with a unique personality and way of seeing the world.

Have you ever heard writers say that their books (or stories or projects) are like their children? Well, it’s true. Sort of. Each project comes along at a different time in your life. You, yourself, are different when writing them. And each project is its own thing. It has its own needs and its own unique challenges. Just like being a parent of children, when you’re a parent of words, you have to adapt.

It’s one of the most amazing feelings in the world to find a way to get through a book, or even a short story. And it’s really damn frustrating when I find out that what I did last time doesn’t really work that well for the next one. It’s unfair, frankly. But that’s the way it is. One of my favorite quotes lately is Gene Wolf’s: “You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel you’re writing.”

Accept that some projects — maybe every project — will be different. Even if something worked for you previously, don’t feel like a failure when it doesn’t work this time. And keep all your failures in your back pocket. You never know when a project will come along where one or two of those things just happen to fit.

Keep Evolving

There is no silver bullet. No One True Way. I write as well as I can today, and I keep learning new things so that I’ll write a little better tomorrow. Promises of sudden writing super-powers are enticing, just like those diet books that supposedly let you lose 20 pounds in a week. Unfortunately, those promises usually don’t pan out. It’s the steady, incremental improvements that make a real difference over the long term.

Many writers, myself included, like to think about some nebulous point in the future when we will have “made it big.” It’ll all be easy after that. The words will flow out of my keyboard and onto the bestseller lists. I’ll have it all figured out.

Even for the people on the bestseller lists, with the books about how to write, it doesn’t work that way. They still struggle sometimes, and if they’re good, they keep changing up their tactics. They keep learning. Instead of imagining some point of total enlightenment, think of learning as a continuous journey. There is no writing nirvana. It may be a bit sad to accept that we’ll never get to the point where we have it all figured out. But it’s also pretty awesome that we can always get even better than we are today.

That’s It!

That’s the end of my writing advice…advice. We’ll be back to the regular old non-meta writing advice by next week. And I hope you’ll take the things that work for you, for the project you’re working on, and throw away the things that don’t, without a hint of remorse.

Killing Characters (The Right Way)

Have you ever read a book where an important character died, and you felt completely crushed by that death, as though you had lost someone real? Now, have you ever read the death of a character and felt…nothing? The big build-up led to that moment, and you just couldn’t muster anything but indifference?

Killing characters is in vogue these days, but there are good reasons and bad reasons to do it. When characters die in service to the story, the impact can be huge. It can be a moment that your readers will remember forever. When characters die for the wrong reasons, you’ll be lucky if your reader only feels indifference and not outright irritation.

The Wrong Reasons

There are plenty of questionable justifications for charactericide. Let’s start with a few reasons to not kill your characters.

First — to “spice up” the story, or make it more edgy. Some authors assume that adding more sex or violence automatically makes their story more mature. But just because it contains “mature content” doesn’t automatically make it better. In fact gratuitous mature content that’s not integral to the story can easily come off as juvenile.

Second — to show that your villain is evil. Don’t get me wrong, a villain killing key characters as they advance their agenda can be important story beats. The problem is more when murder is used as a substitute for characterization. Does the villain kill for a reason? Do they have a personality beyond “that crazy guy who’s always indiscriminately killing?” If not, you may end up with a dangerous character who still manages to be flat and uninteresting.

Finally — to make your life, as the author, easier. You may find yourself deep in the slog of the second act, absolutely despising one of your characters. Maybe their personality developed in a really annoying way. Maybe they just want to do things that push the story in a direction you don’t want to go. It’s tempting to just “get rid” of them. But that doesn’t really solve the problem. Chances are, that character didn’t get a nice, meaningful arc.

What you really have to do is decide if you want to keep that character at all. Maybe they don’t belong in this particular book. They might need a big personality adjustment. Fix the character, adjust the plot, or pull them out of the story. It’s a bad idea to just knock a character dead in a random spot, even if it might be cathartic for the author.

With those out of the way, let’s talk about some good reasons to kill a character.

An Inciting Incident

At the root of each story is an inciting incident. This is the moment when the protagonist’s world changes. It’s the moment that introduces the major conflict or tension that will drive the story. You can be sure that your protagonist losing someone close to them will turn their world upside down and throw them into conflict.

As a well-worn example, look at the beginning of Star Wars. Luke Skywalker’s old life is over when his aunt and uncle are killed and his home is burned down by the Empire. He has nothing left to tie him to his former home, and he has a whole new reason to want to fight the Empire, something he was already considering.

This kind of character death isn’t without dangers. To be an effective inciting incident, it has to happen early. That means the reader is still getting to know your protagonist, and they’re very unlikely to have any strong feelings toward the character(s) you’re killing off. They need to see how those deaths hurt your protagonist, but their empathy is naturally going to be limited. Even among crazed Star Wars fans, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who really loves Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.

Developing a Character

The middle of a story may be the most interesting time to kill off a character. The reader has had a good amount of time to learn about your characters, to understand them, and to empathize with them. The middle of the story is also when you’re deep into the conflicts and tension that drive the story. That dead character is going to leave others behind, and their death can and should influence how the remaining characters move forward.

The death of one character may reveal more about another character who lives. In Ender’s Game, we discover two-thirds of the way through the book that the protagonist has killed two people. We watched him fight those people, but never knew the outcomes. Ender himself isn’t told that he has killed, because the people manipulating him know that the knowledge might destroy him. As readers, we understand that he doesn’t want to be a killer. He hates the very idea. But people around him have learned how to manipulate him into killing, for their own purposes.

Sometimes, death reveals more about a why a character is the way they are. Sometimes, it shows just what they’re willing to do. In the Hellblazer comics, John Constantine watches the people close to him die. People he trusts and loves. He learns that letting people get close is dangerous. It leads to pain. That’s why he does his best to be a sarcastic asshole: so he can hold everyone important at a safe distance — for them, and for himself. But, of course, he doesn’t always succeed. People get close, and suffer the consequences.

John Constantine is a complicated character though. He’s far from the typical goody-two-shoes superhero. In fact, he’s often the anti-hero, and perhaps occasionally the villain. He kills. Sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes for his own selfish reasons. Sometimes because he just doesn’t care. He can be cruel and manipulative as much as he can be soft-hearted.

Sometimes, death can reveal secrets. Perhaps the dead character has been hiding things, and those secrets can only come out once that character is no longer there to protect them. One character killing another may also reveal an animosity that was kept under wraps. In The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, we believe that the protagonist is seeking treasure and riches. It is only when he ends up in a fight to the death with the other major character that his true intentions are revealed. Little bits of carefully parceled back-story take on entirely new meaning as the twist unfolds.

Resolving an Arc

If the middle of the story is the most complicated time to kill a character, the end of the story is probably the simplest, although it’s not without its challenges. The end of the story is when the reader knows the most about your characters. They ‘ve been with them, through thick and thin. They empathize with the good guys, and they’re hoping against hope that the bad guys will lose.

In a traditional tragedy, the hero dies at the end. Their mistakes or failures catch up with them. They may go down swinging, or they may realize the error of their ways. In a more modern take, the hero may save the day, but sacrifice themselves in the process. No matter what leads to their death, it should mean something. Back in our Star-Wars example, Darth Vader is an exemplar of this. He is an important villain throughout the original Star Wars trilogy, and only at the very end does he realize his true feelings, saving the day and his son.

Of course, many villains think they’re in the right all the way to the end. They go down swinging. But their death typically ends the main conflict, and often resolves one or more characters’ arcs. These other characters probably have strong feelings about this, to be explored before bringing the story to a close.

The Takeaway

When you feel tempted to kill a character, ask what it accomplishes. How does it affect the characters who are left behind? Does it move the story forward?

Put yourself in the shoes of your reader. Will they be excited? Heartbroken? Or bored and irritated? It’s surprisingly easy to kill a character. What’s hard is killing them the right way.

Writing Microfiction

I’ve been feeling the itch to write short fiction lately. It’s something I haven’t done much in the last couple years. I don’t really have the bandwidth to work on another novel alongside Razor Mountain, so something shorter was really appealing.

I came up with a little project: an anthology of micro-fiction. Not just flash fiction (usually 1500 words or less). Not even a drabble (exactly 100 words).

It’s obvious what short-form writing actually defines our modern age: Twitter. Since 2018, each tweet provides a whopping 280 characters to work with. In my experience, that’s about 45 words, depending on your punctuation, white space and trendy hashtags. Is it even possible to write a coherent or interesting story in that tiny space?

Well, I tried the experiment. I wrote twenty-one micro-stories. I’ll let you judge whether the experiment was a success or failure. Every day for the next couple weeks, I’m going to tweet a new micro-story on @DeferredWords. I’ll also collect them into mid-week posts here on the blog.

What’s the Point?

Why bother doing this? The simple answer is “for fun, to see if I could.” It helped rev up my short story brain after a bit of a hiatus. But I was also hoping to learn something in the process. In fact, I learned a few things.

Don’t Be Precious

When you’ve written a story that’s barely a story and you need to trim ten more letters to get below your limit, you are forced to trim things that feel essential. That adjective or adverb feels so good, but is it really needed? What about those commas? Do you really need any articles, ever? Maybe that seven-letter name should be a three-letter name.

The limit is harsh, and it demands harsh sacrifices. I went through this exercise over and over again, and it turned out that the story was often better when I rewrote it around that one or two word edit. It made me think harder about the cuts I should be making in longer projects.

The Barest Bones of a Story

I keep long lists of little brainstorming ideas, which gave me lots of fodder for micro-fiction. When you actually try to write an idea out as the smallest possible story, it becomes apparent very quickly whether an idea has “good bones,” or just a setting or character without arc or resolution. This is a really good exercise to go through for a short story or novel idea, to prove that the concept is solid and to nail down the core of the story.

Form Follows Function

When I started writing these micro-stories, I assumed that any authorial voice would fly right out the window. In some ways, it does. I definitely had stories with phrases that I really liked but had to throw away, because they wouldn’t work in these tight constraints. However, as I wrote and revised more stories, I discovered that even in 45 words, there is space for humor, weirdness, and sometimes even an extra word here or there to achieve a particular effect. Voice is the sum of the choices you make within your chosen constraints.

Variety is Valuable

I’m a firm believer that every story, every book, every writing project teaches you something. As authors, everything we write is influenced by what we wrote before it, and what we learned along the way.

Granted, you can only learn so much from a tweet-length story, but I was able to write a lot of these in the amount of time it would have taken to write one “proper” short story. Each little story with its own fun. Each with its own challenges.

Join In

You can get in on the fun too. Try writing a micro-story in 280 characters. All you need is a little idea. No outline. Put it out on Twitter, possibly with #microfiction. Ping me or send me a DM. Let me know if you learned anything interesting.

Writing Lessons from Dungeons and Dragons

I recently wrapped up a Dungeons and Dragons campaign that I’ve been running for over a year. This is the longest that I’ve run a group, and it’s been a fun experience with a lot of lessons learned along the way.

Many of those lessons are specific to D&D and to table-top role-playing games in general, but I think there are a few that apply to writing fiction.

What’s this D&D Thing?

Even if you’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons, you may be at least vaguely familiar with it through the various ways it has popped into the broader cultural consciousness over the years: the 80s cartoon, the references in Stranger Things, or the myriad video games that draw from it directly or indirectly.

If you’re not familiar, D&D may seem obscure and confusing. It’s often portrayed in pop media as the sort of thing that obsessive nerds obsess over (and they certainly can be, on occasion). But these games really aren’t as cryptic or complicated as they’re often made out to be.

Dungeons and Dragons is the most popular table-top RPG. Table-top RPGs (or TTRPGs) are simply games where players collaborate to create a shared fiction, with rules. Depending on the game, the rules may be extremely complex or very simple. They may or may not have some element of chance — usually involving dice. Ultimately, a TTRPG is about creating a story with some friends.

Many TTRPGs have a special position: a player who runs or otherwise facilitates the game. In D&D, she’s called the “Dungeon Master,” in other games it’s often the “Game Master.” It’s often the responsibility of this person to provide the setting and the scenario, while the other players bring characters who will move about and interact in that scenario.

Now that we have a baseline understanding, I want to talk about what I learned playing these games that can be applied to writing fiction.

Lesson #1 — Give Your Audience What They Want

Dungeons and Dragons is typically played in Tolkien-esque high-fantasy settings, but there are other settings you can use, and TTRPGs in pretty much every genre. The campaign I just finished is called “Curse of Strahd,” and it’s based on classic monster horror: vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts, and even a sort of Frankenstein’s monster.

However, it’s important to realize that genre goes beyond these “which-shelf-is-it-on” kind of classifications. In TTRPGs, many groups focus on combat and the rules-heavy play of slinging spells and swinging swords. But you can also craft scenarios where the players are solving mysteries, or perhaps socializing with the movers and shakers of the world, trying to convince them to take particular action. Some groups may be interested in romance or sex in their fiction (while others will be vehemently uninterested).

Of course, few groups want only one thing, like pure combat or nothing but puzzles or social encounters. Furthermore, each of your players are likely to have different preferences. You have to balance everyone’s needs and provide a variety of experiences to keep everyone happy.

For a game master, talking with your group of players and understanding what they want to get out of the game makes a big difference when trying to craft a setting and scenario that they’ll enjoy playing.

For an author, you have to know your audience. Know what you like, and make sure you’re writing something you enjoy. Beyond that, who are you writing for? Can you imagine an “ideal reader” of your story — the theoretical person for whom the story is perfect? Can you distill a small list of things that you’re trying to give your audience?

Lesson #2 — The World is Always in Motion

An RPG called Dungeon World introduced me to the idea of “fronts.” They’re like the story version of weather fronts — something that blows in periodically and ushers in change. Fronts are a way to keep track of the things that are happening in the background of a game world.

For example, maybe the players are content to hang out in a comfy town for a few days, carousing and spending their treasure. Meanwhile, you know that the northern kingdom is preparing to invade the southern kingdom, and the king of the dragons is awakening from his thousand-year sleep deep under the mountain.

In a TTRPG, you may be the game master, but you do not control the players or their characters. Still, the world around them is a living, breathing thing. Stuff happens, whether they’re involved or not. So when they take their week-long vacation, the northern kingdom may be marching their armies. Perhaps Dragon Peak erupts, and the great dragon king takes flight, turning green valleys and hamlets into scorched wasteland.

There is a cost to inaction. Further, there may be no “right” choice for your characters. If they do one thing, their inaction elsewhere will still have a cost.

In your fiction, your characters may not cooperate, just like those players in your table-top game. Characters have to have agency in the world and make choices in keeping with their personality. If characters are forced into a plot where they have to do things that they don’t “naturally” want to do, you end up with soap-opera plots where the characters are just dolls being shoved around in predestined sequences of events.

Sometimes this can work to your advantage. The character can ignore their noble destiny and go do what they want. The world won’t wait for them though, and those fronts keep on moving. Villains have their own agendas, and aren’t about to accommodate the good guys. Whenever your characters are doing something in the foreground, things should still be happening in the background.

Lesson #3 — Good Ideas Can Come Out of Improv

TTRPGs are, in many ways, improv games. The GM can prepare and plan, but only so long as they can guess what the players might do. Inevitably, players will come up with unexpected and often creative solutions to problems that the GM couldn’t prepare for.

Likewise, the players may know the setting, but they don’t know the scenario like the GM does. They get only the information they can glean from the GM’s description and perhaps some lucky die rolls. Then they have to act on that information as best they can.

Often, the best and most memorable moments will come from a player doing something completely unexpected and off-the wall in a tense situation. As a GM, sometimes you just have to smile and throw away all your plans, because a player thought of something better.

When it comes to writing fiction, I’m an unabashed planner, but even the most organized and prepared of us have to do some improvisation sooner or later. If a scene feels wrong, we sometimes have to stop and ask ourselves, “is this really what that character would do?” Or perhaps we just feel there’s something missing, some spark of life. We may have to try a few different ideas to make something interesting happen, not knowing which will work out.

Lesson #4 — Feedback is Important

When running a TTRPG, it’s important to be excited by the story you’re trying to tell to your players. It’s also important to watch how those players react to that story. Are they invested, working together, trying to overcome impossible odds? Or are they distracted, disinterested, or apparently struggling to figure out how to participate?

Running a good campaign involves bringing in elements that you think your various players will enjoy. It also requires that you gauge whether those things actually worked the way you expected them to. Sometimes this is as simple as watching how they play and reading the room. Sometimes you have to explicitly ask if everyone is getting what they want out of the game.

This is the flip-side of lesson #1. As you’re writing, it helps to think about your “ideal reader,” and what will entertain your audience. Once you’ve got some draft pages, you can actually go out to that audience (at least some small bit of it) and ask what they think.

Family, friends, beta readers, writing groups or critique circles — however you can get it, feedback is vital. A book is a big project, and it’s almost inevitable that each of us will forget something, make mistakes, include a plot hole here or there. Feedback followed by careful editing can turn a good manuscript into a great book.

Interested in TTRPGs?

That’s all for the writing lessons. Perhaps in another year of running sessions I’ll find a few more to share.

If all of this talk about table-top RPGs piqued your interest, now is a great time to get into the hobby. It’s more popular today than it has ever been.