Do You Need a Yoda? How about a Q? Casting Your Hero’s Journey

On Monday, I wrote about the monomyth known as the Hero’s Journey. In addition to following a set structural pattern, the Journey also has a cast of characters. They overlap quite a bit with Jung’s Archetypes, another source of universal characters. Do you need all of them if you are writing a myth based novel? No.

Think about each of them and whether they would advance your particular story, and if they won’t, discard the character and move to the next. It is also perfectly acceptable to have a character in your novel take on more than one role. The Threshold Guardian and the Mentor can be the same person. Likewise, the Armorer and Magical Helper are often rolled into one.

So here’s your cast:

The Hero:  Your protagonist, male or female, needs to have a certain set of characteristics. I’ll be doing an entire post on this because they are so specific.

The Villain/Evil One:  Again, whether male or female, the villain is much more structured in a myth, so I’ll go into more detail in another post. Note that this role is called the Evil One, not The Antagonist.  You are not allowed to ultimately redeem your villain or just make him/her misunderstood. They have to be old fashioned evil.

Lover:  As in any other plot structure, your love interest needs to be well-formed. You have the added responsibility, though, of making sure the Lover has enough of the same qualities of the hero to be worthy of him/her, but at the same time he/she must be as much of an opposing force as possible to create conflict. Remember, your lover is an antagonist, at least at first, not a helpmate.

Robin plays goofy sidekick to Batman.

Sidekicks/Allies: These guys/gals usually pull double duty and take on another one of the roles below. They can be heroic as well, but they can’t show up the hero. Watson is fun, but he’s not Holmes. Think Robin, not Batman.

Minions:  The Villian gets to have friends, too. The difference is the minions can be more powerful than the villain if you want.

Followers:  A level down from a trusted sidekick, your hero can have a band of merry men or women to accompany them. If you want something a little more modern, it could be a forensics team, or in what I felt was one of the most clever parts of the Hunger Games, a stylist team.

Wise One/Mentor:  The hero needs someone to guide him in this new world he has entered. Here’s your Yoda, or to use Hunger Games again, Haymitch. This person is always older. However, remember he/she doesn’t have to always look older. In the world of fantasy where you have a number of immortal creatures, this leaves you open to a mash-up other genres can’t do without being creepy. I made my Mentor and my Lover the same person.

Ollivander presents Harry with his wand.

Magical Helper:  The hero goes to this character for “magic” for the journey. This might mean spells, amulets, science, technology, a secret weapon, etc. In the Harry Potter books, all of Diagon Alley played this role to some degree, but especially Garrick Ollivander. The wand maker had the responsibility and talent of matching this most important of magicians’ tools with the right wizard to wield it.

Loved One:  The Loved One is often The Loved One Left Behind of the Tearful Parting. This can be a spouse, parent, sibling, friend, beloved talking goat—doesn’t matter. They often are also a Threshold Guardian.

Threshold Guardian:  These guys are your Debbie Downers, and you can have more than one in a story. They’ll tell your hero that going on the Journey is a bad idea. They’re not wrong, but it doesn’t matter, because your hero is going to ignore them.

Shape-shifter:  Let me be clear, I’m not necessarily talking about a werewolf type shape shifter although you can certainly let the character have more than one physical form. I’m talking about someone who emotionally/mentally is a metaphorical shape-shifter. A great recent example of this is Thomas Hardy’s character Eames in Inception. He can become whatever character is needed in a dream and thus is known as “The Forger.”

Sam and Dean can't escape the Trickster.

Trickster:  This is a common trope and great for laughs as your hero is thrown into sticky situations. One of the funniest episodes of Supernatural ever is “Changing Channels,” where Sam and Dean are stuck in a T.V. world created by the Trickster God. (Yes, I know he wasn’t actually a god, but no spoilers!)

Fool:  Slightly different from the Trickster, who is generally seen as clever, the Fool is regarded as dumb. However, the hero recognizes his/her wisdom, which becomes apparent to everyone by the end.

A God with Clay Feet:  I’m unsure if this character is ever a woman. This is a very, very common character in romances. He’s almost always the Lover for the Heroine at the beginning who is clearly wrong for her. He’s usually perfect on the surface. As the story goes on, though, we discover he’s cheating, is rude to her best friend, and is secretly kicking puppies.

The Herald:  The Herald doesn’t necessarily even have to be a person; it just has to issue the Call to Adventure. In the Mission Impossible movies, it’s just a recording that self destructs.

Q in Skyfall

The Armorer:  In Sword and Sorcery fantasy, this could very well be a blacksmith handing over a sword, knife, mace, or other things pointy. In Bond films, it’s Q giving 007 the latest gadget. The Armorer does not have to give your hero something made of metal. In Cinderella, her Fairy Godmother was the Armorer, providing her with gowns, glass slippers, and pumpkin coaches to win the war of love.

The Rival:  The Rival is in love with the Hero’s Lover, forcing the Hero to compete for the Lover’s affections. He/She is usually preferred by the Hero’s family and friends, providing more conflict for your story. The Rival doesn’t have to lose. A great example of this is My Best Friend’s Wedding. Cameron Diaz was Julia Robert’s Rival, but she got the Lover in the end.

The Saint:  There’s a bit of variety here. The Saint can be an innocent or a world-weary intellectual. They are often priests, monks, bishops, and the like, but you don’t have to be clichéd. Jean Valjean in Les Miserables was a Saint, and he also was an ex-con.

Various Female Archetypes:  The Mother, Goddess, Nymph, Crone, Whore, Bitch, and Femme Fatale can all make appearances or be doubled up with another character. Your Lover can be a Femme Fatale, or your Mentor the Mother. The Rival is often a Whore or Bitch. If you are unsure of any of these archetypes, again, check out that article on Jung.

Whew!  That is a lot of people.

Related Reading:

Hero Archetypes

Of Arthurs and Lancelots: Mythic Origins of the Irritating Polygon (a lengthy, but interesting history of the love triangle, arguing that it might be an archetype in and of itself)

Up Next:  The Mythic Hero, or, Anti-heroes Need Not Apply

Does Your Hero Laugh in the Face of a Three Act Structure?

Victoria Grefer over at Creative Writing with The Crimson League (one of my Versatile Blogger Award nominees) recently did a series on heroes. She covered the reluctant hero, the willing hero, the anti-hero, the misjudged hero, and a caveat on classifying your heroes. Throughout the posts, and especially in the comments section, a book title popped up again and again, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

For those of you, like me, that did not get a degree in English or Literature, you might not have heard of Campbell or his book. I only stumbled across his name for the first time a month ago. However, if you’ve read a lot of fantasy and watched a lot of movies, chances are you’ve learned the lessons of his book without knowing it. You might even have written a novel following Campbell’s principles. I had.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a book about myths. If you look through the history of myths throughout time and across cultures, they all share a similar structure. Myths deeply resonate with the reading public, even today.

Yeah, yeah, academic stuff. Yawn. I’m writing page-turning fiction here, Lara. Who cares about dusty old myths? Speilberg, J.J. Abrams, Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Iron Man, Superman—I’ll stop there or the rest of the post could be a listing of examples of successful movies and books that use Campbell’s structure, which is often just called the Hero’s Journey.

Discovering the Hero’s Journey was a huge relief to me. I had been trying to shove my plot into a basic three or five act structure and it just wouldn’t fit, even after I sat on it and really tugged on the zipper. I could still make out the muffled voice of my heroine shouting snarky insults at me.

Trying to shove your characters into a 3 act structure might not work.

If your hero is just as hard to wrangle into those basic plotting devices everyone keeps telling you about, maybe it’s because he/she wants to be a hero of mythic proportions. If so, let your hero go on a journey. The following outline appears in A Writer’s Guide to Fiction, and author Elizabeth Lyon even put it in a nice three act structure for us perfectionist rule followers.

Act One:  Departure, Separation

  1.  The Ordinary World/Hero at Home: Give your reader a little bit of normalcy before you send your hero off to face danger. Show them at work, with family, maybe even a current love interest. Make sure there’s still conflict. Just because they are at home, it doesn’t mean the story has to be boring.
  2. Call to Adventure/The Challenge:  Okay, now things are getting interesting. Will the hero go to slay the dragon, solve the crime, or embrace that he now gets furry every full moon?
  3. Refusal of the Call/Elimination of the Expendable Person:  Maybe your hero is ready to go right away, but the story is a lot more dramatic if he says no first. Then that not-right-for-them girlfriend can get killed and raise the stakes, making the hero that much more committed when they do answer the call.
  4. Meeting with the Mentor/Wise One:  Your hero is about to enter into a strange new world and needs guidance. Where would Luke Skywalker have been without Obi Wan and later Yoda?
  5. Crossing the First Threshold into the Special World/Mythical Woods:  In fantasy, a lot of times this actually means crossing into a new world. However, it doesn’t have to. If you write mysteries, it means crossing into the world of the killer. For romance, it could just mean entering the world of the love interest and all the vulnerability that entails.

Act Two: Descent, Initiation, Penetration

  1. Road of Tests and Trials/Allies and Enemies:  This is where you hit the real meat of any novel. You’re writing scenes of conflict between your protagonist and antagonist.
  2. Approach of the Inmost Cave:  The hero and his allies are preparing for the big event, usually a major face off with the antagonist.
  3. Belly of the Whale/Meeting with the Goddess, Temptress; Atonement:  This stage isn’t always listed, but adds another trial for your hero. Feeling mean? Throw a time of desperate solitude at him, or a temptress, or guilt, etc. right before he has the big battle.
  4. The Ordeal/Life and Death Struggle:  Now your hero is ready to face death or his greatest fear. Often this is the first major battle with the villain.
  5. Reward:  The hero usually gets something out of facing death. It can be a sacred object like a grail or a spell, or finally winning the love interest, or knowledge for the community, etc.

Act Three:  Return

  1. Refusal of the Return/The Road Back:  About three quarters of the way through the book, the hero wants to return home with the reward. The antagonist usually chases him.
  2. The Ultimate Test/Resurrection:  This is your climax. Almost home, the hero has one last battle where he must make a sacrifice. He may or may not die, and whatever personal growth you’ve been working on throughout the story needs to be resolved here. The death/resurrection is usually metaphorical as the hero becomes a new person, but with fantasy sometimes he just might die and come back.
  3. Return with the Reward/Elixir/Master of Two Worlds:  The hero makes it home and as he is changed, can now help change his community. Sometimes he answers a new call to adventure, also known as a sequel.

For you visual learners, here’s a handy-dandy graphic to keep all those steps straight from Christopher Vogler:

Graphic of the Hero's Journey

Or, for you overachievers, if you’d like the full 17 step super duper original Campbell version, here you go:

Campbell's Hero's Journey Graphic

Does your hero or heroine play nice with traditional plotting devices?  Does the myth structure fit you better, or have you found yet another way?

Related articles:

The Heroine’s Journey (the first post of twelve) The blog takes an in depth look at Campbell’s structure using the 2011 film adaptation of Jane Eyre.

Women Protagonists in Fantasy Fiction

Up Next:  The Cast of Characters in the Hero’s Journey

Description Envy

In the last few weeks I have been captured by some particularly vivid description. The writing was so delightful that the image the author created has lingered with me. Even after just one reading or watching, I can remember the exact phrasing.

I know this case of description envy is worse because I need to improve my skill at adding detail and metaphor to my writing. For some reason, I just thought it came naturally to some people, but while reading yet another book on the craft of writing, I was disabused of this notion. Those perfect phrases I wish I wrote are the hard work of a writer who has discarded the first, second, and perhaps even the third or fourth thought that came to them. Only after digging deeper does the author reject the cliché, then the slightly overused, and the done before, to land on the fresh idea.

To help inspire you to excavate your own creativity, I thought I’d share some of the wonderful phrases that had made me so envious. The two sources are remarkably different, but both are impressive in their genres. I’d like to note here, too, that neither is the genre I write (fantasy). One of the best ways to get fresh ideas is to read and watch outside your niche.

House of Cards

Yes, it’s been available on Netflix for a while, but I was busy binge watching Arrested Development and Orphan Black. HoC’s recent Emmy nominations and a friend’s nagging finally prompted me to watch it this week. I’m only two episodes in at this point, but I might have to start watching with pen and paper in hand. Kevin Spacey’s character has a knack for metaphor that reveals as much about his character as what he’s describing. His dialogue repeatedly distills complex situations and emotions into perfect short phrases. Here are few of my favorites, which I wish had come out of my characters’ mouths:

In reference to his wife and their rather peculiar relationship: “I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood.”

On having breakfast with the Speaker and Majority Leader of the House: “They talk while I imagine their slightly salted faces frying in a skillet.”

While the martyr falling on his sword is a cliché, HoC did it in a fresh enough way it was clever again: “What a martyr craves more than anything is a sword to fall on. So, you sharpen the blade, hold it at just the right angle, and then…”  Spacey looks to the martyr character and waits, “3,2,1…” and the character metaphorically falls.

A Food Blog on Beer

I’m not really a beer drinker. There are a few I don’t mind, but in the hot of summer, I’d much prefer sangria or a good mojito. Honestly, if given the choice, I’ll drink water before beer. So why did I read an article online entitled 36 Cheap American Beers, Ranked?  Because a beer drinking friend of mine couldn’t stop laughing while he read it in my presence. After about the third excerpt he read out loud to me, I made him text me the link. Taste, smell, and touch are some of the least used senses in fiction writing. The descriptions of the beers were so overflowing with details from these neglected senses that I got grossed out a couple of times. I’m never going to drink any of these beers, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be challenged by word pictures like the following:

“Keystone separates itself from the rest of the crap pack by augmenting the typical stale/sour flavor profile with notes of brown bananas and green armpits. Keystone is worse than Heineken and murder.”

Rolling Rock. Smells like three fat guys in a two-man tent.”

Miller Genuine Draft. Tastes like the brown ends of corn silk, plus lemon.”

“It’s[Stroh’s] marred by a rubbery slickness that leaves your tongue feeling like third-day deli ham.”

In another brilliant example of changing a cliché for a startling and hilarious effect: “Milwaukee’s Best. It’s easy to mock the Beast, but it’s all I drank in college and I turned out.”

My friend’s personal favorite, which even two weeks later he’ll remember and then start laughing again: “Olympia. This one smells a little bit like the produce section of a carpeted grocery store, but it goes down pretty smooth otherwise.”

The whole article is worth reading.  Both because of its content and language, I would say the MPAA would give an R rating, so be advised. 36 Cheap American Beers, Ranked by Will Gordon.

Related Reading:

People Watching

Distinct Dialogue: How to Make Each of Your Characters Sound Unique

Last week I wrote a post on how Benedict Cumberbatch is able to convey a lot of depth to the characters he plays just by using his voice and speech patterns. Sadly, BC doesn’t come to my house a couple times a week and read my most recently written pages aloud for me, making even the dullest scenes sound amazing. If he did, I wouldn’t be spending so much time rewriting dialogue.

Authors should be reading their manuscripts aloud, especially the dialogue. Certain mistakes and clunky sentences that slipped past me even while reading a printout give me a verbal slap when I hear them out loud. If you can get someone else to read your pages to you, that’s even better.

So you’ve realized maybe your dialogue could use a bit of help. If you’re like me, the biggest problem is that all your characters speak pretty much the same way. So how do you get their individual personalities to pop off the page? Here’s some tips for making each of your characters distinct:

High and Low Diction:  I have one character that is the definition of otherworldly. She lives in a lofty spirit realm, completely out of touch with humans.  On my first pass at her dialogue, something about it wasn’t right. The problem finally dawned on me—diction. I got rid of the contractions and substituted words like “weep” instead of “cry.”    She’s the only person in the book who’s contraction-free and using phrases like, “I cannot linger here.”

Age appropriate:  I have more than one character that is immortal, so they’ve been alive a long time, even though they look young. Certainly, they had to learn to adapt to new slang and ways of talking to blend in, but a great way to distinguish these characters from my younger ones would be letting them slip up and use an out of date phrase. Likewise, they could be unable to adopt certain new ones. If I think about talking with my Grandpa, he is never going to use the words, “yeah, like, or cool” in the same way someone my age will.

Ethnicity and country of origin: I missed an opportunity here. Several of my characters are Russian immigrants, but they never slip up and say “da” instead of yes or mess up their English words. For example, they could say “Oofos” instead of UFOs, not knowing that it’s an acronym where you say each letter instead of a word they are trying to pronounce as a whole. I did think to occasionally sprinkle in a word or phrase in Russian, but these are used almost exclusively by those characters that Russian is their second language, not their first. So I inadvertently have my American-born Russians sounding more Russian than their ESL parents.

Vocation:  You would never know what my characters did for a living by how they speak. Job metaphors are a great way to distinguish your characters. I have a medic, a CNA, and a nurse. Do you think any of them make any medical comments? Nope. Not even anything as obvious as “code blue” when they are in a really sticky situation. Likewise, I have a dancer that could be “counting the beats” in a tense scene.

Education and Social Class: Some of this might come out in diction, vocation, or origin, but depending on how complicated your character, you could have an interesting mix. For example, I have a character whose parents were immigrants. An immigrant background might make readers think she had a modest upbringing, but in fact, her parents were talented artists, and her father was a professor at a prestigious university. Then her father died, and her family slowly descended to lower middle class, and finally she was on her own supporting her sister as a teenager. When my novel opens, she could qualify for food stamps, only has a high school education, and is living in an unsafe neighborhood. Still, she had educated parents, is very smart, and reads a lot. How would this character speak? Her neighbors who have always lived a lower class life do not speak Standard English, but I have her speaking it. Her younger sister might pick up more of the slang of the neighborhood since she was much younger when the family enjoyed the privilege of academia. Remember, you want to use just enough slang and accent to suggest a different way of speaking but not enough to irritate your reader.

Phrase length:  I like to compare and contrast two of the men in my novel frequently. I have descriptions of one being very quiet and speaking in “short, terse sentences bitten off at the end,” and the other “a schmoozer who loves the sound of his own voice.” Even if I overlook the obvious problem that I told my readers their speaking patterns instead of showing them, I also didn’t follow my own generalization. My so-called quiet character is given to mini-lectures, and the loquacious one ended up being surprisingly economical with his words. Again, this might be okay because it at least means they have speech patterns that distinguish them from one another, but they don’t fit their characterization.

Misdirection and manipulation:  I had a little bit of this in my dialogue on my first draft, but not enough, and certain characters needed a lot more of it. If you have a really awful villain who lies, why would they be straightforward in their dialogue? How often do you have a conversation with a friend where you go home and try to puzzle out what was truly said? How frequently do you commit to something you had no intention of doing at the beginning of a conversation with a coworker? I have some very multi-layered complicated characters speaking only in very straightforward dialogue. Not only is it not true to their characters, but I’m missing out on a wonderful opportunity for subtext and increased conflict.

Pet phrases:  Each character in your story should have a list of phrases they repeat. If you need inspiration, just pay attention to your friends for a week and take notes. I have one friend that always says, “In a way,” before he gives an example of something. Another grad student friend who reads a lot of academic texts is always using words I’d swear he made up, like “relationality.”  Spell check doesn’t think that’s a word, either. If you need an example from TV, think how Shawn and Gus from Psych have used “Suck it!” to such great effect for eight years.

A Lesson in Dialogue from Benedict Cumberbatch


Left to right, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison, and Chris Pine as Kirk in Star Trek: Into Darkness

Benedict Cumberbatch (BC) is a magnificent actor—hardly a newsflash to anyone who has seen BBC’s series Sherlock. He’s been nominated for more than one Emmy and I’m sure an equal amount of awards in Britain. I enjoyed the first Star Trek, but I admit I was even more excited for the sequel when I heard BC was cast as the movie’s villain.

I saw Into Darkness opening night and was not disappointed by BC’s performance. He was so compelling that there were times I was secretly rooting for him, and I’m a fan of Pine’s Kirk and Quinto’s Spock.

As the weeks passed, I wondered why I found BC’s villain so gripping. Last week a friend who had been overseas when Star Trek was released returned home. She was searching for someone to go see it with her. I quickly volunteered to see it again, driven by my desire to study BC’s character.

Since I knew how the story turned out, I was more detached this time. From the first scene with BC, I scrutinized his movements, speech, and facial expressions. Was it just because I had grown fond of his Sherlock character? I didn’t think so, as his Star Trek character was markedly different.

As BC paced in his containment cell, lecturing Kirk, I realized even more than his costume, facial expressions, or movements, Cumberbatch’s character was conveyed with his speech. While I’m certain some of the credit here belongs to the screenwriter(s), BC’s delivery was critically important. Thinking back to episodes of Sherlock, which are written by a different person, I remembered that BC does the same thing with Sherlock, although in a way appropriate to that character.

I’m not talking about his British accent here. I’m talking about how he lorded over Kirk without touching him. He did this with his word choice, intelligent reasoning, short clipped commands followed by longer explanations spoken with a condescension that belittled Kirk. BC barely moved his hands or body throughout this, and his face was nearly frozen as well. His diction and cadence alone expressed that he was a dangerous man of great intelligence and brutality.

I have read a number of writing guides that state your characters should each have a distinct way of talking, so that even if you took away the speaker attributions, you should know which character is speaking. I had a hard time understanding this advice. How was that accomplished exactly? As I watched BC on the screen, I understood.

So how do you make your characters spring to life as if Benedict Cumberbatch had lent his magic to enliven their dialogue? On Monday, I’ll walk through some examples of how to make each of your characters’ dialogue distinct.

The Book That Ruined My Life

Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King

The post title might be a teensy bit melodramatic, but I wish it were more for effect than it is. I’ll try to briefly explain. If you have written a book and not yet been published, or you self published, please stick with me. Learn from my pain, I beg of you.

What Happened

I finished the first draft of my novel at the end of last September. I sent it to my first round of beta readers and immediately started on book two. The book two draft was done in January, and I’m almost done with three. All of these novels are in the hands of at least one beta reader, and the first one has now been read by about ten people.

With each new reader, I’ve received helpful feedback, which I’ve implemented. I also hired a friend who was an English major to help me whip my grammar into shape. I read Yagoda’s and Strunk and White’s style manuals and spent weeks hunting down adverbs and killing them.

I really felt like the manuscript for the first novel, at least, was in good shape. I wrote an agent query letter that I felt confident about and thought in a week or two I would have the novel polished enough to send it.

This week at the library, I was perusing the 808 section to see if there were any other writing books I might like to read. Since I’m revising, I went ahead and checked out Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I thought there might be a couple of things I might have missed, which I could fix quickly before I sent out my manuscript at the end of July.

I read it in less than 24 hours, and then I really wanted to go have a good cry. The book had driven home a very humbling fact:  for all the efforts of the previous months, my writing was still amateurish. I realized my manuscript was nowhere close to being ready to send out. I needed to do extensive rewrites–like line-by-line, might be just as easy to start with a fresh Word document, kind of rewriting.

The Problem

My novel has multiple problems, but that’s not the problem. I’ve read extensively about new authors and the common mistakes they make. One that I’ve heard repeatedly is that new authors often think they are the exception.

Exception to what? You name it:  rejection, the time and effort it takes to be successful, that their first drafts are crap, etc. I read this numerous times and thought, “Well, that’s dumb. Why would anyone think that way?”  Even while I was thinking this to myself, another part of me was thinking, “But my first draft is pretty good. I have some stuff to fix, but my betas like it.”

Wrong. My first draft was crap. Did it have a lot of potential? Yes. Did it have the makings of a great story with interesting characters? Yes. Was it still crap? Absolutely. Was I an exception? Nope.

I needed to assume that I was like every other newbie author and  that I was going to make every newbie author mistake. If I think I know what I’m doing, I probably don’t. However, if I assume I’m an idiot and research everything, I might get this right.

My Secondary Problem

After my biggest problem dawned on me, I realized I had a second one that had contributed to the first. Who was I getting my information from? When making decisions on how to edit, whose advice had I taken?

My readers’, which is fine–I needed that. Then I had consulted other writers, both those just starting out and the books of those who had been in the game a long time. Again, this probably didn’t hurt.

Plus, I had my English major friend, right? She was great for grammar, but she had never edited fiction before, only academic work, and that’s a whole different ballgame.

So whose expertise hadn’t I consulted about editing fiction? A fiction editor. Sure, I’d read On Writing. Who hasn’t heard of Stephen King? Have you heard of Browne & King? No. Well, let me tell you about them.

Renni Browne and Dave King are both professional editors of fiction whose combined years in editing exceed my age. They wrote a book that chapter by chapter, page by page ruined me. They opened my eyes to the problem, but they also told me how to fix it.

I hope one day I can meet them. No, not to punch them, no matter tempting that was a couple days ago. I want to thank them for challenging me to be a better writer.

Buy the book. Read it. Cry. Revise.

My Seven Deadly Stylistic Sins

Seven Stylistic Sins

When I first started writing fiction, I didn’t understand why authors often only publish a book a year, two if they’re prolific. Several of my favorite authors publish even more infrequently than that, much to my chagrin. I can write a first draft in three months easily. What takes so long?

I started revisions. Now I understand.

Editing is taking FOR-EVE-R. Okay, it’s been six weeks, but it feels like an eternity. Part of the problem is that I have made a lot of common newbie errors that aren’t just in a scene or two, they’re pervasive. In hopes that I might save others from my revision torture, I thought I’d list the top seven mistakes that have sucked up the most time.

  1.  Seem/Appear/Suppose/Guess. I seem to appear very wishy-washy when writing. I guess my characters should just do things instead of seeming to do things, I suppose. Yuck!
  2. There is/There are. Starting a sentence with these words isn’t grammatically wrong, but it isn’t precise or interesting, either.
  3. “It” as subject. You can use “it” as the subject and be perfectly fine, but often when I do, my “it” is very vague. For example, I had a few different variations of this sentence:  “It was getting dark.”  Twice I meant the sun was setting, once I was referring to the lighting in a room, and another time a character was blacking out. My “it” was so vague as to make the situation unclear.
  4. Pet phrases. I know I’m not supposed to use clichés, but there were certain phrases I used often enough that they got just as annoying. I didn’t notice them while writing, but when rereading my chapters over and over, they began to make themselves known. I think I used the phrase, “for a moment” at least once a chapter. I’ve started keeping a list of my pet phrases, so I can do a search for them.
  5. Telling with dialogue. My problem wasn’t so much with the dialogue itself as the mess I caused around it. For example, I knew I wasn’t supposed to write:  “Surrender or I’ll shoot!” the hero said menacingly. Menacingly is an adverb, and those are no-no’s. Instead, I’d write something like:  “Surrender or I’ll shoot!” the hero yelled. He shot the villain a look that was menacing. The second attempt is not any better than the first. I’m still telling you the hero is menacing without showing you the menace. As I’m editing, I have to change the line to read more like this:  “Surrender or I’ll shoot!”  The hero leveled the revolver to the villain’s chest and cocked the hammer.
  6. Preposition party. Prepositions are like rabbits for me. If I put two together in a sentence, before I know it, I’ve got three or four. I had one sentence with six. To say that things got ambiguous and hard to follow was an understatement. I’m trying to limit myself to two a sentence.
  7. Qualifiers, intensifiers, and other words that don’t add much. I had to spend four hours just on “just.”  Put this list of words into your Find command and squash them dead. Most of the time a simple delete was all that was needed, no sentence reworking necessary. Pretty, somewhat, a little, kind of, kinda, sort of, rather, arguably, slightly, very, extremely, really, completely, totally, absolutely, unbelievably, remarkably, literally (you probably used this one wrong anyway), particular, personally, frankly, to tell the truth, I’m not going to lie, actually, just, only, simply

What else should I be looking for?  Is there something you do repeatedly?  As much as I hate to drag out the revision process, I also want to do it right.  What’s your best editing advice?

Creating Languages for Science Fiction or Fantasy

Earlier this week, I did Ten Tips on Orson Scott Card’s wonderful book, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. I decided his advice on language needed its own post. OSC gives a great deal of helpful information on a topic I have seen done poorly numerous times. Here’s his list of language do’s and don’ts.

Language No-Nos:

1. If you’re not a linguist like Tolkien, don’t create an entire language because you’ll likely just embarrass yourself. A few words are generally sufficient.

2. Don’t make up words or phrases just to sound foreign. If mugubasala is bread, just say bread! Save new words for ideas and objects that you created that truly have no English equivalent.

3. If the human mouth can’t pronounce it, don’t use it. This goes for names, too.

4. Don’t throw in a word or phrase you created and then not translate it for the reader. This is highly irritating. It’s most common to immediately translate it, although you can delay the translation a little bit if it’s for a good reason.

Name tag for a badly named character

Language Tips:

1. Remember it might be more powerful to show differences in culture than in language. For example, instead of your standard greeting being the made up word, “Zurple,” OSC suggests, “God give me strength not to kill you for having seen my ugliness.” To which the appropriate reply might be, “God forgive me for not blinding myself at once after having beheld your glory.”

2. Use your made up language, jargon, or slang judiciously. It’s a lot more fun to create than it is for your reader to slog through. Most of the time, you’ll use just a few terms to imply a jargon or cant. This goes for all of you writing a character with a cockney accent, too. Don’t drive your readers crazy with language.

3. When writing about people of high station living in heroic times, a more formal, elevated level of diction is called for. Here’s a sentence OSC wrote three times to illustrate this point:

Too coarse:  He dragged her over by the fireplace and yelled for Crimond to go the doctor because Sevora was out cold.

Too over the top:  Gently he laid her on the pliant bearskin before the merrily dancing flames of the hearth, then send Crimond, his astonished and frantic dwarf, to fetch the cirurgeon (notice the ridiculous spelling).

The correct level of diction:  He laid her gently on the thick fur before the hearth, then sent his dwarf to fetch the surgeon.

4.  When dealing with profanity or vulgarity, once again, OSC challenges you to think creatively. He insists that simply making up a new curse word doesn’t work and cited a few examples. This was pre-Battlestar Galactica, though, and I don’t think anyone can argue with the success of “Frak.” Still, I liked his advice to once again think of this culturally. In the US, one of our big taboos is sex. What if an alien came from a very casual sex culture but on his planet keeping property that you withhold from general use is seen as terrible as we see adultry?  He’s going to get his face slapped by a lot of women, but he might be outraged at his date’s walk-in closets.

Up Next:  The Four Basic Story Models for Science Fiction and Fantasy, or, How to Finish the Story You Started.

Epic Romance: A Character Study from Lost

The couples of the TV series Lost

Recently while my husband and I were grocery shopping and trying to locate some Goo Gone, he asked me a surprising question.

Husband:  “What’s Desmond’s wife’s name?”

Me, with absolutely no hesitation: “Penny.”

Husband gets a blank look on his face, followed by a frown. I have come to learn this means I have said something he wasn’t expecting, and he’s trying to figure out my mental leap. He smiles when he finally makes the connection to the character on Lost. He clarifies:  “I mean our neighbor Desmond.”

Me:  “Oh!  Hmm, I have no idea.”

There’s undoubtedly some social commentary here about knowing a fictional TV character better than the man that lives fifty feet from me, but that’s not where I’m going. I heard the name Desmond, and my brain immediately retrieved the name Penny with it. The two names are inseparable to me, even though the characters spent more time apart in the series than they did together.

Lost had no shortage of couples. It seemed each character in its sprawling cast had at least one significant other except for poor Boone. As everyone paired off two by two, fans picked their favorites. I certainly had couples I liked better than others, but there was only one couple on the show I would have given the label “epic,” and that was Desmond and Penny. I’d never really thought about why until an article appeared in Entertainment Weekly last month asking fans to vote for the best TV couples ever.

The only Lost couple that made the list was Sawyer and Juliet. I mentioned this to a few friends who had also watched the series, and the debating ensued. I’ve found if you get any five people in a room and ask them who their favorite Lost character was, you’ll get five different responses. However, while many of us did like the S & J pairing, it was Desmond and Penny that were universally loved.

As a writer, I have to come up with new characters continually. I want my characters to be so well loved that my readers see them as old friends. Additionally, what I write almost always has an element of romance to it. All of this Lost debate made me wonder what makes an audience root for a couple. What made D & P  or S & J so compelling? I decided to take a look at who I saw as the four main couples of Lost and try to analyze why they did or didn’t work. As with all things Lost, I’m sure some people will heartily disagree with me.  That’s fine; I’m not against some lively debate in the comments section.

Jin and Sun fight to the bitter end.

Jin & Sun:  These two certainly had an interesting storyline, and I absolutely wanted them to work through their martial issues and fall in love again. The redemption theme in their relationship was compelling, but in the end, these two were never going to be the “it” couple because they were just exhausting. As a side plot they were fine, but I’d never write a couple like them as my main characters just because I think my readers would give up in despair. An occasional fight can make the romance interesting, but I think this couple crossed the line into depressing one too many times.

Jack and Kate never worked as a couple.

Jack & Kate:  Blech, I don’t even know where to start with these two. Jack missed so many opportunities with Kate early on. She would kiss him, and he’d pretend like nothing happened. She’d tell him she liked him, and he would respond by ignoring her and running off into the jungle. He had the relationship skills of a middle schooler. I kept expecting him to put gum in her hair.

Kate was no better. If Jack did anything, anything, she didn’t like, she just threw herself at Sawyer, even long after Sawyer had any interest in her. She shuttled back and forth between the two of them so fast, there were some episodes I got a crick in my neck. By the end of the series I felt they deserved each other, but mostly because I wouldn’t have wished them on anyone else. In fact, I disliked them together so much, I stopped liking them as individual characters.  Considering Jack and Kate were the leads of Lost, that seems like a critical error authors should avoid.

Lost kills off Juliet.

Sawyer & Juliet:  I can see why these two made EW’s list. Once they extricated themselves from the Kate/Jack/Sawyer/Juliet quadrangle mess, they were a solid couple. I have to acknowledge the writing genius here.  S & J were only together for roughly a season, and we never actually got to watch them fall in love, yet I absolutely was convinced of their dedication. How did the writers pull it off? They changed Sawyer.

We had seen Sawyer love Cassidy poorly in flashbacks and love Kate slightly better for the past few seasons. Still, he himself admits he’d make Kate a terrible boyfriend. So when we suddenly see Sawyer in a steady respectable job happily cohabiting with Juliet, it begs the question, “What happened?” We instantly know that what they have has to be real because the impossible has occurred:  Sawyer has settled down. When Kate and company reappear three years later, he’s not happy. He’s angry that they’ve disrupted his happily ever after.

desmond penny and charlie

Desmond & Penny:  So why are these two the only couple I’d label epic? S & J were in the running, but ultimately their romance was just too short. If you’re going to make me wade through several seasons of love triangle then quadrangle, then you need to make up for that later. Lost’s way of making up for it was killing off Juliet. Not okay. What made D & P triumph over the others was their constancy–a theme the writers captured brilliantly in “The Constant,” arguably Lost’s best episode. For Desmond there was only Penny, and it was the same for her. Each searched for the other overcoming both an island impossible to find and even time itself. Nothing deterred them, and unlike other characters (uh-hem, Kate) there was no “loving the one you’re with.”

There is much advice written about plotting that involves giving your hero a desire and then putting obstacles in the way of him getting it. The ending is just a matter of the hero finally getting his heart’s desire. Lost followed this formula with D & P really well but also in unexpected ways (the time travel element was fascinating). A lot of books I read and shows I watch make the obstacle a love triangle. I am not a fan of this plot device because I don’t often see it done well. Either it descends into a mess like it did on Lost, or it’s just never believable because the winner is clear from the beginning. I can count on one hand the number of love triangles I’ve liked, Cassandra Clare’s Will/Tessa/Jem triangle in The Infernal Devices being the best I’ve read so far. I applaud the D & P storyline for being moving and fulfilling without the need for a third person distraction, and for that, I deem it epic.

Now, in the spirit of all things Lost, let the disagreeing commence!  The comment button is in the left margin.

Up Next Ten Tips–a new blog series that will give highlights from helpful books for writers.

Sprinting Towards Insanity: Driving Yourself and Others Crazy With Your Writing

Friend #1: “So the other day on my way to the store–”

Friend #2:  “Tommy goes to the store!”

Friend #1 gives #2 an annoyed look, but continues: “Anyway, I was picking up some bread, when–”

Friend #2: “Tommy loves bread!”

Friend #1:  “I get it.  You like your boyfriend.  I’m trying to tell you about how I broke my arm.”

Friend #2:  “Tommy has arms!”

We’ve all been there, right? In the early stages of a relationship, sometimes a friend can only talk about the new significant other. It’s understandable. They’re discovering all these interesting characteristics and they want the important people in their lives to share in the excitement.

Now, go back and re-read that conversation and every place I wrote “Tommy” insert “my book,” or your main character’s first name. Did you just get uncomfortable?


I had a very squirmy moment myself this week that has been building for a while. Yes, I talk about my book way too much. I do try to moderate discussing it with friends. (I’m sure I’m going to get some snarky comments from them along the lines of, “Egads! I’d hate to see what it’s like if you weren’t trying!”) However, I realized that my poor beleaguered husband is one book conversation away from wearing earplugs around the house.

It’s more than just the obsessive talking about it, though. I can’t stop writing, editing, blogging, researching, and thinking, thinking, thinking. When I woke up yesterday, my first thoughts were of a series of edits I needed to incorporate from a couple of my beta readers. As I fell asleep that night, I was mentally world building for a fantasy project I won’t even let myself write down yet because I know it will only sidetrack me from my current project.

I made myself a rule that after 7:00 pm I have to cease and desist all working on the book project and then immediately started breaking it. On Monday I stopped at 12:30 am and Tuesday it was 9:30 pm. On Wednesday night we had people over to our house, so I was forced to quit at about 6:00 pm, but then I started up again after they left. I asked my husband for help with a WordPress widget that was giving me trouble at 10:30 pm. He gently reminded me that I was supposed to quit at 7:00 pm (I’ve asked him to do this). I told him that I just needed to finish this one thing. His response was a serious wakeup call:

“Yes, but there’s always one more thing, isn’t there?”

Darn wise husband with the caring and the worrying about me.

I know several people that run. Despite this glaring personality flaw, we are still friends. Believe it or not, I do more than just roll my eyes when they talk about training for marathons. Who knew that I might learn something about writing?

I have been treating my career in writing like a sprint. I need to get everything done NOW! IMMEDIATELY! MUST CONQUER AUTHOR PLATFORM TONIGHT!

I’m pretty sure the cat went through with the whole mailing herself to get away from me thing. At least, she hasn’t been trying to sit on my lap in a while. How could she? There’s never space for her because the laptop is always there.

Thursday and Friday I stopped at 7:00 pm. Much to my surprise, the world did not cave in, and the cat is still living here. She had a few choice words for my recent neglect, but I guess I deserved them.

Up Next:  A Character Study of the Couples of Lost, or, What Writers Can Learn about Romance From the Mess that was Jack and Kate