Writing Advice: Essays

One thing I set out to do with this blog–that I have yet to do–is write a series of long-form essays about topics that intrigue me. Perhaps I’ve done a bit of that with my ‘Saturday Night Gaming’ series, but I’ve decided that now would be a good time to take a long look at what you–and I–should do before we venture onto writing a good and proper essay.

Just today, I read a wonderful essay at the back of Neuromancer, written by a fellow writer and a friend of the book’s author, William Gibson.  What struck me was the excitement, the pure joy that these words radiated; so well were they crafted that I found myself nearly seduced to scroll back to the beginning of the book, and take an unforgettable journey into cyberspace all over again.

Excitement, then, is the most important building block, the one to use as foundation for your essays. When you’re excited about a given topic, it shows; ideas come more easily, they seamlessly flow on the page (or on the text processor), and most importantly, excitement translates through language with ridiculous ease!

Writing essays is about your views; so make sure to crystalize those. Before writing a review, essay, or blog post, I take a pen and paper and scribble the clearest points in my mind. Then, while I’m writing, I will often glance towards that piece of paper, and make sure that I’m presenting my core arguments in a clear, understandable way. Clarity is of such enormous importance to any piece of writing and essays are no different.

And how about the importance of research? Might be a bore when you’re writing a book, but if you’re looking for factual information to help strengthen your essay, it really shouldn’t be a problem. I take a long time to read up on studios, developers and development processes of the different games I write/make videos about, and it’s always far more entertaining than frustrating. Finding information about the things you love is downright inspirational, in fact–and no surprise there!

Having cold, hard facts on your side will also help with your confidence; all you have to do, then, is present them well and proper!

Yet another good idea is to use pictures or any other kind of visual media to help accentuate–or showcase–whatever it is you’re writing an essay about. I could do well in this particular aspect, myself; admittedly, many of the posts on my blog lack any kind of visual aspect at all.

In my defense, I am way too distracted by my writing to have the time for pictures!

A last piece of advice–and this is for writing in general, but I feel compelled to repeat it–proofread before you go live! No one enjoys silly, quick-to-remove mistakes or sloppy grammar, punctuation and so on, and so forth.

I’m not claiming mastery when it comes to writing essays–on writing anything, for that matter–but these are a few guiding points which will be helpful for anyone who, like me, is interested in exploring this particular medium further.

I’ll get back to this topic someday, when I have greater experience with essay-writing. For now, thank you for reading, and I’m looking forward to next time!

 

Writing Advice: Dialogue

I’ve always been a sucker for excellent dialogue. Snappy, clever remarks make for memorable characters, situations and so much more! Dialogue has brought me to tears, and laughter, and has infused me with a hundred emotions that I couldn’t have expected would overcome me.

Dialogue doesn’t have to follow perfect grammar

You want the characters you write to be believable, plausible, real — not carbon outtakes with perfect diction, correct pronunciation and no quirks what-so-ever! Dialect can be written, and it should…although you probably don’t want to overdo it. Too much of any dialect might come off as confusing and distracting, and two things you never want to do with dialogue is confuse and distract.

Dialogue advances the plot

No one enjoys reading back-and-forth that doesn’t carry things forward; not for long, anyway.  Note, if you attempt to use your dialogue to dump information on your readers’ poor heads, you will (deservedly) earn yourself a great deal of annoyance. It’s a fine line, between these two states, and one you should take care to walk on. When you do, you should be putting your readers to work, looking for implications in the dialogue.

By adding implications, you make the dialogue a whole lot more interesting and engaging for the imagination.

Dialogue shouldn’t be repetitive

This one is pretty self-descriptive and could be added to the point before it. There are exceptions in certain situations — but then again, there always are!

Dialogue rarely needs speech verbs

Adding the likes of ‘she said, he said,’ and ‘he responded, yelled’ after each line of dialogue you write isn’t only necessary, it also gets boring after a while. Your dialogue will speak for itself most of the time, and will be unique and recognizable on its own merits.

We’re operating on the premise that your dialogue has merits, you see. A vote of confidence, if you ever got one!

Conversation can be direct and indirect

What does that mean? People will not talk about the same thing at the same time; I’ll often get asked some question, and go on a completely different tangent, change topics, sprint through them…and so much more.

That’s my two pence when it comes to Dialogue! See you next week!

 

Writing Advice: Research is important

Research has the dubious distinction of being an insanely interesting part of writing…as well as an occasionally tedious task that everyone would much rather shove for another point in time.

Researching is a bit like going down a street whose exit is just ahead, but somehow, you keep getting sidetracked by the litany of architectural marvels on the sides of that street. What I mean to explain with this inept metaphor is that finding information on any given subject is easy, in our Information Age; however,

it’s not difficult at all to go further and further into connected topics, which –while fascinating– will usually end up as little more than backstory. That’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination; what it is, is dangerous. Dangerous in that, having all this knowledge tempts you to put it all inside your book–and when you do that, you detract from your story. Flooding readers with historically accurate information (if you’re writing fantasy, for example) might very well create a feeling of authenticity but it will also make for a dull read; fantasy fans are not into the genre for that.

Putting too much research pulls the reader out because your book ends up reading like a technical manual. Use your research-derived knowledge to create the illusion of reality but don’t bog the action and the characters down in minutiae. Too little research in your work makes you seem like you’ve no clue what you’re writing about; too much slows your writing down to a crawl; it’s all about finding balance! Beta readers are helpful in that aspect; point your questions towards how the world you’re building feels — does it lack realism? Does the momentum suffer because of too much details and the like?

Science fiction is more dependent on research, especially some of its subgenres, for obvious reasons. Follow the link if you’d like to know more about those.

 

This is another shorter piece of Writing Advice, but it’s one I thought I might as well cover; research is important and shouldn’t be ignored just because it’s occasionally annoying!

 

Writing Advice: Humor

Humor is one of the fundamental ingredients in any story. From horror to drama to epic fantasy – no matter the genre, there’s always time to lighten up the tension with a healthy dose of humor!

Humor can be a genre in itself, as well – Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett are two masters who use sci-fi and fantasy, respectively, in order to showcase brilliant wit and insight about human nature.

They don’t use slapstick comedy, opting instead for dialogue-based and narrative humor. What I mean by narrative humor is

The humor I enjoy is the kind that surprises me. That’s the kind of humor that I tend to write — I take situations that should be familiar to my readers (tropes, clichés and so on and so forth), and I spin them around in a way that is clever, bizarre or even outrageous.

Write what you find funny, write what makes you laugh. Then check it and double-check it; don’t underestimate the power of analysis. Having someone read your writing later and weighing that person’s reaction is a sure way to discover whether something is funny. If you’ve got a few loyal readers– even better!

For those of you who prefer everything neat and tidy, you might like Scott Adams’ six elements of humor:

  • Cute
  • Cruel
  • Naughty
  • Recognizable
  • Bizarre
  • Clever

These elements can offer a lot of information, but they won’t magically help in crunching out tomes upon tomes of humorous writing. They very much aid analysis, however. Here’s a simple piece of advice on writing them!

Set your complicated jokes up early on, lay a strong foundation and build them up. That way, the payback is all the sweeter!

And don’t forget — always, always, always surprise your audience!

Writing Advice: Plot Twists

The thing about plot twists? Never do them!

Hey, don’t leave that, I was making a point! Badly!

The best plot twists in books I’ve read often have to do with the author asking himself, “How best can I make this character suffer?” Think on this question, think on it really hard; whatever the answer ends up being…do that! You’re bound to produce a river of tears from your faithful fans; it’s all about the art of making your characters’ lives as miserable as can be!

Twist your readers’ expectations, and they’ll come back for more time and time again. How you do that is a broader topic that I’ll look at in more detail sooner or later, but it has to do with taking well-established elements in your world, and using them in ways inventive enough that very few would ever figure out before the fact. Subvert expectations.

Plot twists differ in scope — there are awe-inspiring, world-shattering events that can change the entire way something is viewed; and then there’s those smaller, personal tragedies that play out between characters on an entirely different level.

Make sure not to diminish the impact of your plot twists. That most often happens with sheer overuse or with trite and convoluted twists that do not follow the rules you’ve set up. Plot twists that don’t follow the law as you’ve written it risk turning into deus ex machina devices; and we all know how warmly those are received nowadays.

 

That’s what I reckon on the subject of Plot Twists! If you enjoyed this piece, feel free to follow me; I’d also enjoy discussing anything of interest in the comments below!

Writing Advice: Avoiding the Beginner’s Mistakes Vol. 1

I write this post fully aware of thе fact that I am, myself, little more than a beginner in the writer’s craft. My position as what equates to hobbyist writer does have the benefit to allow me a fresher perspective; I still struggle with these mistakes, and believe me, having them pointed out, actively searching for them helps.

  • Point-of-view problems are the worst.
    You know this one guy at the street corner? Beer in hand, long beard, constantly changes the pitch of his voice, the style of his speech, the whole bloody persona? You don’t want your writing to be like that guy. Point of view demands tight control. There shouldn’t be any ‘head hopping’ – the practice of switching point-of-view characters within a single scene.
    Allow me to reiterate on this before you claw my eyes out and feed on my brain! There shouldn’t be any ‘head hopping’ that’s done badly. If you’re about to change your PoV character, make sure that the readers know it, and are prepared. Give them a warning, a break in the scene; anything’s better than pulling your reader sout of one character’s head and unceremoniously tossing them into the character against him.
    I like to use double-line space breaks when I switch PoV. The chapter break is probably the best-known way to switch Point-of-view and it has been used in such epics as Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, and many, many others.
    I’ve gone as far as to change PoVs in the middle of a scene and it worked quite well! It’s all about making the switch feel natural and not forced.
  • Filtering is the anti-Christ.
    I hate filtering. I hate it, and I loathe it, and it boggled nearly all my writing in English when I first began. For those of you who don’t know what they are, filters are unnecessary words that separate the reader from the story’s action. They come between the reader’s experience and the character’s point of view.
    These include but are not limited to: ‘to see,’ ‘to hear,’ ‘to think,’ ‘to wonder,’ to realize, ‘ to feel’ ‘to decide’… you’ve picked up on the logic behind filters by now. Now, for an example:
    With Filter: “He thought that her movements were akin to a panther’s, fluid and graceful, and unmistakably predatory.”
    Without Filter: “Her movements were fluid and graceful, and unmistakably predatory.”
  • Predictability is an awful, terrible, no-good thing.
    What is that they say about your enemies? Always keep them guessing!
    What’s that? They don’t say that about your mortal enemies where you’re from?
    Moving on… Predictable stories are boring, even if they’re written supremely well. Surprises breathe life into a story the way nothing else does. Always aim to leave your readers speechless, and your characters — out of balance. Sure, things may be going well for a while, even amazingly so; but if everything goes as you’d expect all the time, the story becomes stale. Change is the drive of good storytelling.
  • Go with the (scene) flow.
    Awkward scene-to-scene transitions are a blight upon the land! Or, at the very least, upon the story you’re trying to tell. This ties into the Point-of-view debate, and steals a few of its points: ineptly transitioning from one scene to another might break the immersion of your readers and leave them no more than an angry mob, intent on ripping you head to toes.
    Okay, that last thing might not happen but the risk of losing a reader is very real.
    I struggle with the problem, myself. The key to solving it is practice, practice, practice!

Here’s where I draw the line for today; but not to worry, if you enjoyed this piece of writing advice, there’s more to come over the coming weeks! Meanwhile, Happy Fourth of July!

 

 

 

Writing Advice: The Basics of Sci-Fi

To take some liberty with a quote by the great Philip K. Dick, fantasy is about things that are conceivably impossible, whereas science fictions is all about the conceivably possible. Both genres are about writing, discovering and experiencing new things, but science fiction takes on these three objectives with a different toolset; it is ideas that drive sci-fi.

Science Fiction originated as a didactic genre — meaning that many of the earlier SF books sought to instill certain moral standards in readers and to instruct them; indeed, one such example can be seen in the face of Frank Herbert’s Dune, which has been hailed as the single greatest work of literature to popularize the disastrous effects and fallout of climate change.

Where didacticism is one side of the coin of early SF works, the other is optimism. Take a look at Jules Verne – a true visionary and a champion of technological advancement, whose works have undoubtedly transcended dry page and ink and the world of imagination, and have become reality. Tales of wonders made flesh; such is the power of science fiction.

Sci-fi has come a long way since the publishing of Verne and Huxley, Orwell and even Bradburry… although, I admit, the point I’m about to make easily allows a place for both 1984 and Fahrenheit 451.

What point, you ask? Science fiction has moved past it’s didactic origins, Filip answers gladly, and has become a far more reflective genre. A genre steeped in the issues our modern world faces or could face in the near-future. Not only that, but it is a genre that takes on these issues bravely and attempts to tackle them, to offer solutions,

If, at this point, you’re furrowing your brows and trying to figure out where your favorite sci-fi series fits in all of this, you may relax and read further!

While I believe that the explanation above can help towards defining where current SF stands, there are many subgenres that either don’t concern themselves with reflection, or do it in an off-hand, secondary way. Let’s take a cursory look at those, shall we?

  • Space Opera: I view this particular subgenre as a bridge between science fiction and fantasy; like fantasy, it is the journey, the adventure that is most important. Science takes the back-seat and while it still plays part, it’s far from realistic.
    Examples such as Star Wars, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, and the (fairly campy) Warhammer 40k universe well display the tendency of the subgenre to start off with science and introduce a variety of mystical elements later down the line.
  • Hard SF is the antithesis of Space Opera. The science has to be correct, it has to be serious, and it is most often the genre in which actual scientists write. If you want to write in that one – know your science, people! Arthur C. Clarke is probably the most well-known of the Hard SF writers, and I do believe that Stephen Baxter is also in that particular clubhouse. It’s a restrictive subgenre because of the sheer amount of knowledge necessary, and the fact that people who read hard SF will call you out on your bullshit, if you try to write unprepared.
  • Cyberpunk…is awesome. I’ll admit that I have barely read anything in that subgenre, for which I am very sorry; I have, however, played a number of different cyberpunk video games, and the themes are often very similar. Cyberpunk stories take place in the near-future, at a point in time when governments are no longer relevant and corporations hold the true power. The line between man and machine (or technology as a whole), is blurred and the genre has a lot in common with Dystopian Sci-fi.

This is where I’ll wrap up, but before I do…one last piece of advise.

There is greater continuity within sci-fi. To write in the genre, you need a better understanding of those authors that have come before you, than you’d need with fantasy or crime novels, for example. Whether that is owed to the fact that ideas in sci-fi are built and reiterated upon, I can only speculate but it is true, regardless. The message can be distilled to: “Read more Science Fiction!”

Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this short look at the basics of science fiction, please click the Follow button and maybe leave a comment. I’d love to discuss this topic further — and indeed, plan on doing so next Tuesday!

The featured image is not mine, it was taken from the site ‘project-nerd.com’