Canned Wisdom #8

Good morning, it’s Monday once more. Time for some questionable writing advice:

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For last week’s Canned Wisdom, click here.

A story, or a book, is a promise. The book promises to tell an entertaining story, and the reader promises to stick with it until the end.

If the book breaks its promise, the reader is okay to do the same. If the book isn’t what it promised to be, why continue reading it – and why read anything else by the writer? Time is, by and far, the most valuable thing we have, so why give it to an inanimate object, like a book, that doesn’t keep its promises? (thanks for reading btw).

However, a book, in and of itself, can’t make any promises of its own.

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A mysterious morning fog. What promise does that make?

The promises are understood by the reader based on their impression of the book. The cover image, the title, the blurb on the back, and whatever they see inside when they open it up for a look. In other words, you as the writer are responsible for making the book give the right kind of promise.

Pick a cover image that gives the right impression. Write a blurb that’s relevant to the story.

Write a story that lives up to the expectations it creates.

The promises don’t stop outside the book, but keep being made within. Whatever happens throughout the story sets an expectation in the reader’s mind for something that will happen later. It’s a promise of what’s to come.

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The promise of a rising sun and a beautiful day to come. If it rains the morning breaks its promise.

Did I go on about this last week too?

Yes, I’m pretty sure I did, but I’m doing it again, because I think this is important. If you make someone a promise you have to keep it – even if it’s to a person you’ve never met and who only knows you from picking up your book.

So how do you know what kind of promise you make to the reader?

Simple answer: you don’t know.

You’ll just have to guess. You have to figure it out yourself based on the story you’re writing. With some parts of it it’s easy, and with other parts it’s not.  This is one of the reason it’s a good idea to ask someone else to test read your stories and give you feedback before you release them into the wild.

Since you already know what’s going to happen, it’ll be hard for you to expect anything else.

 

Canned Wisdom #8

Canned Wisdom #7

Monday again. Time for another little commentary on writing:

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For last week’s Canned Wisdom, click here.

This is about expectations and about how they affect our impressions.

The picture above is of a cup of coffee. Except, it’s in a mug made of glass, and there’s a candle behind the mug, so the light plays around in the shapes in the bottom of the mug.

It’s a black coffee, because there’s no milk and no sugar in it. But it’s also not super strong, so the light from the candle comes through on the sides and tints the coffee red. It could also be the coffee isn’t actually black, but really a very dark red.

2018-03-18 17.53.41When you read the phrase a cup of black coffee, you probably won’t picture anything like what you see in the image above. Right? You already have an expectation of what a cup of black coffee looks like.

Black coffee comes in white porcelain cups, and it’s proper black – perhaps with a few bubbles from the pour on top. Put the term into a google image search. You know what you’ll see – or, well, you won’t be surprised at least.

What does this mean for us as writers?

I get two things.

The first is that readers already know what a lot of things look like, so there’s no need to describe them. It’s enough just to mention what they are.

Time for examples. Picture the following:

  • A woman hurrying to work on Monday morning with a cup of coffee in her hand.
  • A woman looking out her window on a Sunday morning with a cup of coffee in her hand.
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A rubbish bin with two umbrellas sticking out of it. That’s also a story.

The two sentences are quite similar, but they paint very different pictures. There’s no information at all about what the woman looks like, and nothing at all about her cup of coffee, or how she’s dressed, but still we get an image.

Sure, the image might be vague and indistinct, but there’s something there, and there’s a vibe to it too.

We all have expectations of what things look like, and if you play to that, you can use it to great effect in your writing.

The second thing I’m getting is that things aren’t always what they seem. We all know that coffee is black, and we all know that snow is white and the sky is blue and the good guys always win in the end – right?

Except maybe that’s not always how it is. Sometimes black coffee is red, and sometimes white snow is blue, and sometimes the sky is all kinds of weird colours when the sun is setting and the clouds are on fire.

As for the good guys, well, life’s tough sometimes.

Keep this in mind when you’re creating your stories. Your readers will have expectations, and you can choose to live up to them, or to try and circumvent them. Either is fine, just try and make sure to pay attention to what expectations you’re setting for your reader.

Canned Wisdom #7

Canned Wisdom #6

Happy Monday everyone. It’s really Saturday on my planet, so it’s time to have a coffee and a snack and write about writing:

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Last week’s Canned Wisdom here (painting by my father)

This ties back to the advice about how strong characters carry their own stories. You don’t have to be a hero to have an adventure or go on a big journey. Sure, big powerful heroes may go on longer, more dangerous, and more impressive journeys. They face greater challenges and higher stakes, but that’s not the point.

The point is to tell a good story, and the point is that stories are about characters.

It doesn’t matter if it’s about Frodo going to Mordor to destroy The One Ring, or if it’s about my three year old niece going on a train to visit grandma.

2018-03-08 17.37.58Okay, so it might actually matter a bit, and the stories will be very different. The example may be a bit of an exaggeration. What I’m trying to say is that an adventure doesn’t have to be epic in scope in order to make for an interesting story.

I write fantasy, and within the fantasy genre, it’s very common tell stories on a grandiose scale. The fate of the entire world hangs in the balance and it’s up to the one hero to save the day (and the night, and everything in between).

It doesn’t have to be like that. It’s kind of part of the expectations for the genre, but there’s plenty of room for stories about little people too. They too have things they care about, struggles to face, and challenges to overcome. The entire world may not be at stake, but their world might be – as they know it.

Now, back to my coffee, and to my own story that still needs a lot of attention.

Canned Wisdom #6

Canned Wisdom #5

It’s Monday again, time for a little bit of writing advice:

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Last week’s Canned Wisdom to be found here.

This ties back to the first post in this series (here), and it’s about how our minds and our imaginations are really quick about creating our own impressions – even if all we have is incomplete data.

When reading a story, did it ever happen to you that the text described something in a way that didn’t match the image in your head? That’s what this is about.

If I picture something in my mind based on something I’m reading I will fill in any significant blanks in the description myself. It’s difficult for me to imagine a person with long hair without also imagining that the hair has a colour. It’s much easier to just assume the hair is blonde, or black, or red, purple, ginger, whatever. You’ll have no idea what kind of colour I imagined the hair was.

Later on, the text reveals that the long flowing hair is not only brown, but also woven through with a garland of flowers.

That doesn’t match my impression at all. It contradicts my experience of the story, and I will have to either revise my internal image or ignore that part of the description. Both options are bad.

When writing, keep track of what information you have included in your description and what you’ve left out. Do not go back and fill in the missing details later as chances are you’ll contradict what your reader has imagined.

There are ways to get around this and to add more details later, but that’s a topic for another day.

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Canned Wisdom #5

Canned Wisdom #4

It’s Monday morning again. It’s time for another piece of Canned Wisdom:

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Last week’s Canned Wisdom can be found here.

This it about inspiration. As writers/artists/people we’re often dependent on the right kind of motivation in order to get started with doing something. If we’re not motivated or inspired it’s easy to just mope around and waste away the time.

At the same time there’s all kinds of advice about doing what feels right and about how we should follow our hearts. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but it may not be very productive. Inspiration can sometimes be hard to come by, and if we wait until we feel inspired it could potentially take forever to finish writing that book.

Fortunately, inspiration is an internal force. It comes from within us and we create it ourselves. Sure, something we hear or see or do can be inspiring, but the enthusiasm and energy that comes from inspiration is something we generate ourselves.

I often tell myself that if I just sit down and start writing, inspiration will show up on its own. It’s difficult, and I don’t always listen to myself, but I know it’s true. It may take some time, but in my experience it almost always happen.

The only times it hasn’t worked is when I’ve been in a really bad spot emotionally and I’ve had too many other things to worry about.

Otherwise, if you just sit down and go at it, the muse will eventually grow curious and show up to see what you’re doing. She may even be a little bit jealous and burst out some extra ideas just to show you she’s still got it and you still need her – or him, if that’s how you roll.

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Canned Wisdom #4

Canned Wisdom #3

It’s Monday morning again, and it’s time for some food for thought:

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Previous week’s Canned Wisdom can be found here.

What’s a strong character? Very often the phrase comes with the word female inserted in the middle, and we get the phrase strong female character.

A lot of the time it seems that those who talk about strong female characters refer to characters who are strong in a worldly sense – strong within the world of the story. They may be rich and powerful, or they may be athletic and beautiful, or perhaps they’re extremely intelligent or have magical powers. Stuff like that.

That’s fine.

There’s nothing wrong with having characters that are powerful.

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Even a little light can remove a lot of darkness.

However, I think that from a storytelling perspective there’s more to the phrase strong character than just worldly power. A strong character is someone who moves the story forward on their own rather than someone who has the story happen to them.

 

This doesn’t require the character to be physically or mentally strong, and it doesn’t mean they need magical superpowers. What it does mean is they act and make decisions, and that these acts and decisions have an impact on the story. The character doesn’t just react to things that happen to them.

Example:

In a story I’m working on, the character Roy ends up an unwilling guest (prisoner in all but word) at a mansion up in the mountains. Naturally he wants to escape from there.

In the first draft of the story, the mansion’s cheeky old caretaker suggests that Roy could go down to the lake to fish in order to relax for a bit. That would be a great opportunity for Roy to escape, but it’s also an opportunity that gets handed to him by someone else. He doesn’t have anything to do with it at all.

In the second draft of the story, Roy asks the caretaker if there’s a fishing rod available.

The flow of the story is essentially the same in the two different versions: Roy escapes from the mansion by pretending to go fishing. The difference is that in the second draft, Roy comes up with the idea and sets it into motion himself.

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Morning coffee – and there’s more than one strong character in this picture, but that’s for me to know and for you to wonder about.

I hope this all makes some kind of sense to you, but if it doesn’t, feel free to leave a comment and ask. I’ll try my best to answer as soon as I can.

Canned Wisdom #3

Canned Wisdom #2

I believe I said I’d post this one today, so here it is:

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Previous post here.

The above statement is true as much in writing as in life in general – at least for me.

Also – and I’m not kidding here – I wrote a fairly long piece elaborating on the above. About halfway through I decided the words on the pictures speak for themselves, so I cut it.

I saved the words though and I will use them for another post in the future, probably something about info dumps.

Canned Wisdom #2

From Idea to Finished Story

Front Cover - OnlineI’ve got a new article up on Mythic Scribes. It’s a piece about how I took Emma’s Story from a vague and fuzzy idea to a finished story ready to be published.

It was a long journey and while the article skips a lot of the details, I think I managed to fit in all of the most important parts. Have a look, and don’t hesitate to leave a comment or ask questions if you have any.

Also, if you’re a fantasy writer, do sign up for the forums and join into the discussions. It’s a great way to meet likeminded and to discuss writing with a fantasy backdrop.

From Idea to Finished Story

Canned Wisdom #1

Yesterday I wrote about doing a series of post with some basic writing advice.

I won’t be doing these every day, or I’ll run out of steam real soon. I figured I’d start off with the first part right away though – while I’m still excited about the idea.

Here goes:

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Yesterday, I mentioned Show, Don’t Tell as an example of catchy but overly simplified piece of writing advice. This image basically covers that rule, but it also tries to trick you into figuring out the reasoning behind the advice.

I very firmly believe that no matter how well I describe something, or how many words I use, I will never be able to communicate the exact image in my head to any of my readers. Fortunately, I do not have to.

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This morning’s sunrise. Completely unrelated?

Instead, what I want to do is give my readers the tools they need to create their own images. As long as their image matches what’s required of the story, it doesn’t matter if it’s not the same as mine.

If I give my reader the tools to build their own image they become more invested in it. By adding something of their own to the image it becomes more real to them than if I try to force my vision upon them.

Beware

There is a warning hidden in the message in the picture. It may not be obvious right away, and it’s probably worthy of a picture of its own, but I’ll mention it here anyway:

Do not mess up the reader’s own image.

What I mean here is that you need to keep track of what you have described and what you haven’t. For everything you describe, there are millions of things you do not mention. For every single one of these things, the reader has the option to imagine something other than what you are imagining.

2018-02-07 19.32.24If you return to your description at a later time and add more details, it is very likely that you will contradict what your reader imagined. This in turn has a very high probability of breaking their immersion and bringing them out of the story. I don’t want that to happen to me when I’m reading, and I don’t want it to happen to my readers.


That’s it for this time. I’ll probably do next post in the Canned Wisdom series on Wednesday or Tuesday next week. I may post something or other about my book, or about whatever else comes to mind in the meantime though.

Finally, do you have any comments or questions or opinions on what I write above? Please feel free to leave a comment below. :)

Canned Wisdom #1

Canned Wisdom – Introduction

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Today was a beautiful, but cold day.

In the writing communities I’m part of, the discussion about The Rules of Writing, keeps popping up at irregular intervals. The general consensus at the moment seems to be that there aren’t really any rules, but that there are plenty of advice of varying quality.

The way I see it part of the issue with a lot of these pieces of writing advice is that they’re summed up in short catchy phrases that cut out a lot of the nuance.

The most common example of this is probably Show, Don’t Tell. It’s not a bad piece of advice as such, but there’s a lot more to it than what’s said in these three word. For starters, it doesn’t tell you why you shouldn’t tell, and it doesn’t explain what’s meant by show (or tell).

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I went for a walk…

That isn’t something I will go into any detail about today. It’s just an example to illustrate the problem with The Rules of Writing.

I’m bringing this up because I want to do a series of post with my own take on some of the more common writing rules. It stems from something I’ve done on instagram for a few weeks, where I post pictures with a few words on writing written upon them

Again, these are short sentences, just like what I said was part of the problem. What I’m trying to do is phrase my advice in such a way that it requires the reader to stop and think about it.

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…and I saw some horses.

The pictures are nice (even if it’s me saying so myself), but instagram doesn’t really leave much room for elaboration, and I often find I’m fond of elaborating. To this end I’ll begin sharing my advice-images here on the blog as well.

I’ve decided on the title Canned Wisdom for this series, because in a way that’s what it is. Each image is a can that holds a little bit of wisdom. It’s small and easy to grab hold of, but it’s also a can of worms in that once you’ve opened it, it’s hard to put all of the contents back inside.

To start with, here’s a piece of rather generic advice. It’s not related specifically to writing, and it really isn’t particularly complicated – at least not in the way I just described above. It’s an example of what I’m doing though:

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I’m well aware that there are countries with very strict censorship laws, and where art is forbidden or restricted.

That’s it.

When I first posted this, I made sure to point out that this advice is to be taken in the context of impostor syndrome, which is something I was reflecting on a lot at the time.

This is for those of us who want to make things, and who can make things, but who worry that we’re not doing it right or aren’t good enough, or that others will think we believe we’re better than them.

In short, it’s for those of use who worry and overthink, and who let that worry be an obstacle we struggle to overcome.


There is also a certain symbolism in putting this text on top of a picture of a cup of fancy coffee, but that’s a different topic of discussion.

Canned Wisdom – Introduction