Blog

Writing Techniques: Duplication

One of the most critical writing techniques you can develop is the ability to avoid duplication.  This is one of those things where it may not be obvious until someone points it out, after which it seems like the simplest thing in the world.  I’ve seen enough writing samples, and read enough books, to know this relatively simple concept is often not known or not followed.

So, what do I mean by duplication?  It’s fairly straightforward; it’s when a word is used in too close proximity to itself.   It can be in the paragraph above, in adjacent sentences, or even when the first word in a paragraph is used too many times in a row.

Solution

Avoiding this mistake is simple.  First you have to see it happening, then you have to get out the thesaurus.  There’s no shame in using a thesaurus as a crutch.  The more you use it, the better you’ll get at thinking of your own variations.  Sometimes, there are words that just don’t have suitable alternatives.  You might have to restructure your paragraph to avoid using that word again.  It requires a little extra work, but the results pay dividends.

Another time you see this is when you have a conversation with more than two people, and the author uses “said” over and over again.  Jane said, Joe said, Bob said, Jane said, Bob said.  It’s important that the reader knows who is talking so the name has to be referenced, but there are a million alternatives to using said!  Besides the synonyms, you can use physical actions instead of “said” to denote who is talking.  Joe shook his head, Bob shrugged, Jane grinned, etc.

A similar instance is when you have people shouting or whispering to each other.  This is even harder because there are fewer synonyms for these extremes.  I find it’s easiest to put more reliance on physical actions during the shouting to show who is talking and throw in the occasional “he shouted” just to remind people this is at high volume.

Exceptions

Like for any rule, there are exceptions.  Using the same word repeatedly can bring emphasis or comedic relief, but like all “break the rules for effect” tricks, it’s best used sparingly.  Personally, I probably wouldn’t use it more than a few times in a whole book.

I should emphasize that this is really only applicable to fiction writing.  Obviously for technical material, repeated use of the exactly precise word is not only expected, it is the correct method.  This can be used in creative writing when you have a technically-minded character, or when creating excerpts of technical material.

Writing is one of the most diverse methods of expression there is.  Keep it varied and avoid using duplication.

Writing Techniques: Show, Don’t Tell

This is the first of several writing technique pieces I’ve been meaning to write.  Hopefully you’ll find this useful.

One of the most common critiques in writing is the phrase, “show, don’t tell.”  For the beginning writer, and even for the intermediate writer, this can be hard to understand.  What do you mean by “show”?  And how is that different from “tell”?  This is especially painful for new writers who turn their masterpiece in to a critic and get panned for it.

Like all writers, I went through this myself.  My first books were riddled with the mistake, almost to the point where it was solely responsible for my ultimate decision to not publish them.  When I got my first book back from an editor for the very first time, their summation was (paraphrasing) “It’s not bad, but you need to rewrite it.”  That killed me.  I was in denial.  For three years I gave up on writing.

Only through repetition, practice, and a lot of editing did I finally understand what that phrase means and how to overcome it.  Hopefully I can share that with you and make someone else’s journey a little less painful.

Tell

Let’s break it down, starting with the error first, and then we’ll go into how to fix it.  First of all, what does the editor mean by “tell”?  It’s a book, isn’t it?  As an author, you’re telling a story!  So why is it so problematic?

When an editor is referring to “tell”, they’re talking about author-voice exposition.  You have some concept you’re trying to portray and it has its complexities that make explanation difficult.  You finally boil it down to a concise handful of paragraphs.  Bam!  It’s fast, it’s clear, the reader understands the situation and now we can move onto the exciting parts of the story.

Wrong.

This is exactly the wrong thing to do.  Every time you put the story on pause and go into exposition mode, you’re taking the reader out of the world.  Rather than the immersion you’re attempting, you’re achieving exactly the opposite.

Show

Showing, is, of course, the correct way to go about teaching the reader about your world.  But what is the difference between showing and telling?  Where “telling” is the author writing out paragraphs of information (also referred to as data-dumping), “showing” is having the characters experience the world you’re trying to tell.

Something that took me forever to understand, is if the characters don’t experience it, it doesn’t matter.  And if it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t belong in your book.  Seriously, it’s that simple.

Does the character interact with the data you want to explain?  Does the background data have any bearing on the decisions your characters are making?  Is the data needed for the reader to make sense of the world?

If you answer yes to any of these, then you have to “show” the reader the data.  If you answer no, then I can’t stress this enough: DO NOT WRITE IT.

How-To

There are a million variations of “telling” the reader and trying to cover all of it would be an exercise in futility.  I can, however, give you some basic examples that should help you understand how it is done.

If you’re trying to give background information to a city, or a place, you might be surprised how much data you can convey through description.  Rather than a few paragraphs about the storied sieges the city has survived, instead describe the battered city walls, “marred after years of throwing back the barbarian hordes.”  Or if you need more specific reference, have a character point out a place where the general of the last invasion was slain in a sortie.

If you need to give history to a character, explain some aspect that is relevant later, or whatever, figure out a way to do it through action.  Mail a letter home to mom.  Scratch at an old battle scar.

Unveiling the mysteries of your invented world is often one of the biggest challenges to writing.  There are a few tools you can use to overcome this problem.  The easiest, perhaps, is having the newcomer character, the recent arrival that needs things explained to.

Really, the key concept is action.  The characters should experience the world and discover the wonders you have in store.  Characters who know everything and don’t need to ask questions are boring to read about, the same way you don’t have a character who is automatically good at everything.

Engage your reader organically, cut away all the needless exposition, and you will have a book that reads a thousand times better and immerses your readers in the world you’re working so hard to create.

 

Researching in Writing

Writing is probably the purest expression of imagination.  In no other medium do you have quite the same potential for creating worlds, characters and situations.  Movies offer a more visual forum, but it’s the writing that brings everything to life.

In any form of communication, there is an expectation of reality that has to be met.  A good writer can build a world that is different than what we see about us every day in real life.  Magic and monsters, aliens and angels, the far distant past and the unimaginable future, all are under the sway of the writer.

But there are rules.  There is only so much deviation from reality that can be permitted.  The world has to be a cohesive whole.  You can have magic in the world, but there has to be structure and expectations as to its function.  There are some impressive-sounding words that are used to describe this, like ludonarrative dissonance, but what it all boils down to, is “does it make sense?”

Deus Ex Machina

A depressingly high percentage of writers just wing it.  Even in big-budget feature films, particularly in CGI sequences, you see things that interrupt your suspension of disbelief.  Physics has a very specific set of rules, and you can’t mess with that too much before you lose your audience.

Beyond the laws of physics, though, there are violations of the expected norm.  To quote Arthur C Clark, the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and oodles of other revolutionary sci fi books, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  And its true!  Try taking a cell phone back to the 16th century and see what they think of it.  When you’re writing space opera, you can pretty much do whatever you want, but you still have to maintain an expectation of reality.

You can’t deviate from your previous world-building with a new piece of magic technology to solve a problem.  In playwright jargon, this is called Deus Ex Machina, or “god in the machine.”  In Roman plays, this was literally an actor playing Zeus or another god who was lowered from the ceiling by a rope to resolve plot holes.  It might have made sense for the Romans, but in modern times, it’s just sloppy writing.  Don’t do it.

Research

This is where research comes into play.  Often, in science fiction in particular, a writer will want to describe something, resolve a problem, or create tension, and he has to use his imagination to construct the details.

Research is vital to writing!  And not just with sci-fi.  Even a simple car chase can have jarring deviations from reality if the author tries to describe down-shifting without knowing how it works.  The further you are from current reality with your world building, the closer you have to hew to expected norms.  This is even worse in hard sci-fi, where you’re trying to present a world that is free of magically effective technology.

Probably the biggest pitfall I’ve seen writers fall into is simply not knowing that they don’t know something.  If they opened Wikipedia or Google and searched for a few minutes, they would quickly discover the physics or the existing technology to describe their scenario.

Do Your Homework

You can’t be a good writer without research.  I would go so far as to say, you can’t write at all without research.  I’ve never written anything that didn’t require me to look up at least one fact.  For The December Protocol, I spend HOURS researching.  I had to memorize the geology, atmosphere, and environmental characteristics of Mars.  I had to researching mining techniques, superconducting electromagnetics, hydroponics, cryogenics, photosynthesis, engineering practices, and material tolerances.  Only then could I extrapolate from that sea of data and create scenarios that were realistic.

And now, with the sequel to The December Protocol, I’m having to do it all over again with Venus.  I have the Wikipedia page permanently open on my second monitor.  I’ve done dozens of hours of research, and I’m bound to do dozens more before the book is complete.

Failure to research is nothing less than laziness.  There are so many times that I get my suspension of disbelief ruined while reading or watching movies.  And most of the time I can come up with two or three solutions to the error that would fit within the world and even make a stronger scene or more impactful event.

I guess all I’m trying to say is, if you want to write, be prepared to research.

Interview with an Audiobook Producer

I had a chance to ask the producer of the audiobook for The December Protocol some questions and I jumped at the chance! Rhett Samuel Price is a brilliant performer and a skilled voice actor that has a talent for bringing the characters in books to life.

Q: How do you come up with the different voices for the characters?
A: Great question! Character voices are generally determined by the author’s description of the character based on their age, where the character was born, where they grew up, any speech difficulties, etc., etc. Little subtleties can also influence a character’s voice such as the line “He was never afraid of crowds, but when he spoke, it was like his voice came from the shadows”. Well, I’m no writer, but you get the idea. But if a character has no description, then I’m free to use any voice I please, especially a generic one for someone who shows up only once or twice, or crowd scenes.

Q: Do you practice the separate voices?
A: Yes, for a line or two until I get the sound right and hear it played back. Once it sounds right, I’m off to the races. There are times however, for me specifically, when I record a character’s voice and the narration goes off track. That means my mind isn’t comfortable with the voice I’ve recorded, so I’ll take a break, think about it, and usually it comes to me; then I’m back to recording on a roll.

Q: How long does it take to record a chapter (4000 words or so)?
A: Hmmm, well, that depends on a couple of factors. The most important factor is phraseology and the ability for the listener to hear and digest what has been narrated. Even with the same number of words, a medical text outlining the procedures from brain surgery will generally take longer than a sci-fi passage describing an action scene. But on average, a chapter with 4000 words is a 4 to 1 endeavor. Meaning, for every finished hour of audio you hear, it takes 4 hours of time to record, edit and master the file into a listenable format. The best in this field can break it down to either 3 to 1 or 2 to 1. Newer narrators are closer to 6 to 1; there’s just so much to learn. My personal current breakdown is 3 to 1.

Q: How long have you been a voice actor for?
A: When I look back, ironically, all my life 30++ years. I’ve been doing some form of play acting on stage, singing or public speaking from a young age. The majority of audiobook narrators come from some type of an acting, television, radio or public speaking background. As for narrating audiobooks, I have been doing this since 2010.

Q: What made you want to start voice acting?
A: Again, I’ve been voice acting for a long time, enjoying a professional stint for 8 years as a traffic reporter for KABC TV, Channel 7 in Los Angeles and Orange Counties; and for numerous radio stations in both English and Spanish. But the desire to record audiobooks came about from listening to a masterpiece. “The Book Thief” written by Markus Zusak and narrated by Allan Corduner. Allan’s brilliant narration brought the entire book to life and sparked my interest in narrating. After that, a chance encounter with Patrick Fraley and Scott Brick began my journey with the gracious help of Jeffrey Kafer who gave me my first book to narrate.

Q: What kind of recording equipment do you use?
A: In the beginning, I had no idea which microphone to choose, but George Whittam, a brilliant engineer in his own right suggested an E700 Charter Oak microphone. It is a large diaphragm mic powered by a Golden Age Pre 73 mk2, connecting into a MOTU mk3 Ultralite interface, going into my 27 inch iMac, using Adobe Audition CC 2018 as my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation).

Q: Have you ever had to voice a project you didn’t enjoy?
A: Unfortunately, there are times when a narrator receives a project that is less than enjoyable, and I have encountered this dilemma. But my job is to make the read enjoyable for you, the listener. I always remind myself, “That which may not lift my spirit, can still fill someone’s imagination with wonder and excitement.”

Q: What was your favorite project?
A: A favorite project for me is one which transports me directly into the world written by the author. I have had the privilege to work with several talented authors who have achieved this goal, and Devin Hanson certainly did that for me with “The December Protocol”. I am also honored to have been chosen as a narrator of choice for his future projects. I love Devin’s writing style and his gift for creating fantastic worlds and I look forward to working with him in the near future!

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring voice actors?
A: Yes, definitely. Make sure you take classes with established “trusted” coaches, actors and narrators. Study others who are successful in the field and immolate them, while retaining your own voice. Remember, actors go to plays; singers go to operas; musicians go to concerts; narrators listen to audiobooks. If you are specifically looking at becoming an audiobook narrator, I would suggest you try this test created by Sean Allen Pratt, it is by far, the best advice before you “dive” into the world of narrating audiobooks, or “long form narration” as it’s called. The test begins at 2:15, but the entire video (5:40) is worth listening to. If you pass this test and still want to narrate, feel free to send me an email through my website: www.thevoiceofrhett.com/.

The Anatomy of a Problem: Creating Tension in Stories

Everyone likes a compelling story plot.  We enjoy the tension, the edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting excitement.  And yet, despite the simplicity of the subject, it’s still not something grasped by many writers.

You know the stories I’m talking about.  The ones that have all the elements of a gripping story, but then they just fall flat on their face.  It’s not just books that fail to create tension, movies and tv shows are also victims of lukewarm writing.

The Problem

Let’s look at the anatomy of a problem, as this is at the core of creating tension.  To have a problem, you must have two opposing impulses that are balanced.  To create tension, you must have a goal that has to be reached, except the problem is in the way.

Example: Frodo must get the Ring to Mordor and cast it into Mount Doom or the forces of Sauron will overrun the civilization of man.  Let’s break this down.

Impulse A: Frodo and the Fellowship trying to get to Mount Doom.
Impulse B: Sauron searches for his lost ring, orcs, goblins, etc.
Goal: Save the world.

Tension is created when it seems like Impulse A is about to be stopped by Impulse B.  Catharsis is achieved when Impulse A overcomes Impulse B through pluck, wit, teamwork, heroism, etc.  The cycle of tension and catharsis is what makes a story compelling.

Failure to produce tension occurs when no problem is presented.  There are many ways this can happen, but it really boils down to a failure to create a balance.  The bad guys seem overwhelmingly powerful, the good guys handle all incoming threats without breaking a sweat, there doesn’t seem to be a purpose behind the opposing impulses, etc.

I find this lack of tension most evident in the horror movie genre.  Too often the plot is just an excuse to have women running around screaming, gratuitous gore, jump scares, and stomach-twisting scenarios.  There is nothing wrong with that, in itself, but it’s so easy to create tension and all that stuff.

Pitfalls

Often in a story, you’ll have the good guys searching for some tool or method to overcome the seemingly overwhelming threat of the bad guys.  They find the magic MacGuffin, they learn a new spell, recruit the new ally, etc.  Then, hooray, the bad guy is overthrown!  The day is saved!

And then a sequel is produced and the heroes are more powerful than before.  Therefore, to create tension, the bad guys have to be even more bad, the threat has to be even more dangerous.  To compensate, the heroes become even stronger!  And it goes spiraling upward until Superman is created in a desperate bid to stay relevant.

Superman is the worst hero.  He’s too powerful!  Nothing can stop him but the MacGuffin.  He can do everything.  So how in the world are you supposed to create an equal and opposite impulse?  You end up with Batman vs. Superman, and the catharsis is that their moms have the same name.  Excuse me?  What hack thought that up?

There are a few ways to avoid this upward spiral of power.  One way is to carefully plan out every sequel so you finish the story you want to tell before your protagonist turns into a new pantheon just to contain their awesomeness.  Another is to recognize when a story needs to end and putting that final period in.

I used a third method in writing the Dragon Speaker Series.  Rather than sticking with the same protagonists and gradually spiraling out of control, the second half of the series follows a different set of protagonists.  Same world, fresh slate.  I can start with the basics and have character progression and expanding ability without turning the original protagonist into a god.

Application

When coming up with a new story, the core problem and goal is the first thing you have to create.  Sub plots revolve around the core problem, and build up pressure behind one impulse or the other.

Most importantly, you have to tell your audience what the problem and goal are.  When a story “starts slow” it’s because there’s a delay in presenting the problem or goal.  Often you have an explosive beginning to a story (literally or figuratively) because a moment of catharsis is the best way to introduce the core problem.  It sets the stakes, introduces the impulses, and gets the ball rolling.  However you achieve it, getting your audience clued in to the problem and goal should be the first thing you do, regardless of medium.

The Solution to Writer’s Block

What is my solution to writer’s block?

I think every author has a different approach to handling writer’s block.  Some of the things I’ve heard have varied from ludicrous to simply impractical.  “Write drunk, edit sober” may have been Ernest Hemingway’s solution, but I find it particularly inane.

Pretty much every writing site has their own version of the “15 Best Ways to Eliminate Writer’s Block!” list.  Most of them are just bad, with a few nuggets of wisdom thrown in.

Getting exercise is generally a good idea, but won’t solve your plot holes.  Drinking water and eating healthy helps your mind function, but won’t spawn new ideas.  Writing when you’re high/drunk/exhausted/etc. just makes more work for you and your editor.

It’s easy to criticize what other people suggest as solutions to writer’s block.  It’s harder to come up with something that will actually work.

The Solution

I’ve never had writer’s block.  Occasionally I might slow down during a tricky part, or get hung up for a few minutes while I puzzle through a plot.  But I’ve never been unable to write anything for days on end.  I’ve never sat down to write and been unable to get words out onto the paper.

So, what’s my trick?

There’s a drill that I do every once in a while, that never fails to keep the creative juices flowing.  You can do it by yourself or with another person.  It’s fun to do if you have a writing group, or during long car rides.

Here’s how the drill works.  First, you pick two things at random.  The things can be anything.  Bats.  Building Codes.  Rubber.  Chalk Cliffs.  Database.  Mosque.  Gym.  Livestock.  Sponge.  Eclipse.  Wind.  Pastries.  Foam.  Paint.  Paper.  Manhunt.  Minion.  Acupuncture.  Mountain.  Personality.  Clothing.  Medication.  Oatmeal.  Or whatever pops to mind.

Once you have your two subjects, now try and create a story from those subjects.  It doesn’t have to be complex or fleshed out.  Just try and find some connection between the two subjects and come up with a short plot.  As a note, try and avoid verbs.  They’re too limiting.

Let’s try an example.  So you know I’m not cheating, I’ll use Merriam-Webster’s word of the day calendar.  Going back in time to the first two nouns, I get “instauration”, which means a restoration after decay or lapse, and “mnemonic”, which means assisting or intended to assist memory.

That’s almost too easy.  Fiction is full of memory restoration plots.  So, let’s go back one more and get “embargo”, meaning a prohibition against commerce.  Mnemonic Embargo.  Hey, now we’re on to something.

Immediately, I get plot threads coming to mind about trading memories and how there’s a market for the memories of athletes winning the big game or the mental processes of a genius.  I have to work embargo into the plot, so let’s say the memory trade is illegal as it can be addictive and is treated as a Schedule 1 narcotic, the same as meth or cocaine.

And then a story plot: the protagonist comes across a memory chip that contains an extremely valuable or dangerous memory.  The last moments of an international spy, or the secret to cold fusion.  The protagonist gets dragged into a plot arc trying to stay alive and eventually doing something with the memory.

That took me all of 20 seconds to come up with.  This drill is something that you can do over and over, fleshing out your ideas as much as you want, or keeping it quick and dirty before someone else has to come up with the next story.  For added challenge, you can try and come up with multiple unique story plots using the same words.

Why it Works

Doing this drill gets you into the habit of forming connections between things.  I find when my writing slows down, it’s because I can’t make the jump connecting two plot arcs, or I’ve written my characters into a hole and can’t figure out how to get them out.  This drill builds flexibility in your mind and helps you come up with creative solutions.

It’s also a great tool for coming up with new story ideas.  That bit with the black-market memory chips could be developed into a novel.  It needs some more fleshing out and a handful of adjacent plot arcs to complicate things, but that’s something easily accomplished in an afternoon of thinkering.  (It’s like tinkering, but in your mind.)

Give it a shot!  Tell a friend the rules and make a game out of it.  You’ll be astonished how quickly you pick it up and how creative you can be.

How did I become a writer?

How did I become a writer?

writer's blockEveryone wants to be a writer.  I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who had no desire to put their own imagination into words.  Unfortunately, writing is one of those things that schools just do not know how to teach.  Being able to write seems to be a skill you either have or you don’t.  If you don’t have whatever magical spark that makes words go down on paper, then you’re doomed to failure.

Fortunately, that’s not true.  Anyone can learn to write, and write well.  So, how did I learn how to write?  What was the spark that I found to make the words roll out?

Beyond the basic mechanical knowledge of grammar and spelling, the two things school can actually help with, being able to write boils down to two things: reading and writing.

Reading

That sounds trite, but let me explain.  To be a good writer, you need to read.  A lot.  For reasons, I ended up being kicked out of school for about a year when I was fourteen.  After a failed attempt at homeschooling, my parents settled on the library as a way to keep me occupied (we didn’t have kindle when I was young, we barely had internet; if you wanted to read a book, you had to go somewhere and get one.)

For six months, my parents would make a weekly trip to the library with me, and between me and my siblings, we needed multiple laundry baskets to carry home our books for the week.  My parents had to sign up for extra library cards and we had a dedicated bookshelf for our weekly haul.  I read hundreds of books that year, and started a habit of reading that never went away.

If you want to write, you have to read.  Not only does it ingrain in you a sense of flow, grammar and spelling, it gets you into the habit of using your imagination.

So much for reading.

Writing

The next part of being a writer is to write.  Note the lack of qualifications on that statement.  You don’t need to write well, you don’t need to write fast.  What you do need to do is sit down regularly, every day, during a set time, and write.  Turn off the TV, tell your family to leave you alone, and start hitting that keyboard.

Your first efforts will be terrible.  They will be so bad, they won’t be salvageable.  You’ll spend hundreds of hours and come away with a story that has no redeeming qualities beyond compost.  There’s nothing wrong with that!

My first attempts were miraculously bad.  I wrote two and a half books of a trilogy and a few half-finished stories, totaling somewhere in the neighborhood of 400,000 words, then scrapped everything.  Friends and family thought they were okay, even a few people declared them the best thing they had ever read.  But I knew they weren’t worth publishing, even as a self-published book on Amazon.  I was embarrassed to have those books associated with my name.

It wasn’t that way when I was writing them, of course.  I was doing the best that I could and trying to make the stories as interesting as I was able.  By the end of that process, I realized that what I was writing now was actually decent, and the stuff I had been proud of a year earlier was garbage.  Somewhere during that 400,000 words, I had transformed from writing down what was cool (in my head), to having an actual writing style and technique.

It was devastating, realizing that all that work I had put in was wasted.  I couldn’t publish the second book of the trilogy, even though it was pretty good, because the first book was such a disaster.  The third book I abandoned in despair.

For almost two years, I couldn’t write another word.  The thought of going back and re-writing an entire book was just too much.  Then I came up with a new story idea and started putting it down on paper.  Tentatively, I shared my early progress around, demanding actual feedback and not a back-pat.  The reviews I got were positive and I remembered that I was actually good at this (now.)

That was the start of the Dragon Speaker Series.  Rune Scale turned out to be good enough that I felt proud to have it published under my name.  That isn’t to say it was perfect.  Not by a long shot.  But it was a foundation I could build upon.

I think anyone reading my books will agree that the first book is not as well written as my current stuff.  That’s fine!  Good, even.  I would be worried if I hadn’t improved over the course of a million words.  If I go back and read Rune Scale now, it’s a little cringy in parts, there are things I would have written differently, but as a whole it’s still acceptable.

So that’s the second part.  If you want to write, you have to write.  A lot.  A few short stories are not going to make you into a writer.  It will help, it’s definitely better than nothing, but it takes hundreds of thousands of words to develop a style, and hundreds of thousands of words after that to refine your style into something worthwhile.  But it can be done!

Arithmetic?

If you’re not afraid of failing, if you’re willing to sacrifice the hours to get past your initial awful attempts, if you read and learn from successful authors, you too can become a writer.

I believe in you, if nobody else will.