Want to not suck? Here are a few things to consider

Welcome to Monday and this week's topic: Writing Tricks. At first I thought I was supposed to come up with an erotic story about composing "tricks" as in the prostitution turning-tricks sense. Then once I figured out that wasn't what they were going for, I cried a bit that my porn debut was ruined. I'm better now, and I think I can go on with some hopefully helpful advice. I've picked a few distinct problematic areas that I see with new writers and hopefully this will offer some insight into getting past them.

Worldbuilding
Every year when I speak at Gencon, I see a shirt for sale in the exhibitor hall. It's meant for people who play role playing games and it says: "Don't Tell Me About Your Character."

It inspires me and I think with a little tweak, it can be used on budding fantasy writers: Don't Tell Me About Your World.

Here's the mistake I see most often: You've just finished creating your awesome new world that your plot will happen in. I see you there, all comfortable and smug. You've poured your heart and soul into your creation. It's a labor of love. I see those eager puppy dog eyes as you sit their chomping at the bit to tell me, the reader, about it. Well, don't.

Chances are you're going to TELL me about your world, and no one wants to read that except you. It's sad but true. Here's why: Every writer wants you to love their world, but the common mistake is creating action-stopping info dumps where WAY too much needless exposition is given about the world that the reader simply doesn't need to know, at least, not at that point of the story. And certainly not in essay form. For instance, let's take a look at our good friend Grignor the Barbarian in a short example I've written. First the bad version:

Grignor the barbarian rushed into town, slaying the two guards on duty as he ran past the guilded gates of Argon. Normally, the gate would have been guarded by fifteen men or more, but hard times had fallen on Argon. Taxation had made its citizens poor, and what remaining money they had, they hid from the tax collectors. Thus the city was forced to lay off large quantities of its militia, leaving the northern gate mostly unattended.

Grignor ran down the cobbled streets. The cobbles were cracked and broken, the streets fallen into disrepair. Taxes had not only affected the poorly staffed gates, but the general economy of Argon. It's working populous had moved off to Bargon, a city not unlike Argon but with better schools and craftsmen. Woe to the poor people of Argon and their shoddy scant supply of stone masons!

Asleep yet? Notice how the action moving forward grinds to a standstill while the clever history of Argon is laid out in exacting detail? Notice how much you didn't care or wondered what it had to do with anything?

Good. Here's the scene in a way that gets across several of those points without sound too much like an essay on the Argonian economy.

Grignor rushed the gates of the once mighty city of Argon. He braced himself for the onslaught of guardsman the fabled city was famous for. As he approached, two guards ran forward from the dilapidated hut set off to one side.

Grignor laughed at the two men as they stopped and lifted their shields.

"This is what the Argonian people have to offer in the way of defense?" Grignor shouted.

One of the guards, the braver of the two, stuck his head out from around his shield. "The hard times of our once fair city are none of your concern, barbarian!"

As Grignor advanced, he felt his footing go out from under him. Looking down, he saw that one of the cracked cobblestones had shifted under his left foot, sending him falling to the ground. The braver of the guards approached the now prone barbarian.

"It seems our hard times have become your hard times as well," he said, and cleaved the barbarian's skull with one swift stroke.

Poor Grignor. The second piece gives you a sense that something has happened to the city of Argon, but only hints at it. What we do find out happens through dialogue and action that feeds the forward motion of the scene. Your world building should be a crib sheet for how people interact with each other within that world, not a history book showing how clever an author you are for telling me that 150 scheckles equals 734 Knuts given the Fllorrentian War with the Kaisterns across the Sea. See? I've even confused myself... time to move along.

For the second area I see a lot of mistakes, I'd like to talk briefly about Dialogue. I’m my own harshest critic, but if I had to say I do one thing well, it would be dialogue. Not that Grignor up above is any indication of that, but I wrote it in five minutes so ease up!

Here’s what I think about dialogue: keep it real, but also realize that saying "But that's how someone actually said it!" doesn't mean that it makes good dialogue on the printed page. Some dialogue simply doesn't translate well in the writing. Just cuz something DID happen that way for REAL doesn't make good fiction. Learn the difference... I'm not sure how to teach that, but I will say that weighing your beta readers criticisms when they say your dialogue sounds unrealistic or stilted is a good place to start.

Also...

Be VERY sparing if trying to write someone with an accent. There's nothing worse to me than reading something along the lines of :

"Eye kenna't git anymore power t' da' main in'juns, cap'n!"

It's distracting as hell, more often than not poorly written, and often times, unfathomable.

To me an accent, if really needed, is more of a seasoning like salt. Use a little and it can go a long way. Since readers tend to fill in the blanks anyway, if you tell them someone sounds like Patrick Stewart or some other era appropriate descriptor, that's what they’re going to hear when they read a line of dialogue from that character. It will accomplish exactly what the line of dialogue above fails to do.

That's my two cents this week. Now go in peace before I start talking about the fascinating bathroom habits of the inhabitants of the world of Argon!

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