Context: When To Stop Thinking And Allow Your Story To Speak For Itself

 

A lot of the time, when you sit down to work on your story, you forget that your reader lacks inherent context.

Necessary Context

You have your main character walk into a room; you, as the author, know what the room looks like, and you automatically place yourself there with the smells and the clutter (or lack thereof), etc. Not only do you, as the author see and feel the room about you, as you imagine it, but you have an instinctual sense about what has happened in that room before.

You know what the contextual emotive memories are contained within the energy of the room.

How Much Is Too Much? Or Too Little?

Now, the reader doesn’t have any of that.

Your job, to ground and suck the reader straight into the core of your fictional world, is to give just enough context to inflame the reader’s imagination without pulling them away from the flow of action.

This is surprisingly difficult, and leads to many hair-pulling agonies over how much description to put in, and whether you ought to just say it’s a room, and so on.

No Info-Dumps, Folks Say

The problem is tenfold when you have a new planet, or a foreign species, or a new magical system.

How can you immerse the reader without overwhelming them or writing a completely boring (to them, maybe) treatise about your magical rules.

The answer is easy-peasy, and you already know instinctually how to do it.

Give the reader context, just the context pertinent to the story at hand, and everything will take care of itself.

Examples

BAD Writing:

Liam laid down his torch and examined his work.

“Good enough,” he said.

He left the area and mounted his robotic muscle-cat, which clanked into gear at his kick and carried him to his humble domicile.

Then Liam went to sleep, and got up to get to work again the next morning, doing the same thing he’d done before. He was nearly finished.

“I’m doing so well,” Liam said over his exotic lunch.

GOOD Writing:

Liam held the blistering welding torch close to the arch of black rock. He watched the alien strata melt gradually, and smoothed the flame of the torch in a curve until this arch matched the rock on the other side of the entry way.

Liam turned off the torch and stepped back, pulling free his face shield and thick goggles. He glared between the two sides of the ceremonial door, comparing the sinuous shapes carved through the rock.

Hobork aliens had perfectly symmetrical faces, though their bodies were often wildly mismatched on either side, and they insisted on perfection in the design and execution of their front doors.

Liam sucked on his lower lip and glared at the two sides of the rock entry. Almost, he thought, and he sighed, replaced his goggles and face shield, and got back to work.

When he climbed out of the black catacombs later that evening, his supplies strapped to his back and his hands encased in gloves to protect from the heat of sun-drenched stone outside, he whistled in a shrill, short burst for his riding machine, which was shaped like a steel-silver cat and jointed through all four legs. The machine moved through the mountains like a lion in the dusk, climbing up the hot black rocks and coming to rest with a thick, tired clank nearby.

Liam packed his things into the body of the muscle-cat and swung onto the seat, a worn leather saddle built into the shoulders. Liam rode down the black mountain to the long expanse of dark desert sand. He felt with his heels for the wheel-transfer knobs, and kicked them down.

The jointed legs of the heavy silver cat groaned and squealed as they folded into thick, armored wheels, and a huge track of black sand spat into the air as Liam rode the roaring cat-turned-vehicle through the twilight towards his fiberglass hut. He’d see about getting paid for the door carving tomorrow, if he could find the Hobork at all. Hobork aliens had a tendency to tunnel under the mountains to hibernate unexpectedly, and Liam had the sinking feeling that his door work might not be paid for until next spring.

And So

There is a core thread in your story of ‘What is happening?’, and if you provide context to ground and explain what is happening, as it becomes pertinent to the chain of the main story, your world-building will balance easily, your fiction will be immersive, and your readers will not get bored or annoyed over excessive descriptions.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my latest novel, Susan Tinnels is wearing a very fancy red dress and is going out on a very important date.

 

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When To Start Fleshing In World-Building

This is what a first draft looks like:

Jeff didn’t mean to kill his sister. It all started the afternoon the alien overlords made themselves known. Jeff won, or lost, depending on your perspective, the lottery for human tokens, and was taken into the mother ship on a Tuesday.

His alien turned out to be a fat corpuscular vein-ridden white blob who had the vague appearance of a Biblical matron, though Jeff couldn’t tell if this was a result of the big gray beard or the colorful, feminine robes.

The first thing that happened to Jeff was a cosmetic surgery to make him appear female on the outside, and the second was a partial body-replacement to make him fertile and capable of carrying a pregnancy. After those two things were finished, he got fitted with what felt like a pair of blue dentures and a pair of spongey earphones. Jeff was ushered back into the room where the corpuscular bearded alien resided.

“Take off your clothes or I’ll kill you,” the white blob-face said. The alien’s voice came vibrating through the spongey earphones and made Jeff’s teeth ache. He took off his clothes. He was not at all used to his girlish body yet, having inhabited it for less than two days. “Speak,” the alien commanded.

“Hi, I’m Jeff,” he said. The blue dentures clamped down on his teeth and gums, and a different sound came out. He could just hear the echo of his own words through the earphones.

“Jeff. I wanted a girl,” the alien said, in a tone that, to Jeff, spelled clear displeasure.

“I have a sister,” Jeff said. He was appalled, as soon as he’d said this. He had not at all meant to draw attention to the existence of Valerie. Jeff was nervous, and wanted to make a good impression. He’d only tried to make small talk.

As he watched the white blobbish alien open a dark cavity and slaver a pale blue tongue over what appeared to be mushy lips, Jeff shivered. I could say that she’s dead, Jeff thought, but this was a lie that would so easily be found out that he didn’t dare. He held his breath and waited for the alien to speak.

“How old?” it asked.

“I’m twenty-six,” Jeff said.

“Not you. The female,” the alien said. Jeff started to tremble.

Tiny Break For Drawings!

Here are some more practice sketches:

torso

This is when world-building comes into play:

Jeff didn’t mean to kill his sister. It (this word is too vague: what started, exactly? Clues can be added here of when/where this is happening, as well as details that can show who Jeff is [age, situation, general physical appearance]) all started the afternoon the alien overlords made themselves known (this could easily be replaced with a couple of details to give more grounded information about how and why they revealed themselves). Jeff won, or lost, depending on your perspective (the word ‘your’ should be replace with an internally-consistent address, and also, info on who would be pleased to be chosen would be wise to insert here), the lottery for human tokens (what human tokens are needs to be at least hinted at hear, to avoid excess reader frustration), and was taken (by whom was he taken? This is a crazy-good opportunity for powerful world-building, especially as it pertains to the aliens) into the mother ship on a Tuesday (what day it was only matters if it adds tone or give more information on Jeff or the aliens, so this phrasing might need to change, depending on how the world-building in the rest of the sentence goes).

His alien (are they assigned to only one? More detail about how the token human process works is needed) turned out to be a fat corpuscular vein-ridden white blob (this must be cleaned up, and also, commas added in when needed) who had the vague appearance of a Biblical matron (promising phrase, but not clear enough, as we don’t know how big he/she/it is), though Jeff couldn’t tell if this was a result of the big gray beard (what?!) or the colorful, feminine robes (how feminine? Are there curves? Again, what?!).

The first thing that happened (this is an extremely passive phrase; who did it to him? This is essential world-building info.) to Jeff was a cosmetic surgery to make him appear female on the outside (details are needed on this, because it could mean several different things. Also, who is performing the surgery, and is it with alien tech? How long does it take, etc.?), and the second was a partial body-replacement (also intriguing, but what?!) to make him fertile and capable of carrying a pregnancy (why? And an alien kid, or a human one?). After those two things were finished (again, by whom? The timeline is too vague), he got fitted (by whom? There’s a pattern of passive actions that is driving me nuts.) with what felt like a pair of blue dentures and a pair of spongey earphones. Jeff was ushered back into the room where the corpuscular bearded (prev) alien resided.

“Take off your clothes or I’ll kill you,(are human tokens that disposable? Does Jeff know if the alien really will kill him?) the white blob-face said. The alien’s voice came vibrating through the spongey earphones and made Jeff’s teeth ache. He took off his clothes (what was he wearing? More potential world texture, for how the aliens have dressed him). He was not at all used to his girlish body (what does it look like?!) yet, having inhabited it for less than two days. (Okay, here’s some timeline, but too little and too late in the action. This should be earlier.) “Speak,” the alien commanded.

“Hi, I’m Jeff,” he said. The blue dentures clamped down on his teeth and gums, and a different sound came out. He could just hear the echo of his own words through the earphones. (Can he hear his English words, or only the alien translation?)

“Jeff. I wanted a girl,” the alien said, in a tone that, to Jeff, spelled clear displeasure.

“I have a sister,” Jeff said. He was appalled, as soon as he’d said this. He had not at all meant to draw attention to the existence of Valerie. Jeff was nervous, and wanted to make a good impression. (Why does he want to make a good impression? What are the relations between humans and aliens at this time? Is he some kind of ambassador?) He’d only tried to make small talk.

As he watched the white blobbish alien open a dark cavity and slaver a pale blue tongue over what appeared to be mushy lips, (I still want more of an initial description of the alien earlier on, so I can imagine the mouth and tongue better, if it looks like a mouth.) Jeff shivered. I could say that she’s dead, Jeff thought, but this was a lie that would so easily be found out that he didn’t dare. He held his breath and waited for the alien to speak.

“How old?” it asked.

“I’m twenty-six,” Jeff said.

“Not you. The female,” the alien said. Jeff started to tremble.

And now, with world-building:

Jeff didn’t want to kill his sister. The whole ugly mess, and Jeff’s descent into murder, began one quiet, snow-carpeted Tuesday when Jeff was preparing for his dissertation defense in the university library.

If he hadn’t been fixated on his graduate work, he probably would have heard a lot sooner about the fact that aliens had revealed themselves to the human race, and announced that they were prepared to become benign overlords and advanced mentors to the people of Earth.

Unfortunately for Jeff, he had arrived at the library at five in the morning, his dark blond hair shoved under a cap and his ears muffled already in noise-cancelling headphones, and he remained in a secluded study nook until well past midnight. He missed the entire day’s events, and walked home through the fresh-falling snow without once looking up from the slushy sidewalk.

Jeff only realized something was different when he climbed the concrete steps to his apartment building. His eyes were on the ground, and he saw a thick cluster of boots and shoes lining the higher steps.

Jeff looked up. It appeared to him that most of the residents of the building had attempted to squeeze onto the tiny staircase. More people were crowded in the entryway beyond the open double doors. His first thought was that it was too cold to leave the front doors open. He recognized Mrs. Henaly, and her expression was so tight and pinched that he glanced around at the other faces. They looked excited and afraid. Jeff blinked and looked down the darkened street.

A second crowd of people were jammed into the next door building’s front stoop, and Jeff turned and saw a third collection of gawkers at the steps of the building on the other side.

They were all staring at him. Jeff looked back at them, and no one said a word. Jeff suppressed a shiver and continued up the stairs. He had expected the crowd to part. My grandmother is dead, probably, Jeff told himself, though he knew this was a very unlikely excuse for the kind of attention so many strangers were lavishing upon him. None of the residents of the building moved at all; they formed an impenetrable barrier of bodies.

“Can I get through, please?” Jeff asked. He reached up and pulled his noise-cancelling earphones down to hang around his neck.

As soon as they headphones shifted from over his hears, Jeff heard a load, raging echo, like the thunder of stampeding beasts. The sound filled the air, and seemed to throttle right into his heart, and shake him. He couldn’t imagine how he hadn’t heard it at first, for the noise made his body tremble. He realized, after a moment, that it was not the volume of the sound, but a sibilant quality of portentous rumble that made him vibrate.

I’m afraid; it isn’t loud, Jeff told himself, and he looked around to find a causation for the sound. He could see nothing but the dim shadows of the crowded people at either neighboring building, and when he turned to look at the street, several pairs of hands reached out and pushed him hard from behind.

Jeff stumbled down the concrete steps and fell down in the slush and fresh-fallen snow.

“Hey!” he said, twisting to see who had pushed him.

A personage that Jeff could only describe to himself as an alien stood between him and the stairs.

“Your people have cooperated. They keep the curfew. We will not enter on their steps,” the alien said. The creature was fully seven feet tall, dark blue, apparently naked, and very gracefully-thin. Jeff couldn’t see the eyes at all, but the face looked vaguely humanoid.

“What’s going on? What’s–what is this?” Jeff asked.

“Will you come in good peace, or shall I take you by force?” the alien asked.

“Where am I going?” Jeff asked. He tried to see the faces of the people on the stairs of the building, but many of them had retreated into the apartment complex. Mrs. Henaly was still by the open door, staring at him with an inscrutable expression in her eyes.

“Up,” the alien said, pointing to the sky with one long blue finger.

“Do I have a choice?” Jeff asked.

“It would seem you are of low intelligence. Unfortunate,” the alien said, and it crouched and laid hold of Jeff’s shoulder.

“Well, wait!” Jeff shouted, but his body was disintegrating, and the street pulled away from his view.

And then the story keeps going towards the information already established in the first draft

When writing fiction about strange worlds or creatures, I find it best to start with an encapsulating action through-line, and then to go through the draft again and add the padding necessary to create a lush and desirable world.

World-building, to me, doesn’t work very well when you begin with charts and details about cultures. Characters reveal culture, and when you start with strong characters, the culture becomes resonant and living, as you world-build around an established core thread of action and character relationship.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current book, one of Crikey’s employees is having an awkward conversation with his wife right now.

Is Your Writing Good Enough?

Being an actor is really challenging. Not only do you have to figure out how to make everyone like you while pretending to be another person, you also have to master the delicate art of becoming popular, which, if you’re a normal human from an average background, is fraught with complication.

Popularity Is A Deliberate Skill

If you’re from a terrible background, and you have to cope with all the neurosis and maladjustments accordant to that circumstance, things can feel a little sticky and impossible.

I went to acting school, or I have formal training as an actor, in any case. There was a kind of journey that I went on, as an actor, from the beginning to the end of my acting program.

From The Beginning To The End

At the start, I was naive, full of myself, very talented (and I didn’t know it), and supremely confident in my ability to figure things out and become the very best.

Then life happened, and very poor directors happened, and really damaging classwork happened on top of that, and I started to look about myself and think.

I Didn’t Blame My Teachers, At First

Why, I asked myself, was I such a worse actor than I had been when I started out? After all, studying, and being surrounded by like-minded aspirants and supposed professionals in the art should have, I thought, prepared me to be super awesome as an actor.

I’ve read visual artists saying (writing) that their time in art school, receiving training and instruction, was only valuable insofar as the experience hammered into their brains how completely helpless and useless formal instruction is. Their point, as they were writing, was that art school allowed (or forced) them to the realization that they were their only secure and reliable source for inspiration, teaching, and improvement. That the idiotic waste of art school forced them back into their private, personal spring of talent and inspiration.

That They Had To Become Artists On Their Own

I feel a similar way about acting school. I really don’t enjoy speaking negatively about things, and I resisted taking a realistic view of my training until it was almost over, but at last the damage, both to myself and my classmates, was so pervasive, so inhumane, and so unanimously perverse that I faced the music, as it were, and woke up.

I cut off my heart and my mind from my (genuinely terrible) instructors–and I want to say that when I call them terrible, I don’t only mean that they didn’t teach very well, though most of them didn’t teach well at all. I mean that they lied and cheated and set up long-term contextual scenarios that destroyed young actors, and they did it on purpose because they were bitter people with no inner substance.

I Sound So Cynical, I Think, But They Did

I cut off my heart and my mind from my instructors, and I determined to figure things out for myself. I took all the information and impressions and experiences I had personally gathered over the years I had studied theatre, both before school and during it, and I began to experiment.

The first thing I learned was that my teachers sucked a lot more than I’d ever given them credit for. You see, as I began to dabble in learning for myself, I, of course, required bodies with which to experiment, and I found out, in the first two months of doing so, that I had a genius for teaching and changing the bodies around me.

I Can Release A Person’s Natural Self

I could  make people do things on stage that were objectively glorious. I could create visceral emotional interactions on stage, in scene work, that gave anyone–anyone–watching, chills. When my work was going on, the room got very quiet. People turned still inside. They started to think deep things about morality, and God, and shit like that.

I was really, really good.

The second thing I discovered is that all of my instructors but two were actually evil.

No, Really

You see, when I changed actors’ bodies, and taught real, effective acting (and how I know how to do that is a really long story, not having anything to do with today’s subject), all but two of the mature, supposedly professional acting instructors got strangely irritated.

The two okay ones, the two non-evil teachers, were enormously pleased by my work, and wanted more of it. They wanted me, and my genius, and they wanted everything to change so that this kind of authentic work was happening in all the classrooms, for all the students, and in all the theatre productions involved with the school.

They were on the side of learning, and growth, and right.

Tension Between Established Old People Ensued

The rest of the professors didn’t come out and say anything, exactly, but contextually, they all shifted, and started to cooperate in concert. It was a little like a hunting party, or a creepy conspiracy film.

They didn’t want change, and they didn’t want their established power to go away. That’s when I really knew, deep in my heart, how rotten they were, and how bad each of those people were at creating art.

Angry, Empty People Who No Longer Sought To Create With Authenticity

They were exploiters, and predators. Icky people.

Anyway, back on point. What I found out, as I started to mold and open people’s bodies in acting, and through scene work, I discovered that all the dozens of really horrible actors and immature hobbyists around me (the students) were insanely talented, in terms of potential power and native ability.

I Was Startled By The Depth Of Their Talent

They were blocked, and they were ignorant, and had no idea how to access their own powers of creation, but they were legitimately precious resources, and had nearly endless potential for professional-grade, stunning acting work.

This situation startled me. I’d thought the bad actors were without ability, because their classwork, before I opened them up and made them behave like themselves, was so genuinely awful and insensible. These actors slowly transformed into the kind of exciting talent prospects that would make a film agent salivate, and I started to apply the ramifications of this situation to myself.

I Wanted A Blueprint For Acting Cultivation

I’d started with the idea of learning how to act, and in the process, I learned about creativity in general.

You see, when you set out to create, you are forming a visceral part of your own, true self, your actual energy and spiritual, unseen self, and transforming it into some kind of medium to be seen and consumed by other humans.

You’re harvesting droplets, or buckets, as the case may be, of essence from your deepest unique self, and proffering it to other people, who may or may not choose to take it, taste it, and consume it, if they like it.

Creative Disciplines, And The Emotional Exchange Of Art

This goes across acting, writing, drawing, and singing. And dance, and programming, and math, and every other creative medium. Anything requiring creative energy.

People who last, and who thrive over time in any creative discipline, do so by treating their own lives as a plant, a precious tree. They harvest from themselves, and they feed and tend themselves with an understanding, whether instinctual or deliberate, that they cannot get product without first caring for the productive plant of self.

So, now we come to today’s topic.

Is Your Writing Good Enough?

The real question that you need to be asking yourself is this:

Is my writing clean? Is it mature, fully-developed, and edible?

I’m serious about the edible part, actually. When you consume a piece of artwork, whether through seeing performance, taking in writing, or any other transaction of the senses, your energy structure opens up and you absorb, depending on the quality of the spiritual food, actual aural energy into your innermost being.

You are a living human being. In essence, you are a tree.

And Are Therefore Capable of Producing Leaves, Blossoms, Fruit, Or Seeds

Asking yourself if you can make fruit is not productive, and asking yourself if anyone likes to eat fruit is a similar waste of time.

The real question, and the only productive question, is how well and how deliberately you are caring for your own emotional, physical, and total creative being.

Your writing is good enough, always, impinging on the condition that you are feeding and caring for yourself as an inherently productive tree.

And Now, A Metaphor Or Two

A zebra who has an existential crisis about whether or not he is an elephant is wasting his time.

A heron who sits all day and agonizes over whether or not she was really meant to fly, and if she’s good enough to fly, is similarly going nowhere, as far as getting a satisfactory flight going on.

Action is the answer. You are human, and your soul is designed to create, in whatever medium suits your tastes.

Confused Creatures Who Are Afraid Of Being Something Else

Your writing, by default, is good enough, because you are human, conditional upon you treating yourself as a creative entity and caring for yourself as such.

A heron who agonizes about the value of her flight will never fly, though she can, and should.

A zebra who ponders the moral dilemma of possibly not really being an effective zebra, avoids the natural life and satisfaction zebras presumably get out of being zebras.

My Student Actors

Stop asking yourself if your writing is good enough, and start asking yourself if your writing (which, by default, is good enough by dint of being produced by you, as long as you accept that you are a creative being) is clean enough to be desirable to other humans.

My student actors were all good enough. They all, every single one, it turned out, had enough talent, and enough prospective skill to become legitimately successful, given many years of discipline and targeted self-care and cultivation.

You Are A Fertile Plant, Spiritually

Their acting was good enough. The question for them, and for you, is this: Are you currently engaging in a lifestyle and a method of self-care that will allow you to produce writing (or acting) that is clean enough, mature enough (as in, not plucked off the branch prematurely), and authentic enough (as in, coming from your genuine self, and not a plastic apple) to be edible to and desirable to a hungry person?

That’s the pertinent question, the productive question that leads to better work, stronger writing, and eventual externalized evidence of your creative worth.

As an aside, here is a link to my eerie, romantic book about a mature accountant trapped between death and the afterlife: My Name is Caleb; I am Dead

Caleb new

In Conclusion

Asking yourself if your writing is good enough is the wrong question. The right question is whether or not you’re treating yourself in a way that will reliably lead to an edible creative harvest.

As a side note, fertilizing and clearing up weeds around your roots is a deeply satisfying process, and makes for great story fodder, later on.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my revised book, Claire is contemplating a sudden journey to the dragon-infested continent of Asoan. Mm. This is me making a shiver of anticipation. There are dragons in My Name is Caleb; I am Dead, but they are colorful manifestations of stars, and not traditional lizard-type creatures at all. They have gorgeous wings, though, and they can talk.

Characters Being Kind To Each Other

I’ve been reading several stories to explore relational dynamics in people’s fiction. Something that keeps catching me off guard is how rude characters regularly are to each other. What surprises me is when the author cloaks acerbic bitterness in the guise of cleverness or an attempt at humor.

Because A Well-Formed Zinger Is Amazing

People being unnecessarily rude to each other is not entertaining or fun. That kind of dynamic is immature, toxic, and unpleasant.

I worked on group dynamics for a while as a director and theatre producer (super small time). I hope you guys don’t think I’m being all pretentious and shit. We were doing community theatre type stuff, but the experimental performance work I was doing with my actors was awesome. Anyway, I explored a lot with managing and shaping group dynamics.

To See If I Could Create Sustainable Magic, Interpersonally, Between The Actors

I had an actor once who gradually turned into such a problem that we had to fire her. The day after she was let go, the rehearsal was incredible. The difference that her being gone made was frankly unbelievable to me. It was as though eight people were missing, as far as needing to carry relationships and maintain goodwill between all the actors.

I don’t actually think it was her (the actor’s) big actions that caused so many problems; it was her constant, never-ceasing way of trying to be funny (and really just being mean). Once the grating, continuous agitation of her ill-advised attempts at humor was gone, everyone got along easily and had a pretty peachy experience.

In Her Absence, Bonding Skyrocketed

I think, and this is just my personal take, that most novel problems are not actually big plot or writing issues; I think most fiction issues stem from commonplace rudeness between characters.

Examples

Characters Being Rude

Bianca waved her magic fan, and a huge spiral of golden dust sprang up from the desert and formed into a hard tower of pure yellow stone.

Good, she thought, pushing back her ebony curls and indulging in a satisfied smirk. Let’s see Bart ignore this, the self-serving jerk.

Bianca’s thick green skirts made a swish against the sand as she swayed into the bottom entrance to the tower and began to climb the stairs.

Bart, the government inspector of all magical structures colored yellow, soon appeared and knocked on the tower door.

“Bianca, you’ve got at least sixteen code violations on this new piece of spellwork,” Bart shouted.

Bianca leaned out of an upstairs window of the tower and beamed.

“Oh, it’s clumsy old Bart! Are you coming to take my tower down?” she asked.

“No, Bianca, but to start with, you have to change the shape of the stairs, and your walls are two inches too thin for the height you have going on here.”

“You’re two inches too thick, silly Bart!” Bianca called down with a ringing laugh.

“Oh, Bianca, you know that I’m in love with you. Please alter your tower. I hate doing the paperwork for a seizure of private magical property,” Bart said with a slow sigh.

“Get your ugly face up those stairs, and negotiate with me in person,” Bianca said. Her eyelashes made a flutter. Bart blushed.

Remember, most people want to be around pleasant folk. If your characters consistently lack common courtesy, re-examine whether it is effective characterization or completely unnecessary jibing. Because narratively-unsupported jibes and take-downs aren’t pleasant.

Characters With Courtesy

Bianca waved her magic fan, and a huge spiral of golden dust sprang up from the desert and formed into a hard tower of pure yellow stone. She’d been planning the structure for weeks, and designing every inch.

Okay, she thought, pushing back her ebony curls and feeling a wave of nerves. Let’s see what Bart has to say about this. Bianca had a crush on Bart, and, to fabricate an excuse for a visit, she had just made several major code violations on her new, ostensibly vital tower.

Bianca’s thick green skirts made a swish against the sand as she went into the bottom entrance to the tower and began to climb the stairs. Her fingertips were trembling. Her mind was on Bart’s green eyes and stodgy expression. Bianca held in a sigh.

Bart, the government inspector of all magical structures colored yellow, soon appeared and knocked on the tower door.

“Bianca, you’ve got at least sixteen code violations on this new piece of spellwork,” Bart shouted.

Bianca leaned out of an upstairs window of the tower and felt like she was about to throw up.

“Oh, it’s you, Bart! Are you coming to take my tower down?” she asked, her insides on fire.

“No, Bianca, but to start with, you have to change the shape of the stairs, and your walls are two inches too thin for the height you have going on here.”

“Oh, I’m sorry Bart! I’ll get right on that!” Bianca called down with a gasping laugh.

“Do you want a complete list of the problems, Bianca? I’d hate to have to come out again. Your work is usually top-notch,” Bart called.

“Would you like to come in, Bart?” Bianca asked. She waited for his answer and felt ready to explode with heat.

“Well, your floors are showing up as layers of compressed sand, Bianca, down in the office. I’d rather speak to you outdoors. I don’t want anything to collapse on me,” Bart explained.

“I’ll be right down!” Bianca cried, and she almost started to sob as she ran for the stairs. Now, she reflected with abject misery, he will think I’ve lost my mind and become incompetent. I should only have made two violations. Darn!

Conclusions

Readers, in my experience, are very sensitive to rudeness, coarseness, interpersonal cruelty, and advantage-taking of any kind.

Ill manners are like a very strong, distinctive color on a paint palette; indiscriminate use of poor behavior mars the work as a whole and turns off most readers (the majority of whom have an intuitive grasp of gentility).

Just as with a neon green or a harsh, burning yellow, rudeness can highlight and set off a piece of fiction. Often, the rudeness of one character, or in a particular part of a scene becomes the distinctive turning point of an entire story. Highlights only work when they’re used very carefully, and kept out of the rest of the work. Be careful of what your character’s rudeness is communicating to the reader, and make sure zingy snips of humor are actually funny, and not subtle put-downs, because those add up over time and leave a sour taste in the reader’s mind.

ris2

This is a super rough sketch of a character from a story about centaurs. This guy is a leader from the Tree Islands, and he’s in love with my main character, Eueen.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and I’m rewriting a section from one of my manuscripts where my main character, alas, was being unforgivably rude for no reason at all. Bad writing on my part. Also, today is Tuesday.

 

What To Do When Your Writing Hits A Wall

Blocked writing comes from incorrect characterization.

Victor Poole, You Are So Silly!

I’m not silly, I’m an actor person, and bad acting always comes from blocked characterization. All story is driven by relationships and contextual narration.

Good storytelling uses context to create dramatic stakes, and all stories function around relationships between people. How submerged the story is within pure context, and how much the reader can absorb and experience the story without any outside guidance, is a mark of the quality of the writing.

Unless you’re Bertolt Brecht, but that’s experimental-type fiction land, and not what I’m talking about right now.

Who Is Brecht, Victor Poole?

Brecht is an ironic guy who made sardonic theatre that deliberately alternated between absorbing, dramatic, emotive scenes and stark, jolting, “you are watching a fake story right now!” moments. He wanted to bounce the audience back and forth between emotional immersion and awareness of the theatrical artifice at play.

Bad Brecht is really, really painful to sit through. But that’s not what we’re talking about right now.

If You Hit A Wall, And The Story Seems Dead, Look At Your Characters

So, like I said, if you get to that depressing point in your writing where the story just goes “fwump!” and can’t seem to move forward anymore, look at your characters.

The problem is always, always, always in the characters, and an incorrect approach to the characterization.

Muting Your Inner Characters Out Of Shame

Let me tell you for two seconds about the hundreds of actors I have seen walking around like dead fish. Almost all human beings, like, very nearly every single one, has some kind of fragile, blocking trauma jamming up their natural personality and physical state.

Great storytelling always incorporates the dynamism of the main characters, how they progress and alter over time, and release their own blocks and muted inner selves. If the story is well-crafted, the changes are believable and resonate with our own internal traumas and blocks.

Aristotle And The Catharsis Of The Audience

If the context and characterizations are really well told and conveyed within a context that we intuitively grasp, our own bodies experience a sympathetic release of damaged emotion and/or physical tension. This is why going to a really great movie or play, or reading a fantastic book, is such a relaxing and life-altering experience.

You, in a sense, bond emotionally to the book as if it were a kind of parent figure or therapist, in a not-weird or pushy sort of way, and you find healing through the storytelling.

That’s Why People Get So Passionate About Their Favorite Books

Books that become phenomenons invariably hit on some manner of successful mass catharsis. Their stories create actionable bonds within social groups, and allow humans to connect to each other and help each other transform in real time with the shared truth of the narrative as the relationship canvas.

This is why cons and fan groups are a thing. Successful stories create functional, transient family bonds between strangers. That’s a powerful thing, and a wholesome emotional transaction.

When You’ve Hit A Wall, Your Writing Is Not Allowing The Characters To Heal And Change

There is such a thing as qualitatively bad writing, though it falls in a few different categories. That’s not to the point of what we’re talking through right now. I will say, though, that it is possible to document the emotional downgrade and blocking up of a character through a great novel, but the context has to be accurate and responsibly framed enough to give the process meaning, and to avoid devolving into a pessimistic hell-hole of antagonism against human nature.

Most of the time, though, your writing hits a wall because your characters are blocked, and staying blocked, and the story is circling in a kind of pointless emotional death-spiral of meaningless action.

Character change, deep, lasting character change, is the vehicle of storytelling.

So How Do You Break Through A Writing Wall?

Easy peasy. You force the character in question (or characters, if you have multiple stagnators) to confront some deep block or pressure within their submerged personality.

Voila, instant storytelling, the story moves forward, your contextual action gains meaning and momentum, and you no longer want to hurl your manuscript (or writing device) against a far wall while screaming about writing blocks. Or, you know, you no longer want to just give up, if you’re more the quiet, fade-into-the-night type.

Examples

Blocked Character Hitting A Story Wall

Charlie lay atop the enormous balloon of his skyship on his back. The sun hit his face and soaked his shoulders and the tops of his body, and his pants had become very warm. He was shirtless, but the material of his jeans seemed to press in sun-soaked folds against his thighs and his calves.

He was barefoot, because Charlie was not stupid enough to wear boots or slippery socks up on the aluminium-fabric swell of his skyship balloon.

Nothing had happened for two weeks, ever since he’d left the commercial exchange near the beachfront of Nimarku. Charlie had meant to come whale hunting, but the oceans were calm, and the migration hadn’t started yet.

Charlie sighed, and crossed his ankles, and fell asleep.

***This is the point at which I stop writing, because nothing happens next, and I lost interest in the story.

Now, before I jump into the ‘better’ example, I want to say that there are a lot of ways to approach breaking through this wall. You can introduce a new, upsetting character, or a sudden adventure, or bring up some emotional fomentation within the character himself, but the point is that something needs to happen to throw off your stable and don’t-wanna-change fictional person.

Ajalia 3

Dynamic Character Facing Internal Change

Charlie shifted uncomfortably as he lay atop the enormous silver balloon of his skyship on his back. The sun hit his face with a glare and soaked his shoulders and the tops of his body, and his pants had become very warm. He was shirtless, and coated in sunblock gel, but the material of his jeans seemed to press in sun-soaked folds against his thighs and his calves, and to scratch at him.

Charlie wiggled against the slick fabric of the silver balloon, sighed irritably, and turned onto his stomach. The material of his jeans immediately became a mix of too hot and strangely cool. The tops of his thighs were now pushed directly against his heated jeans, and his calves and hamstrings felt cold and shivery by contrast.

I’ll feel better when the sun warms me on this side, Charlie thought, and he shoved away the lackadaisical depression that had been eating at his mind ever since he’d left the beachfront market in sunny Nimarku.

Charlie was under contract to bring in a couple of flying arcangel wind whales, which lived in thick clouds up near the stratosphere and ate bugs and the thick vapor that rose always from the dense forests and swamps of Yorax, the planet he was currently stranded on indefinitely

Charlie was waiting for a visa to leave the sector, and couldn’t go off planet while his application was processed. Unfortunately for Charlie, the Yorax government was notoriously slow about visa applications. If Charlie had known this before he’d come, he would never have chased the rumor of work here.

He was barefoot, because Charlie was not stupid enough to wear boots or slippery socks up on the aluminium-fabric swell of his skyship balloon.

Charlie had been finding lately, ever since he’d left the market, that he didn’t want to do any work. He had a store of canned provisions, nasty but filling, in the hold of his ship, and as long as he stayed up out of civilized airspace, he didn’t owe anyone any rent.

I dislike my life, Charlie thought. A shadow passed over Charlie, blocking the sun, and he glanced up and saw an entire pod of arcangel wind whales soaring just above him.

Charlie felt both miserable and delighted at this chance of fortune, and he rolled and slipped to the edge of his silver balloon, and down into the window of his cabin to grab his gun and retrieval net.

He was glad to have been confronted so easily with his prey, and also, strangely, frustrated. He discovered, as he slung his harpoon-net over his shoulder and carried his whisper rifle back up to the top of his balloon, that he had been subconsciously hoping to be out here, hunting unsuccessfully for his contracted whales, for weeks.

Charlie found that he didn’t want to go back to Nimarku at all, whales or no. He stood, bare-chested and barefoot on the top of his taut, silver balloon, and took aim with his heavy whisper rifle.

In Conclusion

If you hit a wall in your writing, always look at your characters, and find the one (or ones) who are stuck somehow and resisting any exposure of their sticky internal issues or physical blocks of fear.

Great fiction softens and illuminates human nature by revealing the truth inside relationships and contextual bonding between people. (Or animals, or aliens or what have you.)

If you’re stuck, and the writing won’t move, or you can’t bring yourself to work on it anymore, give your most recalcitrant character a sturdy jostle and force them to confront something really awful or uncomfortable (to them personally). Also remember that the enforced development of healthy shame, as opposed to soul-crushing toxic embarrassment, leads to many opportunities for humor, and funny writing always makes your book better.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, Vince has named one of his new projects the handsomest bodyguard. Vince’s handsome project is excessively pleased with the title. He’s also really good-looking, so the appellate fits.

How To Prevent Gaping Plot Holes

Writing a novel is a complicated business. The last thing you need, as an author, is a gaping plot hole. Want to know how I avoid them?

I Feel So Silly

I feel silly talking like this, you know, because I have about twenty completed manuscripts, in various stages of editing, but only two works published right now. So here I am, talking about how I’m managing things, and I look like a kid who dashed out a couple of novels last year sometime.

But I Do, In Fact, Finish Books

My background is in acting and performance, so I care a lot about presentation and overall effect. Ergo, I’m sitting on a lot of completed work and shoving it around in different ways until I feel it has the proper zing, as a body of work. You know. Because I’m vain.

Anyway, Plot Holes!

To me, there are three different kinds of plot holes:

  1. Emotional Plot Holes
  2. Actual ‘Plot’ Plot Holes
  3. Thematic Plot Holes

Emotional Holes

Emotional holes are where a character’s motivation is missing, or a whole social group’s mindset is too convenient, or shaped against what would feel natural to the reader. Any kind of authorial cheating, in an emotionally justifying sense, is a plot hole, to me, because that kind of skipping or bending the natural progression of emotions creates a blank space in my mind, where I can’t follow the next part of the story.

Regular, Plain Old Plot Holes

Actual ‘plot’ plot holes are the conventional ones that everyone hears about, or that you probably think of when you hear “Plot Hole.” You know, a literal gap or inexplicable (or unjustifiable) blip in the structure of the storyline. This is a problem in the literal events or described actions in the plot.

Theme Holes

Thematic plot holes are, for me, the most common and irritating problems in a story. This is when the author changes core themes in the middle of a story, or, more usually, right in the last few chapters or scenes of a book.

People do this (thematic holes) all the time when they write stories, and I hate it. I hate it!

Let’s look at some examples, and then I’ll give you my two-step process for keeping glaring plot holes (all three kinds) away for good.

Examples

Setup:

Gobo, the last surviving chieftain of the blumbeheads, was the first and the last of his people to take up the wind spirits on the offer to become fully materialized in bodies of flesh and blood. Before Gobo took flesh, his people’s bodies were composed of soft, silky bubbles. They easily burst and often died by accident in the breezy flurries that came over the mountains and drove the blumbeheads down against the pointy grass.

Gobo’s people were not extinct, because they reproduced so easily and quickly. Many times, a blumbehead gave birth to thirty little ones in the morning and perished quietly in the mid-afternoon. Gobo’s particular forefathers, the ancient chieftains, had been thicker than the others, less easily destroyed by the natural obstacles all around them, but Gobo, seeing by the increasing breezy turbulence that he was probably going to die really soon, went to the top of Mud Mountain and asked for a coating of flesh and blood.

This was the beginning of man. Gobo was lonely, of course, and so he scraped off some of his still-soft new body and slapped it over a bubble that was drifting around nearby. Now there were two, Gobo and his friend. Their bodies hardened soon, and Gobo could no longer make new bodies by taking off his own flesh.

Before too long, all the blumbeheads were contriving to roll in mud or tar, and soon there were no true blumbeheads left at all. Most of Gobo’s people died in the pursuit of fleshy forms, and not one of them thought of climbing to the top of Mud Mountain to ask the wind spirits for a physical body.

BAD WRITING: Emotional Plot Hole (the “why” of continuity is completely absent)

After Gobo realized his superiority to the group, he chose out several followers, murdered the rest of the mud-people in their sleep, and traveled up the mountain the kill the wind spirits, too.

He led his new, savage folk to the edge of the sea and they took up fishing and learned how to eat food instead of air.

BAD WRITING: Actual ‘Plot’ Plot Hole (pieces of this plot are missing . . . )

After Gobo was substantial, and had gained a fellow fleshy person, he decided to go over and join up with the other physically-sturdy living things on the land just next to the blumbehead’s ancestral fields.

Gobo’s best friend said they really ought to go after the wind spirits, since the war between the wind people and the blumbeheads’ creators was getting so bad lately.

The war was over quickly, and everyone got back to normal life, except that Gobo’s son was really angry about how the final battle had gone, so he killed his father.

BAD WRITING: Thematic Plot Hole (the deep subject matter changes suddenly)

Because none of the other blumbeheads climbed up Mud Mountain and requested help from the wind spirits, but mashed clumsy bodies for themselves from mud or tar, the wind spirits grew weary of helping protect them, and blew away to the other side of the world.

Abandoned to themselves, Gobo and his true-flesh friend looked over the clumsy iterations of men the blumbeheads had formed themselves into and found themselves disgusted.

“We are different to these creatures,” Gobo’s friend said to him.

“Let’s go and figure out how to conquer all the world, since we’re better than everyone!” Gobo exclaimed.

“Wow, excellent plan!” his friend agreed.

GOOD WRITING: No Plot Holes of Any Kind

The wind spirits, disgusted by the disobedience and ingratitude of the blumbeheads, blew far away, and Gobo found himself all alone with his fleshy friend, and the ruler over a vast array of monstrous tar- and mud-formed people.

Gobo didn’t like this state of affairs, and one night, he had a whispered conversation with his friend, who was a man called Pecko.

“Let’s chase after the wind spirits, and ask for help to make equals for us,” Gobo said.

“You mean, to form mates, and have progeny?” Pecko asked.

The blumbeheads, having mashed themselves into physical forms without the help of the wind spirits, could no longer make children. Gobo and Pecko were sure they were capable of some manner of procreation in their new and interesting bodies, but they were both male.

“You really should have thought of that, when you put your malleable flesh onto another blumbehead,” Pecko added. “You might have chosen a female.”

“I realize that now, but I still like you,” Gobo said politely.

“Well, let’s go and see if we can find the wind spirits, and we’ll ask for help,” Pecko agreed.

Gobo and Pecko stole away that same night, and covered the signs of their departure. Without their chieftain, the clumsy mud people who had once been beautiful blumbeheads got into petty fights, destroyed each other, and soon became extinct. Their half-formed bodies of earth and tar crumbled back into the ground and no sign of their existence showed.

Gobo and Pecko journeyed for many months through mountains and over rivers and into dense forests before they found a the leftover scent of a true wind spirit’s presence.

“We will find them soon,” Gobo assured his friend. Pecko nodded, and they went on.

Two Useful Ploys to Avoid Any Bad Plot Holes

First: Follow the first idea all the way to conclusion

Stick with that idea, and don’t add to it, improve it, or try to fancy it up with extra notions. Clean, powerful story comes from rhetorical simplicity and focus.

Every story, no matter its length, begins with a flavor, a rhetorical spark, an initial impression. If you follow that actual idea all the way to the ending point, and into whatever new forms of fresh idea that such an ending inevitably produces, you won’t have thematic plot holes, and if you are faithful to the nuances produced by the idea, you won’t have ‘plot’ plot holes, either.

Emotional plot holes are tricky, and often require outside input to avoid, but as long as you have one or two trusted readers who will be brutally honest with you about when your characters stop making sense to them, and as long as you get really good, over time, at understanding vulnerability and coherent characterizations, these should be taken care of as well.

Two: Listen to your readers

You’ve got to find someone who understands you, cares about story, and wants a good book more than they want to be friends with you. You can’t make a great story without feedback, but you have to have the guts to listen to unpleasant things about how poorly your story is communicating in the weak parts.

Really good readers are hard to find, but they’re the best way to avoid plot holes. An excellent reader will get indignant and somewhat incandescent with rage over blips in the story.

Over time, hopefully, you get better at sensing potential plot holes yourself, and have fewer issues with initial drafts.

In Conclusion

I think there are three different kinds of plot holes.

  • Emotional plot holes (inconsistencies within character or social reaction)
  • Actual ‘plot’ plot holes (problems in the construction of the sequence of events)
  • Thematic plot holes (changes in deep subject matter of the plot at any point within the story)

Plot holes are avoided by remaining faithful to the rhetorical core of the initial story idea, and by listening to the brutal honesty of your best readers.

You’re reading Victor Poole. In my current novel, Crikey just got a new bodyguard this morning, and some of Crikey’s uncles’ guards are coming later tonight to see if they can integrate into Crikey’s household. Some of Crikey’s uncles are talking about moving in to his building permanently.