Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Ten Rules For Authors

*I got the idea for this post from author Declan Finn's "A Pius Man" blog and the entry "Ten Rules I want Writers to follow" which can be found here. Be sure to check his blog out and read his books if you're interested in fun thrillers that Dan Brown wishes he could write.*

We all have certain storytelling niggles that send us into a black rage with constant use. There are some rules that make for good storytelling that some authors just can't seem to follow and that others outright reject either purposely (the more annoying) or ignorantly. I had recently come across writer Declan Finn's list of his own rules that I basically agree with, but wanted to expand on some more of my own.

When reading books I have strange tastes, but I still wanted to give making this list a chance.

Now, these might seem either strange or pedantic, I can be that way, or straight up odd depending on who you are, but I'm going to try to be specific.

So, enjoy.


 #1 - If your plot is on its way to a cliche, stop writing immediately.

This is mostly for people who don't outline, but if you do outline and specifically plan cliches in your plot, then . . . WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?

On the other hand, if you're happily writing along with you're amazing new thriller and come to a point where the noir detective protagonist needs to be jumped by the bad guy's henchmen for the villain to describe his evil plot to the hero, then I can unabashedly say that you're doing it incorrectly. You're stopping a story in order to force in a direction that is not only boring, but it's completely cliched.

It's been done. You know it's been done.

So, what are you writing it for?


#2 - Be careful when dealing with ideologies and beliefs you don't agree with.

Just follow me here. You come up with a story that you love the idea of. It's fresh. It's interesting. It's something you've always wanted to read but no one has written. You've got a great hook to start with and you're plowing along. It's really going to be something special, a real modern classic.

Then it turns out that *insert political/religious/social group here* are zealous baby-killers and are the sick monsters responsible for every evil in the world. If it wasn't for them holding back *author's group of choice* then the planet would be a utopia of children soft-shoe dancing into the sunset. This group is the sole source of problems in the world and needs to be wiped off the face of the earth. Do you get it yet, reader?

Stop.

Half your audience (a good portion who even agree with you) have just thrown your book across the room. Why is it that, you wonder?

Several things here:

A) One group is not responsible for all the world's problems and if you think they are then you need to learn more about the world. Evil is not a philosophy designated for people you don't like.
B) You're (probably) unintentionally turning the focus of your story to being about something other than what the story should be about. Your ego is making this about your own personal crusade.
C) There is no good story that has ever been written in this way. Why? Because your theory isn't true, and the best stories are always true on a certain level.
D) What happens if in real life your theory is disproved and it turns out the people you were maligning are in fact good people who aren't solely responsible for all the world's ills? Your story is now worthless.Though in my mind it already is.

Jokes aimed at conflicting viewpoints are fine, as well as social commentary sprinkled in the plot, but making it the focus of your story is a huge red flag to me.


#3 - Don't have your entire novel take place over a few hours

Now we get wacky.

This is not the most common issue, but I've seen it pop up from time to time and I'm not much of a fan of it. I like to feel like I'm diving into a world and getting to know the people there when I read a book. I don't feel a few hours of plot stretched into a 400 page book is enough to really connect with a character, for the same reason that meeting someone for five minutes in real life isn't enough to get to know them.

I think Dean Koontz's "Odd Thomas" books are the only ones I've read that tend to take place over a day or so that work. Though that is mainly because the books typically feature a tiny cast of characters and Koontz doesn't rush around with the story. But even some of those books have issues because of their limited scope.

This practice tends to lead to a focus on minutia I don't care about, stretching out action scenes ("Odd Hours" had a chase scene that lasted 9 chapters . . . in a 49 chapter book), and rushing character reveals and motivations to a ridiculous length.

I know when it comes to the public I'm alone in this, but I like lingering on character moments and snapping through action sequences. Not the other way around.


#4 - Either create your own monsters or use the monsters as they were originally conceived.

File this under "Why I rarely read modern supernatural stories involving monsters". Take one look around your local bookstore under "New Releases" and you'll see what I mean. People co-opting Bram Stoker claiming to "improve" and "modernize" the man's story without realizing that their overinflated ego is the exact reason I'm not interested in reading their novel.

For one, Bram Stoker created a character named Count Dracula that followed a specific rule set that was both terrifying and intriguing. He also focused on the the main characters, who were undoubtedly good guys, to see how they would make it through while dealing with this overwhelming evil. Bram Stoker invented vampires as we know them and wrapped them in a creepy plot that has endured over the years.

Here's the thing: You are not Bram Stoker.

You are stealing his monsters, changing his work around and playing with rules he established because you don't like them. You are not being clever, you are being a hack. If you think you're so much smarter than Bram Stoker, then why not create your own monster? If you can't, then you might want to reconsider why you need to smash his work in to pieces in order to make your own.

For all his problems in the years since, Stephen King more or less used Bram Stoker's rules in "'Salem's Lot" and succeeded in creating a modern vampire story that works frighteningly well. Anne Rice, meanwhile, picked and chose what rules she wanted and didn't want to follow, leaving a story that was not about vampires but about a hack version of vampires. For what reason? Stoker gave the vampires those weaknesses for a reason, why not do something interesting and actually explore those reasons instead of writing them out of your own story because they're too difficult to deal with?

If you want to make your own monster, then make your own monster. If you want to write classic monsters like Frankenstein's monster, werewolves, vampires, banshees, or whatever, then use the original rules and show that you have the intention of honoring the very reason your book even exists. Is that so much to ask?

Oh, and if you're writing a comedy novel? Disregard everything I just said. Comedy is a whole different matter and plays by different rules.


#5 - Don't release more than one novel a year

You're not a machine. Give each work the focus you need whether in character development, plot, world-building, or originality. Waiting for your book to reach market and waiting for reactions can only help on your next work to see if it connects in the way you intend. If you're just tossing them off to the editor as soon as you get to 100,000 words (more on this later) and moving on to the next work, you're going to miss out on a lot.

I know there's a temptation to build a "brand" in customer's minds by cranking out product, but there's something to be said for the approach of giving each story the focus in deserves. If you're cranking out around three books in a year then that tells most people that you only spent about three to four months on one story, especially if you're doing it every year for well over a decade like some authors. That's a process that's going to lead to a lot of bad books sooner or later, and there goes that brand image. Pretty soon you'll go from writing "The Stand" to writing "Christine" within a few years, and nobody wants that.

This is also where formula and cliche start becoming a crutch for a lot of writers who are more interested in getting something out and staying relevant than they are waiting to have a story worth writing down. Not everything you think of will make a good story just because you like it. Pause and think it out first.

If you write shorter works or stories that don't require as much focus, then you can disregard this. Actually, you can disregard everything I've written because it's monumentally silly. Ha ha!


#6 - Not every book should be 100,000 words

This is more of an editing/editor problem, I admit, but have you noticed almost every new release is a thick monstrosity that could be used to beat smaller men into a coma? Yeah, I guarantee you about 88% of them could use a trim of at least a quarter of its content in order to improve as a story.

Part of this includes authors who have large egos and will not let their book be touched by an editor, and some editors who are too cowardly to mess with success (Jo, do you think you could trim down some of these camping scenes with Ron being grumpy and Harry musing over things that could have been done in a third of the time? We don't want readers getting utterly bored, do we?), but mostly it's just because they think readers won't pay for smaller books.

I will. I would also happily read "Dandelion Wine" three times before reading through a 600 page sleeping pill even once. Am I alone in that? I don't think so.

Writers, reign in your egos; editors, do your job.

Readers, buy shorter books to prove the story matters more.


#7 - Create original towns and landmarks

I'm not referring to world-building in the fantasy sense, but in a simpler sense. Your story takes place in the modern world, okay, but why can't it take place in a city or town that doesn't exist? Or why can't it feature a monument or area that hasn't been created in our world? This is your book, why should you be tied to product placement and geography? Why not create your own fast-food chains, bank branches, or even countries?

Of course, you might find it unrealistic if it isn't already a name in our world. I don't. It's your story, your world. Play around with it. Of course, if you're writing a historical novel, this doesn't work, but any other story? Why not?

This is something I find storytellers used to do more a long time ago and do less now. If I have to imagine your main character to get into your story, surely I can imagine a town you've made up off the top of your head.

If I can picture Middle-Earth, I can picture Jefferson's Gorge south of Watersbe. It really isn't that hard.


#8 - Good guys shouldn't be as bad as the villains

So, you have a villain threatening genocide of a whole country and someone needs to stop him before he obliterates a city of innocent people.

Okay.

So, you send a "hero" who has no problems killing everyone in sight, bystander or not, and finds nothing wrong with it. But why should that matter? After all, he was hired by the "good guys"!

No.

Every story has a protagonist and an antagonist, this is pretty much a rule at least on some level. It's one thing to have an anti-hero who grows as a character to understand the value of why villains need to be stopped, and it's another to have a "hero" that spends his time torturing and slaughtering people that have otherwise no reason to even be in his sights. All because of a "greater good" he probably doesn't even believe in himself. Which makes his motivation to kill even worse. That basically means we're supposed to root for a serial killer. As someone who has watched a fair a bit of True Crime television and looked some cases up, I can't do that.

Good guys don't need to be plastic, stoic blocks of boring, but they also don't need to be as bad as the villains to be interesting. Because there is nothing interesting about bad guys. But there is something interesting about good overcoming evil. You can't do that if there is no good to be found.


#9 - Positivity is not going to kill you

I know writers are fond of not being obvious and being "ambiguous" to let readers "come to their own conclusion" (which is a lazy way of saying their work has no purpose to exist) but there is a modern trend to have everything be dark and without purpose or hope.

Then why should I read it?

The book doesn't need to end with a group high five, but that doesn't mean everyone has to be miserable and despairing at all times as things get worse and worse. If the characters have no hope, then why should I? Why should I want to read something where characters do nothing but whine and do nothing as everything crumbles? Of course stories should have conflict, but there's no reason that everything needs to be hopeless from page 1 until that "original" ending of yours where everybody dies at the end.

If a character has a horrible situation and life and doesn't even try to improve it, why should I care if they do it or not by the end? There's no motivation for me to care.

Darkness is not a synonym for deep, and lightness is not a synonym for shallow. Horrible people doing horrible things ending with a horrible fate is a story that does nothing for me. You have to make me care.


#10 - Islands in the Sky A.K.A. Creative set-ups are ideal

You're sitting alone reading a brand new dystopian novel that is once again taking place in an overcrowded city and you find yourself getting bored. Then, after the first few chapters of character development and the story rolling along, suddenly floating islands are flying high through the sky out of nowhere. Why are they there? Is this related to why the world is a mess? Or are they a greater hope, a sign of a new dawn? How do they relate to the hero, or the villain? When was the last time you read a dystopian novel with a set-up like that?

A long time ago stories would have crazy set ups like that. Now we frequently have the same basic ones used over and over such as:

Government sends agent to stop an evil plot, woman meets a guy and tries to interest him, horrible people spend a book sitting around being horrible and nothing happens, a teenager saves the world after navigating a love triangle and a hateful world that seems to hate everything but their Mary Sue selves. Oh yeah, and a certain cadre of writers in the fantasy genre who can't seem to sidestep Tolkien.

I want more inventive set-ups and less boring beginnings we've seen so much of in the last few years. It can't be that hard to think of an inventive spin. The field is wide-open, especially in recent years.

If you're writing a story, think of the set-up before you start. If the set-up isn't very inventive, chances are your story won't be either.


And that's my top ten. I'm sure I could have tried harder, but I felt like something a bit more fun this week. Hope you enjoyed it! If not, well, I'll probably have something less ridiculous up next week. I'm not particularly original, after all.

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