Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Writing Music + Top 10 List On The Way've just completed a new top ten list:

10 Fateful Events in the Fall of the Han Dynasty

I've submitted it to Listverse. They don't normally accept straight-up history lists, but I've gotten them to break that rule before with my article on the Aztecs. We'll see how it goes. Any list that isn't taken by Listverse will be posted on this blog. So either way you'll get to see it.

I mainly write these lists to organize my research for writing novels. I created my list on the Aztecs when I was researching a magical relic that appears in Dark Z Force. The Han Dynasty list may factor into another book, or it might make it into the revisions I'm putting Dark Z Force through. Not sure yet.

In the meantime I'd like to share the writing music I listened to while finishing up the Han list. This song has no lyrics and a steady, driving tempo. It fades into the background when you're focused, but rises to challenge you when you're mind starts to wander.

This upload loops for seventeen minutes. The three minute version fades out before it repeats, which can interrupt concentration.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Tips: Add Impact to Action

Action scenes are a funny thing. Many people enjoy writing them, but they are difficult to do well. The first thing to keep in mind is to avoid a writing trap known as the Irony of Speed. But now that those extra words are cleared out, how do you make the writing visceral? How do you make the reader breeze through those glancing blows and feel that club-fisted hit to the stomach?

First, let's take a look at what makes a good action scene from one of the masters—Jackie Chan. In the video below we see Jackie's rules for action comedy. While this video is meant for film students, many of these lessons apply to writing in a beautiful way.

1. Give the protagonist a disadvantage

This is essential for building empathy in a fight—yes, fights are great spots to develop characters.

Depending on where we are in the story and who's fighting, readers know who is going to win the fight. Jack Reacher isn't going to lose to random bar thugs. So we give the hero a disadvantage to make the fight interesting. Since we're not wondering who is going to win, we give the hero a handicap so severe that we wonder how he wins. For example, our hero is a martial arts master, but how is he going to beat five ninjas when he's tied to an interrogation chair?

As the battle unfolds, the hero works to overcome his disadvantage, making us begin to root for him. Each action is followed with a logical reaction, building to a joke, a finishing blow or—even better—a situation where the hero forces the disadvantage on the enemy.

2. Foreshadow the environment, and use it

This is related to Chekhov's Gun: "If there is a gun on the mantle, it must go off."

This also ties into point number one. The environment can be the source of the hero's disadvantage. For example he could be fighting scuba divers underwater, only he doesn't have an air-tank.

Otherwise, if the protagonist is climbing an endless staircase, holding onto a cold steel railing, then we want to see him and his enemies tumbling down that staircase. And somebody has to break their teeth on the railing.

3. Clarity

In film, Jackie makes the action clear by using a well-lit setting. In writing we achieve clarity by cutting unnecessary words, making the important images stand out. This goes back to the Irony of Speed lesson.

4. Show the strong hits twice

"Wait," you say. "Isn't repetitive writing bad?" It is for the most part. And it's especially bad in action. But the question we should be asking is why Jackie shows the hit twice. It's because he wants you to dwell on the hit, to let it sink in so you feel the impact.

So maybe this section should be titled Dwell on the strong hits. In writing we make the reader dwell on something, like an emotion or a revelation, by stopping the flow with a stone-cold period, or a paragraph break, or a scene break for extra impact. It works the same for action. The longer the reader stops to register the blow, the more powerful it is.

5. Pain

It's important that the protagonist gets beat up, made a fool, and hurt. It humanizes him.

The narrator in the video makes a great point about Jackie: He doesn't win because he's a better fighter, he wins because he doesn't give up. That relentlessness shows his character. And that's the kind of hero people cheer for.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Writing Music: Penultimate Battle

Steven King said it's important that every writer have a dark room with a door you can shut. It's a way of tuning out the world so you can concentrate.

But not all of us have those quiet little rooms. Or doors to shut. Sometimes even if you have a door to shut, it's still too loud. And you don't want to tell anyone to keep it down because, well, when people are loud they are usually pretty happy. And you don't want to spoil your family or roommates happiness, right?

So that's why I write with headphones on, listening to music. Even if you have a quiet room, music can drive you to work harder. Listening to music without lyrics can improve concentration.

So once a week I'll post a link to the music I listen to when I'm writing, revising, or editing.

This song is from an anime I haven't seen, which I believe is called Fate Zero. I listen to it when writing and revising the penultimate battle in Dark Z Force, my YA superhero novel. Penultimate battles are generally charged with negative emotion, whereas final battles are energized with positive emotion.

I'll start posting more about Dark Z Force soon. In the meantime enjoy the song. Happy writing!

*Oh and if you ever want to listen to a youtube video on repeat, go to the URL of the video and type in "repeater" after youtube. So it would look like this: of the URL).

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Active-Reactive Formula

One of the most salient pieces of writing advice that you're bound to find on the internet is that a good protagonist is active, not passive. Meaning they take charge in shaping their own destiny, rather than reacting to events that happen around them. Someone who steers a boat through rough waters as opposed to someone clinging to a piece of driftwood.

But it's important not to take it too far in one direction.

In any story you start with a problem that gets worse until it's resolved. If the main character is always active then she is the one making the problem worse. And that's good because stories are about growth and change and responsibility. But there comes a point when a character makes too many bad decisions and readers begin to think she's foolish or frustrating. They turn against her.

So a balance is needed. Or the character needs to be forced into making decisions with no ideal outcomes, like sacrificing a knight in a game of chess. When plotting a book, a formula that sometimes works for me goes like this:

- Situation

- Action

- Consequence

- Reaction

- (repeat)

Like anything in writing, that formula doesn't work all the time. It's just something I try when I'm stuck in the mud.

All that said, an active protagonist is far better than a reactive one. And it's better to err on the side of overly active. Who doesn't like to watch someone overcome a mess they made?

This is based on a comment I left on author Ava Jae's website in her post about passive characters.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Trap: The Irony of Speed

I'm so fast. Hey! Look how fast I'm going!
This is a trap many overeager writers fall into when writing action scenes. Describing something as happening "quickly" has the ironic effect of slowing the action down. More words in a sentence means more information for the reader to process, which slows the pace.

Big Bad Betty sank the eight ball in the corner pocket. "Pay up, honky."

"Ain't got no money," said Stranger.

Before Big Bad Betty could even open her mouth, Stranger snapped his pool cue into two stakes, spun fast as a whirlwind, and drove one stake into her heart. Betty's two thralls barely realized what had happened before Stranger swiped some billiard balls off the table. He hurled the balls at them, striking one on the nose and the other on the jaw. They both fell hard and fast to the ground.

Suddenly the bartender pulled out a shotgun. Thinking quickly, Stranger dove out the nearest window.

See how the unnecessary words drag the pace? If you want to keep readers breathless, the key is to write short, clean sentences. Tell us what happens in as few words as possible.

Stranger snapped his cue and drove it into Betty's heart. He chucked the billiard balls at her two thralls. Hit one in the nose. The other in the mouth. They both dropped.

The bartender fired a shotgun. That's Stranger's cue to leave. He dove out the window.

Things happen much quicker without the extra words. And in the last sentence we replaced a "quick" word with some internalization from Stranger, showing us his dry wit.

Mucous Lightning!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Trap: Repetition

Tell my wife I'll be home for dinner.
Tell my wife I love her.

The Law of Conservation of Ninjutsu states that each team of ninjas has the same finite amount of "power" of martial arts, therefore a team with less ninjas has more powerful ninjas. That's why when an action hero takes on many foes, it's no sweat. But when facing a single enemy, he'd better watch out.

Repetition in a novel works the same way. When used once it can be very effective. But with each subsequent use it loses impact. When used too much the reader will grow bored, like the Avengers cutting through hordes of robots.

So it's a good idea to limit instances of repetition to maybe once or twice a novel. And it's important you repeat something worth repeating, to draw attention to an important revelation or a character's breaking psyche. Like so:

I walked among the fallen soldiers until I found Bryan. Dead. My son was dead.

Here the repetition is drawing attention to the mother coming to terms with her son's death, or her mental breakdown—whatever the context of the story leads you to believe. Now imagine another repetition was uttered later:

The dish slid out of my hand and broke against the floor. I broke something again.

That last sentence may have some deeper meaning depending on context. Regardless, see how its presence dilutes the impact of the first sentence ever so slightly? Now imagine another repetition appeared in a later chapter:

Diane left that afternoon. Left me again. For the last time.

Now it's beginning to be too much. Notice how the repetitions have the unintended effect of comparing a dead son and a leaving daughter to a broken dish? Any more of these and the reader will begin to think that this character just likes to repeat her thoughts. This is especially bad in third person novels. When multiple characters use repetition, the reader will assume it's just a writing crutch the author likes to use. Because it is.

Since your repetitions are finite, it's important to use them in the right place. Try not to use it like this:

It had been two days since the battle had ended. Two days since the smell of burning flesh had filled the air. Two days since the barbarians had swept through Hampstead. No survivors.

Here the repetition draws attention away from the more important passages. Is it really that important the reader know this happened two days ago, three times over?

It had been two days since the barbarians swept through Hampstead. No survivors. The smell of burning flesh still filled the air.

Repetition is like a quiet exclamation point. Use it sparingly.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Tips: South Park Plotting

My favorite method for structuring a story is the "therefore, but" formula used by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park.

Each plot point of your story has to be connected by a "but" or a "therefore." If instead of those you use an "and then," that's a sign of weakness in your story. For example:

Charlie wants to escape his hometown, where he has been bullied all his life.


He runs away, boarding a ship to America.


The bullies also board the ship to America.

And then,

Charlie finds out he is the son of the fairy king Utykelodin.

Ideally we want to replace that last "and then" with a "but" or a "therefore."


Charlie rows a lifeboat out to a remote island.

But this isn't a story about a boy who survives on an island. This story is about Charlie the half-fairy prince discovering his powers. So what to do? You could create a new plot point—that's sometimes the answer—but it may seem forced. It is likely that the South Park method has revealed a flaw in your story. So let's revise from the beginning:

Charlie's mother tells him he is the son of the Fairy King.


Charlie boasts about it to the kids around town.


The townsfolk hate half-blood fairies.


They try to burn Charlie at the stake.


He boards a ship to America, vowing never to tell anyone of his heritage again.


The townsfolk have followed him on board. 


Charlie must use his fairy powers to survive the voyage.

While it's not a perfectly plotted story yet, it's stronger than it was before. When one plot point flows from the next, it pushes the pace and engages the reader. The story builds upon itself, raising tension, until it reaches its conclusion.

Friday, September 11, 2015


Jazz, Former Parrot

One more character concept for Dark Z Force. Once again made by me in Photoshop CC.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Tips and Traps: Breadcrumbs and Connecting-the-Dots

“Connecting-the-dots” is a kind of expository writing trap that many writers fall into. When
characters move in space or time, the writer describes detailed steps of the physical action or internal thoughts/feelings required to get the character from one place to the next—connecting the dots for the reader. Even if the writing is solid, connecting-the-dots is still expository and it slows things down. It feels like empty space to the reader.

As a general guideline, unless something important is happening physically (action) or emotionally as a character moves from one action/event to the next, we don't need to see it. Think of this as laying out breadcrumbs for the reader to follow. When we're following actual breadcrumbs up a trail, we just need to be able to see the next one ahead. Each one doesn't have to be touching our feet in order for us to make the connection and continue the journey.

Breadcrumbs are the opposite of connecting the dots. Instead of tracing every step of the journey, you as the writer make choices about what's most important, and then use those moments to move us through the story. Trust readers to imagine the extra details and events.

Below I'll show you the difference between "breadcrumbs" and "connecting-the-dots" using the opening page of an old trunk novel of mine that I've been reworking. It hasn't really settled into a genre, but right now it is middle-grade horror.


Moonlight shone through a paper window, onto Mina. She lay on the stiff wooden floor, her teddy bear acting as a pillow. Waves crashed against the pebbled beach outside. The stones jostled under the surf.

A decrepit old woman appeared in the doorway. Her eye-sockets were empty. She floated towards Mina. The old woman's feet dragged, thumping over cracks in the floorboards. As she passed out of the moonlight, she glowed in a greenish hue. Just a common ghost, then. Not a gwisin. Nothing to worry about.

The ghost made a crackling noise deep within its throat.

“You're almost there," said Mina. "Come outside and I'll show you the way." The ghost did not acknowledge her. They never did. But Mina liked to believe that ghosts understood humans on some level.

Mina stood on the beach, just out of reach of the waves. All around her, ghosts marched into the sea.

She bowed three times to the distant island, the Land of Spirits. After the third bow she remained on her knees and prayed. “Mom, I can’t sleep. I’m scared about tomorrow.”

Now let's look at an early draft of the same scene. The dot-connecting is labeled red. Since this writing trap makes passages overlong and grinds the pace to a halt, I'll pick it up from Mina talking to the ghost, which is where the most egregious dot-connecting takes place.

The ghost made a crackling noise deep within its throat.

“You're almost there," said Mina. "Come outside and I'll show you the way." The ghost did not acknowledge her. They never did. But Mina liked to believe that ghosts understood humans on some level.

She arranged her faded, loosely fitting shirt and trousers before sliding the door open and stepping onto the creaky walkway outside. She signaled the ghost to follow. Mina slipped on a pair of worn shoes and stepped onto the grass, breathing in the cool night air as she glanced upward and saw countless stars glittering in the sky. The beach lay before her and a bamboo forest stood behind. Her simple, thatched roof hut sat on a strip of tall grass that separated the beach from the trees. “This way.” said Mina as she strolled toward the water.

Mina stood on the beach, just out of reach of the waves. All around her, ghosts marched into the sea.

Mina pointed herself in the direction she knew the Land of Spirits to be and bowed, touching her hands and knees to the ground, before standing upright. She repeated this two more times and after the third time, remained on her knees. “Mom, I can’t sleep. I’m scared about tomorrow.”

While the first red paragraph has details to help the reader visualize the world, there isn't anything there that is immediately relevant. We see Mina put on her clothes, open the door, put on her shoes, look around (which is filtering), before finally heading to the beach. Nothing relevant to the plot or revealing of Mina's character happens. Even if something is going to happen in the forest later, its not necessary to see the forest until it factors into the story. We expect to see Mina at the beach with the ghost, and the longer it takes for her to get there, the more "work" we feel like we have to do to become engaged in the story.

Readers are good at imagining transitions. There's no need to "walk there" if nothing affects the plot along the way. In the "breadcrumbs" version I replaced the entire red paragraph with a scene break.

In the final paragraph we see physical dot-connecting. Is it necessary to see the individual steps of the bow? Maybe. The difficulty of the bow may show Mina's devotion and work ethic. But if you stack up too many point-by-point descriptions the writing will become dry. Let readers imagine these mundane actions.

Saturday, September 5, 2015


Atlas, Geomancer
Here's Atlas from my novel Dark Z Force. Created by me in Photoshop CC. I made this image extra big so you can see all the little details.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Tips: The Royal Order of Adjectives

"Big blue eyes" sounds right, but "blue big eyes" sounds wrong. There is a rule describing the order English adjectives are used in. It's called the Royal Order of Adjectives.

1) Opinion or judgment -- beautiful, ugly, easy, fast, interesting

2) Size -- small, tall, short, big

3) Age -- young, old, new, historic, ancient

4) Shape -- round, square, rectangular

5) Color -- red, black, green, purple

6) Nationality -- French, Asian, English, Russian

7) Material -- wooden, metallic, plastic, glass, paper

8) Purpose or Qualifier -- foldout sofa, fishing boat, racing car

So it's "the weathered giant old dome-shaped gray Galapagos tortoise shell" or "the shiny little yellow Egyptian gold coin."

Note that this doesn't necessarily apply to phrases and cliches like "tall, dark and handsome," which going by the rule would be "handsome, tall and dark." So, as with everything, there are exceptions.

You're almost never going to see all those classes of adjectives in a single description. It's more likely to be "the little brown guard dog" or "the crusty old Englishman." On that last one, note that "English" doesn't come under "Nationality" — in that case it's a qualifier of "man." So be careful to correctly classify things. In the same way, it would be "the tall young kid read a fascinating new short story." It wouldn't be "the tall young kid read a fascinating short new story" because the object of the sentence isn't "story," it's "short story." Short in that case is a qualifier, not an adjective.

A weathered giant old dome-shaped gray Galapagos tortoise found a shiny little yellow Egyptian gold coin. The rest is history.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Tips: Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags identify who is saying what in a conversation between characters, and keep the reader from getting lost or confused.

It's okay to use descriptive action words as dialogue tags. Sighed, moaned, panted, gasped, groaned, squealed, breathed, etc.

However, remember that you cannot hiss a sentence that has no sibilants, or spit a word that has no plosives:

“Maybe,” he hissed.

“How horrid,” she spat.  

And do not confuse action tags with dialogue tags:

“Sure,” she nodded.

“I don’t think so,” he frowned.

The quick and dirty test is whether you can add the words "the words" to the tag and have it still make sense:

She spat the words  - yes

He grumbled the words - yes

She whispered the words - yes

He shrugged the words - no

He nodded the words - no

She grinned the words - no