How do you know when to let a story die? I've had some characters since middle school and their story has changed dozens of times since then. I finally, finally say down and put the time in and made a plotline, fleshed out each arc and background story, tied up the loose ends. But I simply don't find the actual writing part fun anymore. It's like I've told myself the same story so many times that I'm tired of it. Forcing myself is only draining my will even more. Advice?
Old stories never die – your significant other just keeps 17 copies of the novella he wrote in college on successive hard drives of the past 20 years and there’s a stack of hard drives taking up a corner of the book shelf where actual books could be and – sorry, got distracted there.
If you’ve stopped having fun, it’s time to find new stories and new characters to tell them. That old writing was practice for the new writing you’re going to do. It sounds like from your question that you are ready to move on.
Just save your old work. You might someday find a character hole that one of your old friends can fill.
– mod Aliya, who is also a digital packrat and cannot really complain
This was supposed to be Monday’s post. I’m really sorry that I couldn’t post it then.
Here are some basic rules any writer should keep in mind when writing about a post-apocalyptic/survival scenario.
1. Canned food is your characters’ new bff. Seriously, I have seen a certain bestseller (Who shall not be named but let’s just say sparkles and los plagas) write about her absolute idiot of a protag collecting milk, carrots, twinkies, gone-off crackers, cookies and a whole heap of other foodstuffs that are totally unsuited for surviving on whilst off in a cave in the middle of nowhere.
If your character’s can grow some fresh food, good for them, they’ll get some much needed vitamins. But fresh food goes off really quickly with or without refrigeration. Go to your fridge, look at the expiration dates on your milk and veggies and meats and whatnot. They all last about a week or so, right? That’s in the fridge. Outside of the fridge some of that stuff won’t even last a day. Now, Ireland is a pretty cold country, but if you take milk out of the fridge, it still goes off after an hour or two.(I know this from forgetting I had a glass of milk as a kid then finding it after a couple of hours. It stank.)
Twinkies are arguably the WORST thing you could grab in an apocalypse. The cream inside will go sour and you will be left with a really bad case of the skitters (runs/diarrhoea). We don’t have twinkies in Ireland and I know this! This is common sense.
I just… I can’t even. just think before you have your scavenger grab stuff, okay?
2. Preppers are the most likely to survive. Also common sense.
Another thing is that the ones who prepare for the collapse of society will have prepared for the human element as well, meaning they will have weapons. If the leader has a gun they should all have guns. This is another thing that the unnamed writer got wrong. She gave a useless “rifle” (It was a shotgun, she just didn’t know the difference.) to the leader and it was pretty clear the only reason he was in charge was because he kept poking the gun at whoever tried to disagree with him. That wouldn’t work in real life. The guy the leader threatens, if he’s speaking sense he’s going to have a friend or two, and they are not going to be happy. Unless the leader dude is a really quick shot he’d be dead in that situation - someone would manage to clunk him upside the head or disarm him eventually.
In short, if the leader is an idiot he will be deposed swiftly.
3. In the event of an invasion of aliens who can take human form or possess humans, if there are visible signs, they are going to be killed on sight. If here aren’t visible signs, your characters will not trust anyone outside of their group, and if a group member goes missing, that’s it, they’re presumed to be captured. If they show up again no one should touch them with a barge pole, they could be possessed or indoctrinated.
4. Fire is really bad against zombies/the undead. The various video games and novels and whatnot on the subject all say one thing; “Cut off the head or it ain’t dead, Set it on fire and the situation is dire.” there I made it rhyme for easy remembering! You do not want flaming zombies zerg rushing you.
As MatPat of Game theory recommends, an axe is wonderful. You have the reach for no biteys, you can hook the blade around to get at the back of the neck and it’s relatively clean so less chance of flying undead bits and infection.
You really want to minimise your contact with undead gore. Antiseptic would be a must have, as would gloves, facemasks and other bits and pieces if you plan on looting undead corpses.
5. If you get shot/injured and loose consciousness, firstly, you won’t remember a thing. There is no “Encroaching darkness/fog” or any of that nonsense. Can you remember the exact moment you fell asleep? Of course not. You might remember getting the injury or falling over, but you’re not going to remember the exact moment you go out of it.
If you subsequently wake up in an unfamiliar house and you have been bandaged up and made comfy, don’t immediately freak out. They probably aren’t going to kill you. Unless they are seriously messed up, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
So, do not go ripping out your IV drip for fear that it is “truth serum” - yes, that exists (sodium pentothal) but plain old alcohol is more effective. Just refuse if they offer you a pint or mysterious liquid to drink. there’s a gene that causes an alcohol intolerance or allergy - say you have that and you could die if you drink alcohol. It’s most common in people of Asian descent, so if you have to lie and say your great-granddad is Asian on your mother’s side or something, do it. The only way they might catch you out is by finding a family photo with said granddad in it or if they used alcohol to clean your wounds and you didn’t have a reaction.
See my post on medicine for more details on this kind of situation.
6. Duct-tape is your best bud for repairs and crafting.
The mythbusters did a whole episode on how you could survive in the wilderness with nothing but a crapton of duct-tape and a knife. That stuff is freaking durable! They made hammocks and a freaking chess set!
Think about it - you could tape a flashlight to your gun, tape that hole in your shoes up, tape stuff together to make a shelter. There are a ton of uses for duct-tape, so if it’s there have your intrepid survivalist grab it.
7. A few factors probably went into crafting your post-apocalyptic world.
One pandemic, war or natural disaster on its own isn’t going to do much. A few of them occurring at the same time or one after another would be much more plausible. In the case of hordes of the undead or something - I gotta give you that one, if it happened fast enough and they were tough enough to withstand the world’s armies, then yeah, it could happen.
8. Nuclear fallout does not create awesome mutants.
It causes things like leukaemia and birth defects and infertility. It would be highly unlikely that a beneficial mutation would occur. If you’re going with the realm of science, be realistic about it - or as realistic as you can be without a degree. (As regards the X-men, I’m pretty sure that it’s a gene that gets triggered by nuclear fallout in some cases, but I am probably wrong - as i have said before, we don’t really get comics where I’m from, so I’m only familiar with movie versions.In any case, a gene being triggered isn’t quite as bad as “Nuclear fallout gave me the ability to do x, y and z!”)
That’s all I’ve got for now. I hope this helped you guys in your writing endeavors, and as always, if you have a question, do not hesitate to use the ask feature.
Thank you for your informative blog! About the copyright question. If I let's say, take character (that I love very much) from one work, keep the character DESIGN and personality with some modifications, but drop her to my own world that is very different from the work she originated from, is that copyright issue? When I see character I love, then I tend to take them and fit them to my own work with some modifications, but core stays same.
Again, in case this gets separated from the previous posts, I’m not an expert on copyright law by any means. That said, straight lifting characters, even if you change their name and setting can be copyright infringement. The case I’m aware of is Salinger v. Colting. Fredrik Colting used Holden Caulfield, changed the name, and wrote something that amounted to an unauthorized sequel. Colting was using a different setting, and masked Caulfield by calling him “Mr. C,” but because he was still, recognizably the same character, with an almost identical background, the court found in favor of Salinger. You can find the actual rulings on a google search, if you really want the specifics.
The big takeaway is, it’s not enough to simply rename a character, and stick them in an original setting. While Salinger v. Colting doesn’t directly address it, I’d say character design is something else you need to be very careful about appropriating. In other forms of media, it’s very easy to demonstrate when you’ve lifted a character’s appearance for your work.
You can take elements of a character. You can take the concept, and completely rework it. Copyright isn’t about the protection of ideas, it’s about the specific expression of those ideas. What this means for you is you can take the same basic idea for a character, and completely re-purpose it for your own work. But, the important element is that the final character is entirely your own, and not simply a version of the original character that’s been obfuscated so you could use it.
There is one major exception to this, parody. Usually, we think of parody as taking a fictional work and reworking it to be played for laughs. Legally, parody is taking a piece and reworking it as a direct critique of another piece of fiction. This can be humorous, or played straight. An example of the latter would be Watchmen which takes transparent versions of many Charlton Comics characters (primarily Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, and The Question), and uses them to build a (fairly damning) critical analysis of superhero comics. In the legal sense, Watchmen is parody, even though it’s quite serious.
If you’re starting from a point of looking at a fictional character, and saying, “this person makes no sense, if they were in a world where the writers weren’t cheating for them,” or something to that effect, you have the basis for a critical parody.
If you’re starting from a point of looking at a fictional character, and saying, “I want to use this character for my work,” you need to stop. Step back. Identify the reason the character appeals to you. Extract that concept. And build a new character around that concept.
Everyone takes inspiration. You’ll see, read, or experience something, and say, “I want to use that somehow.” That’s natural. What you don’t, ever, want to do is blindly copy. Bring your understanding or perspective into the piece. Hold it against other factors. Say something for yourself about whatever caught your attention in the first place. Express your ideas, not some other writer’s idea that caught your attention.
When and Where to Publish Your Short Stories and Poems
If there is one step harder than actually writing your pieces, it’s getting someone to pay you for them. Publishing takes time, dedication, and a lot of work. To help, I’ve put together some tips to help you know when you’re ready to publish, and where to look.
When am I Ready?
If you are waiting for your writing to be perfect before you submit it to publishing, you’ll be waiting forever. After I finish a piece of writing, I usually edit it 3 times (for poems), or 3-5 times for short stories. Then I consider the piece to be “finished”. However, I strongly advise that you read a piece over every single time you are about to hit a “submit” button.
Where are Submissions Open?
I have a few places that I check regularly. My favorite place has been NewPages, which is free to use, adds new places to submit to regularly. Whenever I have a lot of unpublished, finished work piling up, I pay $5 for a one month Duotrope subscription. Duotrope lets you search for a place to submit a specific work. My newest place to look is Every Writer, which has a place to search for specific magazines (a fiction magazine / poetry magazine / fantasy magazine). Find a magazine you like and check out their submissions!
Alwaysfollow their submission guidelines. Proofread your work. Be patient, it can take a while for places to respond. Do not lie - if they say “unpublished work only” - don’tslip in one piece that has already been published. When I was choosing poems to publish, I searched each poem in google first. If one of your poems came up, I rejected all of them. You lied once, so I can’t trust that the work I am buying is truly unpublished.
Most of all - stay positive. Rejection is always tough, but it’s a part of the industry. Chin up, your piece will find it’s home soon enough.
Ciao ladies, (I haven't chatted with you all in what seems like ages), I have a writing question for you both. Do you outline before you start writing but how detailed are your outlines? Like every scene or you know the big scenes then you add some smaller scenes later? I'm writing my first full length piece and asking all my writer heroes how they do it. Thanks in advance.
I’m very flattered we got this ask! I know Cassie has different ways of writing (and is a better writer than me for many reasons) but I’ll let you know how I tackled let me live in your city:
1) I sat with the idea in my head and let the story and plot cook up there for about a week.
2) I outlined the whole story. Where I would start and where I would end up. I do really recommend a lose outline even if it’s just in your head. It keeps the characters and plots on track. I recommend that for the whole story, and then also for individual chapters. Just knowing what needs to happen and where you’re going is so much easier. If you don’t know, the reader can tell and you might lose that dramatic tension.
3) that being said I also keep the outline rough because I like to let ideas come to me as I’m writing. The specifics come in the moment and when they do I feel like it’s more real and visceral. I also say dialogue out loud when I’m writing it to make sure it sounds authentic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a sentence out loud and chastised myself because that’s not how people talk, Candice.
4) I try to write in sequence, but if I’m having a rough time with a passage I put a place holder there and move on. Don’t beat yourself up if you have to come back.
5) the first draft around is a little more bare bones. I find the hardest part is to just get it out on paper. Don’t feel like you have to be David foster Wallace right out of the gate. I always beef it up and add as I re read and shape. I just find it easier. It’s way less pressure and less daunting.
6) edit edit edit and then have someone you trust to be honest with you edit edit edit. My FIC would have been crap without Cassie’s honest input.
7) I had about half the story down on paper before I even thought about publishing the first chapter. You don’t have to do this at all, but I made some major plot decisions halfway through that enriched the characters and I could easily go back through and change. It also puts let’s pressure when you have more on paper once you start publishing (but I’m still the worst at updates and am garbage sorry).
I hope those tips help! Have fun and I can’t wait to read it!
What do you do when you have several ideas at once? I have around 4 or 5 ideas, all in very initial stages and I can't figure out which one is worthy of my time.
Take a break. Walk away from it. Forbid yourself to write anything for a week. Chances are all those ideas will keep whirling around (How can you stop them?) but chances are also that if you just let them grow and mature and possibly mutate for a little while, one or another of them will emerge as more compelling than the others.
Alternatively, try outlining. Sit down with each of these ideas and see how you might actually shape it into a story. You may discover pretty quickly that some are good story material and others are going to come apart at the seams. If this doesn’t work or you still have multiple ideas left, go back to the first plan. When in doubt, let it breathe.
And remember: picking one idea to start with doesn’t mean you have to abandon the others. Save them for later. Let that be your incentive to finish the one you start. I find I’m much more motivated to write like hell when I have another story I’m excited to get started on waiting in the wings.
I have a question to followup your latest post. Would the situation change at all if there were original characters, in an original setting, writing a fanfic about a copyrighted work?
With the important reminder that, I’m not a copyright attorney, or any kind of lawyer, for that matter. I’m not saying this as some kind of waver, it’s important to remember, when it comes to the law, my opinions are basically one step above amateur. I took some pre-law classes in college, but opted out of “high school with alcohol poisoning.”
As with all copyright law, this kind of a thing is incredibly contextual, and I’m going to err on the side of caution with this.
If it’s just that you have a character who’s writing a fan fiction of something, then it should be fine.
If you’re intending to also write large excerpts of the fan fiction, include them in the story, and you’re writing professionally, then it’s a little dicier.
The status quo for fan fiction has been, it’s okay to write it, but you can’t sell it. This is entirely based on the whims of the rights holders, and a few are really touchy about fan fiction.
If you’re writing professionally, and this is a story you want to sell, my advice would be to create your own material for them to write a fanfic of. This means you need to do three things. Write the frame story, write the subject matter for the fanfic, and write the fanfic itself. Ironically, this isn’t legal advice, it’s strictly from a writing perspective.
When you’re writing a framed narrative, your themes and concepts need to move fluidly between the frame and the story inside. When you’re writing a fanfic based on a real property, you’re already partially confined by the themes intrinsic to that material. When you’re writing all three, you have full control over the thematic content.
While it might seem easier to write a fanfic for a show you love, it will actually be easier on you to create all three stories from scratch on the spot.
Important rule about writing: Remember that it’s your work and not someone else’s. While the writing community has basic expectations, nothing is set in stone. Use that adverb if you want to. The world isn’t going to end if you do.
Today’s blog entry I teamed up with @feckyeswriting on this entry to talk about tropes and why we break them. It’s a subject fecky and I have spent many an hour talking about as well as the impact on literature and popular culture.
To start, we have to define what a trope is. The first definition is “a figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression.” The second is one we are more familiar with; a trope is “a significant or recurring theme; a motif.”
So both of us answered three questions about tropes and broke this entry in half.
1) How do you feel about tropes?
I have a weird relationship with tropes. While understanding the need for them and how many narratives rely on them, I don’t get how some authors think tropes are law. Sure, there are ones I love and ones I hate, but I argue if taken the wrong way, then tropes can ruin a story. It can make storytelling boring and inflexible especially if it isolates certain characters or misrepresents a culture or a people. If something is expected, it becomes boring, and I hate boring. What is expected can make a reader skip picking up a novel because they know the ending by reading the summary at the end of the book. On the other hand, the romance novel industry is built on the fact the reader knows how the book is going to end and is buying the journey rather than the destination in order to live vicariously through the characters.
2) Why do you break tropes?
One of my favorite things to do is break tropes. To me, breaking a trope makes a story interesting because it’s breaking a rule many think is set in stone. While during the preliminary research for my YA novel, I discovered there was a mountain of tropes about how a female protag needs to act or has to do. So being me, I listed them out, and started circling the ones I wanted to break. What I discovered by doing this was it helped to shape the personality of my Protag. In order to break tropes, she needed to be built differently than many of the popular YA protags out there. The main trope I wanted to break in my design was if the protag is a girl, she needs a guiding influence in her life which is more often than not her Dude Interest. To add onto this trope Dude Interest makes all the decisions and doesn’t tell Protag anything. I hated that trope with a fiery passion so it became the one I wanted to break first. There are so many unhealthy relationships in YA literature it’s stopped being funny and has become kind of sad and depressing.
3) What is the trope you hate the most?
The trope I hate the most if the trope of miscommunication for the sake of causing drama in a plot between two people in a relationship. It’s not a healthy relationship if the characters are lying, keeping things from one another, and not telling their partner things. It’s slightly abusive and leads to unneeded pressure in stressful situations. Plus it’s been done to death and is BORING, BORING, BORING. For a feminist spin on why it’s a bad trope, it leaves the female protag on unequal ground with the male secondary character. It makes her appear helpless when her agency is the foundation in which the narrative is built. Plus it still sends the message “a woman is only powerful and validated if she has the love of a dominant male force.” Which is bullshit. On the other side of the coin, it reinforces toxic masculinity for the Dude Interest. I could go on for days about toxic masculinity in literature but that is a blog entry for another time. The one piece of advice I always give newly married couples is “communication is key.” It doesn’t have to be good communication but any kind is better than nothing.
I have a love-hate relationship with tropes. They have their merits of being easily recognizable scenarios or relationships that can be easily digested for an audience. They equally have issues with being overly-simplistic and far too prevalent. As someone who skirts the fanfiction-original fiction boarder, I appreciate tropes in one arena and despise it in the other. Tropes are amazing ways to quickly explain what a story line or relationship is.
“It’s a fake-relationship fic” is an fantastically concise way of telling someone that “two characters will pretend to be together, have some shenanigans, and inevitably realize that there is something more occurring between them.” It’s assumed that this is the base that the piece of fanfiction has been constructed upon with some level of variety or clever application on top. But at the heart of it, it’s still a trope-based fic. Within the fanfiction arena, that’s a completely acceptable method of delivering entertainment.
On the other hand, in original fiction tropes are less about consolidating concepts and more about taking a character or situation and having them follow a common theme that’s familiar to the audience. “A young girl rebels against the government and leads a revolution.” This is a plotline that’s become quite prevalent in the past few years in YA media. It’s also become a trope. Again, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this trope; it’s the basis of many fascinating storylines that captivate audiences worldwide.
The issue that I personally have with this kind of trope (and the many others that exist) is that it becomes boring and expected. The “new and exciting” twists end up being just set dressing over the familiar and tiring trope. Even worse, a story can be built upon this trope that doesn’t have the legs to follow through with it. A young girl could rebel against the government because of a terrible injustice, but if she doesn’t have the backing of other more powerful people - say through a pre-existing rebellion she teams up with - it’s unbelievable to watch and see her succeed. The story still needs to have supporting factors to work with or explain why the trope is occurring.
If those factors are missing, then the story overall falls flat with the reader clinging solely to the trope for support of how the girl ends up defeating the government. Following through with the prior example, the girl somehow kicks the government’s ass by herself and the world is saved even though her actions probably would have not had much support by others because that underground movement doesn’t exist. The story is still interesting because wow that girl kicked the government’s ass but if you dive into the universe around her, she should have failed somewhere along the way.
2) Why do you break tropes?
Despite my love for tropes in fanfiction, I love breaking them even more. Readers expect certain things to happen in fiction based on tropes - they expect the guy to get the girl he’s been eyeing the whole book, the awkward nerdy friend to unquestioningly help the somehow more popular friend with the plot-furthering unique artifact, the school dance to be the most life-changing event in the protag’s life. It’s a great feeling for a reader to see a scene or a plot point and recognize oh man, this is going to lead to XYZ event! And it is awesome to get to XYZ point! But even better is to take that expectation and utterly crush it to make it into ABC better thing.
The school dance has been the big news for the past week? It’s even more meaningful or at least unexpected when the protag has that life-affirming event the day before on a totally unexpected Thursday. The main guy finally kicks ass and defeats the big bad to save the girl? She’s grateful and grants him three wishes before gently letting him down. She’ll be an even more interesting character in the sequel counselling the main guy as he struggles with choosing when to use those three wishes. I’m making these examples all up as I go, but I think that I’m still making my point: breaking tropes leads to storylines that are so much more interesting and beyond the typical reader’s expectations. It can elevate writing to another level*.
This is a skill that can be applied to fanfiction or original fiction in equal measure. Any story can benefit from tropes and that same story could still benefit from breaking those tropes.
3) What is the trope you hate the most?
My absolute least-favorite trope (in any field, whether it’s YA fiction or blockbuster films) has to be the concept that the main character has to fall in love with someone to be happy. Whether this is the driving force of a story line (Scott Pilgrim**, every rom-com ever) or just an unnecessary subplot (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Spectre, Hunger Games), it’s incredibly frustrating to be watching a fascinating plot line peppered with one character seeking the affections of another. This is especially agonizing when they have no connection or the love interest shuts down the main character over a disagreement of fundamental principles. Then, magically in the end they end up smooching and are together through the power of plot! Wow, what a total disappointment. Yeah, you made the girl swoon because you killed the evil robot terrorizing the world, but are you even friends? If the filmmakers fast forward a year, will you still be together or will your stance on milk in cereal tear you apart at the seams?
(*) if properly executed. Like any writing skill, good vs poor execution is the key point.
(**) Scott Pilgrim actually is a fairly interesting example of tropebreaking in the original books as Scott doesn’t end up with the fantastic Ramona Flowers just because he beat up her 7 ex’s. They changed the film because it was “more fulfilling” for the audience to see him fulfill the trope of getting the girl.
For more information on common tropes check out TV Tropes!
In case you still don’t understand why it’s bad to write fiction with a disabled character who is magically “cured”:
Imagine this for a second: you’re a kid in a wheelchair.
It’s pretty isolating. You love reading, but every book you read has a hero who can walk. After a while, you start to get the message: only kids without disabilities are allowed to have adventures. Because of your condition, you’ll never be able to have a story worth reading.
Now imagine you discover a book about a kid in a wheelchair.
It’s fantastic. All of a sudden, there’s someone like you who gets to go on awesome adventures. Maybe your story actually is worth telling after all!
But then the hero gets their greatest wish granted: their legs are fixed and they rise from their wheelchair, healthy and strong.
And there you are, the reader, still stuck in your wheelchair.
Your legs will never be fixed.
You will never be granted that magical wish.
And the character who used to just be like you is now something you can never be. The writer has decided that their story is only worth telling if they end up magically abled.
But you will never end up magically abled. So what does this tell you?
Violence, fights, tension–three words that often carry a story a long, especially anything in the fantasy, sci-fi, or action-adventure realm. Whether it’s hand-to-hand combat (see older resource posts), or weapon usage, fights should be as realistic as possible: the focus should be on the fiction, the characters, and story, not your reader scratching their head saying “that could never really happen.” Here are some resources I hope will help as you embark on your more “wound-based” scenes:
Healing is just as important as the fight when it comes to story believability. If your character was shot one day ago and is now running aroun the Olympics, it’s likely your reader will close the book and forget about all the important story-telling you had engaged them in prior. Facts count, so don’t let the small stuff derail your next big hit.
Your story is 50% reader. It’s that mixture of reader and writer that makes the magic.
Which means your story needs to have holes for the reader to fill in. You need that negative space for the puzzle pieces to fit.
I’m not talking about plot holes, I’m talking about giving one sentence the power of two. A book that means what it says is a mediocre book. A book that means more than what it says is a great book.
Don’t over-develop your characters, having them analyze every feeling, or spelling out what every character in a scene is thinking. Don’t follow up a powerful line with an explanation with what makes that line powerful.