Category Archives: Olga’s writing tips

Genres help each other

Besides writing fiction, I also work as a journalist for a local newspaper and I write book reviews for most books I read. GoodReads has 250 of my reviews by now, and I noticed recently how much writing nonfiction improved my fiction.

Journalism

Writing articles for an old-fashioned print newspaper teaches brevity and influences word choices. In a print newspaper, unlike an online blog, page space is at a premium, and word count is tight, like in a book. I have to squeeze everything I need to say into 800 words, so I learned to formulate my thoughts in the most concise way and to select only the most relevant, truly important points for inclusion in a story. I also learned to use very few adjectives in my writing—no room for flowery prose—and to select the most precise and expressive words to convey ideas. These skills do wonders in fiction.

Book reviews

When I critique a book, figuring out what I like and dislike in a story, I try to use my finds in my own fiction. It’s not as easy with quality, the books I like—these are often highly subjective—but flaws are easy to pinpoint in the other writers’ works. Each one I notice is a lesson to apply to my own writing. A few of the most common flaws—the most important lessons—I list below.

Deus ex machine – this is a No-No! in every textbook on writing, but many writers still use this literary device. It’s very tempting to drop their characters into an impossible situation and then introduce a powerful sorcerer who can wave his wand—and poof! Problems solved. Heroes saved. Or it could be a boss, or Zeus, or a genius rabbit coming to the rescue. Sergei Lukyanenko in his books Night Watch and Day Watch uses this approach. His hero doesn’t solve problems. To keep his conscience clean, he allows others to do it for him, to dirty their own conscience.
I never resort to this trick. My characters always solve their own problems. And if they can’t, then maybe I, a writer, should fix the situation they find themselves in, so they would have a solution available.

Info dumps – another technique frowned upon by all the writing teachers. Still, many writers do it in the beginning of their books. Mercedes Lackey is especially prone to info dumps in prologues. The readers should know the character backgrounds and the world description before they plunge into the story, right? Wrong! Everything the readers should know they could learn from the story later.
I try hard not to use this comfortable and attractive solution. As a reader, I’m bored by the info dumps. I don’t wish to bore my readers, so I start my stories with action.

Unsympathetic characters – this is a border case. I don’t usually finish books where I don’t like any of the characters, but some readers accept this writing quirk, even derive a contrary satisfaction from reading about doormats or villains. In the last decade, a wave of darkness swept the literature, and many writers consider a good protagonist almost a taboo. They add some artificial faults to their heroes, as if a drug user is automatically more interesting than an honest, hardworking non-smoker. I disagree. For me, it feels like a lazy way out for a writer, but liking and disliking has always been subjective. I try to write about characters that I myself sympathize with. I make my characters strong and able, standing firmly on the ‘side of light’. They still have complex problems to solve, so it’s largely a personal preference, but it’s a lesson all the same.

Too many details or unnecessary details – this flaw isn’t huge but it’s often irritating. Some writers don’t even consider it a flaw, they cram their novels with details, but for me as a reviewer, too many details make a book tedious. Every detail, if used, should tell something about the character or be relevant to the story or convey a mood. If it fails to perform any of these three functions, it’s extraneous. I read a book by Alex Bledsoe lately. In it, his hero goes peeing one morning. Who needs this detail? Why is it there? It doesn’t serve any purpose. In my own writing, I try to follow this maxim: no unnecessary details. Sometimes, I fail, but I make an effort.

What other fiction writing technique did you learn by working in another writing genre? Marketing? Technical writing? Communications?

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Creative Insults

Recently, I found this list floating on the internet. I think if you write fantasy and you wish your heroes to curse creatively, it could be very useful to you.  It’s called Shakespeare Insult Kit but it could be used for any quasi-medieval society cursing.
Combine one word from each column to create a colorful insult
===================================
artless            base-court         apple-john
bawdy             bat-fowling         baggage
beslubbering  beef-witted         barnacle
bootless         beetle-headed    bladder
churlish          boil-brained         boar-pig
cockered       clapper-clawed    bugbear
clouted         clay-brained         bum-bailey
craven         common-kissing    canker-blossom
currish         crook-pated          clack-dish
dunkish        dismal-dreaming   clotpole
dissembling   dizzy-eyed           coxcomb
droning         dog-hearted         codpiece
errant           dread-bolted         death-token
fawning         earth-vexing         dewberry
fobbing         elf-skinned           flap-dragon
forward         fat-kidneyed         flax-wench
frothy            fen-sucked           flirt-gill
gleeking       flap-mouthed         foot-licker
goatish         fly-bitten                fustilarian
gorbellied     folly-fallen             giglet
impertinent    fool-born             gudgeon
infectious      full-gorged           haggard
jarring           guts-griping         harpy
loggerheaded     half-faced      hedge-pig
lumpish         hasty-witted         horn-beast
mammering   hedge-born         hugger-mugger
mangled        hell-hated            joithead
mewling         idle-headed         lewdster
paunchy        ill-breeding           lout
pribbling        ill-nurtured           maggot-pie
puking           knotty-pated        malt-worm
puny              milk-livered          mammet
qualling          motley-minded    measle
rank               onion-eyed          minnow
reeky             plume-plucked    miscreant
roguish          pottle-deep         moldwarp
ruttish            pox-marked         mumble-news
saucy             reeling-ripe         nut-hook
spleeny          rough-hewn        pigeon-egg
spongy          rude-growing       pignut
surly              rump-fed              puttock
tottering        shard-borne         pumpion
unmuzzled     sheep-biting         ratsbane
vain                spur-galled         scut
venomed       swag-bellied         skainsmate
villainous        tardy-gaited        strumpet
warped          tickle-brained       varlot
wayward         toad-spotted        vassal
weedy            unchin-snouted    whey-face
yeasty            weather-bitten      wagtail

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Fantasy heroes – who are they?

Re-blogged from my site.

My contemplations concern both male and female characters, but for the clarity of writing, I’m using only male nouns and pronouns.

In high fantasy, heroes are habitually princes (long-lost or deposed or otherwise beset by woes) or magicians or soldiers. Almost as often they are poor orphans or criminals: thieves and assassins. I don’t know any respectable shoemakers or tavern keepers who are heroes of high fantasy, unless their shop or farm is no more.

SeamstressConversely, in urban fantasy, which takes place in the alternative version of here and now, heroes most frequently belong to the middle class: bartenders and librarians, computer programmers and dressmakers. There are not many modern fantasy novels where a hero is a ‘prince’, e.g. a movie star or a corporate mogul. Not many poor orphans either, although some pop up occasionally, just like some criminals make their appearance in urban fantasy, but in latter case, they usually work for the government. A CIA assassin – how glamorous!

Why such a disparity in the heroes’ social standings? Fantasy writers have a rationale for their protagonists, just as fantasy tropes are tropes for a reason. Let’s first look at high fantasy, which usually happens in a quasi-medieval society.

Princes – they have education and money, before some villain causes them to flee for their lives, rally their scattered forces, and strike back at their enemy. Princes don’t have ties to the community; nobody depends on them for their livelihood. Pretty useless creatures, princes, at liberty to go anywhere, anytime. Nobody would miss them.

Magicians – they have power of their own, their magic. They can employ it in any city or society; they have no ties to the community or locality either. Quite the opposite, they are often recluses or under vows of chastity or some such. They’re free to roam at will. Magician1

Soldiers – they also have skills they can ply anywhere. They don’t have families or links to the community that depends on them. The same applies to thieves. What is common to all those types – they are independent in their income source and nobody needs them to survive.

Orphans don’t have an independent source of income, but their ties to a place or a community have been severed by irresistible forces. As a result, they’re rootless, blown by the winds of their misfortunes to look for a good life elsewhere.

What about middle class – a shopkeeper or a peasant? Unless his shop or homestead is destroyed and his loved ones killed, he is not free. He has family to support, children to feed, village to appease. Many people rely on him – he has roots and can’t just up and leave for a heroic adventure. It would be considered irresponsible. He must work hard from dawn to dusk, fix the roof after a church service, and pay the guild fee by Friday. He doesn’t have a choice. No food for a fantasy writer there.

Now let’s take a look at urban fantasy – at our society. Here the roles are reversed. Who has the widest choices? Our shop owners and farmers and middle-level employees. Millions of choices. They can switch careers, travel, attend university, go to movies every week, meet new people in bars, gyms, interest clubs, Internet, and so on. The possibilities for fantasy adventures are countless.

How about our soldiers? They’re so boxed in by army regulations that there is almost no room to maneuver for a fantasy writer.

What about our princes and magicians – the super-rich folks and pop icons? If they don’t want to lose their money, they work hard and then drink and do drugs to unwind. At least that is what the gossip pages tell us. Paparazzi follow them, so they’re not free to go anywhere. Can they switch career? Of course, in theory, but it happens so seldom, we never hear of it. Can they become members of a knitting club in a local community center? Yes, but they don’t. Have you heard of even one example? They’re extremely restricted by their names, money, and fame. That’s why they’re almost never heroes of modern fantasy.

Did I simplify in my musing? Yes. Are there exceptions to my conclusions? Definitely. Do you know novels that contradict my findings? Argue with me.

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