character writing

Five things I’ve learned about dialogue

I’m not good at dialogue.

There, I said it. Although not as well as other authors would.

Anyway, I’ve struggled with dialogue ever since I started writing, and because of that I keep writing it, because if I leave it alone I’ll never get better at it.  I’m still not great with it, but I have learned something from my mistakes, and in the spirit of sharing, education and group hugging, I’ve got a list of five lessons here for your edification.

Lesson Zero, of course, is never to use the word ‘edification’ in your dialogue. Ahem.

Realistic dialogue isn’t interesting; interesting dialogue isn’t realistic

You know how normal people speak? We errm and ahh and mumble, we pause for breathe at inconvenient times, we repeat ourselves, we start every sentence with ‘Um, actually’, we repeat ourselves… all of these things are genuine and realistic ways of portraying human speech. And they are boring as shit to read. Worse than boring, they’re irritating; they’re like little clusters of birdshit clogging up the page and stopping the reader getting to the part of the dialogue that’s actually entertaining or that carries the story.

My big sin here was starting most of Kendall’s dialogue in The Obituarist with ‘Well,’. I had reasons – sometimes it showed that he’s thinking up what he says as he says it, sometimes it let me negate or undercut what someone else had said, but mostly I did it because that’s how people speak. Okay, that’s how I speak. Fortunately, my editor pulled me up on that and made me take it out, and the book is the stronger for it.

The dialogue that sticks in your memory or powerfully depicts character isn’t the realistic stuff, it’s the dialogue that you wish actual human beings would speak. No-one swears like Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black or gibbers like Hunter S. Thompson’s Doctor Gonzo, but those characters (and other like them) have a voice that stays with the reader and draws them into the story. Their artificiality is engaging; they remind us that we’re reading fiction and are allowed to stretch our imaginations. Even realistic, character-based narratives benefit from interestingly unrealistic dialogue, because you can use the conceit of the voice as a counterpoint to the groundedness of the characters and story.

So cut out the umms and skip the tonal padding; crazy moon-talk puts bums on seats.

Small talk equals bore talk

The other thing real people do is talk about things that don’t matter that much – the weather, what we did on the weekend, the proud/shameful acts of Local Sports Team #7 and so on. This is normal and it serves a purpose; it’s a way of setting up a shared space in which we can then be comfortable talking about more important things. Small talk is a social safety net.

But small talk in a narrative needs to be bludgeoned to death and thrown in a lime pit; it’s boring, and worse than that it doesn’t move the plot along. I’m not saying every single word in your story needs to be 100% vital, but it should play some purpose for the reader; small talk only plays a purpose for the characters, and they don’t need to feel safe because they’re not real. I made this mistake in some of my early Hunter RPG writing, which was presented as in-character material like tape recordings. I used small talk and chit-chat to give context, but the material didn’t need it; again, my editor removed the worst excesses and set me straight.

Along these lines, the best point to come into a dialogue scene is after it’s started, not just after the chit-chat but just as/after someone said the most vital/heinous/meaningful thing. The best place to leave the scene is as soon as possible, just after the important stuff’s been said and people have started reacting to it and someone somewhere is going to throw a punch or have a baby or both at the same time. Jump right in, jump right out, hit it and split it – because you grab the reader at the height of their engagement in what’s happening and then transfer that energy to the next phase of the story. Make them do the work for once. Lazy buggers.

Dialogue isn’t action

When you jump in late and out early from a dialogue scene, you bookend the talking with action – and this is important, because talking isn’t action. And I don’t just mean it’s not a fist fight or a car chase, I mean it’s not an avenue by which things happen; dialogue is not the place where things change. It often comes just before that change, of course, and might be the impetus for that change – but the change is still what characters do, not what they say, even in the most internally-focused story.

There are two parts to this lesson. The obvious one is not to make dialogue the resolution of a story or plotline; don’t end the scene with people just talking and then move on. That leaves the reader hanging and wondering what actually happens next, and not in a good way; it’s all windup and no payoff. Even if the aftermath of dialogue is just a person walking out of the room, that can still pack a punch; the words have an effect and the situation/person has changed.  So long as the action is tethered to the dialogue in a meaningful way, the transition will be satisfying.

The second part is that, since dialogue isn’t action, you may want to include some action in the scene to keep the energy levels up. Two people sitting and talking can be riveting on stage, but in print it’s just line after line of he said/she said, and visual monotony can creep in. To avoid that, have characters move around and do things – drink wine, kick chairs, shoot ninjas, whatever. You can reinforce talk and action by having them be different aspects of the same thing; alternatively, you can have people do one thing while saying another, arguing about custody rights while operating killer drones on a cyber-battlefield. That contrast builds a dissonant tension if you do it right, and maybe lets you sneak in metaphorical parallels if you’re one of those writers who is smarter than me.

Dialogue is sorta kinda like action

Okay, I lied. There is one way that dialogue is like action, and that’s pacing. Just as an action scene can catch the reader and propel them breathless through the chapter, so too can quick back-and-forth banter. Hell, you don’t even need that; any dialogue that’s reasonably snappy will speed readers through a scene, if only because there are fewer words on the page. That’s the mechanistic element that’s easy to forget; dialogue reads fast, and talking chews up pagecount more than description.

On the flip side, if you want to slow the pace down, you can do that with dialogue too. A slow, thoughtful conversation where characters speak in paragraphs rather than sentences can take up more mental space for the reader than anything else, because we’re less likely to skip through dialogue looking for pertinent information, which we’ll often do with description. That said, this is tricky, because slow, thoughtful conversations are often kind of boring. So maybe don’t do this too often; better to intersperse dialogue with description or (yet again) action for a speed-up-slow-down-push-me-pull-you rhythm.

This also means that if you write a book with no dialogue, minimal dialogue, or that gets away from the quotation mark style of speech to something more abstract – which is what I did with Hotel Flamingo – you lose a major pacing mechanism from your writer’s toolbox. If you’re a good writer, you can make do without it – but be aware of what you’re giving up before you start, lest you get halfway through and realise you need it after all.

Give major characters a distinctive voice, but not an accent, because accents are bullshit

Some advice manuals say to give every character a distinct voice, but I say that’s not necessary. Sometimes it’s okay for a minor character to sound like another minor character, as long as they’re in separate scenes. Making everyone unique is a) hard, b) unnecessary, c) potentially overwhelming for the reader who has to juggle all these voices in their head.

But for major or recurring characters, it’s really good to give them a signature of some kind, a mannerism or style that tags them in the reader’s memory and reinforces personality. I used a few of these in The Obituarist, such as Samosa’s habit of saying ‘bro’ or Grayson’s snarky politeness, and I think I pulled those off pretty well. A specific inflection, a occasionally-used phrase, a tendency to inflect every statement like a question; little things say a lot and make them memorable.

A little goes a long way, mind you. D-Block’s vocal mannerisms in The Obituarist go too far, and looking back I wish I’d cut them down by about 50%. That would still have given him a unique voice, been less wearying to read, and might have said more about his character by implying that it was a deliberate affectation, rather than just being ‘street’.

Accents, though, are the work of Satan; they are the leavings of Mephistopheles’ slush pile. Unless you are Irvine Welsh and plan to your whole novel in dialect – and if you are Irvine Welsh, mate, thanks a lot for Trainspotting – then accents are just trying too fucking hard and making your character vomit unreadable chains of gibberletters onto the page that the reader has to decipher every damn time until eventually they give up and go back to the TV, where at least the accents might have subtitles.

Comics are so very, very bad for this. We’ve suffered through like thirty years of Chris Claremont sticking an indeterminate Southern accent on Rogue, whose drawl has stretched so far that it’s hard to tell whether she’s just a Foghorn Leghorn caricature of a real Mississippian or whether the poor girl has an acquired brain injury from all those times she got punched in the head by the Juggernaut.

Of course she hooked up with Gambit. It’s like duelling diphthongs down at the Crossroads.

Accents drown out the meaning and the tone of dialogue, overwhelming the flavour like rancid cheese oozing all over a subtle lemon sorbet. They’re cheap, they’re stupid, they’re distracting and they’re clumsy. And if you’re using them to communicate a character’s cultural or ethnic background, well, then they may even be kinda racist. Or not even kinda.

So don’t use ’em, bro.

Folks, this has been a collection of five things I’ve learned as a reader and a writer. I hope you found them useful. If you did, please say so – if enough people enjoyed this I may do another set on a different topic in future. And if you disagree on any point, possibly because you are Chris Claremont – and if so, Chris, what was up with putting all the female X-characters in bondage outfits time after time? – then you should also leave a comment and say so.

We could start a dialogue OH SNAP YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE

character writing

Character goals – a COMPilation of elements

‘Strong characters need strong goals’

This is one of those truisms of writing that sounds sensible and useful until you actually scratch at it a bit, and realise that it doesn’t actually tell you what a strong goal is or how to come up with one that makes sense for your character.

(Things that are true are not always useful; things that are useful are not always true.)

But I was thinking this week about characters and goals (mostly ‘cos I was thinking about World of Darkness roleplaying, but it applies to writing as well), and I’ve maybe come up with a trio of idea that combine to making a powerful goal for a character, one that can drive stories and inspire authors.

So what, then, makes for a good character goal? Well, I call it my compilation of elements, because all three start with ‘comp’. Cheesy, yes, but easy to remember!


The goal must be something urgent, something that compels the character to work towards it actively and right away. Part of this is having the goal be something that emotionally yanks at the character, so that ignoring it to do something else is unthinkable. Revenge is a good example of this, as is a burning need to seek justice (they’re not quite the same thing). But the time element is also important; a good goal can’t be shelved indefinitely. Perhaps it has to be completed before the opportunity is lost  (the murderer must be caught before he escapes the country), or perhaps the goal just won’t mean anything to the character if it’s not achieved right away. There’s room for a goal that can be put aside for a brief period – particularly if the delay gives the character a much-needed advantage, such as an ally or information – but it has to draw the character back even harder after the break.


A goal that is easy to achieve is a boring one, and one that doesn’t drive a narrative. A good goal takes work to achieve, and not simple work at that. There needs to be obstacles in the way, conflicts to overcome, multiple stages that need to be achieved. All of this complication requires the character to work hard at things and to approach things from multiple angles – a goal that is difficult, but is achieved simply by killing lots and lots and lots of dudes, is a goal that won’t keep readers’ interest. (The best narrative video games understand this – they stretch player skill in multiple areas at different times to progress towards the end.) Complications allow you to bring in other story elements, like additional characters and plotlines – and most importantly, complications give you lots of ways to introduce different kinds of conflict. Because, as we all know, stories run on conflict.

You can kill dudes, Ezio, but now you must BAKE!


And in the end, the goal has to be something the character can achieve – they can get to a point where they think ‘yes, I’ve done it, I can stop now.’ (That doesn’t mean that they have to achieve the goal – tragedy and anticlimax are wonderful things – but it has to be something they could have achieved if things hadn’t gone wrong.) There need to be milestones along the way to keep the character’s momentum going, and there needs to be a concrete, definable end state. Vague, open-ended goals like ‘gain power and wealth’ don’t keep propelling the narrative and maintain reader attention; eventually they lose momentum and peter out. Similarly, the emotional power behind a compelling goal slowly evaporates if the goal isn’t achievable; it loses meaning, and the ability to care goes with it. Paint a target on your story, point your character at it, and let it explode when he/she hits the bullseye.

(Many thanks to Jeb Darsh for suggesting ‘completable’ rather than ‘concrete’ when I was trialling these ideas on Twitter.)

Now, you may look at that list and think ‘well, hang on, I can think of some strong characters that aren’t driven by goals that match that.’

Well, of course you can, because this list ain’t the perfect be-all end-all ULTIMATE SECRET of writing; if I could come up with that, I’d be injecting liquid money into my eye sockets rather than writing blog posts. There are certainly other ways to come up with good character goals; this is one pattern, but every writer finds their own way.

It’s also important to remember, though, that not every strong character needs a strong goal. Goals are important in stories that are driven by character choices and actions, but that’s only one kind of story. Event-driven stories often feature reactive characters, who respond to external needs rather than internal forces, and those stories are just as interesting and powerful. Characters with weaker, vaguer goals are also better suited to open-ended narratives, such as ongoing serials. Comics are a great example; Batman has a goal (to avenge his parent’s deaths and fight crime in Gotham), but it’s not an achievable one or one that must utterly consume him, if only because he has to stop every now and then to help the Justice League fight Starro or something.

But even in these narratives, you can include smaller subgoals, and in turn give the reactive character a more active role for a time. ‘Fight crime’ is too vague and too unachievable; ‘uncover and defeat the Court of Owls’ is a lot more solid and puts Batman into the driver’s seat of a specific storyline. And again, including all three elements – compelling, complicated, completable – makes that subgoal engaging and exciting for the period in which it drives the larger narrative.

So that’s my guide to the basics of a strong character-goal. Work out those three elements at the start of your story and you should have enough steam in the engine to power you all the way to the end.

Do you have a different approach? Let’s talk about it in the comments! Come on, people, let’s share.

genre obituarist writing

Dramatic licentiousness

So ‘Inbox Zero’ was released into the wilds last Sunday and since then has racked up a measly 20 downloads. That’s not as many as I would like, given that it’s a free story and that I’ve sold more than 100 copies of The Obituarist and if you LOVED me you’d READ it and DISSEMINATE it and I wouldn’t have to BEG you to do YOUR PART in making this RELATIONSHIP work.

But I’m not going to get into that. Readers will find it, in their own time and own way, without any whining on my part. I’ve moved on.

Instead, I would like to talk a bit tonight about what ‘Inbox Zero’ might (or might not) mean for the ongoing development of the Obituarist concept. Because as a result of this story, I find myself starting to think of Kendall Barber as someone who has… adventures.

And I don’t really want that. Or at least, I don’t want to acknowledge it.

But to make sense of this, let’s first talk about dramatic license.

What do we mean by ‘dramatic license’? I think that, in simplest terms, it’s about choosing the interesting over the realistic; it’s making a decision that the world of the story would be better served by not making it line up with the world of the reader. That’s not the same thing as just including things in the story that don’t exist in reality, like dragons or faster-than-light travel; you can have those things and still write a story that cleaves to reality – it’s just a reality with extra stuff in it.

No, dramatic license is about making choices about how the elements of the story (real or imaginary, and let’s face it, they’re all imaginary) behave and develop, and why they go in that direction. To make the facts serve the story, rather than have the story serve the facts. Or at the very least, making up your own facts to replace the inconvenient ones of reality.

Some genre fiction is pretty forgiving to dramatic license, especially fantasy and science fiction. Crime fiction is much less so, because the best crime stories give the impression that they could have really happened, and hewing as close as possible to the real helps immeasurably with that. (Horror stories swap between realism and unrealism depending on what makes a story scarier or more emotionally unsettling, which is why horror is so much fun to write.)

Sometimes license is about physics and medical procedures and the physical doodads of a story, but more often it’s about character – about the decisions and actions characters take and the way the world reacts to those. On that  character level, dramatic license usually boils down to ‘things don’t change’ – because logical consequences aren’t always the consequences you want to explore, and a bad guy that followed all the pointers on those interminable ‘If I Was an Evil Overlord’ lists would bring your story to an early, not-very enjoyable halt. Vampires stay hidden behind the scenes despite investigators learning of their existence. The Dark Lord overlooks that one thing that allows a plucky young adventurer to find his weakness and cast him down. A superhero’s amazing inventions don’t transform the world, and he doesn’t have brain damage or post-traumatic stress disorder despite being punched in the skull by Bane every couple of days.

(You can write a cool story exploring what happens when you don’t take those dramatic liberties, of course. But those stories tend to deconstruct their genres, rather than celebrating them, and sometimes you want to read Justice League (Morrison-era, obviously) rather than Watchmen.)

So to bring this back to The Obituarist, I’ve set up a base in the novella that Kendall Barber is not a detective, and that he doesn’t go around solving crimes all the time – his job is unusual but mundane, his life deliberately ordinary, and when a crime falls into his lap he reluctantly gets involved mostly due to poor decision-making. That’s the setup for a stand-alone crime story, something with boundaries – you pass through, go out the other side and get back to reality.

But now here’s ‘Inbox Zero’, another situation where Kendall gets involved with a crime. I’m also planning a proper sequel, a longer story where – you guessed it – Kendall gets involved with a crime. There’ll probably be 2-4 more stories, long and short, in which our regular guy has to play Sherlock Holmes.

And the logical, real-world effect of this would be that the character does start to think of himself as a detective, as do the people around him, and that he attracts attention due to that; that his world and his personality change to reflect what he does. Which would mean that I wouldn’t be able to write the stories that I want to write – i.e. ones without that change.

So can I fall back on dramatic license and handwave away that logical development in tone and character while staying in the grounded genre of crime fiction?

I sure as hell can, ‘cos I’m gonna play the Murder, She Wrote defence.

How many crimes does your average homicide detective solve in a lifetime? Ten, fifteen, maybe more, maybe less, maybe depends what you mean by ‘solved’, and all that over the course of a 20-30 year career. Jessica Fletcher, a retired teacher turned crime writer, solved 268 murders in 12 years – and no-one said shit about it. No-one went ‘holy crap, that’s impossible’; no-one went ‘holy crap, she must be a serial killer’; the FBI didn’t hire her or lock her up. Within the confines of the narrative, no-one pointed out the sheer crazy fucking impossibility of Jessica Fletcher, and dealing with 268 murders didn’t drive her to drink, heroin or Chippendale shagging.

That’s the big dramatic conceit of ongoing crime fiction – that you can right a wrong and not be changed by it, and not have the world see you differently. That you can do it again, and again, and still be who you were at the start.

And that suits me fine at this point. Don’t get me wrong, I have changes and consequences in mind for Kendall Barber; I have shit planned that will turn you white. But I want to keep him in the Jessica Fletcher zone while I do so, and have him say ‘I’m just an IT undertaker, not a detective’ and not have anyone in the story – and hopefully none of you – call bullshit on him (or me).

Come on. You let Angel of Death Fletcher get away with it, and she’s seen more bodies than Larry Flynt.

After all of that waffle about what I want to do with my writing, let’s flip it around – what should you do with yours?

Well, whatever you want. Duh.

If you want to do painstaking research and hew as close to the real as possible, with little or no bending of physics, psychology or logic, then that’s great – many awesome books do exactly that, and their grounding in reality makes them feel genuine and engaging. And if you don’t want to do any of that, if you want to do whatever makes sense for your story even if it doesn’t outside its pages, then that’s fine too, and more than fine, ask guys doing affordable research papers. Because being a writer is a license to make shit up in service to the narrative, and you’re the one who gets to decide when to keep it real and when to dump logic and realism in a sack and set them on fire.

Write what you know, sure – use the real world as your foundation and your font of ideas. Keep your readers engaged with tiny details, make them feel that your world and characters are genuine and not just amorphous blobs.

But stories have their own logic. Drama has its own needs. Characters will do as they must, even if it only makes sense to them (and you). And when the needs of the narrative demand that rivers flow upstream from the sea, then turn your boat around and paddle up a waterfall.

Because if you do it well, if you write it powerfully, your readers will pick up their oars and row right behind you. Reality be damned.

character story superheroes

Faster than a speeding narrative

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Superman, and specifically thinking about how to write Superman stories.

Which, let me be clear, is not something I tend to do very often. I am Batman-man, after all, and while I’ve always been perfectly happy that Superman exists I’ve rarely been all that interested in reading about him. Good character, but not my favourite.

But the last few years have seen Superman appear in many stories that get the character very wrong, and these things irritate me when I read them. Worse, those wrongheaded approaches get enshrined into continuity as ‘definitive’ stories and interpretations, and the stories that follow take their cues from these flawed sources.

And now we have a belligerent, ‘edgy’ Superman who is alienated from humanity, quick to lash out in anger and willing to dismember and decapitate his enemies. Yes, that actually happened in the new Justice League title, because what we’d always wanted to see was the world’s greatest hero tear aliens into bloody shreds. Kids love it!

Everything about this is terrible. EVERYTHING.

So I feel the urge to pontificate on how to write Superman. Which is not difficult, despite what people say – hell, it’s so simple that even a schmuck who has no comics writing experience whatsoever can see it. Because there is an elemental purity to Superman, the first and most important superhero, and that purity shines through like yellow sunlight through green fog.

Many of the changes seem to come from the oft-repeated ‘conventional wisdom’ that Superman is a hard character to write, or to relate to, for two reasons:

  1. His enormous physical power makes it difficult to challenge him
  2. His morality is simplistic and makes him emotionally uninteresting

The interesting thing about these arguments is that they are both stupid – or, more precisely, both backwards. They position the two greatest opportunities in writing the character as problems. They are Bizarro reasons that am make perfect sense me am love eating ground glass.

Here’s the thing about ‘challenging’ characters – that’s not how writing a story works. Writers don’t ‘challenge’ characters, because the setup and the outcome of the story (or scene) are determined by the writer in the first place. There’s no challenge, there’s no uncertainty, there’s no rolling dice to see if the hero or villain win this month. Instead, you need to approach things in terms of conflict.

What are the stakes? What are the conditions? What does the character want? What can/will they do to achieve it? What do they need to overcome? What are the consequences of success and/or failure? These are the fundamental questions a writer needs to consider, and they are the questions that shape stories – and that determine what kind of stories work for a character.

So when someone talks about Superman being ‘too powerful’, that speaks to a problem with the stakes and conditions, not the character itself. A story about Superman catching a car thief isn’t going to work because the stakes and the consequences don’t match the character, not because he’s ‘too powerful’. And anyway, we’ve seen that story before, right?

Instead of a problem, think of Superman’s abilities as an opportunity. Superman’s physical power does not exist to let him overcome conflicts, it exists to allow him to engage in conflicts – the more amazing and over-the-top the better. His power level allows you to open up immense conceptual space and come up with magnificently impossible situations. Suns should be exploding, continents should be liquefying  dimensions should be tearing asunder. You have a chance to make up something amazing when you write Superman – do that, rather than, I dunno, have him walk slowly across America while lecturing poor people about how they shouldn’t commit crimes.

The other thing about going balls-out in the imagination stakes is that it means creating antagonists who can also operate on that level. Again, this is something some writers see as a constraint (they really wanted to make that car thief the bad guy) and I see as an opportunity, because it means the power levels cancel out and put the focus on personality. When that playing field is leavened – or, more correctly, equally heightened – what carries the day is not physical power but courage, determination and humanity. Superman doesn’t win because he is strong; he wins because he is brave, kind, inspirational and selfless. He wins because of that simplistic morality that is the other major complaint about the character, because the heart is the most powerful muscle of all. 

And here’s the thing about ‘simplistic morality’ – fuck your cynicism, human goodness is real.

Yes, we are flawed, but we can work to overcome those flaws, and we do so every day. I see people striving to help others every day, in whatever way they can – and for most of us those are small ways, sure, but we still try. We can be terrible to each other, but we don’t have to be. And in Superman – in the lightning that Siegel and Shuster captured in 1938 – we can imagine what simple human goodness could do if given the ability to act. Superman does not refute the notion that power corrupts; he refutes the notion that power must corrupt.

Some people think that’s old-fashioned. I think it’s beautiful.

Certainly there is room for that moral strength to be tested – that, in the end, is the most exciting part of any conflict involving Superman, because exploding suns are all well and good but we need something human to connect to. The point is, though, that there’s a difference between it being questioned and being subverted or mocked; between it being a source of conflict or a source of failure. Stories where Superman wonders whether torture can be justified (the animated feature Superman vs the Elite), where Jonathan Kent hires a branding consultant to design the S-shield (Superman: Earth One) or where his power alienates him from humanity and makes him feel superior (Kill Bill, of all things) utterly miss the point of the character. Superman gives us something utterly human to aspire to; he tells us that goodness can come from our genes, our upbringing or our innate character. That humanity is not something to be overcome, despite what Nietzsche said.

Alright, enough of my ranting and italics. Where does this get us?

Well, if we work from these principles, we can see that Superman stories should embrace the impossible, putting him at the start into situations no normal person could survive or perhaps even understand. He’s not blase or jaded by the situation, but nor is he cowed. His powers let him engage with those impossible situations, while his moral strength allows him to overcome the conflict facing him – the alchemical wedding of Super and Man.

For my money, the perfect Superman story that illustrates all of this is not All-Star Superman, although that is one of the finest Superman stories ever told; it gets everything right, but puts too much of its focus on other characters and situations. Instead, I’d like to nominate another Grant Morrison piece, Superman Beyond, a tie-in to the unfairly maligned Final Crisis.

In it, Superman is recruited by the interdimensional Monitors of Nil to battle a threat that could end the entire multiverse. But the Monitors’ bleedship crashes in Limbo, a wasteland between realities populated by forgotten superheroes, a place where stories go to die. When Mandrakk, the Dark Monitor, comes to tear Limbo apart and destroy all realities, Superman rallies the forgotten heroes to fight back while he travels outside reality to the Monitors’ home. There he takes control of a giant thought-robot to fight Mandrakk, unleashing the conceptual power of his own story to overcome the metatextual erasure of reality, finally casting the vampire Monitor into the Overvoid before flying back to his own reality with a single drop of infinite energy in his mouth that he uses to save Lois Lane’s life.

That probably all sounds a bit crazy put like that, and it must be said that coherency is not a hallmark of Final Crisis, but the majestic inventiveness and scale of the story make it wonderful. It’s a story where Superman must battle threats not just to humanity or one universe but to the very concept of universes, where he has to accept the idea that his life and everything he knows is on some level fictional but still worth fighting for, where he needs to place faith in alternate universe versions of himself (even in the evil one), and where in the end he is motivated to give it everything he has by his love for his wife.

Also, parts of the story were in 3D, special glasses and all.

Fuck. Yeah.

That’s how you write Superman,

Look, I’ve been talking in the specific about Superman here, but in the end this all applies to any powerful or competent character. Actually, strike that – it applies to any character, at least one interesting enough to write about. Because it’s always important to ask the right questions when writing about conflicts, and it’s always important to let the character’s personality be involved in how that conflict plays out. It’s just that it’s easier to expound at length (great, great length) on those points when I have a blue-and-red example to attach to them.

So take three axioms from this:

  1. Any character trait, negative or positive, can be used to shape the parameters of a conflict.
  2. Any character trait, negative or positive, can be used to shape the outcome of a conflict.
  3. You can (and probably should) use completely different traits to shape parameters and outcome.

And those apply to heat vision, intellect, juggling skill or just particularly tight pants.

Or indeed no pants. Let’s see Superman fight that.

linkage superheroes writing

Quick recommendation – DECOMPRESSED

Decompressed is a podcast produced by comics writer Kieron Gillen, perhaps best known for his Britpop-fantasy Phonogram and for suddenly graduating to writing a shitload of books for Marvel.

Decompressed is not about his work.

Instead it’s a comics-creation (mostly writing) craft blog where he interviews creators about their process, their decisions and the development of ideas into a specific single comic. Thus far he’s interviewed Jason Aaron (Wolverine and the X-Men), Kelly Sue deConnick (Captain Marvel), Tim Seeley & Mike Norton (Revival) and Matt Fraction and David Aja (Hawkeye, which I am seriously going to buy the fuck out of when it’s available as a trade).

And it’s really good stuff. Gillen asks the right questions in his soft English accent and I think a lot of that comes from the fact that he’s still relatively new to the industry. This is not an old hand talking about things he knows by rote; this is an excited newcomer still learning his craft asking ‘hey, why did you do that?’ and really wanting to know the answer. And his subjects love what they’re doing too, and the passion and the process ring out and ring true. It’s fucking fascinating.

If you’re not interested in how comics are conceived and written and drawn, this probably ain’t very interesting. But then again, if that were true you probably wouldn’t be sticking around on this blog in August. So go listen and check this fly shit out.

(PS – Decompressed is also available on iTunes.)

(PPS – And Gillen deserves mad props for a) telling me about amazing Brit-band Los Campesinos! in the back pages of Phonogram, which led to me listening to them every week for the past two years, and b) using one of their tracks as his intro/outro music. Seriously, they’re a great fucking band and you should listen to Romance is Boring right now.)

genre superheroes

What is a superhero anyway?

So okay, if I’m gonna talk about superheroes all month, I should probably define my terms, right?

Superheroes are heroes. Who are just super.

…okay, that’s probably not enough.

The problem with the superhero genre is that it’s broad, and inclusive, and has very fuzzy boundaries. Well, I say ‘problem’, but to be honest it’s more like a positive feature because it means so much cool stuff can be included in there. But it gets confused when the genre reaches out to absorb other genres, such as pulp or ‘weird adventure’. Is Hellboy a superhero? Atomic Robo? The delightful Marineman, which you should check out? They’re all larger-than-life characters that have impossible adventures, but the label seems out of place. And I’ve seen attempts to classify characters like Indiana Jones and Perseus as superheroes, which is definitely stretching things too far.

At the same time, some readers want to exclude characters that to me are obviously superheroes. After The Avengers movie came out, I saw a lot of viewers say ‘Hawkeye and Black Widow aren’t superheroes’, which bamboozled me. They wear costumes and have codenames and possess special skills and they’re in the Avengers, so how can they not be superheroes? Usually the logic is ‘they don’t have superpowers’ – which is true, but that’s true of plenty of superheroes. I mean, by that logic Batman isn’t a superhero – and when I said that a few people agreed and then I had to just drink rubbing alcohol until the pain in my head went away.


So it’s not a cut-and-dried thing, and defining it would be hard work for a Saturday morning. So, rather than do the heavy lifting myself, I’m gonna quote someone else who already did the hard yards, comics journalist and Batmanologist Chris Sims at Comics Alliance:

In his very funny Super Villain Handbook — available now at finer bookstores everywhere — War Rocket Ajax’s Matt Wilson does a very nice job of defining what separates a super-villain from an everyday crook. The dividing line there was theatrics, and I think the same holds true for super-heroes. There has to be some kind of sense of grandeur to it.

I do think costumes and codenames are a definite aspect of it, although that doesn’t necessarily mean capes and tights. It means there needs to be a distinctive look for the character…

It’s also pretty crucial that they have abilities far beyond those of a normal person, even if they aren’t outright super-powers. Even characters like Batman and the Punisher, who “don’t have super-powers” are still defined by being way more determined and/or pissed off than any real person could ever sustain, even before you get to stuff like a lifetime of combat training and a family fortune.

And because they have those abilities, they need to be called on to do things that no one else could possibly do. The threats that they face should be on a level that’s somewhere beyond realistic, because the characters themselves have abilities that are beyond realistic…

To me, it’s very important that super-heroes lives up to that title; as obvious as it sounds, they need to be heroic. There has to be an aspect of their character where they’re putting some kind of moral or ideal above themselves, with an element of sacrifice or altruism as the motivation. And that ideal can be as vague or specific as it needs to be…

Thanks, Chris!

I think I’d add something else to that – that superheroes need to be unique but not one-of-a-kind. By that I mean than an individual superhero must have a unique identity, rather then being just Cyborg #17 and there are twenty others running around who are just the same. But at the same time, they shouldn’t be the only super-character in the world; there need to be other unique characters around for them to interact with, whether allies or enemies. I say this because stories about lone super-beings either pull away sharply from the genre, or pull it apart and deconstruct it. I’ve certainly never seen one that remained within the genre and had a central character that remained either ‘super’ or ‘heroic’ by the end.

So those are the points that make the definition for me. In the end, superheroes are like pornography (a quote you should feel free to take out of context): I know what they are when I see them. If a few of them are edge cases, that’s okay; genres have boundaries and some characters sit on or near them, and talking about those characters can be fun. We may not all be on the same page, but at least we’re hopefully all reading from the same book.


Which, again, could be confused with porn.

genre ghost raven writing

Getting my ya-yas out

I don’t understand young-adult (YA) fiction.

I mean, I used to think I did. YA fiction was fiction written for young adults – or teenagers, as we used to call them back in my day. Stories about teenagers, for teenagers, at a teenage reading level. That makes sense, right?

But the eager degree to which less-young adults swoop up and devour YA fiction shows that it’s not as simple as all that. Books like The Hunger Games and Twilight have many, many adult readers, from those in their 20s to those in their 50s. These are stories that resonate with adults, even if adults perhaps do not read them for the same purposes as teenagers – or maybe they do, I don’t know. Look at the way Twilight got snapped up by adult readers, its sexual elements strengthened and made more overt via fanfic, to finally transmogrify into Fifty Shades of Grey and have its pages filled with boners rather than sparkle-vampires while still retaining much of the characterisation and language level of the original. (Or so I assume, anyway, which probably means I’m making an ass of myself, so feel free to correct me.) That suggests that there’s something in those stories (or perhaps the writing approach of those stories) that speaks to adults, and they’ll take those stories and make them theirs by whatever means necessary, often by adding a whole bunch of fucking.

So anyway, many adults read YA fiction and enjoy it. But not me. I read YA books when I was a teenager, but these days I’m in my 40s and pretty much only read adult-adult books. The few times I’ve accidentally started a YA book in the last decade or so, I’ve quickly stopped when I realised that this wasn’t a story that resonated with me. That’s not a judgement on my part… okay, let’s be honest, it probably is a judgement and me looking down on YA books. Because I can be a lit-snob sometimes, even though I try to fight that urge.

But I’m trying to change that, because right now I’m trying to write a YA book, Raven’s Blood. Or, more accurately, what I think might be a YA book. Because, as noted, I don’t read YA and don’t get it. But I think this story might fit nicely into that category, and I’d like to see what working within those genre boundaries is like – which is why I’d like to work out what those boundaries are.

And I think I need some help with that.

So this is not a post where I sit you all down and educate you on what YA really means. This is a post where I hold things up, say ‘Is this it? What about this?’ and hope that you (the collective you) tells me what you think and whether I’m right – or, more importantly, where I’m wrong. Because I mostly learn by getting things wrong.

(I could probably also learn by reading some YA fiction, and I will do that at some point, but I like to get a grounding in theory before moving into practice. Which probably explains why it took so long for me to get a girlfriend in my teens. But I digress.)

This is what I think about when I hear ‘young adult’:


A protagonist that is a teenager, first and foremost, probably around the 17-18 mark. Obviously that varies down a bit (early Harry Potter) and up a little (late Twilight), but nonetheless YA books are almost always about young adults. (Although books about young adults aren’t necessarily YA, of course.) And this makes sense, because the assumed audience want to read about characters that they can personally identify with, characters their own age and with similar problems – making sense of the world, finding love, coping with the fact that their parents are STUPID.

Similarly, the antagonists should be similar to the enemies of teenagers – parents, authority figures, the forces of the adult world that try to dictate and reshape their lives before they’re fully-formed. They don’t have to specifically be those people, but they should fill a similar role. Alternatively, the other great enemy of teenagers is always other teenagers, who chip away at their identity and self-image from the other side and occasionally pants you in front of the class. Adults tell you what you should be; teenagers tell you what you shouldn’t be. Both are there to be overcome, possibly with lightning bolts.

Plot and themes

Does ‘coming-of-age story’ make me sound like Cranky Grandpa? Because that’s honestly what I figure most YA stories have – what they should have – at the core of their plots. They should reflect the lives and concerns of teenagers – the quest for identity, the need to love and be loved, the lure of booze and drugs and internet porn, and pretty much everyone in the world trying to tell you what to do and who to be.

Sometimes those concerns are presented as is; other times they’re reflected through genre tropes, so that there are vampires and aliens and spy agencies and killer bears and all of them are trying to boss you around and stop you from seeing that girl you like. Using genre like this is fun and makes for an engaging story, but can also let you use tropes as metaphors for the sturm und drang of teenage life. From that POV, it makes sense that so many YA stories are dystopias – growing up is always about inheriting the world that older people already fucked up.

And at the end of the story, the teenage protagonist should be that bit closer to adulthood – an adulthood hopefully defined on their terms, rather than just their parents’ or society’s terms. Unless it’s one of those books with a really bummer ending.

Prose style

Look, this is the point where people are going to tell me I’m an arsehole, because my first thought when I hear ‘YA’ is ‘unsophisticated writing style’.

Not, I want to be clear, an unpolished or poorly-written style – just one that is pitched at a teenage reading level. A style that primarily promotes an accessibility of voice and language, that clearly describes the appearance of people and places in mentally-reproducible details, that presents the characters and story and then gets out of the way. It is not the kind of thing we get from Don deLillo or Milorad Pavic, is what I’m saying. (Although now I’m wondering how you could use Pavic’s ergodic approach on YA fiction – like a longer, more complex Choose Your Own Adventure story. Hmm.)

This is certainly the bit where I struggle with YA, because I like my prose to be interesting in and of itself, as both writer and reader. I don’t much like transparent writing; I like stunt-writing that shows off its tricks and puts technique in the spotlight, which is not what I think YA is about.

And this is where I draw my line in the sand between the two books I’m writing right now, Arcadia and Raven’s Blood. Both are about young women trying to define themselves and their place in the world, but they have very different prose styles. Arcadia is all about exploring voice, the use of nested narratives, drawing story from structure – all that kind of high-falutin’ stuff that is probably going to alienate or irritate a lot of adult readers, let alone teenagers. Raven’s Blood, meanwhile, is where I’m trying to write in a clear, straightforward style (with occasional dips into moderate ornament), and that’s why I think that it could be considered YA and why it’s worthwhile trying to write more towards that genre and that market. Once, you know, I actually understand it.

So these are the elements I think of when I think about YA fiction. Am I right or wrong? How would you define the genre – or would you even bother? Most of all, if you’re a YA reader – why do you read it, and what about it speaks to you? If any of what I’ve written is correct, why do those elements appeal to you as an adult reader?

Get in there and leave comments, people – I’d really appreciate it.

(Seriously, comment. I don’t get enough comments, and it leaves me feeling like I’m typing into a void and that the world is empty and the darkness has leaked down from the moon to drown everyone else’s souls and I’m alone SO ALONE if a trees falls onto the blog and nobody comments then my words don’t make a sound.)

story writing

The rape less travelled

So everyone’s talking a lot about rape lately.

That’s kind of a weird thing to kick off with, isn’t it? But it’s true, at least in gaming circles. Much as speculative fiction grappled with depictions of race and culture a few years ago in the RaceFail 09 debacle, gaming (video, RPG, whatever) seems to be hitting a period where parts of the fanbase are (quite justifiably) finding fault in their preferred media.

In this case, it’s female gamers (and their male allies, of course) speaking out about depictions of women in games. Which they’ve done for a long time, because a lot of games depict women in really fucked-up ways, from lesbian sex ninjas to big-titted prizes for male characters to win. Other games depict women in much better ways, and indeed in really interesting and effective ways, but it’s the shitty depictions that get the attention – and rightly so.

And all of that has pretty much been horses for courses for ages, enough so that game companies seem to think we’ll be bored with standard, easy misogyny and are instead playing the rape card to get our hearts started.

The tipping point for the explosion of discussion on this seems to be the new Tomb Raider game, of all things, a prequel in which we learn how Lara Croft learned how to do flawless backflips while wearing Daisy Dukes. But because the notion of a capable female protagonist is just crazy talk, this prequel casts Lara as a vulnerable Other that gamers will want to shepherd and protect rather than embody or empathise with. Lara is just a weak girl, and players must look after her as she’s beaten, brutalised, starved, kidnapped and threatened with rape. Screw up and she dies; make a mistake and she is raped and killed. And then you reload and she’s fine and you can try again.

Man, that game sounds fan-fucking-tastic, don’t it? Because the best way to pave the way for an escapist adventure where you shoot dinosaurs and explore a wardrobe of belly shirts is to drop us off at Rape Camp for a spell first.

One of these things is not like the other

Reaction to this has been largely negative – imagine that – and the game’s producers have started backpedalling so hard they’re running the Tour de France in reverse, but the important thing is that it’s really kickstarted a discussion about rape culture in gaming. And kickstarted a whole pile of rape threats to any woman talking about rape culture in gaming, of course, because the human race is awful.

(If you’d like to read more on these topics, I recommend this excellent article by Daniel Golding, which talks both about the problems with gaming culture and how we can perhaps work to understand it as a product of the general culture. Seriously, check it out.)

And while this is all happening in the world of videogaming, it’s also cropping up in the smaller, less visible but equally problematic world of roleplaying, which also has a long and storied history of treating women as Scary Vagina Mutants and rape as just one of those things us fellas can joke about with impunity. The uptick in women saying ‘hey, this is shit’ and games pushing the rape button for attention is smaller there, but it still exists, and the waves being caused by the videogame discussion are lapping against the dicey shores and kicking over rocks.

Under one of those rocks lives James Desborough, creator of ‘hilarious’ ‘games’ such as Hentacle and The Slayer”s Guide to Female Gamers, which are every bit as charming as they sound. His attempt to cash in on the outrage women feel about being objectified and othered was to write an essay called ‘In Defence of Rape’, in which he says that ‘rape or attempted rape is a fucking awesome plot element’. I won’t put in a link to that, because – and I want to say this in as professional and dignified a manner as I can – Desborough is a piece of ambulatory dogshit shaped like a man. He’s a noxious, pathetic failure of a person who’s built a ‘career’ out of publishing games that objectify and demean women, that glorify and trivialise sexual assault, and that present the most egregious kinds of misogyny under the argument that ‘it’s just a joke, don’t take it seriously’. If you want to see an indepth takedown of his pathetic ‘argument’, there’s a terrific essay over at MightyGodKing that does just that.

Rather than an image of any of this awfulness, please enjoy this photo of the Dalai Lama hugging a penguin

(Also, I’m sure that during his regular egosurfing Desborough will find this blog and leave a bullshit comment, and I’ll delete it and block him, just as I’ve deleted and blocked his bullshit comments on other social media platforms in the past, and he’ll cry martyrdom and censorship to his rape-is-awesome fanbase and they’ll talk about how terrible I am while rubbing their dicks. This is a dance that has happened before. It is a dance that will happen again. Like the Macarena, but one dancer is a piece of dogshit.)

There’s a lot of back and forth about Desborough, his works, roleplaying’s attitude to rape and all of that happening on various gaming forums right now, as well as petitions, flamewars, accusations of censorship and the like on other platforms like Google + and Facebook. People are angry. That’s possibly a good thing, because anger can motivate people to get things done. Or it can motivate them to scream and snipe at each other on the internet for the foreseeable future. We’ll see which happens.

But in any event, there’s a quick (!) précis of what’s been going down in the world of gaming and discussions of rape.

Fun times.

But although I occasionally discuss gaming because I love games so goddamn much, this is primarily meant to be a blog about writing. So what about rape in fiction? Should writers censor themselves and shy away from the topic? Should it be taboo? Or should they view it as a ‘fucking awesome plot element’?

Many writers have used rape well as a meaningful and important event in their novels and works, from William Shakespeare to Alice Sebold. And many more writers have used rape for cheap stakes-raising and shock value, or as a clumsy and trite tool to motivate female characters who can only be defined by their femininity and by ‘overcoming’ it through trauma. And, obvious bigot and censorship lover than I am, I think a writer who views fictional rape as ‘fucking awesome’ is unlikely to write the next Lovely Bones or Titus Andronicus.

What to write instead? Well, here’s a great quote from author John Perich (whose book Too Close to Miss is on my Kindle and waiting to be read):

On the Great Wheel of Unfortunate Fates that writers spin whenever they need something bad to happen to a protagonist, there are several entries for men:

  • Losing a job or a source of wealth;
  • Getting hurt;
  • Getting scarred;
  • Losing a loved one;
  • Having a loved one kidnapped;
  • Having a loved one used as leverage for a threat;
  • Being arrested;
  • Being seduced by nefarious people;
  • Being betrayed;
  • Being watched by nefarious people;
  • Being lost far from home;
  • Etc.

If your protagonist is female, however, there are only three:

  • Sexual assault;
  • Kidnapping;
  • Pregnancy.

I’m exaggerating for comic effect, but not that much.

(As Perich says, this is an exaggeration, but it’s an effective and useful one.)

All of this is particular interest to me because I’m writing two books right now that star female protagonists, and young female protagonists at that. I want to cast those young women as interesting and flawed characters who overcome trials and their own weaknesses to find victory, albeit in very different kinds of stories, and in a way that engages, rather than alienates or upsets, both male and female readers.

Here are things that happen to Gwen in Arcadia:

  • Struggling to tell fantasy from reality
  • Becoming homeless
  • Making really bad decisions that hurt herself and others
  • Unrequited love
  • Reading The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time
  • Being chased through Melbourne’s alleyways by a private detective
  • Failing to protect that which she loves most
  • Doing everything she can to make it right again

Here are things that happen to Kember in Raven’s Blood:

  • Getting arrested for sedition
  • Trying to repair her relationship with her father
  • Uncovering the truth about a vanished masked avenger
  • Fighting golem-men, giant snakes and other monsters
  • Nearly drowning
  • Running across rooftops
  • Dealing with tragedy and loss
  • Taking up the mantle of a fallen hero

Here are the things that won’t happen to either character:

  • Getting raped
  • Being threatened with rape

These are stories that involve physical and emotional danger and turmoil, and I want to make that danger and turmoil exciting and gripping. But taking rape out of my repertoire doesn’t do much to stop me telling the stories I want to tell and to (hopefully) make those stories exciting and emotionally engaging. Hell, it doesn’t do a goddamn thing to my work.

In the end, writers have the right to use rape as a device in their stories. And if they exercise that right, they then have the responsibility to exercise it well, with sensitivity and care and for powerful emotional effect, rather than using it for cheap, visceral pops. When they succeed, it should be acknowledged; when they fail, it should be discussed; when they don’t even try to do it right, they should be criticised and possibly even condemned. (Certainly if they’re arsenuggets like James Desborough.)

For my part, though, I think I’ll just avoid it, because I don’t see a need for it in the stories I’m currently writing and those I’m planning to write.

(I may have a future idea that requires addressing rape, sure; I get lots of ideas, and maybe Future Me will come up with a story that demands a careful and responsible depiction of sexual violence and its consequences. Past Me did that once, after all; the short story ‘Godheads’ (in the anthology of the same name) includes sexual violence, although it’s in the past and mentioned only obliquely without being described. But I don’t see it happening for a good long time, and if it does I’ll try my hardest to explore it sensitively – and if I find I can’t, I’ll change my idea into something that works better.)

To summarise:

Can rape be used as a worthwhile plot point in a strong narrative? Absolutely.

Could I use rape as a worthwhile plot point in a strong narrative? Possibly.

Am I going to use rape in my books? No, because I don’t fucking want to. And I think that’s a reasonable desire for myself or for any other writer.

(Yes, this is the point of the whole post. Because why use 40 words when I can use nearly 2000?)

None of that makes me Internet Writing Jesus or the most sensitive and loveable of all dudes, of course. Saying ‘hey, I don’t plan on writing about rape’ only clears the bar of Things Worth Saying because that bar is set so goddamn fucking low that even snails have to hump their amorphous butts over it. But yet some trails of slime still manage to go under the bar, and we find awful toerags like Desborough at the other end, extruding shit from their keyboards, so there is at least a little bit of value in saying that.

Which is kind of sad in and of itself, to be honest.

reading writing

The Emerging Writer – a review

I’ve mentioned the Emerging Writers Festival a few times lately, and that’s because it’s a great festival that really attempts to help writers and inspire/teach/motivate them to write. I’ve spent most of this weekend there (when I wasn’t making incoherent tweets about Eurovision) and I’ve been to some terrific panels, met and talked with other writers and generally just hung out to learn and share.

One of the tools the EWF uses for learning and sharing is the book it produces, and tonight I’d like to look at this year’s effort, because it really sets a new bar for polish and richness.

The Emerging Writer has essays and articles from a wide variety of contributors, including new and established writers, about whatever they felt like discussing. This isn’t a writer’s guide (except when it is), or a collection of anecdotes (except when it is) or an industry primer (except when it is). If I had to pick a single classification, I’d say that this is a book about the experience of being a writer. Editor Karen Pickering calls it a book of maps, and that’s a good metaphor – it has both maps to show where you can go and maps showing where others have been. Some even have hidden treasure.

The book is split into four chapters with admittedly loose themes:

  • Why? Thoughts not just on ‘why write’ but also ‘why try to write a certain way’, ‘why continue after setbacks’ and ‘why try to live up to your idols’. There’s also a healthy dose of ‘why not’ and ‘why you shouldn’t’ mixed in. Standouts include Christy Dena talking about not listening to fear-based advice, Geoff Lemon on facing rejection and Jacqui Dent on defining your identity.
  • What? Essays on what you write about – how you choose it, how you become involved with it and the approaches required by different subjects. Unsurprisingly, my favourite is Stephanie Honor Convery’s on the joy of writing fiction and actually making stuff up, but Rebecca Harkins-Cross’ piece on choosing to write memoir and Hugh McGuire’s on digital publishing are also very strong.
  • Where? Not as in ‘which room should you write in’ but articles on where you come from, what you consider to be your writing turf and how the local/online writing community informs your work. As an ex-Brisbanite I couldn’t help but enjoy Christopher Currie’s thoughts on the northern writing scene, but another standout was John Weldon’s piece the way online environments change the relationship between writer and audience, as was Alan Baxter’s piece on defining your digital presence.
  • How? How? How do you write? Can you even answer that question in a way that makes sense to anyone else? These essays include both practical advice and metacommentary and there’s a lot of good in both, from Esther Anatolitis’ essay on how to put yourself on your own writing retreat to Liam Peiper’s story on suing a former employer to get payment owed (with details on how to do it yourself) to Kirsten Innes’ great piece on why you should stop wanking on about writing and just goddamn write.

The Emerging Writer is neither advice handed down from a panel of experts or theory delivered as cant by wide-eyed neophytes. It’s honest, personal stuff written by writers to their emergent peers with the intent of sharing knowledge and experience. There’s comedy, there’s drama, there are cartoon and flowcharts and essays and every piece is genuine in a way that you rarely see in a writer’s guide.

It’s also worth noting that the book is really well designed and laid-out, which matters a hell of a lot to anal publishing types like me, and the physical version is very well produced and printed. This is a professional piece of work that can sit proudly on your shelf (or on your PC if you prefer PDF).

I’m really impressed with The Emerging Writer, if you can’t tell. Not every essay will speak to everyone, but every essay will speak to someone, and I think even experienced writers can learn something from it – if only the realisation that every writer takes a different path and overcomes different challenges to reach that all-consuming goal of coming up with words that don’t suck.

The Emerging Writer has its official launch next Friday, and after that should be available from various bookstores and online. Do yourself a favour and check it out.

appearances writing

Welcome to Write Club

Ever been in a situation where you have a metric shittonne of writing to do in a really short time?

Maybe you’ve got an overdue assignment. Maybe you have a deadline in two days. Or maybe you’ve signed up for the Rabbit Hole event at the Emerging Writers Festival, with the aim of producing 30 000 words in less than three days, possibly even as part of the online team which is hosted and directed by yours truly.

Yeah. Maybe that last one in particular.

Anyway, whatever the reason, there comes in a time in a writer’s life when you have to write a lot in a short time. There’s no real short-cut to this; you can’t just stare really hard at the monitor and make words appear through sheer force of will. Believe me, I’ve tried. But there are tools that can make the process that bit easier – they won’t make the words appear faster, but they can make the task feel less daunting and keep you focused on laying down the wordcount.

Here are some things that have worked for me – I think they can work for you too. They’re weighted a little bit towards creative writing, but most are just as applicable to writing non-fiction, theses, essays or schizophrenic manifestos.

Start from zero

Whether it’s a blank page or a new Word file, the best way to begin a bulk writing exercise is to start from scratch, whether than means beginning a new project or creating a separate document that can later be added to an existing one. Part of this is practical – the work you create when writing for volume is not going to be polished, and it’s better to partition it from the rest of your efforts until it’s been overhauled. More important is the psychological boost you get from a fresh start. If you have 10 000 words and add 5000, that’s a 50% improvement; if you have zero words and add 5000, that’s an infinity percent improvement.

Perfect is the enemy of finished

I get the urge to fine-tune a sentence or paragraph until you’re happy with it, but there is a time to do that and that time is not now. All that matters is getting words down on the page, one after the other, and there is no going back to make it beautiful or lyrical or remotely coherent. The work you produce when bulk writing is not a first draft, it is a zero draft; it’s a roadmap and a set of tools to help make a first draft later on. Quantity over quality is your mantra right now, and your inner editor needs to be gagged, blindfolded and dropped down a well for a while. Lassie can rescue them later. That dog can do anything.

Don’t touch that backspace key!

And when I say don’t edit, I goddamn mean it – that means no going back. Did you make a speeling mustake? Fix it later. Did you decide to make the hero’s cat a robot dog? Just change it and move on, remembering to find-and-replace ‘hairball’ with ‘USB bone’ tomorrow. Every second you spend deleting the last word you wrote just because it doesn’t make sense in any known language is a second you’re not spending writing another word. Suck it and and keep going; you are a word shark that must keep moving, and if you stop to fix the tense in your last sentence YOUR WORDGILLS WILL STOP WORKING AND YOU WILL DROWN.

Structure is your friend

Writing 30 000 words is terrifying. Writing 1000 words? That seems pretty easy by comparison. Now just do that 30 times! Breaking up your work into shorter chunks allows you to monitor your progress and feel good about reaching milestones. If your project allows it, spend some time before you start writing doing a rough plan of the structure, working how many thousands of words go into each stage/chapter/subdivision and how many of those there should be. A large number of small parts is better than a small number of large parts – if possible, have 30 1000-word chapters rather than 10 3000-word chapters. If that can’t be done, try to break down those big chapters into smaller subparts so you still have fast, regular goals to work towards.

Plan ahead – or fuck it, just make shit up

If you have an outline and a clear direction in mind for your work, then you can use that as a roadmap to get to where you want to go. Alternatively you can wander around at random, going down interesting side streets and mugging new ideas in alleyways, and still end up at your destination. As long as the words keep coming there is NO WRONG WAY to go about getting them. At the same time, it’s worth having a think about how you go about things and possibly whether it would help to borrow a bit from the other approach – to have a loose plan that you can then improvise within, or to allow yourself a little room to change direction when working to your outline. Pick the approach that works for you, because the process is less important than the goal.

Research before or after but not now

Is there a vital piece of information that informs your text? Cool. Did you research it already so that it’s fresh in your mind or printed out next to your computer? Great, put it in there. Haven’t done it yet? Then leave Wikipedia unopened in your browser window and keep writing, damnit. Time spent researching is time not spent writing and we have no patience for that right now. If you know you need to insert some data and you don’t have it, just write ***ADD 500 WORDS ON DOLPHIN PORN*** and keep going; you can come back later and flesh it out. Alternatively, if you want to keep the wordcount up, make up whatever facts you need to – it’s called fiction for a reason, people – and then fix the egregious falsehoods when you revise the text to make it readable by humans.

Don’t stop, change direction

Sometimes you’re going to get stuck on a scene or a section and not be able to move forward; you need time to think it over and work through things. Don’t do that. Instead, put that part of the project to one side and start on something else. Shift to a new scene, a new location, a new character; skip to a different subheading of the essay and write on that topic for a while. Or just change it up where you are right now to shake you out of the rut – as Chandler famously said, ‘When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand’. Always keep moving; don’t let anything stop you!

Distractions are inevitable

Eventually something’s going to stop you. You’ll get a leg cramp, your pets will catch fire, your wife will demand something selfish like you driving her to the hospital. Hell, at some point you’re probably going to want to attend to those base human needs like eating, sleeping or checking Twitter. And you know what? That’s fine. Don’t try to remove all distractions before you start, because it won’t happen, and instead you’ll just end up procrastinating as you keep looking for more things to close down. Let it be. The key thing is not to avoid all distractions, it’s to minimise the attention and time you give them and to quickly regain your focus and momentum when you get back to work.

Reward yourself

And sometimes it’s just time to take a break because you’ve earned it. Did you hit a milestone and finish a chapter? Well done! Go have a beer or a make-out session or play Angry Birds for five minutes. You’re not a machine or a million monkeys with typewriters – well, probably not – and you deserve to treat yourself for working hard. Regular high-five-me-bro breaks are an important way to keep your focus and positivity up and to prevent burnout. The key thing is to step back, feel good about how things are going, finish the beer and then get back to work. And if you hit a point where you finish a section and decide to maintain the momentum and keep writing rather than flex off, then good on you – keep it going and make the next break even better.

No cheating

Is time growing short and the target too far away to reach? Want to just copy a chunk of text from another source or just write COCKDANCE COCKDANCE 500 times? Dude, I can’t stop you and I won’t know you’ve done it, but you know it’s bullshit. The only person you’re cheating is you because you’re giving up; the only person who can award you for reaching the finishing line is you, and you’ll know you don’t deserve any kind of medal. There are no short-cuts, there are no cheat codes. Better to make a genuine attempt then blow smoke up people’s arse. Because the only person breathing the arse-smoke is you.

There’s always another day

And if you can’t hit the target in the time frame, so what? This isn’t heart surgery, and no-one’s going to die if you don’t write 30 000 words in a weekend, not unless you’re in some weird and poorly-paced Saw sequel. No matter how far you get, what matters is that you made the attempt and laid some words down, be it 20 000 or 2000. Coming out the other side of a writing boot camp gives you a better appreciation of what you can achieve when you go all in, and leaves you with a mess o’ words that you can now tweak and revise and sculpt at your relative leisure.

Everyone’s a winner, baby. That’s the truth.

Are you inspired? Are you fired up? Are you still reading? For those who are, thanks for sticking around – I hope it was worth your while!

If you’ve got any other tips for pushing word weight, please leave a comment. Share what you know, if only to save me from writing another 1500+ words on the topic later.