Dana’s Dojo: So You Wanna Be a Pseudonym

Today in the Dojo: To ‘nym or not to ‘nym, and how to make it work.


Yes, I’m plucking the low-hanging fruit from the Pitch 2.0 tree, but this is actually a rather important topic. We’ve already established that a ‘nym’s not a problem, per se. Jason Black was kind enough to drop by and confirm my suspicion: that it’s about identity, not the name on your photo I.D. So far, so good.

Now, let’s explore the topic in further detail. Those of you who are veteran ‘nyms can probably skip lightly over this one and get on with the holiday traditions like trying to avoid stores and hiding from the more vexing relatives. Those of you who aren’t yet established ‘nyms and wondering whether and how you should be come so, stick around.

To ‘Nym or Not to ‘Nym

How do you know if you should choose a nom de plume? Doing it because that’s what all the cool writers do is a silly reason. There are others, less silly, or frivolous but fun. The following explores some possible scenarios, but is by no means an exhaustive list.

1. Is your real name teh awesome or teh suck? This, for me, was the defining question when I chose a ‘nym all those long years ago, before the advent of the intertoobz. My real name consists of a first name that got filched by a character who won’t give it back. My last name has led to a great many retail jokes. And I decided that whacking adoring fans over the head with a bloody great hardcover copy of my magnum opus does nothing for public relations. But there would inevitably be readers who’d make the obvious joke, and I would be required to apply the Hardcover of Loving Correction (h/t Jennifer Ouellette and her Mallet of Loving Correction™). So, my legal name had to go.

If you have a name like Dick Hardman or Ima Lipshitz, and you mumble it as incomprehensibly as possible when introducing yourself to people, and shudder when you envision it embossed beneath the title of your precious opus, then choosing a ‘nym may be right for you.

2. Would publication under your legal name cause unnecessary complications? Perhaps your workplace would prefer some plausible deniability. Maybe you want to keep your writing and the rest of your life in separate spheres (good luck with that). Perhaps there would even be danger in being known. Whatever your situation, if self-censorship or on-the-job discomfort or possible threats to life and limb would haunt you under your legal name, or you just want people not to be able to find you easily, choosing a ‘nym might be an excellent idea.

3. Are you already known by a ‘nym? Perhaps you got one of those shiny new internet handles back when everyone was reveling in the freedom of being whomever they damned well pleased, and now you’ve got a following of thousands who’d look at you blankly and say, “Excuse me, who?” upon hearing your real name. Even if you tell them what it is, they insist on calling you by your handle in all possible situations. And when they sing your praises to other people, they use your ‘nym. Congratulations! The choice is easy. You are a ‘nym. No use trying to change it now.

(That goes for your real name, too. If you’ve forged a reputation under it, think long and hard before you start afresh. You’d be throwing away a ready-made audience, causing yourself the effort of establishing a new one, and for what? Because you’re afraid they may giggle when they discover you, O Person of Some Authority on Some Subject or Other, are writing a book? Because you don’t want them to see your amateur stumblings? People are more flexible than you think. Be honest with them, and the vast majority of them will go along for the ride. You don’t have to hide.)

I’m sure you, my darlings, can think of a myriad of other situations in which you’d use a ‘nym rather than a legal name. Let’s move on to getting it right, then.


Becoming a ‘Nym

Right. So you’re currently some anonymous soul, and you’ve decided you’re going to choose your own identity. But you have no idea how to go about it. I know there’s at least one of you out there, because I talked to you at the Pitch 2.0 event.

1. Choose your ‘nym. I know, this sounds easy, but it’s not. I went through several before I settled on mine. Try on some names. Mix and match. Find something that fits, that seems the most you, and that you don’t mind hearing shouted in a crowded room. Preferably, it will be something people can remember and spell. You want readers to be able to find you. It should probably be somewhat distinctive and memorable, although that’s not an absolute requirement. A little touch of the unique is nice, but very hard to obtain without being obscure. Does it roll off the tongue? Can you say it like you’ve been saying it all your life? Can you develop a signature for it? And will you still love it in the morning? Consider all of those things, because once you’ve got it, you should stick with it.

Choosing something that looks like a real name is common, but in our internet age, odd handles aren’t so odd anymore. So I won’t tell you to stay away from weird, one-word names that don’t look like names at all. The most important thing is to come up with something that pleases you, and that, if the absolute best should happen, you can spend an entire afternoon signing without getting terribly cranky.

Also, do keep in mind that an odd name will possibly cause issues with real-name demanding sites like G+ and Facebook. Be prepared to become a veteran of the ‘nymwars if you decide to go for a non-Western name anyway, at least until that war is won.

2. Start using it. Introduce yourself with it. We’ll be talking later about building a platform, so I’ll just skim lightly over the particulars of that: blog, Facebook, G+, Twitter, and all that. But start forging your identity as this ‘nym. Get used to using it. Get people used to seeing it, and associating it with you.

3. Develop your identity. Let your ‘nym be you. Perhaps there’s a few details withheld for various reasons, but your ‘nym probably shouldn’t be a brand-new person. I’d advise against creating a whole new persona for it. Personas are a lot of work to maintain. And readers like genuine people. They usually need to sense there’s a real person behind the ‘nym. Decide which bits of you are public and which private, and keep the private ones out of your ‘nym, but don’t ever lie about who you are, or your degrees and qualifications and so forth. You’ll get caught out someday.

You can be as mysterious or as intimate as you’d like. Just be consistent. And did I mention, don’t lie?

4. Pictures or it didn’t happen. You may use an author photograph or not, depending on how determined you are to remain anonymous. If you really, seriously, want to keep people from finding out who you are, don’t use photos of yourself, but especially on your blog and Twitter and so forth, an iconic image is nice. Something people can attach to your ‘nym. It can be a cartoon or an animal or some other avatar, something funny or profound or just nice, but choose something that can stand in for you.

And that’s how you get started. This is just an introduction, Pseudonyms 101. Let me know if you have questions or concerns, and we can possibly discuss them in future posts.

Dana’s Dojo: “It’s This Big and It’s Blue”

Today in the Dojo: Getting a handle on stories that don’t quite know what they are.


There was this cliché at the bookstore chain I worked for, eons ago when things like chain bookstores in malls still existed. Customers would come in all the time, collar one of the booksellers, and burble, “I need this book! I don’t remember the title, the author, or what it was about, but it’s this big and it’s blue!” About the only thing that changed in the parade of people coming in for the book whose subject, author and title weren’t recalled was the relative size indicated by their desperately waving hands. It happened so often that the manager of one of our stores, upon hearing this request for the billionth time, joked, “Oh, yes, I know that book. It’s right over there in our this-big-and-blue section.”

The sad thing is, she then had to chase down the customer, who was marching on the wall of shelves she’d pointed to, apparently expecting that bookstores had a “This Big and Blue” section right up there next to “Fiction,” “Reference,” and such. I’m not sure how the customer reacted when told the manager had only been joking.

That anecdote comes to mind because that’s much how this current novella was feeling. I don’t know the title. I think I know the author, but sometimes I wonder, especially when staring at her in the mirror after a hard night’s pounding the forehead into the keyboard. I had no fucking idea what it was about. But it’s roughly this big, and it’s definitely blue. Undoubtedly.

I got almost 19,000 words in and stalled out. Stared at it for days, wondering what the hell the emotional through-line was. Plot? Don’t make me laugh. Theme? Yeah, right. I wrestled a few more words in using brute force, then sighed, and set it aside as a bad job. No use trying to write something that refused to be written. I knew what that dead stop meant. Meant I had thinking to do. That’s how I roll. I’ve learned that when the words stop flowing, it’s because if I go any further without putting some serious thought into it, things are going to go terribly awry. I’d rather figure it out now that write any-old-thing and make the revision worse than it has to be. So, fuck you, NaNoWriMo.

I went to the notebooks.

And I started with describing the house. The house wasn’t clear. I had very little idea what the house we were stuck in looked like, and that was bugging me. I spent a night researching architecture and searching for pictures on the intertoobz of houses that vaguely resembled it. I spent another night or two putting the house together. But that wasn’t coming together either.

Okay, then, so it’s not the house holding me back. Know enough about what it looks like to be going forward, so what else? I started considering the people in that dining room we were stuck in. And I determined I needed to sketch out Ticaal’s life from birth to this moment to start figuring it out. That’s what I’ve done for a while now. Takes time, this, involves some re-reading and some pondering and a lot of tossing and turning in bed, unable to sleep because this shit’s worrying me. Progress was slow, but steady.

And then, one day, I stepped outside at work to have a cigarette. A cold wind hit me like a blast from a homicidal industrial freezer. I wandered off a few steps, puffing, and the image of snow on the karst mountains hit me. And I knew Naaltoba, the old man who was dead to begin with, loved that snow. He didn’t get to see it often. He was usually down in the Siaan in the summer. But there was the midwinter break, and the festival, and this old man joyously grabbing whatever noisemaking implement was to hand and joining this line of people raising a ruckus while Ticaal’s mother pretended to disapprove.

What was this old man, whom the family didn’t like, doing down there with them at midwinter?

And then that thunderbolt struck: what if he was the one who actually held the family together?

Now, you may think I ran straight back to Scrivener and began typing like a fury, but I didn’t. That seed needs time to germinate. I continued plugging away on the History of Ticaal. And I kept considering whether this was the truth, whether this old man whom everybody thought was a bad influence on Ticaal but ended up hanging round with the family all the time anyway was actually their center of gravity, and if they would fly apart now that he was gone. It felt right. And it explained so many other threads of thought that had been spun out. And it provided a framework.

Sunday night, I’d made it to the point in the History of Ticaal where he meets Naaltoba for the first time, and how that changed his life, and I found myself doing work that will provide fodder for this novella, another one currently stalled, the novel its own self, and possibly much else besides. That, I can tell you, is an excellent feeling. I’m starting to understand. And when I’m done with this, within the next few days, I should be able to return to the current novella and get through (hopefully) to the end. Then I can revise to tighten up everything, in light of this new understanding of what this story is really All About.

So, what are the takeaways for you in all this babble?

If you get stuck, don’t be afraid to walk away. Not far, mind you. Don’t just stop writing, or move on to the next shiny project that will quickly stall. Spend some time dealing with the incidentals. Figure out what you don’t know and set out to know it. Let your subconscious do the hard work while you accomplish some of the necessary busy work. Allow yourself to do the stuff that isn’t necessarily putting words on the page, but is going to get better words on the page later.

I’ve discovered writer’s block isn’t so much a matter of a lack of inspiration as, quite often, a signal that some shit needs to be figured out. Don’t be afraid to figure it. Writing’s about telling a story, yes, but so much more goes in to that than just the words the reader will see.

And never ever forget that the notebook can be your flotation device when you’re lost at sea.

Dana’s Dojo: Talking Heads

Today in the Dojo: choosing the right spokesperson and keeping the voices from turning your multiple POV masterpiece into Babble-on.


The problem with a Cast of Thousands is that everybody wants to be a star. When you choose the third person point of view, limited or not, you open the door to a flood of potential narrators, all of whom want to tell the world about their part in the drama. Some of them just seem to want to tell the world about their drama, and be dramatic doing it. It’s like wading into the crowd at a big premier with a camera crew and a microphone: people who would have been content to be part of the background are suddenly pushing themselves into the lens, grabbing the microphone, and telling all.

I know that when you’re in the middle of the crush, it’s hard to believe you’ll ever get something useful out of it. The impulse is to scream, flee and go write something nice and first person after barricading your door against the masses. But you don’t have to. You can wrestle order out of the chaos. Wade right in: you’ll be grateful for all those spotlight hogs once you’re through.

Step One: Choose your Stars

In a multiple POV novel, you’re probably going to have more than one star. People like to yammer about the main character, and there’s some books where one character is the megastar, but there’s just as many where one character barely edges out others as the be-all and end-all of the story. That’s fine. There’s room for more than one star in just about any show.

What you want is star power with a good, solid supporting cast. You’ve probably already got a good idea of who the stars are: they’re the people the most things happen to. But you’ve also got these incredibly talented folks that really interesting things happened to. It’s tempting to give them the spotlight a bit more often than you strictly should. And it can be very hard to tell the difference between Starring and Also Starring.

This is where knowing what the novel is ultimately about will help save you. If your novel is about the Free Weasel Foundation triumphing against the Evil Fur Coat People, you’ll know that the two freedom fighters who ultimately dodged all the security, courts and police and released the captive weasels in a dramatic nighttime raid are the true stars. That will keep you from getting ensnared by the CEO of Furs, Unlimited who is having a crisis of conscience and slowly turning vegetarian. You won’t be so tempted to turn to story toward the freedom fighter who, after a vicious bite from a weasel, sells out the FWF to its enemies and goes on to be a fur-coated runway model. Your focus will stay on the two heroes, where it belongs.

In special cases, you may discover that you mistook one of the stars for supporting cast and vice versa. It’s quite all right to go back and make the switch. Just make sure you don’t fire the star halfway through without revision – you’ll have to rewrite the opus so that the new star was the real star all along.

How many stars should you have? Probably no more than two or three in a mega-opus, perhaps four at the outside. More than that, and the reader’s focus gets spread too thin.

Step Two: Choose Your Supporting Stars

Your supporting stars are those really interesting folks who complicate the stars’ situations and star in their own subplots. They’re important to the main story, but not as much as the stars.

They’re the buggers who will be really persuasive about hogging the spotlight.

But you can’t just kick them out. Let’s go back to our premier-crowd metaphor. The stars of your interview are, say, the mother and best friend of the actor whose movie is opening. The supporting stars are the blokes who have some experience with the actor: the kid who overcame cancer because of the actor’s support, the old friend who got drunk with the actor and his best friend and taunted the actor into becoming an actor in the first place, that sort of thing. Maybe your interview was focusing on the how the people closest to the actor affected his stardom, but these folks have something important to say about the actor, and they can’t be shushed. They add to the picture you’re creating. They have a hand in his life, too.

So keep sight of your goal. You want the FWF heroes to free the weasels. But the CEO and the Disillusioned FWF Chick complicate the heroes’ situations and add important insights to the story. If you show those bits of their stories where the heroes aren’t directly involved but which impact the heroes anyway, and leave out those bits that have nothing to do with the path to weasel freedom, they’ll have a lot to add.

Supporting stars are really limited in number only by the size of the novel. If you’re writing an epic, you’ll probably need quite a few. In a regular novel, not so many. It’s up to you, but use the acid test of: how much can this person really add? If the answer is lots, then let them have a say.

Step Three: Be Firm with Others

You will be tempted by really entertaining extras. You know, you never meant to give so-and-so a speaking part, but he’s got this really quirky accent and a funny thing he does with a banana and a condom that’s to die for… Yeah. Maybe in another story. After all, DVDs come with special features and deleted scenes: there’s no reason you can’t take all those talented extras and give them starring roles in short stories that can come out after the book. Right? Right.

Stars should do most of the narrating. Supporting stars should do the rest. Only in the most extreme situations should you have a talented extra stepping up and narrating the action. Only in the most extraordinary situations should you allow an extra a moment in the spotlight that really hasn’t much of anything to do with the main plot and subplot.

I don’t care how persuasive they are. Tell them no. It’s a simple word, two letters, one syllable: NO.

And mean it.

Righty, then. You’ve got the respective stars sorted out. You’re ready to write. However, it’s not all smooth sailing. Because the stars, being stars, are often going to be starring in the same scenes, and if you’re switching between multiple points of view, how the hell do you decide who gets to be the viewpoint for this particular scene?

There’s an important word you need to have handy. It’s “argh.”

If you’re so inclined, you could add an “oshit” if you like.

There’s a calculus to this, only it doesn’t come in neat little packets of mathematical symbols with one single correct answer at the end. Let’s just do our best with it, shall we?

Equation One: Who’s There?

This is the easiest equation. If you’re picking the viewpoint for a scene, you’ll probably be best to go with someone who actually viewed it. Hearsay works no better in books than it does in court. There are sometimes exceptions, but generally, you’re safe going with the people who were actually there.

Equation Two: If It’s a Star and Supporting Star, Then…

Gets stickier here. Generally, in this case, you’ll pick the star. But there are times when you want to see the star through other eyes. There are times when your star will understand something you don’t want the reader to catch on to just yet. So in those special cases, you’ll pick one of the supporting stars.

Equation Three: Who Did Most?

Another way to choose is to pick the folks who aren’t lurking around the fringes of the scene. Think of it as a cocktail party: you want to be in the thick of the big conversation, not getting the dish from the guy lurking by the cocktail wienies. You’ll generally go with the viewpoint who’s the most active, even if there’s a star over there by the buffet snarfing sausage on sticks.

Equation Four: Who’s Loquacious?

If you’ve got players of equal qualifications as far as star power and vantage point, pick the one with the most interesting way of portraying it, or has the more intriguing take, or suffered the most, or has some other little edge. Yes, you may have to write the scene from different viewpoints until you find the right one. Yes, that’s extra work. But it’s worth it.

Equation Five: What’s the Scene Really About?

You might think it’s about the main action (two people falling in love), but don’t be blind to the fact it might really be about something else entirely (third star seeing first two stars fall in love and having to painfully confront feelings for one or both lovebirds). In such cases, you’ll go with the character whose viewpoint says the most.

These methods work for both supporting stars and superstars. There’s a lot more to the calculus, but I couldn’t tell you what it is. Once you’ve run through those bits of it, the rest usually sorts itself out. Often, anyway. And if it doesn’t, banging head against wall, having a shower, and playing five hours of the video game of your choice might let your subconscious solve the problem all on its own.

And Now, the Really Big Question: How to Keep the Views Balanced

Be le bel auteur sans merci, that’s how.

I’m not going to give you hard-and-fast rules, but here’s a some guidelines:

1. Give the most scenes to your stars. After all, they are the stars.

2. Cut out scenes that don’t serve the main story. If they creep in there during the first draft, don’t worry about it. That’s what those little scissors on your taskbar are for. You just have to be brave enough to use them. The acid test for any secondary character’s scene, no matter how good it is in and of itself, is how well it serves your main plot and subplot(s).

3. If the subplots are trying to become the stars, set ‘em down. Subplots are there to enhance the main plot, not outshine it. If the subplot doesn’t feed into and support the main plot, time for ye olde scissors again. Tell the supporting stars to can the complaints: maybe they can be the superstars next time around, but not this time.

4. If the subplots insist, perhaps it’s time to reconsider. Seriously. If the subplot is so much more interesting to you than your main plot, if it’s constantly trying to take over, the two might need to switch places. Nothing wrong with that. Do what the story demands.

That’s really what it comes down to. That’s it: keep it star-centric, keep the supporting cast supporting. And when things go awry, as they will, have faith in the scissors.

Dana’s Dojo: Imodium for the Verbal Diarrhea

Today in the Dojo: We begin to come to grips with this hell that is description.


A long, long time ago in a Death thread far, far away, Glynis posted the following question:

I wonder if there is a way to stop before doing in cases of over description?

And I said I’d write a column on the subject someday. I keep my promises. Eventually.

I’m not the world’s expert on description. My first drafts tend for the most part to be somewhat Spartan, sometimes to the point where Wise Readers yell at me for not describing things thoroughly enough (which is a problem when you’re writing SF and supposed to be describing things beyond mortal ken). This wasn’t always the case. My early writing suffered from the verbal diarrhea: long-winded descriptions of buildings, ships, trees or what have you that stopped the story cold; inventories of characters’ appearance, flowery landscapes…. Let’s just put it this way. When it annoys even the writer, it’s too much.

Being the offspring of an Indiana farm boy/coal mine engineer, I don’t get mad, I get even. And I have applied that philosophy to description. I spent a couple of years reading every book on writing I could get my hands on. I practiced varied techniques: describe the character/leave it up to the reader, remove every other adjective, etc., until I found my happy medium between too much and too little. My first drafts got leaner and meaner. I don’t have to do as much slash-and-burn in the revisions. I find myself editing as I go, automatically, as if there’s an alarm that goes off when the description creeps up to dangerous levels and the narrative auto-corrects. Usually. When I’m lucky, anyway. No matter how good you get at this, description will probably never be easy.

That said, I’ll attempt to give you some pointers on hooking up the Over-Description Warning System, and keep it running smoothly as you’re in the throes of prose writing.

Exorcising the Demons of Obsession

A good rule-of-thumb in description, though not an infallible one, is this: if it sticks out with blinding clarity in your mind, it’s probably important to the story. There’s a reason why you’re obsessing. However, we all know from those eons-long conversations with the bore at the bar who shares his passion for the complexity of stock car design by describing each similarity and difference in excruciating detail that obsessions can overwhelm.

If you want to keep that obsession out of your first draft, open up a fresh document or turn to a blank page in your notebook and blurt it out. Whether it’s a person, a place, a thing, or an event, describe it in it’s entirety. Go ahead – this isn’t going to end up as part of the story, so let loose!

Now you’ve got a page or dozen of pure description. You know absolutely every detail. What now? You can’t drop it into the story whole hog. As Inigo Montoya would say, “No, there is too much. Let me sum up.”

You can use several methods here. One is simply to ignore it and go write the scene. I do this sometimes on the theory that I now have the temptation to describe every little thing out of the way, and so the only thing that’s going to end up in the scene is what belongs there. Look at it this way: it’s like telling your best friend all about your horrible breakup, beginning with when you first met and escalating through every hurt, barb and accusation over the last eight years. When your coworker asks how things are going the next day, you’ve let go of the minutiae and can now answer, “Not too good. My spouse ran away to Bangkok to become a transvestite prostitute last night, taking all of my underwear and leaving me with the dog, the Visa bill, and this lousy t-shirt.”

Another method is to sort through what you just burbled all over the page and pick out the telling details. That goes something like this: Everybody fights over money, we can axe that… axe the interfering mother-in-law, she never said anything interesting… not many people can say their spouse left for Bangkok to become a transvestite prostitute, guess we’ll keep that in… definitely need to mention the underwear theft… punchy line, this dog-visa-t-shirt… get rid of the ten hours of blubbering, I want to look cool and collected here… Done! In other words, look for the unusual, for things that speak to character, theme or plot, a nice turn of phrase or appropriate summary of a situation many people deal with. Then work those things in to your scene, being careful not to feel obligated to use everything on the list. You’ll find yourself cutting out some of your chosen details as you write because they don’t flow with the narrative. No matter how much you liked a particular bit of description, don’t force it back in. It’s artificial and you will almost always axe it in the second draft anyway.

If you’ve done this exercise in the advance planning stages, you can see what turns up a few weeks/months/years later when you go back to write the story. Chances are, if something stuck in your mind that long, it will stick in the readers’ as well and needs to be there. Most everything else can be safely ignored, or if appropriate used in later scenes.

Walk Through the Scene

This is one of the techniques I constantly employ. If I find myself describing too much or too little of a scene I’m in the midst of writing, I’ll stop and do a walk-through from the viewpoint character’s perspective. I open up all of my senses and try to notice everything. I run through it mentally a few times until every detail becomes clear. Then I ask which ones are needed to flesh out the scene. What’s really grabbing that character’s attention? What aren’t they paying attention to? Does it matter how their feet are sinking into the plush carpet, or are they too focused on the bastard behind the desk to care? Their attitude helps me shape the scene: I might care about the Dali portrait behind the desk, they might care more about the Cuban cigar this guy’s just removed from the case on the desk – stolen from MY shipment, thanks so much! Both details speak of wealth and privilege, which is what I want to get across, but the cigar adds to the character and the emotion of the scene, too. It helps drive the plot forward. And the scent of that expensive tobacco isn’t a detail any longer, it’s a knife being constantly twisted.

This is also a useful technique when you have to describe the same thing many times, like when you’re using the same location repeatedly. You’ll want some detail to show where we’re at, and preferably you’ll want that detail to add to the reader’s experience of that place without bombarding them with dry description. So walk through it in the characters’ shoes. If you’re using the same viewpoint character, they’re attitude might be different, and that will affect what they notice this time around. If a different viewpoint character, that Dali painting might have some meaning now – you can add it to the mix. But again, since you’re in the character’s mind, you’ll be less tempted to stop the story dead to describe the tassels on the curtains and that little worn patch on the Persian rug – unless, of course, this is a mystery and a tassel and Persian carpet fibers were found on the victim….

Remember, You Don’t Have To Get It In One Go

While I’m writing, I’ll deal out just enough description to put the reader in the scene with me (hopefully – this is far from an exact science). I don’t front-load, even though the temptation is sometimes there. Depending on the scene I need to set, I’ll dole out a few words to a few sentences, but I almost never dump a block of pure description in. I’m writing SF, not travelogues.

So when I come across a location or creature my readers aren’t likely to have seen before, I’ll ask a few key questions and describe from there. This technique can work for any genre: remember, the African Bush is as alien to a suburbanite as Mars, maybe more. And instead of presenting it as a chunk all-at-once, I’ll pay out those details as the scene progresses, based on the answers to the following:

1. How unusual is it? A house is a house is a house. I don’t have to explain that it has walls and a roof – nearly any dwelling has those things. It’s the differences that make it outstanding and that will interest the reader. They won’t care if it’s made of wood and is rectangular, but they’ll probably be interested to know that the walls are woven from Silly String.

2. What Stands Out? In describing a scene most readers are apt to be familiar with, such as an alpine vista, I’ll reach for the stand-out features: a particularly high peak, a very disfigured tree, an overwhelming smell, or a bird of prey sweeping down on the innocent travelers…

3. Where the Hell Are We? Back to the house: I’m not going to describe it in its entirety, including contents, all at once. I’ll let the reader see it as my character sees it, and there will be some places they never do see, like that very odd shed in the back yard….

Some Further Useful Questions to Ask As You Go Along

1. What’s the Pace? Do I need to slow things down a bit? Has my character come through a near-miss and is now appreciating the ordinary a lot more? Or are they fleeing from the Evil Bald Eagle of Doom? If so, I doubt they’ll be noticing that gorgeous little bunch of flowers they just trampled underfoot, unless they’ve landed on top of them and are thinking that this is the last thing they’ll ever see.

2. How Captivated is my Character? We’ve all seen things that arrest our attention. Could be a person, place or thing. If your character is suddenly paying rapt attention to the details, go ahead and slip in the rather more lavish description. If it’s important to the character, it’ll probably be important to the reader, too.

3. Is This The Language This Character Would Use? My favorite. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had an epic description going that would have Professor Tolkien weeping into his hanky due to its sheer beauty and grace, and then I remember whose mouth I’m speaking from. Oh, dear. Billy Bob Jenkins isn’t likely to go from “Them’s sure purty” to Byronic poetry. Adrian would look at the Dali (let’s call it Persistence of Memory so you guys can look it up if you like) and say something like, “The richness of Dali’s color palate blended perfectly with the George II desk and the Ming vase standing with false modesty on the teak table by the window.” Chretien, however, would be more apt to see it this way: “Figured that fucker would go for drippy clocks and antique bullshit. And that vase looks like something he picked up in Chinatown for two bucks. If this is the best money can buy, all hail poverty.” Remembering whose voice you’re writing from helps keep you from getting lost in your own immortal prose.

4. What Does the Reader Need to Know? The single most important component here. If you’re one of those people who likes to hang up bits o’ advice by the computer, add this to the wall. You have to decide what’s best for your story, but you need to be honest here: does the color of the bedspread really add to the readers’ experience? Do they need to know exactly how many steps lead up to the door, and how many cracks are in the concrete? Does an inventory of the characters’ appearance enhance their mental image or get in the way? Have I assumed they know something they don’t and skimped the detail, like forgetting to tell them that a venomous snake in the bed is considered a sign of high esteem among the Klang tribe, unless of course it’s the pink Goober snake arranged in the shape of a tongue, in which case that’s a deadly insult and explains why my character stomped out to avenge his honor?

5. Is This Just Plain Ol’ Description, Or Is It Supporting Other Elements? If your description tells us something about the characters, enhances the plot, speaks to the theme, focuses us on the action, or affects the mood, it’s in. No problem. But if it’s only description without added value, it probably needs to be changed or cut down. This is why, in my someday-to-be-finished novels, you will see many rather detailed descriptions of Luther’s house and grounds, and only the bare basics about Ray’s home. Luther’s house offers insight into who he is, in a way it is him, and it’s a different experience for every character who enters it. Ray’s house is just a typical Mercer island dwelling, and it’s not stamped with his personality.

6. What Kind of Story is This? Some kinds of stories, like milieu, need more description than others. Some, like action, need much less. Knowing that from the start will help you take control over description as you write.

Ultimately, how much or how little description a story needs depends on you. It’s your choice whether you’ll be as minimalist as Hemmingway or as detailed as Tolkien. And that may not be a judgment call you can make until the story’s done. If you find the above advice is making you trip and damming your rivers of prose, set it aside. Those tips and tricks will still work if you don’t use them until the second draft.

After all, better out than in! (With thanks to Hagrid.)

[This turns out to be something of a repost, only I hadn’t remembered I’d posted it before, so a few bits are different. That’s what I get for forgetting to put “posted” at the top of the Works document. Still, I know one or two of you are new to the Dojo and haven’t had time to go back through the archives, so I’ll leave it up. If anyone has any questions on handling description not addressed herein, please ask them, and I shall do you up a little something fresh.]

Dana’s Dojo: Progress? What is This Progress You Speak Of?

Today in the Dojo: Your progress mileage may vary. And that’s perfectly fine.


Anne Jefferson started a SciWrite challenge to coincide with NaNoWriMo. Now, before we have any talk of word counts or other arbitrary measures of success, go read her post on progress. I mean it. Do it now. Then you can head back over here and listen to me natter on.

So. Progress. NaNo’s definition of progress is words. Good words, bad words, necessary words, superfluous words, any words at all. Pad your word count if you have to! Stop using contractions! Babble on and on about incidentals. Anything! Anything that helps you get to 50,000.

And that can be useful, especially for those who’ve never written 50,000 words in a month, don’t believe they can, and need to learn otherwise.

NaNo, the first (and only official) time I did it, taught me that I could write flat-out, without thought of quality, every damned day, huge amounts every day, sacrificing anything and everything to make it, and still end up with some useful words at the end. I actually quite like my original NaNo project, and when the series rolls round to it, most of those 50,000 words will make the cut.

There’s another NaNo project I did, unofficial, that was a non-fiction book. I’m afraid to go back and look at it now, because I suspect my thinking on the subject has progressed to the point where I’ll hate it. But it still taught me that I could write 50,000 non-fiction words in a month. So that was a little bit of all right, then.

There’s a year when I wasn’t doing a NaNo project at all, but merely writing scenes and re-writing chapters in what will be one of the last books in the series. Why was I messing about at the end? Because it’s what was in my mind, and because knowing where things ended up tells me what I need in the early bits, and I needed the practice. That was during a time when my writing made a quantum leap from being pretty good to actually satisfying me. Considering how much of a critic I am of my own work, this was a virtual miracle. And I shadowed NaNo that year because those words were getting written anyway, so why not stretch a bit and make it 50,000? Most fun I’ve ever had doing anything related to NaNo, I can tell you.

This year… this year I’m not even trying for 50,000. Okay, yes, I would like to make it there. You will hear no complaints if I do. Well, complaints from my poor tortured tendons, but they can cry all they like, the whiners. But I likely won’t make it, and not just because of them.

I only just now broke 15,000 words. That’s fairly far behind the mid-point for 50,000 in 30 days, but I’m extremely pleased with my progress. I’ve got most of a novella done already. That’s more than I had at the start of all this.

Mind you, it was supposed to be a short story. And it was supposed to be about solitude, but it ended up being about loss and memory and why, when one goes home again, that may be the time that ensures they can never go home again. So if I define progress by the original metric – i.e., short story, theme solitude, done within a week or so – I’ve failed miserably. Doesn’t feel like failure, though. Feels like the opposite of failure. I’ve gained enormous amounts of insight into my various characters, the social circles they move in, their attitudes and expectations and cultural quirks. I’ve seen sad things and beautiful things and hurtful things and thoughtful things. They’ve surprised me repeatedly, and confirmed my suspicions.

When it’s done, I’ll have a novella. It’s nothing epic. In fact, I likely wouldn’t be able to sell it to a publisher – despite the occasional unicorn and dragon (well, species we would call unicorns and dragons because they resemble them, although they’re not, really), despite the inborn power some people have and the external power others use, despite the fact it’s set on an alien world, it’s a very ordinary story. I’m telling it with people who could pass for human (this becomes an important plot point later in the series, so shut up about aliens needing to be alien). If I took out all the fantasy bits, I could still tell nearly the same story. And there’s no huge character development, just little shifts, and a fairly large rift at the end. It’s nothing epic.

But it lays the foundation for the epic to come. All of these things are essential to my own understanding. And I suspect readers, although not publishers, will like it just fine. I’ll trim some of the fat from it, and bundle it together with the other stories I’ve got planned for this collection, and refer back to it constantly as I’m writing the novel itself. It will have given me the basis for understanding I needed in order to successfully write that novel, and the confidence to do so.

I think that’s enough progress, thank you.

The reason for all this rambling is this: don’t let progress be defined by a set criteria. If the progress you’ve made doesn’t fit the original mold, but is actually better, then there’s no reason in the universe to feel like a failure. And every reason to punch the air and tell the universe you are teh awesome.

Don’t get hung up on 50,000 or whatever other goal you set at the beginning. Certainly, keep on keeping on – use those original goals as useful goads to keep you writing. But don’t let them blind you to your success.

Oh, and all you fiction writers? Be extremely fucking grateful you’re not writing a scientific paper. If there’s one thing watching SciWrite has taught me, it’s that as difficult as the novelist’s job is, we’ve got it pretty damned easy when you compare the two!

One final word for both SciWriters and NaNoes, from my brilliant, beautiful Nicole, on the reason why not having many words shouldn’t matter to you: “Because even if you only have 1,000 words written (or even less!), it’s more than you had on October 31st!”

Absorb the truth of that, and write on.

Dana’s Dojo, Week 2: Letting Go

Today in the Dojo: The importance of letting go so those 50,000 words can flow.


So, we’re beginning Week 2. By now, the early flush of excitement has probably drained, and it’s beginning to feel like a long, hard slog. You might be at the everything-I’m-writing-is-total-shit stage. If not, you’ll be there soon.

You’ve got to let go.

That’s a lesson I learned from bowling. I tried for months to improve my technique. I worked really, really hard to hit those pins, and ended up in the gutter nine times out of ten. The tenth time, I’d hit a pathetic one or two pins on the fringes. It’s safe to say I was the worst bowler on the circuit that year.

One day, in utter despair, I rolled the ball and walked away without even looking at it. Wasn’t trying to hit anything. Just lobbed it down the center and knew it was going to angle off into the gutter as it always did. I didn’t want to see that lazy curve mocking me anymore. So I was facing the group when they suddenly burst into cheers. I thought they were laughing at me until my mom yelled, “Honey, quick, it’s a strike!” I whipped around just in time to see the last pin topple and roll away. Earned a spiffy trophy for most improved player. And all because I’d given up and just let the ball go where it may. I stopped trying to be perfect. Nobody ever told me that was a path to success.

That lesson is paramount for success in NaNoWriMo: stop trying to make it perfect and just let it go. Just have fun. Forget the stakes. Forget technique. Stop getting in your own way.

I put all of this up here by way of saying: for all I tell you about technique and improvement and the craft, it won’t do you any good unless at some point you say, “That’s nice, Dana” and just go write. You shouldn’t be concentrating on the “rules” and the shoulds and shouldn’ts and what you want this to be and that horrible sense you’re going all wrong. Shut all that up, get out of the way of the story, and just let it go.

The best advice I was ever given in writing was this: internalize. That’s hard to do. So much easier to have Evil Editor Dana hanging over my shoulder telling me what I’ve done wrong. But she gets in my way. She paralyzes me. You’ve all watched figure skating, right? Do you see the coach out there during the Olympic performance screaming at the skater: “No, no, you’re setting yourself wrong! You’re not going to make that double axel! Pull in your arms! Watch those toe picks!” No. It’s just the skater out there, having learned all the rules, maybe thinking she needs to adjust her approach to this next jump a bit, but mostly she’s just skating. She’d fall on the ice in a tangled heap if Her Coach’s Voice was blaring at her the whole performance.

Writing is like figure skating. You spend a long time learning how to do it, a long time learning how to perfect it, learning tips and tricks and techniques and all that rot, you have a coach (or your Inner Editor) screaming at you during the practice runs until you begin thinking of new and creative things to do with sharpened plastic utensils, you read every bit of advice you get your hands on – and then you have to turn it all off. Forget it. Don’t let it enter your mind except for those minor course corrections. When you get to the end of the routine, the big performance, the story, you discover that even though you weren’t keeping that stuff in the forefront of your conscious mind, you’ve somehow managed to pull it off. You internalized the “rules.” They’re second nature now. And, unlike figure skating, we can go back and correct those rough spots where our technique was a little shaky or we fell flat-out. The only appropriate place for your Internal Editor to come to the fore is when you’re revising, and even then, if it ain’t constructive criticism, you need to fire that fucker.

Unfortunately, that’s a lesson I have to relearn every year or so. I end up letting Evil Editor Dana perch on the chair next to me and blare away. I want to be perfect so badly I forget how to get out of my own way and just write. I mean, for crying out loud (which I frequently do), it’s a rough draft. Underscore: Rough! It’s allowed to be imperfect. It’s allowed to be unpolished! Flaws can be fixed! That’s what find and replace functions are for – if I started spelling a character’s name wrong, it’s not the end of the world. If I left a plot thread dangling, I can tuck it back into the narrative later. No problem!

And while you can’t see it while you’re yelling at yourself for being The Most Horrible Writer in the World, you’re probably doing fine. You’ve probably got more of the guidelines to good writing flowing through your subconscious mind than you realize.

A friend of mine put it this way after he read the Transitions article:

“While reading, I realized I do the things you describe, but on a sort of unconscious level. Like a trapeze flyer, I work without a net and feel my way along. If I had to focus consciously too much on the mechanics of writing, I think I would lose the thread of my story.

But that’s just me. Every writer writes his or her own way. I prefer the seat-of-my-pants method while others like to proceed systematically. Tomato/tomahto, I guess.”

Thank you, William. Couldn’t have said it better myself, which is why I’m quoting you. (As an aside, if you want some really rich, smooth language that flows like poetry and turns life into lyrics, check out William Starr Moake.)

Let go. Let go of the need to write perfect prose on the first go. Let go of the doubt that this is worth doing. Let go of the fears you’ve got of not making word counts or surviving the experience. Let go of shoulds and musts and have-tos. Get out of your own way.

You can do this.

Dana’s Dojo: Surviving NaNo

Today in the Dojo: How you can write 50,000 words in a month and not drop dead.


I said “Never again,” and I meant it. I will not be doing NaNoWriMo this year. Not exactly. More like NaNoWri2Mo, because I’ve determined I must complete a book of short stories by the end of this year. And yes, I’d do NaNo, despite a solemn vow never to do so again, but ye olde wrists may not be up to the task. The spirit is willing. The flesh has thumb tendonitis and very likely a bit of carpal tunnel syndrome to boot. Let’s not push it.

But some of you are young and sound of wrists, although your minds might be suspect, considering you’ve signed up for the madness that is NaNoWriMo. So I figured I’d tell you how I survived my one and only time doing it officially, and all those times I’ve done it on the sly.

Perhaps it will be of some service.

1. Set aside healthy chunks of time. Every day. Every single day. As much time as you can carve out of your schedule, because you’ll need every single last minute. Determine how much time you can devote, add a bit to it, and set it aside as sacrosanct. And during that time, you shall write.

2. Tell the people in your life that, in the interests of keeping them alive and you out of jail, they had better respect your writing time. No exceptions. Unless someone is engaged in the act of actively dying, or the house is burning down, they are not to bother you no matter how urgent they think it is. Tell them this right now.

3. Remember to eat. Have healthy snacks ready at hand by your writing space. Eat energy foods: lean protein, potatoes, carbs. Eat your veggies. This is not precisely the time to diet. Keep fueled, but don’t gorge, because gorging makes you tired. Don’t under-eat, because that can kill your productivity. Have as much food pre-made as possible, ready and waiting in the fridge. You won’t have much time to cook. If you have friends and/or family members who are willing to help, enlist them to feed you.

4. Keep writing. I don’t care how awful the words feel. Write them down anyway. This is the one time when quantity trumps quality. Fuck spelling, fuck grammar, fuck punctuation – that shit can be fixed later. If you get stuck somewhere, don’t linger – jot a note, put in brackets, and move right the fuck on. You will have plenty of time to revise in the future. And it probably isn’t as bad as you fear – I’ve actually read back over the crap I wrote during NaNo several times, referring to it for other works, and it’s never proved as horrible as it felt during the writing of it. Some of it was actually quite good. A few bits verged on brilliant. And the bits that didn’t, well, they’ll feel the wrath of my editing pen when it comes time to finish that bastard, so all is well.

5. Take a hike. Get up and stretch. Yes, you need to write, but you need to get the blood circulating, too. Schedule in the occasional walk and time during writing to break off, rest your eyes and wrists for a few moments, do a few turns round the office so that your legs don’t take on a permanent seated position.

6. Have a cheerleading squad. There are other writers doing this. There are friends and family members who can jolly you along. Have people available who can help you push through the pain.

7. Do not despair. You will quite likely have days when even craptastic words won’t come, and days when life gets in the way, and toward the end you may realize you’re behind. This is where you must quote Galaxy Quest: “Never give up! Never surrender!” I don’t care if you’re 30,000 words behind on the last day, sit the fuck down and write until you bleed, until you wish someone would shoot you to spare you further pain, until that clock runs out. You never know but that you might pull a miracle there at the end.

8. If your Inner Editor says a single damned critical word at any point in this process, shoot to kill. Show no mercy. Inner Editors are not allowed during NaNo. They damned well know it, but they’ll try to horn in anyway. Kill them dead. Don’t worry, they always rise from the dead. And there are as yet no statutes against killing a construct of your own mind, so the prohibition on murder does not apply here.

That’s pretty much it. This is an endurance game. All you can do is put one word in front of another, as fast as you can, every day for the whole month, and try not to perish in the process. This isn’t about quality writing. It’s about proving to yourself that you can get the writing done. And knowing that is immensely valuable. Carry it over into the other eleven months, because if you carved out time for writing and got words written during the month of NaNo, you sure as shit can do it the rest of the year.

Ready? No? Too bad.

Write anyway.

Dana’s Dojo: Advice to the Beginning Author

Today in the Dojo: Some hard-won lessons from 30 years of the writing life.

So, kick-ass blogging buddy JT Eberhard is beginning a story. I started reading it expecting the worst, then got sucked in, then decided I will murtilate him if he doesn’t continue. But beginning is hard, and continuing even harder. And I know he’s not the only person who’s got a story begun and is terrified that a) it sucks, b) it’ll be impossible to write, and c) he’ll never, ever have the writing chops to pull it off.

Just wait ’til you hit the “ZOMG this is sooo not original!” phase of your young writing life. Let me just nip that one in the bud right here, right now: No, it’s not. Everything people think of as original is, when boiled down to its essence, an idea that a billion other people have had before. It’s how you execute your ideas that matters. That’s where originality comes from: combining disparate elements and adding your own particular twist to what, on the surface, seems to be a tired old idea done to death.

Right. Now we’ve got that dispensed with, on with it. Let me give you folks who are just getting started a little bit of friendly formerly-Southwestern-but-now-Northwestern advice. Hopefully, by the time you’ve hit the end, you will feel yourself prepared to tackle this beast that is storytelling.

However. There is one question that must be answered before we proceed: must you write this story? Is it forcing its way out of you, rip-claw-tearing away at your brain, keeping you awake at night? Do you find yourself filled with a sense of dread when you contemplate dying before having written it?

If the answer is no, consider carefully before you proceed, because it may not be worth the effort you’ll have to put in.

If the answer is yes, go below. You have no other choice.

Right. Nuts and bolts, then. What’s stopping you from getting that story out? You’ve got a world, you may even have a plot, a few characters, and you’ve got no idea what to do with them. None of this is a problem. It’s what being a beginner is all about. We were all there once. So herein is contained my condensed advice, my crash course, on getting the fucking story from brain to page.

1. Read your ass off. Yes, you’ve been doing that, you read all the time. But this is a different kind of reading, in which you pick up your favorite books and/or stories, and tear them apart. You pay attention to how the writer handled elements like plot, description, characterization, theme, mood, dialogue, suspense – everything.

2. Read books on writing. Not just the nuts-and-bolts how-to stuff, but books that follow specific writers, showing their techniques, exploring how they wrote specific books. I started not sucking by reading Writer’s Digest how-to books. Elements of Fiction Writing, people, I lived by those. I read arious how-to books specific to SF. And then, when that was no longer enough, I turned to books that talked about how Tolkien created Lord of the Rings, and how LOTR had impacted the literary world, and by the time I got done reading anything and everything I could get my hands on, I was a far better writer than before.

Read things like The Hero With a Thousand Faces. And absolutely read Writing the Breakout Novel, but not until you’ve got a solid foundation and have written some number of pages first.

You will have noticed that’s a shitload of reading. You are not wrong. This is what being a writer requires.

3. Follow Livia Blackburne on Twitter. Seriously. That woman points to some incredible resources. Oh, and download her book right now. It’s short, it’s $2.99, it’s about the neuroscience of writing, and you need it.

4. Write. Stop looking at me like that. You want to write a novel, but I’m not telling you that yes, obviously, you should write it. I’m telling you to write. Character sketches, wherein you just babble about a character, getting to know who and what they are. Scenes, in which there’s no beginning, middle or end, but you’re working out relationships between people, practicing description and other elements that you’re not certain you’re good at. Short stories, in which you write something with a beginning, middle and end, hopefully with a plot, dialogue, description, and perhaps even a theme, set in the world of your novel or even outside it. Keep a writing journal, in which you can place all those fragments of thought, those disparate bits of research, work out sticky problems, and explore various and sundry without the pressure of the Inner Editor watching over your shoulder.

Write every day. You don’t have to write stories every day, necessarily, but you should be working on your writing every single damned day. That can include reading. It can also include watching movies, watching teevee, playing video games, studying people, doing research, as long as what you’re doing during all of those activities is pulling it apart for your writing, learning the craft. And you must absolutely must set aside time for the Actual Writing, in which what you are writing is Fiction, and not watching teevee et al. Because if you don’t, you will never, ever, get that story out. And that’s the point of all this work, isn’t it?

5. Find Wise Readers. Find people who will read your words and tell you more about them than, “That was nice, dear.” Find people who have good taste in reading, who read the kind of stuff you write, who are not afraid to tell you where you suck and where you shine. Make them read your shit and be honest. And then stick all of their advice in a folder somewhere and walk away from it. Take it under advisement. Don’t do anything to the story based on their feedback until you are done writing, unless of course you agree completely and must fix that bit least the story fall down while you’re building it. The thing is, if you start tinkering too soon, the story will fall down anyway. And what people don’t like when reading it apart from the rest may work wonderfully well when the whole thing’s done.

You might want to withhold your work from other eyes until it’s complete. But if you can’t wait, learn how to handle advice without letting it dictate your story. My rule is that at least three people must agree before I’ll give their criticism close consideration, unless what one or two people have said gels with what I thought was wrong, in which case I’m grateful for the outside confirmation.

6. Don’t Post Publicly. Yes, your work is copyrighted the instant it falls from your brain to the page. No, that don’t mean jack diddly shit on the intertoobz. Lock it away behind an invite-only wall, because that will keep it safer, and make it easier to prove it’s your darling if some idiot tries to sell it as their own. However, you shouldn’t get all paranoid. It happens, but do not let those few instances make you into a miserable suspicious person who runs around screaming, “They’re gonna steal my ideas!!!” They’re probably not. You should just make it a bit harder for anyone to do so, just in case.

There’s a better reason for this: publishers sometimes consider stuff you’ve put on your public blog to be already published. You don’t want them to do that.

Snippets, on the other hand, aren’t a problem. Entice people to your writing blog with a few public goodies. Just enough to get them hooked. “Would you like a scene, little kid?” Heh heh heh…

And that’s enough to get you started. But here’s what you need to keep going:

Trust your characters. Get to know them well enough, and they stop being bits of you and start being themselves. Then they know what they want and need and how they’re going to react in specific situations. They go from being puppets to people, and your job is to frantically write down their doings, then polish the result.

Trust yourself. Put in the hard work, and you’ll get there. You’ll develop those writerly instincts. You’ll know when things are going right and when they’re going wrong, and what to do about both situations.

Give it time. You need time. Your stories need time. Take the time to practice and perfect and grow and learn. Take the time to get it right. Don’t think you have to succeed right fucking now. You don’t. There’s plenty of time to fall before you fly. And we all fall. But so many of us end up soaring on the convection currents after that freefall! Even if you don’t, just remember a wise Japanese proverb: fall seven, up eight. Get back up. You’ve got time to do it again. And again, and again, until you soar.

Get to it. Make the magic happen.

Dana’s Dojo: A Time and Place

Today in the Dojo: How do you establish a story’s time and place?

Among the many pitfalls just waiting to impale the unwary writer is time and place. You’d think it would be so easy, right? How hard could it be to let people know the when and where of things? That’s nothing compared to the complexities of character, theme, plot, rising action, hooks, style…. Setting time and place is a walk in the woods after that!

That high-pitched shriek followed by the meaty thunk is yet another writer falling into the pit. A walk in the woods, indeed.

Not only is it harder to clue the reader in subtly to time and place than one might believe, it’s one of those chores that seem unimportant. As long as I let them know by, oh, say, page Three, we should be okay, right? you say to yourself, and Yourself agrees: Of course! Joe won’t be thinking about it being 1994 and living in Nowhere, Arizona when he’s in the house fighting with his wife. Of course it’s okay to only show that after he’s stormed out of the house.

Of course not. And I’ll show you why.

Where and When the Hell are We? A Cautionary Tale:

George Owen strode down the middle of the dusty street, six shooters riding uncomfortably on his hips and the sun sharp in his eyes. He scrubbed his sweaty hands on his woolen trousers. “Butch” Monroe, twenty paces down the street, looked cruel and mean in silhouette. They should have waited for high noon: bad enough that Butch was faster, but now the sun added to the other gunfighter’s advantage.
George swallowed hard, realizing that he was badly outmatched. And those spectators lining the boardwalk between the saloon and the dry goods store seemed eager to see one of them die…

Now, you’ve already formed a judgment about the time and place of the story. Old West, right? All the clues are there: woolen trousers, dusty street, six shooters, a gunfight, the saloon and dry goods store… That’s what your reader is going to think. That’s what you would have thought if you didn’t know I was about to pull a fast one on you. You would have been thinking, “Oh, no, another crappy Western…”

So what’s going to happen in the reader’s mind when they get past the gun battle, George hits the ground dramatically and then he and Butch both jump up to take their bows? Sure, we’ve revealed the time and place only about four or five paragraphs in – but by then it’s too late. The reader has already formed a judgment. They’re going to be jarred. They’re going to say, “Hey – I was expecting a crappy Western – what’s this story about two guys working for a Wild West Theme Park?”

It’s going to be even worse in the editor’s office, because if you’ve submitted this story to a publication that’s asked for stories set in modern times dealing with contemporary issues, you’re sunk. They’re not going to read past the first three paragraphs before stuffing your story into the return envelope and going on to the next.

“But you said to start in media res!” the writer wails. “This is in the middle of things! It’s right in the middle of the pivotal gunfight that George was scripted to win but Butch just had to go and win to prove how cool he is and and and… And there’s no room to say it’s a theme park! George isn’t thinking about that, he’s thinking that Butch is going to kick his ass again! He’s in character as one of the show people!” Or any number of other arguments as to why you can’t possibly mention the time and place just yet, ending with the very lame, “Well, look at the way he’s thinking! He’s obviously modern!”

Yeah. None of those arguments are working. And if the writer tells me with a smirk that they intended to pull a fast one on the reader, I shall give them a right sharp clout about the earhole. Don’t pull cheap tricks. If you’re planning a deception, it had better be for a far better reason than playing the clever bugger. And if the trick isn’t absolutely critical to the story, don’t pull it at all.

No, you can clue the reader in without destroying your magnum opus or being blatantly obvious about it. You don’t have to dump a clumsy reference to Billy Bob’s Wild West Theme Town into the first paragraph. You can tell the reader where and when they are by employing a whole range of tricks, which I shall now reveal.

The Subtle Art of Revealing Time and Place

So you want to set time and place right away, but don’t know how? I’ll tell you a secret: it’s easy.

No, really. It is. It’s just that we’re usually so close to the story, so committed to the way things are, that we don’t see it. There’s all kinds of opportunity already written into your beginning if you just know where to look.

The first secret is this: your reader does not need to know the story’s time and place so precisely that they can pinpoint it on a map and timeline. They just need a good, general idea to start with.

The second secret is that, like so much else in writing, you can start small and build. Time and place is often revealed as a totality of the evidence. Just like in that sample: you didn’t need anyone to say that “It was a sunny May 14th, 1872 in Dodge City, Kansas when George stepped out into the dusty street” to get a feel that this was a frontier city in the late 1800s (erroneous as that was). You made that judgment from far more subtle cues.

So what are those clues? Here’s a handy list:

References to Time Period

…and so much more!

The trick is to choose details that are specific to an era that readers will likely recognize. Let’s turn to Joe and his arguing wife for a moment. Do you have his wife throwing the phone at him? Great! Is it corded?  Cordless? Cell phone? He’s stepped in front of his new TV to save it – is it a flat screen? Or one of those huge contraptions in a cabinet that were current back in the sixties and seventies? He snatches up his hat on the way out – well, this is Arizona, it’s either going to be a baseball cap or a cowboy hat, isn’t it? Not likely to be a fedora in Nowhere, AZ. What were they shouting – “Cool it, man!” is a different era from “Calm down already!” And so forth…

You’ll put in a bit of a description of the living room, which will be simple and country, not a palatial mansion – not in Nowhere, AZ. When Joe storms outside, he’ll see desert. He’ll see at most a sad huddle of houses in the middle of nowhere. He’ll get in his truck – and rather than saying it’s a Ford, you can tell us it’s an F150. Every little bit helps, as long as it’s not too intrusive. If you don’t want to talk about make and model, that’s fine – but you can mention whether it’s an 8-track, a cassette, CD or iPod he plays on the stereo. Comes to that, which band is it? Beatles could be from any era now, but if he throws in Coldplay, you’ve just dated the story. And you better not have them on an 8-track….

See how easy that is? By the time you get him down to the diner bitching to his buddies about being stuck in literally Nowhere with a harpy, the reader will already know that we’re in the American Southwest, and roughly what time it is.

Now that you’ve got the hang of it, we can return to George and Butch.

Gunfight at Billy Bob’s – The Reprise

George Owen strode down the middle of the dusty street, replica six shooters riding uncomfortably on his hips and the sun sharp in his eyes. He scrubbed his sweaty hands on his costume’s woolen trousers. “Butch” Monroe, twenty paces down the street, looked cruel and mean in silhouette. They should have scheduled this skit for high noon: bad enough that Butch was faster, but now the sun added to the other gunfighter’s advantage.
George swallowed hard, realizing that he was badly outmatched. And those tourists lining the boardwalk between the saloon and the dry goods store seemed eager to see one of them die…

There’s enough in there now to clue the reader in: the guns are replicas. George is wearing a costume, and this is a skit. There are tourists watching. It’s enough to be going on with. Your reader will now be expecting a story set in modern times with actors instead of gunslingers. This is all to the good, and it really didn’t take much effort. From here, we can build on the rivalry of these two actors, continuing to set time and place with more details. If it’s the present, you could throw in a cell phone ringing and even mention the ringtone. There’s a wealth of possibility already there.

Time and Place as a Part of Other Jobs

It’s best not to think of setting time and place as a separate job. It’s part of the whole shebang. While you’re setting time and place, you can use those details to do other work for you:


…And So Much More!

Time and place defines who we are, the limitations and opportunities, what they mean for the characters, what can happen and how events will unfold. Bertha wearing hoop skirts and cooking over a cast iron stove is not only from a different era than Kylie wearing jeans and popping a Hot Pocket into the microwave. She’s also got a whole different set of social expectations, ideas, outlooks, specific problems, duties and abilities. She’s going to give the story a different feel. She’s going to drive the plot in ways Kylie couldn’t, and the things that happen to her will not be the same at all, even if on the surface they seem so. Her whole world is different. So will be Tatiana making borscht, or Spotted Dove roasting buffalo meat, or…

You get the picture.

Now go put your story’s time and place to work for you.

Dana’s Dojo: Characters So Deep You Can Swim In Them

There is this word, “deep.” People want deep characters. No one likes shallow, except folks who aren’t so great at swimming. Think back on the story people who’ve stayed with you for years and years after you first read about them, and you’re probably going to notice they’re deep. But what is this “deep”? How do you create someone who’s deep?

Patricia C. Wrede did up a couple of posts on it, books on writing almost always address it, and there are entire exercises dedicated to making deep people. Some of that stuff’s useful. Some of it just seems to get in the way. The thing is, there’s no one way to ensure you end up with characters who are more than ankle-deep. Fill out all the character biographies you like, you can still end up with cardboard with a few weird details thrown in.

I’m not going to tell you how writers make their characters deep. Writers are individuals, they’ve all got different ways of doing it. I’ll tell you how I do it, and you can filch any useful bits you like.

To begin with, I treat my characters with respect, probably more respect than I afford most real-life people. I don’t even call them characters. That sounds disrespectful. I’m disrespecting folks who exist only in my imagination, and I know that, but there it is: if I want them to come across as real and vital and alive, I have to treat them as such. They are individual people with their own foibles and concerns and desires and problems and habits, and they have their own minds, and they do not exist solely to help me move a story along. In fact, quite often, they’re southbound when I’m wanting to head west. I can sometimes persuade them that west is best, but more often, I’m forced in the direction they want to go. Much like you, and your more stubborn friends or family members. They cause me to adjust my expectations and rearrange things to their satisfaction, and the fact that they so often surprise me means they sometimes surprise my readers. I trust them. I trust them implicitly. My characters know far better than me. I’m just taking dictation.

That probably makes me something of a codependent doormat, but that’s fine by me.

But how do we get to that point? How do we get to know each other? How are they introduced?

They show up. Simply that. I’m not one of those writers who can sit down at the beginning and say, “I want to tell a story about weasel liberation gone horribly wrong. I shall have to have scientists at a research lab, young firebrands belonging to ALF, and probably a bumbling security guard for good measure.” I can’t write out a cast list and then start doing bios. That’s not how it works. Somebody shows up, pulls up a chair in my mind, and says, “Let me tell you a little story about the time we tried to free the weasels. It’s why I’m not a vegetarian anymore.”

All right. I have someone sitting in front of me. I can observe things like ethnicity, hair and eye color, height, weight, manner and style of dress, any tattoos, that sort of thing. I can listen to the cadence of their speech. I can tell if they’re full of themselves or self-deprecating, humorous or dull, get a sense of their education and outlook. If I was the sort of person who did such things, I could start filling out one of those stupid ten-page bios. I don’t. I let them babble. I write it down, and observe.

After I’ve got the bare bones, and they’ve introduced me to a few of the other folks involved, then I can start looking at bios. I do narrative bios, not fill-in-the-blank lists. I just start writing out things I should know: where they’re from, who their family is, what their lives have been like up to this point. When I get back to writing the story, after several pages of bio, I’ve got a better sense of who and what they are, and don’t have such a tin ear when I’m listening to them.

Then they surprise me. I may have a good, clear sense of how they see the world and how they might be expected to react in a given situation, but then they do something out of the ordinary, and I have to hit pause and say, “WTF?” More exploration in ye olde writing journal, figuring out why the hell they just said or did what they did. Often, this reveals facets I didn’t suspect were there. Bob the ALF weasel-freer didn’t get involved in this animal liberation stuff because he’s a True Believer, he did it for Kate, whom he’s been obsessed with since grade school. But when he looked into the deep brown eyes of a research weasel, he saw the eyes of his Aunty Dolores, whose life was saved by a lab rat once. But not via medical research, but because Aunty Delores was on the cleaning staff, there’d been a fire one night, and she couldn’t find the exit until she knocked a cage to the floor in her flailing, which then burst open and dispensed a rat who scurried for the door. Following the rat, she emerged from the building just before it collapsed. And if he lets this weasel go, who will be there to save the cleaning lady the next time the building catches fire? This is why he hesitates. And in this moment, he realizes he’s never really loved Kate after all, but the idea of Kate. Seeing her now, splashing red paint round the tidy lab, breaking open cages, he realizes that his idea of her and the reality are quite different things. And he thinks back guiltily to all of the people he knows whose lives have been improved or saved because of animal research.

These things go through his mind in a flash, and then he opens the cage and sets the weasel free. In this moment, with him doing something he absolutely does not want to do, I find another facet of him revealed, things I didn’t suspect til now: being raised by a military father and a deeply religious mother has made him something of a doormat. A rebellious doormat, but one who can’t rebel against the rebels he’s running with, as he hasn’t quite worked his way up to it.

And he doesn’t know this. He doesn’t know why he opened the cage. He curses himself for it. The reader won’t understand, just now, why Bob freed the weasel. But now I know that the reasons are ready to be revealed, a bit later, and I can be aware of other circumstances in which a deeply-conflicted Bob will be affected by things that barely even impinge upon his awareness, until someday and somehow, long after he’s done his jail time for freeing the research weasels (who were promptly killed by local predators, because research weasels were not bred to live free), told Kate to piss off, gone off the veggies and onto a strict meat diet, and married the scientist whose lab he trashed, these things will come clear to him (and to the reader).

Does this make him deep? Not necessarily. It’s mere detail, unless it changes the course of the story, affects his relationships and the situations he’s in and causes him to act in ways contrary to what we’ve come to expect from him. And Kate’s not deep, she’s just a shadow. I have to get to know her, understand her reasons for doing what she does, discover the motivations she hides even from herself, and use that knowledge to fill her. Only then can I have those telling moments, those deep moments in which something unexpected is revealed, in which the various ways people act and react and respond to each other and the situations around them tell us, possibly without words, that these are people with complexities, who cannot always be predicted.

There are off-camera events. I learned this from J.J. Abrams, and I’ve never forgotten it: these people have lives that happen outside the reader’s view. And the characters will reference them. They have their in-jokes, they gossip, and they’ll talk about things the reader hasn’t witnessed. The reader, in fact, doesn’t need to see everything that goes on. They don’t even have to understand it. They probably shouldn’t. A character seems rather deeper when we feel we’re seeing only a snapshot of their lives, when the whole photo album is closed and we know many and interesting things are in there, if only we could see them. Incidental mysteries, those, ones that give us the sense of seeing real people going about their lives just out of your sight.

Deep characters aren’t just ones with interesting quirks and distinguishing marks you stuck on because some writer’s advice column somewhere told you to do it. That’s false-deep. You could know all sorts of interesting details about Bob: that he’s got a chipped front tooth, he’s got a tattoo of a Chihuahua with the word YOWSA underneath, that he likes to eat wasabi on celery. What the fuck does any of that matter? Does that make him seem deep? It only matters if it’s important, and it’s only important if it fundamentally changes our understanding of him. It only matters if we know the reasons, and those reasons make a difference somewhere in the story. Otherwise, they’re just glitter, they’re rhinestones attempting to pass themselves off as diamonds. Walk-on characters can get away with a few wacky details that senselessly stand out and never matter, but your primary and secondary folk, those things should matter or they shouldn’t really be there at all. They’re just cheap tricks, stuck on with glue, and readers can see that for what it is: you trying way too hard to make someone deep.

What the fuck does it matter that Bob’s front tooth is chipped? Well, he got that chip the first time his dad let him shoot an M-16, and he couldn’t control the recoil. It’s a constant reminder that he’s never been able to live up to daddy’s expectations, and it bothers him. And what breaks the bank with Kate is when she asks him, after getting annoyed at him probing it with his tongue for the billionth time, why doesn’t he just get it fixed? No money, he says, but he’s had the money. What he hasn’t had is the mental strength to admit he can move on. He knows that all any dentist can do is make a cosmetic change. The chip will still be there and he knows it. So he spends his money on beer and X-Box games instead. And at the end of the story, when he gets that tooth fixed, we’ll know it means something more than vanity, now, won’t we?

Or maybe he gets that tooth fixed at Kate’s urging, and it’s only much later, when it gets knocked out by one of his former friends in ALF after he’s betrayed them all, that he discovers he’s free of some of that old baggage. Either way, it’s become more than a rhinestone detail: it’s now something that tells us a lot about him, affects a lot of situations, and makes him more than just some dude with a chipped tooth and no backbone.

So that’s what I do with those glittery little details: I dig, I find out why they’re there and what they mean and how they change things. If they can’t justify their existence, I don’t make a fuss over them. There’s no reason to. They add no value.

The most important thing, I think, is not those things, though. It’s putting people in situations together and watching them from a variety of angles. First draft, it’s all I can do to keep up. Second draft, or next scene, I’ve stepped back, taken the time to analyze things, tease out the stuff that’s odd or interesting or doesn’t quite make sense, and bombarded it with questions. Then I know. I know the people, and I know how they mix, and why they interact the way they do, and what led up to all that, and I’ve quite often done a lot of backstory that will never show up in the story proper but gives me a clear sense of everyone. And then I let all of that unseen detail impinge upon the story, and I won’t always explain. I’ll imply. I’ll let readers chew it over. I’m not good at that, I always feel like I should explain, but I try to avoid over-explaining. Let the readers have a mystery they’ve got enough clues to solve, if they’re clever. People like to be allowed to be clever, and I think that makes them see the characters as deep as well. They’ve figured something out. They’ve had an n-dimensional puzzle to solve. Characters who can be taken at face value aren’t deep, no matter how much detail you’ve thrown in.

Detail isn’t depth. Never forget that. Art needs empty spaces so that the picture appears full.

Do you want deep characters? Take the trouble to really get to know them. Set the questionnaire aside. Let them talk, let them act, listen, and then try to understand. Just as you would with people in real life. Get them to reveal as much of themselves as you can. And when you don’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing in the story, when they do something you didn’t think they’d ever do, don’t let your first instinct be to revise that out. When your characters surprise you, it’s not a sign you’ve done something wrong. It’s an opportunity to learn more about them, and adjust the story so that the unexpected is still surprising but isn’t coming completely out of left field. It’s an opportunity to let them be deep. Deep people do unexpected things. They don’t always explain why. But ultimately, even if we don’t know quite why they did what they did, it ends up making a certain kind of sense.

Deep characters are implied. Let the implications unfold. Don’t baldly state stuff like, “Bob was insecure about his chipped tooth because blah blah blah.” Let the details trickle out. Let those details come about because of circumstances, not because you decided you’d better insert a paragraph of exposition. Give the reader some clues and let them figure it out. Let Bob discover the real truth as things unfold, because he probably didn’t know himself. And for fuck’s sake, keep him off the psychiatrist’s couch.

It will take a lot of time, effort, and false starts before you have story people so deep people can dive into them without hitting bottom. But it’s worth it.