A friend recently commented that a lot of my playlists re-use songs. He’s right, particularly since many of the lists I’ve been sharing lately are based on some of my writing lists2. That’s because I assign some songs to particular characters. Or I assign some songs to particular character combinations. For instance, I use the Matt Goss song, “Evil” if I’m working on a story or section of one of the fantasy novels when the characters of Madame Valentina and the Zombie Lord figure prominently; because the song’s lyrics sound like something that Madame Valentina would say to her former friend and comrade-in-arms about why they are no longer friends. Other songs represent something a bit more abstract and just wind up in lots of playlists.
I listened to music while writing long before having a program that could play pre-programmed lists. And I even had playlists, of a sort. I used to make myself mix tapes3 on cassette. Like the playlists now, they were often meant as sort of a soundtrack for a project I was working on at the time. Before I had that technology, I used to like to listen to certain albums on vinyl while I wrote4. But more often I listened to the radio, where I had no control on what music would come up.
I’ve had multiple friends comment that they can’t write at all while listening to music that has lyrics. They can only write to music if the music is only instrumental. They mention this because they are confused when the vast majority of my writing playlists are made up of songs (often dance, pop, or rock songs, but queercore, baroque pop6, and broadway style musicals7 figure heavily as well) that have lyrics. I attribute this ability to two things. First, the fact that back when I was 11 years old9 and such I listened to the radio while I wrote. But another factor is familiarity. I usually only put songs that I know relatively well into the playlists, which means I don’t have to spend a lot of brain power parsing the lyrics when I hear it.
But even when I put new songs that I have only just discovered into the playlist they quickly become familiar. Because—and this is something I only realized recently is different than the way these friends use writing playlists—I don’t just listen to the playlist while I’ve actually writing. I listen to the playlist to get me in the mood to write a story. By which I don’t mean I sit quietly listening to the playlist hoping that I’ll eventually feel like picking up the keyboard and getting to work. No, I listen to the playlist during the day at the office, or while riding the bus to work, or while walking home, and so on.
I mentioned above that some songs function as themes for some of my characters or certain relationships, but I also have some songs that are essentially theme songs for specific subplots, or story arcs, or even specific plot twists. It’s not that I sit down and think, “Okay, this moment here needs a song,” it’s more that I’ll hear a song and find that when I listen to it it makes me think about that bit of the story. So I add the song to one of my existing writing lists; or I take subsets of several existing writing lists plus this song that hasn’t been in one of the lists before, and put together a new one. Which is another reasons that some of my lists repeat songs in other lists.
I know that I’m not the only person who uses inspirational playlists this way. But clearly the idea of listening to a writing playlist other than when you’re writing isn’t an obvious one. And it is true that sometimes I find, while I’m actually writing, that I need to switch to something other than the new writing playlist I’ve been listening to recently. There are times when I’m focused more on the words than the story. But that doesn’t happen often.
I think that might be another difference. I’ve always had a little trouble understanding why some people get so hung up on what to write next. Particularly when they describe struggling to find exactly the right word, or that a particular sentence kept coming out awkward. Because writing isn’t about showing off your gigantic vocabulary. It’s storytelling. And you can tell any story, even a new and unique one that is yours and yours alone many ways. This is sort of an extension of an idea that Stanley Fish talks about in his excellent book, How to Write a Sentence. Fish argues that the basic tool of the trade of a writer is the sentence, not the word, because words don’t take on their exact meaning until they are put in the context of a sentence, right?
The important part of a story aren’t specific sequences of words or astonishing turns of phrase. The story is about the characters confronting a problem, how they react to it, how they grow (or fail to) as they endure the slings and arrows of the tale. It’s about how the reader feels about those things. It’s about how the reader is moved by the events, what those events mean to the characters, and the state of each character as they reach their final fates.
That’s why lyrics shouldn’t distract you. Because good songs speak to your emotions. And emotions and events are what you need to be focusing on while writing your story. The words are just how you get there. They aren’t the end, they’re the means.
Put on your headphones, queue up some music that makes your heart and soul want to dance. Then, start writing.
1. That’s right, I used iTunes for three years before I owned my first iPod.
2. I very very occasionally publish lists of the songs on my blog. I slightly more often zip up all the songs in a list and share the file with friends who express interest.
3. Other people made mix tapes to get to people they were romantically interested in or already dating as a way to express their feelings. I assembled tapes of songs for myself.
4. Once I had my own record player, I could put a stack of vinyl albums on the spindle, and it would play one side of each album one after the other. It only held three albums5, but it was a way to build a very primitive sort of playlist.
5. The big stereo in the living room could hold five or six albums in a queue!
6. For instance, Rufus Wainwright or John Grant.
7. Yes, I’m the kind of queer man who listens to musicals! So sue me!8
8. It almost goes without saying that I appeared in musicals in school, but the truly frightening thing is that I’ve written a musical!
9. I decided to become a writer when I was four or five years old, after Mom responded to my question about where books come from. I wrote my first “book” when I was six. I learned to type at age 10, and wrote a lot of short stories on my mom’s Easter Pink Smith-Corona Silent Super typewriter until, just before my twelfth birthday, my paternal grandmother gave me her 1952 Remington Let-R-Riter. I owned my own typewriter! And I went crazy with the writing.
Despite Seattle’s reputation for rain, we don’t get a lot of the heavy rainstorms that people who live in other parts of the world are used to. We don’t actually get that many rainy days at all. What we have are lots of overcast days. Many, many days of cool, damp weather that may include a little drizzle or mist here and there. Yeah, during some months (November, for instance) we get some deluges. This year we had literally the wettest winter since we started keeping records here 122 years ago, and last year was the second-wettest ever, so the pattern may be changing. We’ll see. In any case, much of our reputation for rain comes from all those cool, damp overcast days where it feels as if it must have just rained a bit ago, even though it may not have for several days.
Another reasons we have such a reputation is the sneaky prank Mother Nature likes to play on newcomers every spring. Every year, at some point in the month of May, we get a week or two of weather that seems like summer. It usually only gets into the low or middle seventies (Farenheit), but the thing is that after months of overcast days, drizzly days, and occasional rainstorms, a week or two of sunny weather with no rain at all and warm temperatures in the daytime fools people who think that summer is here. Never mind that most of those nights the temperatures drop back down to the 50s or 40s, in the middle of the day it was warm and sunny and dry, so summer must be here.
And then the June Gloom hits.
An upper atmosphere trough settles in causing almost constant on-shore flow. Cool, moist air from the ocean keeps coming inland. So every night we get overcast/foggy cool weather, and the clouds and fog may or may not burn off at all during the day time. And we get drizzles and light showers. Temperatures may get up into the low 70s for a little bit each day, but between the lack of sun, the damp, and the rain, it doesn’t feel that warm. Statistically, we have mostly June Gloom instead of summer until about July 12. And particularly in contrast to those couple of weeks of what seemed like summer, that long cool period breaks the spirit of people who from around here.
This last weekend was the end of our faux summer. And it was a lot warmer than our usual May foray into warmth. The temperatures got up into the 80s. But then the drizzle and rain came back. I happen to love the rain and the cooler days, but it this time it was a bit of a shock even to me. I couldn’t figure out last night—after I got home from work and ran my two errands, then peeled off my office drag and switched to shorts—why I was so cold! I actually had to pull a pair of sweat pants out of the drawer!
I’ve also heard a theory that the reason people who don’t live here long think it rains a lot is precisely because common English doesn’t have a single word that means “cool, overcast, with the impending feeling of rain.” Since the categories we sort things into are at least someone dictated by the language(s) we speak, the argument goes, people actually mentally perceive those days without rain as rainy. A friend once told me about the time she admonished her husband and son to go outside and get some activity in while the sun was out… it was late winter/early spring and the sun was not out at all, the sky was very overcast. But it wasn’t raining and it had been the day before. She said, “You live enough years in Seattle, and you start seeing any time when it isn’t raining and it isn’t so dark you need artificial light as sunny!”
We’d had enough warm days that I was starting to think that making a pot of ice tea might be a good idea. Of course, we tossed out a lot of redundant dishes and such during the packing, and when I looked in the cupboards, I couldn’t find a proper pitcher. We haven’t completely unpacked, yet, so I may well have something that would work in one of the boxes. So I didn’t want to run out and buy a pitcher. The other problem is that Michael will only drink tea if it is so saturated with sugar that you can’t get more to dissolve in. Ordinary sweet tea like my grandma’s used to make (where you dissolve several cups of sugar into the tea when the water is still boiling, because once you’ve iced it you can’t get them much sugar to dissolve into it) isn’t quite sweet enough for him. Meanwhile, I can’t drink that much sugar anymore, so I drink all my tea (hot or cold) or coffee without any sweetener.
If we had had one more day of hot weather, I would have broken down, made a mug of hot unsweetened tea with my electric kettle, then poured it into a big glass full of ice cubes. Which isn’t quite as good as having a whole pitcher of tea you can refill from, but tastes good. And now we’re going to cool weather for a while. So I’ve pulled my collection of tea bags out of the pantry. The tea bags had been out of sight since sometimes early in the move, so I haven’t been making tea at night. On days that I’m home all day, I wind up making a second pot of coffee and drinking coffee into the evening. Which is fine, except I think that tea in the afternoon and evening changes the way my brain works.
Maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to get back into the writing zone. Or maybe I’m just too tired from all the packing and unpacking. And it isn’t as if there isn’t still a lot of unpacking to do!
Maybe I should have a nice cup of tea before I tackle the next box.
So I write it down (or as much as I can) and see if I can keep the conversation going. If I don’t know who some or all of the characters are, I try to figure out who they are. I ask myself why they are talking about this interesting thing? What is at stake? Why does each person in this conversation care?
Notice that I haven’t yet asked ‘What happens next?’ Some people operate under the mistaken notion that the plot of a story (play, movie, series, whatever form your story takes) is what happens—this happens, then this, and then this guy does that, then she does this, then another thing happens, et cetera.
Nope. Plot is a problem, obstacle, or riddle that confronts the protagonist at the beginning of the story, is resolved by the protagonist’s own actions at the end of the story, and forms the connection between all of the events in between. Plot can be described as the blow-by-blow style of the action of the story, but getting all those actions in order generally follows long after figuring out the central conflict.
So at this stage, I’m trying to find that problem or conflict that will drive the story. That means I’m also still trying to figure out who’s my protagonist(s). You might think that as soon as I figure out one, I’ll know the other, and generally that’s true, but a single problem/obstacle/mystery can confront mulitple people, who all have to deal with it. So finding the right protagonist for your tale among the involved characters can be a challenge.
One of my favorite examples of a conflict that can have more than one protagonist is illustrated wonderfully in two middle-grade books by Mary Stolz: A Dog on Barkham Street and The Bully of Barkham Street. In the first book, the protagonist, Edward, would love to be free of the constant bullying of Martin, another boy who lives on his street. Edward also would really love to have a dog of his own, and is a bit jealous that other boys who have dogs. The second book happens at exactly the same time, and for the most part involves the same series of events, but Martin is the progagonist who has no friends and constantly tried to prove that this doesn’t bother him by picking on others.
Some times it takes a really long time for me to sort out the plot and protagonist. Years ago I had an idea for a story set in the sci fi shared universe of the Tai-Pan Literary & Arts Project. I knew who all the involved characters were and I knew what the problem was. And I thought I knew who the protagonist was. So I wrote about half of the story and read what I had at the monthly writers’ meeting. I wasn’t even halfway through the opening scene before I knew I had it all wrong. Reading the scene aloud for the first time told me that I was approaching it wrong, but also feeling the energy in the room, as some people fidgeting and others started scribbling down critiques made it clear this wasn’t the compelling story I thought it was.
I tried starting the story at a slightly different place. But when I read that over to myself, I knew it was still wrong. So I set the story aside for a few months and worked on other stories, instead. Some time later I tried writing it from a different character’s viewpoint. Things seemed to be moving along a lot better, but when I shared it with the writers’ group it was clear, once again, that I hadn’t had it right. Once again, the story went onto a back burner and I worked on other things for many more months.
Sometimes you do have to set a story aside for a long time, let it percolate in your subconscious while you work on (and complete) other stories. It may take a long time.
I tried to tell this storfy from two other characters’ points of view, but it still didn’t work. Finally, I used a modified version of an exercise from Jesse Lee Kercheval’s excellent book, Building Fiction:
For every character in the story I wrote out the answers to these questions:
- What does this character want immediately/externally?
- What does this character want on a deeper, emotional level?
- What is preventing this character from getting the external thing they want?
- What is preventing the character from getting the internal thing they want?
- What is the moment in the story when the character believes that they will not get what they want?
- What is the character thinking and feeling at that point?
I did it for every character that I thought had any role at all in the story. And once I had those things written out, I realized that one problem was that the character whose viewpoint I tried at the beginning believes she will never get what she wants, so her reaction at the crisis point of the story is to shrug and cynically say, “I knew it!” And one of the other characters never, ever believes that he can’t get what he wants, because he sees several ways to get it at every point.
Finally I saw that one of the characters I had been thinking all along as a supporting character was the person who thinks she can solve the puzzle, then learns that the problem is different than she thought, then sees everything fall apart, and then could have an epiphany and turn the situation around. Suddenly, everything clicked. I was up late a couple of nights in a row getting the story through to the end, but this time I was sure I was correct. And the writers’ group confirmed it, not by saying, “You got it!” No, instead, everyone’s critiques were about little quibbles of grammar and the like.
The events that all of the failed versions of my story covered were the same, in the abstract, as what happens in the final version that worked and was eventually published. What was different was I found the character for whom those events represented something that could be lost, but still fought for, and for whom overcoming the issue required her growing or changing.
Figuring that out is where plots come from!
- Once you obtain your Artist License, you receive a quota of ideas monthly from the Ideas of the Month Club™.
- No one really knows the exact nature of the alchemy in an author’s subconscious that synthesizes our experiences, conversations, and other information we encounter into ideas.
- The fact that you ask that question indicates you’re looking at the storytelling process completely wrong.
The funny answer is play on words. The term artistic license doesn’t describe an actual license one earns or applies for, but rather it describes the phenomenon of the distortion of fact or alterations of convention which is sometimes made in the name of art. A movie “based on real events” will take a lot of artistic license with the events in order to create an interesting and cohesive story, for instance. So the joke is a way to not answer the question; because the answer isn’t straightforward.
The truthful answer is that writers and other artists concoct their ideas usually unconsciously based on or in reaction to stories we’ve read, art we’ve seen, and so on, blended with things we’ve observed throughout our lives. Both art teachers and writing teachers I’ve known are fond of saying, “Hacks borrow, artists steal.” Humans have been telling each other stories through stories, painting, music, dance, and other art forms for tens of thousands of years. There is no such thing as a plot that hasn’t been used before. But a good storyteller doesn’t worry about that, because what makes a story ours is the individual spins we put on elements, our personal perspective, and our own style. Yes, that does mean that characters in our stories often contain elements of the personalities of people we know in real life. But they’ll contain elements from several people. Even when we intentionally base a character on someone we know, we make changes in order to fit the character into our story. Or we’ll combine the personality traits of the person we’re basing the character on with those from other people—maybe people who remind us of the person, maybe not.
The real answer may seem a little harsh, but the things that most people mean when they ask a writer about “ideas” are not the important part of writing. People asking that want to know why an author decided to make the second detective a robot, or where the notion of a flat world balanced on the back of four elephants riding through interstellar space on a giant turtle came from, or how someone came up with the idea of the character Yoda. Those things are, in one sense, merely window dressing. They aren’t the heart of each of the stories in which they occur. Sometimes, yes, a writer may start from a single question or a prompt from somewhere, but what makes the story are all the connections between the various elements. It’s how the author puts all those things together and makes them work together as the protagonist is confronted by a problem, deals with the problem and the complications that arise from it, and eventually resolves it (for good or ill) at the end.
All those elements that folks mean when they ask about ideas are part of the story. Some of them are even integral to the tale, but the magic is how they work together. Just thinking up the idea of a girl with a magical ability to control all things made out of paper, for instance, isn’t enough. The author has to put that character into a world, make her interact with the other characters, and most importantly make you believe, at least for a bit, that she’s a real person facing a very real crisis.
Sometimes we know where a particular idea came from. For instance, one night at my writers’ group, after we had gone over some scenes I had written from the first novel in the Trickster series involving some of the wizards, my friend Mark made the comment that he thought it would be funny if there was a mage in the world who was always wearing a whole bunch of gold chains, and generally conducted themself like a parody of the 70s or 80s gangster villain. It so happened that I needed a dangerous but comedic mage to fill the role of second-in-command for The Rage Regiment (a group of sort of anarchist wannabes that would figure more prominently in later parts of the series), I just hadn’t figured out her personality or anything. Mark’s description nudged me into filling in details (those dozens and dozens of gold chains around her neck each held magic amulets and the like, making her a walking arsenal; her flying carpet is a converted hearse, et cetera) that eventually came together as Sister Blister, underling to Mother Bedlam.
But the truth is, most of the time the author doesn’t know where the parts that a reader finds most interesting came from. We may know that we gave certain personality traits to a particular character because someone of our acquaintance has those traits and we find them interesting (or frustrating, or endearing, et cetera). And yes, sometimes we’ll base a character that horrible things will happen to on someone we have known in the past who we think deserved horrible things to happen to them. Or we’ll base a character on some other author’s character and give them a happy ending because we think that person deserved something better than what happened to them in the original story. But if we’re good, we’ll file the serial numbers off, and the vast majority of readers will never recognize the character we’ve created an alternate universe version of.
There is no simple answer. There is no magic process we can teach you, no sure-fire mechanism we can share that will generate “ideas” on demand. There are tricks we can use to help us write when we’re blocked and so forth. But the answer I gave above that I labeled truthful really is: no one knows the exact nature of the process. Our brains mix and match and percolate and conjoin all sorts of things from our life experiences, and sometimes something wonderful blossoms from it. And when it does, we have to get to work, making the something wonderful work in a story.
Most advice I’ve read about using feedback as a guide for revision assumes that every writer feels compelled to immediately change their story to comply with every suggestion, and that most of us need pep talks to remember the story is ours. There’s nothing wrong with such pep talks, but my experience has been that many writers (myself included) are more inclined to dismiss most advice, critique, and suggestions unless such feedback comes from someone we know and trust.
Be open. Don’t dismiss feedback out of hand, and resist the urge to argue or explain.
Yes, if you are attending a writing workshop taught by an author you have long admired, and bonding with your fellow students, you’re likely to take every single piece of advice to heart, even the contradictory ones, and tie yourself in knots trying to rewrite your story to address every issue. Similarly, if you have a critique group you trust, you may find yourself in a similar situation after they go over a story. In that circumstance it is important to remember the Neil Gaiman quote: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
People are making suggestions because the story isn’t working for them. Some of the suggestions are contradictory because the people offering them are misidentifying the root cause. Before discarding contradictory advice, see if you can find an intersection. For instance, one time I received feedback on a draft novel from three people whose opinion I trust. One was quite insistent that I needed to add some dream sequences or some other sort of mystical experience to more explicitly explain why the reclusive shrine-guardian was compelled to undertake a quest to save the world. Another thought I should remove several characters (including the shrine guardian) that (in their opinion) weren’t contributing to the main plot, because there were just too many things going on, and clearly the center of the action was the cursed thief. The third person wanted me to split off the shape-shifting fortuneteller (and a few other characters) into their own book.
The intersection of those comments was a fundamental issue all three readers were missing: the novel doesn’t have one protagonist, it has three protagonists whose fates are intertwined and that all come together in the end. Now the reason these readers were missing that detail was not because they were dense or didn’t appreciate the story; they were missing it because I as the author hadn’t made it clear. It was not working in the story. I needed to fix it, but the fix did not involve removing characters, or adding dream sequences, or splitting the book in two. The fix also didn’t require massive rewrites. The fix required dropping a few scenes that weren’t carrying their weight, replacing them with some that did more, and making tweaks to several others.
Look for the unobvious connection. Just because advice seems contradictory doesn’t mean it is wrong.
Sometimes the feedback you get appears to come from a different planet. I’ve mentioned before the reader who complained about my happy endings. The story that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for that reader was a tale which ends with two of the main characters saying good-bye as one is going to escort the corpses of several murder victims on their journey to their families. The story had featured some graphic violence long before getting to that scene. While the killer had been caught and was going to be facing justice, and some of the characters had survived, given how many didn’t and where I set the final scene (literally next to some coffins) I had trouble thinking of it as a happy ending.
I’m a person who fundamentally believes in hope. I’m never going to write stories that will appeal to the sort of reader who insists that happy endings never happen for anyone. That particular story had already been published, so it was a bit late to revise it. But I still found the feedback worthwhile. It was worth asking myself if I had written something earlier in the story that had led this reader—who was really looking to read something grim and dark—to think that that’s what this one was going to be. Did I raise an expectation that I failed to deliver?
Maybe I did. A lesson I took away from that was to remember to look for those unintended expectations. Everyone has heard the famous advice about the gun on the mantlepiece: if you show the reader a gun on the scene, the gun needs to figure in the plot before the story is over. The advice doesn’t just refer to guns, it means that when you draw the reader’s attention to things, people, or events that seem to signify certain dramatic possibilities, that something needs to come of it. That isn’t to say that I must write stories that meet the reader’s expectations, just to make certain that I don’t mislead the reader midway through the story. Yeah, misdirection is okay as long as you play fair (that’s a topic for an entire blog post on its own), and you don’t want to telegraph the ending to the reader, but don’t play bait-and-switch.
Don’t blame the messenger. Maybe the person giving you the weird sounding feedback is absolutely the only being in the universe who will misread your story this way, but don’t forget that where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.
I’ve gotten feedback that left me feeling confused and conflicted about whether my story is worth telling. That might be a good time to follow the advice I read in a magazine article decades ago (and have long forgotten who wrote): sit down and write out an explanation of what is wrong with each part of the critique to don’t like. Do not ever send this to the person, repeat any of it to the person, or post it. Instead, set your reply and this story aside and go work on something else. Later, when you can look at this story objectively, pull out your explanation and go through your story. Is everything you say in the explanation in the story? Is it clear in the story? Chances are that some things you have assumed the reader will infer aren’t as obvious as you though. Sometimes you’ll discover that you never actually mentioned one very important fact for your plot. You thought you did, but it isn’t actually there. Now destroy that explanation/argument you wrote, and rewrite your story.
Argue with yourself, not the reader. Figure out what is missing, and add it in.
Many times I’ve written scenes that never wind up in the story. Sometimes I write them because I’m not certain what to do next, then later I realize that scene isn’t necessary. Sometimes I write them because I’m trying to figure out something that I plan to have happened in the past or off screen, but I need to be able to have characters who lived through the events react accordingly later. And sometimes I write a scene because I received suggestions or critiques that I either wasn’t certain I agreed with, or was quite certain I disagreed with but it kept coming up from multiple people. So I tried writing the scene that followed the suggestion. Usually what happened is not that the new scene went into my story and replaced a bunch of other stuff, but rather, in the course of writing the scene, I figured out something else about the story. Just trying to write it the way other people wanted it to go clarified where the story actually needed to go.
Give it a try. Every writer writes stuff that eventually we decide not to use or to change significantly. Don’t be afraid to spend some time giving alternatives a go.
Trust the story. Recognize that you will stumble and sometimes fall. It doesn’t matter how many times you do that, if you keep getting back up and get moving. So stop thinking about the story, and go write it!
It’s the most natural thing to do, because you know you don’t have a bigoted bone in your body, so of course you aren’t racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-semetic or whatever the person has just said. So of course you feel the need to defend yourself. But you’re wrong. That’s because what you think they mean is that you are a horrible bigot, but that isn’t what’s going on here. What the person is actually trying to communicate is this: “I felt devalued or erased by some of the content of your story.” Nothing you say can change the feelings they had when they read your book. So the first sense in which it is wrong to argue is that you see this as an attack on you, whereas they are explaining how attacks on them that society has been subjecting them to their entire lives are being unintentionally aided and abetted by your story.
The other sense in which you are wrong is the belief that you don’t have any bigotry at all. Because all of us do. It is impossible to grow up in human society without absorbing a lot of prejudice. Including prejudice aimed at ourselves. Queer people have to overcome a lot of internalized homophobia just to come out of the closet. Women learn and internalize misogyny and sexism. Ethnic minorities learn and internal racial prejudice, and so forth. So it doesn’t matter how much you feel you aren’t bigoted, there is going to be some unconscious prejudices boiling around inside. And problematic content isn’t usually about overt bigotry, but is often more subtle.
So, when someone confronts you about any unintentional bigotry in your work, you need to do three things:
It is tempting, even if you stop yourself from getting defensive, to respond to this sort of criticism as just another kind of negative review and say, “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it” then try to change the subject. But this is a different category of discourse entirely. And quite often the people who bring this criticism to you did enjoy most of your story. That’s why they’re taking the time to tell you about this problem. So a better response would be, “I’m sorry the book disappointed you in this way.” If you can say that sincerely, you might also say that you didn’t intend to do that, but don’t let it become an attempt to prove they’re wrong. Better to say, “I’ll try to do better.”
If the person wants to explain to you what it was in your work that made them feel this way, listen. Don’t argue, listen. If the person doesn’t want to talk in more detail about it, that’s all right. It doesn’t mean that they’re wrong or that you’ve someone won the argument. As uncomfortable as it is for you to hear that something you wrote made someone feel de-valued, it is just as uncomfortable (and riskier) for them to bring it up. Dealing with every day discrimination and microagressions means that members of marginalized communities have already had to defend themselves and explain how they are hurt by discrimination thousands of times. And they don’t have the energy to try to educate you in depth on the issue.
Which is where we get to the learning. Once it has been brought to your attention that some readers feel this way (which you never intended) while reading your work, it’s your job to decide how to do better. I love quoting the advice “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right.” That’s part of a Neil Gaiman quote. One of the truths Gaiman is getting at is that if one reader feels a particular way about your work, many other readers will, too. The rest of Neil’s quote talks about fixing problems, and fixing it is the writer’s responsibility, not the reader’s. They’ve told you how it made them feel. If you don’t want some of your audience feeling that way, you have to decide how you’re going to fix that going forward.
I want to emphasize that I know this process isn’t easy. The first time someone told me a story I wrote had sexist bits in it I became extremely defensive and reacted like a complete jerk. I was wrong to do that. Fortunately, I also spent some time, after I acted like a jerk, re-reading the story and trying to see it from the reader’s point of view.
And she was right. There were several little things I had done just because that’s what women characters do in that situation in millions of books and television episodes and movies that we’ve all watched. And it was a simple matter to make some very minor changes to get rid of them. I didn’t become suddenly a sexism-free writer after that. I found myself a couple years later being asked by someone why after six chapters into a book I was writing, not one single female character had appeared or had a line of dialog—in a story that was set in a ordinary public school in a small modern American city. There were a number of women and girls in my imaginary world, some of whom were going to figure in the plot later, but for whatever reason, I had omitted them in the opening chapters. This, by the way, was the incident I’ve mentioned before that prompted me to re-read a whole bunch of my work applying the Bechdel–Wallace test1, and finding myself very embarrassed at how many of my stories failed it.
And even though since then, I have tried to educate myself on it, and made several changes to the way I tell some stories, I still find problems. I was editing a scene in one of my currently still-in-progress novels not that long ago when I happened upon a line of dialog that I barely remembered writing, and it was a very clichéd and sexist line. I changed it. Now not only is it not sexist, I think it’s funnier.
Again, not every such criticism is going to be spot-on. A few years ago I got a long angry letter about how a story I wrote perpetrated hate against religious people. The rant included accusations that I had been “brainwashed by the femi-nazis” so I wasn’t inclined to take it completely to heart. I asked some religious acquaintances to read the story (without mentioning the negative review) to give me feedback on the portrayal of religion and the various religious people in the story. Not that if they disagreed that proved the reviewer wrong, it was just two more perspectives from people who I trusted.
I ultimately had to make the decision about whether the story perpetuated anti-religious bigotry.
That’s all we can do: try to learn, try to see things from other perspectives, and find people we trust to check our conclusions from time to time. Members of particular marginalized groups can disagree. A few years back I and another gay male sci fi fan and writer got into a really long discussion about whether something I had written perpetuated negative stereotypes about gay men3. We never came to a complete meeting of minds on the topic.
There’s an excellent post over at Patheo by Libby Anne which makes really good reading on this topic: What to Do If Someone Calls You Sexist: A Short Primer. And it doesn’t just apply to sexism.
1. Based on a 1985 comic strip from the series Dykes to Watch For by Allison Bechdel, in which one woman asks another if she wants to go to the movie, and the second woman explains that she has a rule, she will only go to a movie if “…one, it has at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about something other than a man.” Then she confesses that the last movie she’d been able to go to was Alien, because there is one scene where the two women on the spaceship crew talk about the monster. But only the one. Bechdel herself expressed some discomfort with people naming the test after her, since she said she got the idea for the rule from a friend, Liz Wallace, and to the writings of Virginia Woolf.2
2. If a movie or book passes the test, that doesn’t prove that said work isn’t sexist. All the Bechdel-Wallace test is assess whether women appear in the work to specific degree. That fact that so many works fail to achieve even this level of inclusion is just sad.
3. Remember, it is not a valid defense against an observation of bigotry to be a member of the marginalized group in question, any more than claiming to have a friend in the group absolves you of all culpability. Internalized homophobia can manifest in even the most woke queer person.
Everything I need to know about responding to reviews of my books I learned from my choral directors
There have been a few really notorious cases of this type. There’s the author who seemed to become obsessed by one person who had given lots of negative reviews online to a lot of books. The author tracked down the reader in real life, going to rather absurd lengths to document all the things the reader had said in her various personal profiles on different social which appeared to be false or exaggerations. It culminated in the author going to the reader’s home and confronting her. That’s not only not cool, it’s stalking under the legal definition in most states in the U.S., and could be prosecutable.
Another author tried to sue Amazon and a reviewer for libel.
Then there’s the various Anne Rice incidents: posting a link to a bad review on a book blog on her Facebook page and encouraging 740,000 plus fans to harass the reviewer in 2013; writing a scathing 1100 reply to a reader review on Amazon in 2004; issuing a petition to try to force Amazon to reveal the real names (and contact information) of customer reviewers; trying to get bad reviews reclassifyed as cyberbulling in 2015; et cetera.
I’ve seen some really good articles and at least one of those humorous flow charts about how to respond to negative reviews. And those are great. But negative reviews are only a subset of the problem. And I realized that when I shared and commented on one of the recent posts about this, that I was repeating advice that I’d received from some of my music directors back in the day. I was in orchestra, band, choir, and a small men’s ensemble in school, and then choir and small ensemble in college, and later sang in a gay & lesbian community chorus. I’ve had a lot of music directors, but it was always the choral directors who gave advice about responding to negative comments and other sorts of reviews one might receive to a concert. And what they said can apply to any creative work, so here we go:
When someone tells you they disliked your performance/your story/et cetera: Your response should always be limited to a simple and sincere, “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.” As one choral director said, “Don’t give in to the temptation to try to convince the person that the concert was great. Don’t try to educate them about the significance of the piece, the history of the composer, and especially about how much hard work you put in. Just say, ‘I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it’ and move on.” Doing anything else just makes people feel angry and defensive.
Personally, I think this response is best deployed with someone contacts you directly or tells you in person that they didn’t like your story/book/painting/what-have-you. In the case of published reviews or reviews posted online, the best response to negative reviews is to pretend you didn’t see them. Maybe talk to a close friend about any particularly badly phrased review, if you need to vent a bit, but don’t respond online or publicly in any way. Don’t send the reviewer private messages. Don’t post links to the negative review.
Arguing with someone is not going to change how they feel about it. And it may well convert them from someone who merely didn’t like this story, to someone who has a grudge and goes out of their way to bad mouth all of your other work.
Negative reviews aren’t the only kind that can be problematic:
When someone tells you they really liked it: Say, “Thank you. I’m so happy you enjoyed it.” This may really seem like a no-brainer, but I can’t count the number of times that a musician, artist, or writer I’ve known has responded to positive comments by saying something like, “But we did it wrong!” or “I hated it! Look at all of these mistakes I made!”
One choral director put it really well: “What you just said to that person is, ‘You have really bad taste in music or are really clueless because you didn’t notice the mistake.’ It’s an insult. Even if you are convinced that they are merely being polite, just say ‘Thank you. I’m glad you liked it.’”
It’s really easy when I look a something I wrote to see all the flaws. Particularly if it is something I wrote a while ago. Even if the story has prompted more than one reader to contact me to tell me they were so enthralled by my tale that they missed their train stop or their cue or stayed up way too late reading it. When I look at the story, I just think how the characterization of one of the supporting characters was inconsistent, or that I could have done a more subtle job revealing that clue, or why did I include the lyrics of the song one of my suspects was performing in that pivotal scene?
But those readers enjoyed it. They didn’t have to send me a comment. I might have never known they had even seen that story if they hadn’t gone out of their way to do so. They liked it. And that’s why I wrote it! I wanted someone to read it and like it! I shouldn’t try to talk a fan of my work into hating.
We’re socialized to be self-effacing. We’re taught that being overly proud of our work means we’re an arrogant jerk. Some of us have self-esteem issues and sincerely have trouble believing that people actually like our work. Don’t give in to either of those tendencies. Just say, ‘Thank you.’ Bank the compliment, and remember it the next time you read a negative review.
When someone asks questions about it: This one is tricky. We’re all socialized to answer questions when asked. Some of us are a bit too happy to expound at length if someone shows the slightest interest it our work.
It’s okay to answer questions. As one director put it, “It’s understandable that someone might ask why we performed a classical piece in German for an English-speaking audience, for instance. It’s perfectly reasonable to answer the question. Just make sure you simply answer it, and don’t try to pick a fight. Don’t assume that they are trying to start an argument. Tell them that the piece was originally written in German, and that you think music is beautiful in any language.” Questions about minor things in the plot of your book or character motivations which seem to be genuine confusion on the part of the reader can be answered in person or direct conversations as long as you don’t get defensive. Similarly to factual question about the publishing process—but keep it as simple as possible.
When it comes to published/online reviews as opposed to someone contacting you directly, don’t get drawn into an argument. Straightforward questions with a simple, factual answer are fine. For instance, I once saw in a review of a story that was part of a continuing series but had been picked up for reprint in another publication the comment: “I liked the story well enough, but wish I knew more about these characters.” It was simple to post a comment: “For more stories set in this universe using these characters, check out [Link to a place to buy them].” I said absolutely nothing else. Just an answer to the one question that had a simple answer.
Sometimes a person asking a question is looking to start an argument. And sometimes it’s quite obvious that they’re doing it. I once got a question about one story along the lines of, “Why did you have to give us a happy ending, again? Your stories really draw me in and get me interested in all the characters, but then you have yet another unrealistic ending. In real life things never work out like that!” If someone is doing this sort of back-handed compliment disguised as a question, you need to treat it as a negative review. “I told the story as I saw it. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.”
Other questions may be less obviously a back-handed compliment, but still not have a simple factual answer, such as, “I don’t understand why the author made such an unlikeable character the hero of this story” or “Why are there so many sub-plots in this book? Why can’t we just stick to one character?” or “Why did the main character spend all that time moping and talking? He should have kicked some butt and showed them who’s boss!” There is no answer you can give to this person that will make them happy. You had your reasons for writing the story, they wanted to be reading a different story. Again, you need to treat these sorts of questions the same as a negative review. If it’s in a published or on-line review, don’t respond. If a reader is asking you directly, say as simply and sincerely as possible, “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.”
You can elaborate a little bit. “That isn’t the story I was telling” or “This was the best way I could think of to tell this particular story with these characters” or something like that. It is so tempting to try to convince the person that what you did was the right thingFinally, remember that sometimes the reason you got a bad review has nothing to do with you or your story. Mark Kloos recently shared on twitter: “Don’t fret about your Amazon reviews. I just got a three-star review because my novel isn’t a 36-count package of Jimmy Dean sausages.” And he included a screen capture of the review. While technically this violates the negative review advice above, it’s clear that the reviewer wasn’t actually reviewing the book, and Kloos didn’t ask people to go harass the reviewer.
That example leads to the final piece of advice from several of my choral directors: “Once the concert is sung the only thing you can do is be proud of the parts that went well, laugh about the parts that didn’t, and start practicing for the next performance.”
So in the old days I would have piles of books around my typewriter, some with note paper stuck in them to hold a place2, others with multiple bookmarks7 stuck in them so I could find multiple facts scattered over multiple pages, and so forth. The internet has only changed the amount of physical exercise that is necessary to run down rabbit holes on the research front, at least for me.
Tools and implements is another class of thing8 that can be either a help or a procrastination trap. But tools are important. So while it is possible for procrastination to latch onto the exploration of new tools as a means to keep you from writing, talking about good tools can also be a help in the writing process. Therefore, here is a list of my current favorites:
- Scrivener 2 – the absolute best writing project managing tool/word processor available for Windows, macOS, or iOS, bar none. For all the features it packs, it’s also incredibly affordable! It’s multi-platform. I use it on both of my Macs and my iPad, and they make it easy to move back and forth. If you don’t have an iPad but do need to work on other platforms, you can use the Sync to External Folder feature in conjunction with Dropbox or Copy or Box to edit files in application that can open Rich Text Files when you’re on the go, then sync back to Scrivener on your Windows or macOS box later. I’ve used this latter feature before the iOS version was available, and it worked well. Not as cool as having all of the features of the full product on my iPad or iPhone works now, but… .
- Scapple – by the same people who make Scrivener, this is a brainstorming/outlining tool. I’ve used it for charting plots and subplots that had gotten out of hand. It’s also really good at family trees and charting out character relationships.
- iA Writer – a full featured word processor available for macOS and iOS. I use it when I need to format something I made in Scrivener, or just to type out notes for later. I’m particularly enamored with the iOS version’s built-in “share as PDF” because I’m often working on large projects in Scrivener on the iPad, and just need to send a single chapter or some other small bit to someone for comments, et cetera.
- Honorable Mentions: There are some products that I used to use a lot more than I do. Particularly before the advent of Scrivener of iOS.
- Textilus – iPad text/rtf editor. This is a good word processor for working from iPads and integrating with Dropbox and similar cloud sharing services.
- SimpleNote – this is a good multiplatform Note taking program that is useful for getting down something quickly, that will automatically be available on all of your devices so you can copy into a main writing program later.
- Pages – Apple’s free word processor that works on macOS, iOS, and iCloud. I liked the mac version of the program a lot before they decided to unify the features in all versions. It’s still a good program and they keep updating it. Just not quite as good as it used to be.
- Scrivo Pro – A Scrivener-like word processor for iOS when Scrivener’s official word processor that could read Scrivener projects in their native format if you saved them to Dropbox. It was pretty good. I used if for several months until Scrivener for iOS became available.
- WriteRoom – If you need a good, simple distraction-free writing program on the Mac, I highly recommend WriteRoom for macOS. I originally bought the iOS version to write on the bus and other places when I was away from my computer back in the days before I had an iPhone or iPad (it ran on my iPod Touch just fine). The software maker has stopped supporting the iOS version, as it wasn’t generating enough income to justify the work. Since it hasn’t been updated for a long time, it will still work if you already have it installed on your phone, but it’s clear that iOS is going to stop supporting it, so I finally have stopped using it on the phone.
- RhymeGenie – I use this for poems and song writing… and for composing prophecies14.
- AffinityDesigner – has become my replacement for Adobe Illustrator for many illustration tasks, including drawning maps for my fantasy stories.
- iTunes – I often listen to music while I’m writing. Not just random music; I make special playlists for certain characters or projects. My oldest playlist, called uncreatively enough “Writing”15 was created in 2003, when iTunes first became available for Windows18. That’s right, I used iTunes for three years before I owned my first iPod.
- Leuchtturm 1917 – These notebooks are awesome and are available in a lot of cool colors. Occasionally I like to write on paper. Certain types of thinking process just work better for me that way. But I know it doesn’t work for everyone.
- Goulet Pens – I love a good medium- or broad-tip fountain pen for fun colored inks. Again, when I’m in one of those moods where I need to write it needs to be a good pen or…
- a 0.9mm or 2mm mechanical pencil – my very favorite pencil is a tigerwood mechanical pencil that was handmade by Pandora House Crafts. If I don’t happen to have that specific pencil with me, any mechanical pencil with at least a 0.9mm lead will do.
- And of course, 20+ paper dictionaries at home – I use the paper dictionaries often, because they tend to have more information than the affordable software versions. But the software ones don’t usually require me to stand up, so I often go to them first:
- Shorter Oxford – I have this version of the Oxford English Dictionary20 installed on my Mac, iPad, and iPhone.
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary & Thesaurus21 – I have more than one electronic version of this dictionary on all my devices.
- The Chambers Dictionary22 – I keep this on my Mac, iPad, and iPhone.
- Chambers Thesaurus – Companion to the Chambers Dictionary.
- WordBook Universal English Dictionary and Thesaurus – another one that I’m not sure why I have it on iPad and Mac, but not the phone.
- SPQR – a Latin dictionary app on my iPad and iPhone, very useful when I need to make up incantations for one of my wizards or sorceresses.
- American Heritage Dictionary23 – I have this one on the iPad only.
Anyway, so that’s my current set of favorite tools. Though the truth is that my real tools are sentences. I can compose those with word processors, typewriters, pen & paper, or pencil, or technically anything I can scratch symbols into a medium with. The important thing is to start writing.
Neil Gaiman24 is fond of saying that the only secret of writing is to just keep putting one word after the other. That advice is true and succinct. It is also extremely difficult to do, while sounding quite simple. We have to make ourselves sit down and write. That’s what makes a writer.
1. This might be less true for people who didn’t have multiple encylopedia sets in their houses.
2. And with notes written3 on said pages related to things I wanted to do with the information in said book.
3. Well, most often scribbled. Have I mentioned that my handwriting is atrocious4?
4. Part of the problem is that I learned how to type on a mechanical typewriter when I was ten, for reasons. And so I stopped doing the work at school where they were taught us cursive writing. So I only ever formally learned how to print5
5. If pressed, I can produce by hat writing in cursive, but I have to visualize what the letters look like, and then draw them individually. I just don’t have the muscle memory to write. It’s is painstakingly slow and frustrating6.
6. But I still consider learning to write that way as an archaic and obsolete waste of time. Learning how to read it is much, much easier than writing it.
7. Another thing that has changed a lot in my life the last decade or so: I no longer go to great lengths to save and collect bookmarks. It used to be extremely important to have physical bookmarks I could stick in books. I still am usually reading multiple books at the same time, but more than half of them are e-books, so I don’t need physical bookmarks any longer. And it’s kind of sad.
8. thing Old English, noun 7. That which exists individually; that which is or may be an abstract object of perception, knowledge, or thought; a being, an impersonal entity of any kind; a specimen or type of something. Also, an attribute or property of a being or entityThat which exists individually; that which is or may be an abstract object of perception, knowledge, or thought; a being, an impersonal entity of any kind; a specimen or type of something. Also, an attribute or property of a being or entity9.
9. Please note that this is the seventh sense of the word to be defined in the Oxford dictionary, while it is closest to what I think most people would say is the primary definition. The first definition in Oxford is “A meeting, an assembly; a court, a council.” which happens to be the oldest known meaning of the word, but only seems to be known among most modern speakers of English who are also into the history of England and Northern Europe. I used this particular meaning in a draft scene in my fantasy novel series without thinking, and of the people in my Writers’ group, only my husband10 understood the meaning I was going from when I used it. So I switched to on Old Norse derived word instead, folkmoot.
10. My husband who has been described by more than one of our friends as “the most capable man I know” and his areas of expertise include computers, repairing computers and other electronics, bartending, history, obscure languages, science fiction and fantasy, science, electrical engineering, farm equipment repair and maintenance, quantum mechanics, chemistry, and cooking11
11. The latter is an understatement. The state he lived in at the time allowed children as young as 14 to work as prep cooks12, and that’s one of the two jobs he held down at that age. I have commented many times that if you want to be amazed just hand my husband and nice sharp knife and a box of vegetables and ask him to assemble a veggie tray. He will chop up all of the veggies you give him, no matter what they are, into exactly uniform slices, in a time frame that will make you suspect that he is actually super powered. I am not exaggerating in the least13.
12. Most state in the U.S. don’t allow children under the ages of 15 or 16 to work around commercial kitchen equipment, because limbs can be chopped off, basically. Although the are often exceptions carved out for children working in family businesses, which is how my Great-grandmother and a Great-uncle got away with teaching me how to drive a truck when I was about 12 years old.
13. When people who have only interacted with him in certain social situations have scoffed at this, I have smirked, because I’ve seen his school records, which include IQ tests, and most of the scoffers are nowhere near as smart as he is13.
13. No, I really don’t know why he settles for such a jerk as me. I really don’t.
14. I have a lot of characters in my fantasy universe who can see the future: the Oracle, Madame Valentina, Brother Ishmael…
15. Followed by “Writing II,” then “Laying Out an Issue of the Fanzine” then “Writing Faust and “Writing III.”16
16. I have since become slightly more creative with playlist names17. The playlists I’ve been using while working on my latest novel have names such as “Dead Witch,” “Ballad of a Lost Soul,” “Only the Wicked,” “Ballad of a Would Be Dark Lord,” “Zombie vs Dragon,” “Ballad of the Unrepentant,” “Night of the Monkey’s Uncle,” or “Ballad of Dueling Masterminds.”
17. I previously thought that I had hundreds of playlists, but since I recently merged together two previously separate iTunes libraries18, I now really I have nearly 4000 playlists.
18. Remember that I started using iTunes many years before owning on iPod (and later an iPhone). So my main iTunes library started on my old Windows 98/Windows 2000 machine, was imported to my early 2009 model Mac Pro Tower, and was updated over the years as I bought music and finished importing the rest of my old physical CD library. Meanwhile, the machine that slowly took over my day-to-day computer was on old white plastic Macbook, which was built from an import of one of on old Windows laptop that only had a subset of the Windows desktop, and then was augmented and updated to a Macbook Pro, then updated to a newer Macbook Pro, and then for a bit over five years I tried to maintain two similar libraries: one on the old Mac Tower which contained six-and-a-half terrabytes of internal storage, and my Macbook Pro laptop that only had a a 512 gigabyte drive, and therefore not enough room for my entire music, video, and film library plus all my story files and so forth.
19: I have a lot of characters in my primary fantasy series who can see the future in various ways: the Oracle of the Church of the Great Shepherdess, Madame Valentina (a.k.a. Alicia), Brother Jude, the Zombie Lord, Brother Ishmael, Mother Sirena, Brother Theodore, Mother Bedlam…
20. The platinum standard of English language dictionaries. In hard copy I have the Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus, a pocket version, as well as the single volume version of the unabridged that you need to have a good magnifying glass in order to read.
21. Genuine Merriam-Webster dictionary is the gold standard of U.S. desk dictionaries. I have a couple different editions of the Collegiate version in hard cover, a pocket version, and a hard cover of the giant unabridged Third International.
22. Chambers was the dictionary most commonly found on bookshelves and desks in the U.K. for years, much as the original Merriam-Webster was in the U.S.
23. The American Heritage Dictionary has a very interesting history. A publisher and dictionary enthusiast was angry when the Merriam-Webster Third Edition shifted to a more descriptive philosophy, and so set out to make a competing dictionary. Then he hit on an interesting marketing scheme. They published a huge unabridged version which they offered for sale at less than cost to public libraries and schools, along with a discounted pedestal or lectern that ensured the dictionaries were prominently displayed in libraries. Then after getting these dictionaries in hundreds of libraries and school for a few years, they released a subset of the dictionary as a desk edition, which made the desk edition an immediate best seller.
24. Winner of the Newberry Medal, numerous Hugo Awards, Locus Awards, Nebula Awards, the Bram Stoker Awards, the Carnegie Medal, Eisner Awards, British Fantasy Awards, Shirley Jackson Awards, a World Fantasy Award, a Harvey Award… I could go on and on.
In the post, she quoted a college professor who was once shocked that she read footnotes. “No one reads footnotes!” the professor claimed4.
The professor could not be more wrong6.Lots of people read footnotes. I have been doing a running gag on various blogs over the years where I would do posts several days in a row, each one with more footnotes than the day before, culminating in a blog post which consisted of a single word with a whole bunch of footnotes78. My footnotes often have footnotes of their own9. And sometimes the footnote of a footnote has more footnotes10. My point is that whenever I have done this, I get several favorable comments, often from people I didn’t know were reading my blog. And not just generic comments, but comments that clearly indicate the person tried to follow all the nesting structure.
Terry Pratchett published a whole book riddled with footnotes, in part because he had been known to throw footnotes in some of his fantasy novels, the footnotes frequently being the location of the funniest jokes in the book. In the early portion of my college career, I and some friends were involved in creating a bunch of faux adventure books where footnotes abounded11. We took delight in constructing footnotes that took up more of the page than the story text. We took even more delight in constructing footnotes that ran on for several pages. We had footnotes that had their own footnotes occasionally, though this was slightly less common than what I do now, because we were doing all of this on typewriters15—not with word processors.
The award-winning fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke makes good use of footnotes throughout, to give another example.
Footnotes are great. They are fun to construct19, fun to read, and serve a valuable role of allowing the author to digress in a way that gives the reader a bit more control over when they follow the writer down a rabbit hole20.
1. This was my fault, because my first contribution to the conversation that was already going on between three of my friends was simply to exclaim, “Marginalia!”2
2. marginalia noun, plural: marginal or incidental notes; written or printed in the margin of a page.
3. And I did love it!
4. I’ve had people just as emphatically insist that no one reads, period5!
5. When I was preparing to go away to university, an uncle and a cousin were recruited by my grandmother to help me move all the stuff I had packed up that needed to go into storage in her garage that I couldn’t take with me. About the fourth box of books one of my uncles picked up he asked, “You haven’t actually read all of these, have you?” And was shocked when I told him that 1) yes, most of them more than once and, 2) I had sold about of third of my collection to a couple of used bookstores recently.
6. All right, I’m engaging in a bit of hyperbole, here. There are many things the professor could say that would be every more incorrect than this, but you get my point.
7. When I did this on LiveJournal, I put all the notes below a cut-tag, so at first glance it looked like a very short post with a bunch of small numbers in and ever-decreasing line of superscripts.
8. I am too easily amused, I know.
9. Because they often need elaborations of their own.
10. cf note #9.
11. Because sometimes just the fact that someone decided to put a footnote on some ridiculous parody of action-adventure dialog is funny before you even read the footnote12.
12. The problem with that particular technique is, that you have to make sure that whatever joke or other pay-off you deliver in said footnote is more entertaining and/or funnier than the mere existence of a footnote where no one13 would expect it.
13. At least, no sane person14.
14. But we were the sort of college students who were assembling our own hard copy books, sharing them among ourselves, and writing sequels, collaborating on sequels, et cetera. Clearly we were not entirely sane.
15. Half of my work was done on an IBM Selectric16 electric typewriter at the school, and the other half on the 1952 Remington manual typewriter17 which my grandmother had given me back when I was 11 or 12 year old.
16. I think what I miss most about those glorious machines isn’t the wonderful CLACK! CLACK of the big clicky keys and the immediate response of the motor spinning the typeball and striking the correct letter against the paper, but rather the constant vibration of the motor you felt constantly against your fingertips.
17. One friend called it ‘The Tank’ because the typewriter weighed at least fifteen pounds and most of it was built out of machine-grade steel. Another friends called it ‘The Threshing Machine’ because the clatter and clacking it made when I was on a roll (typing a bit over 60 words per minute18, which was considered screaming on the old mechanicals) reminded him of some big farm equipment.
18. My speed on modern computer keyboards is generally a bit over 105 words per minute. And I still can’t keep up with the voices in my head when I’m really into a scene in a story.
19. Even if sometimes a bit messy depending on your HTML parser.
20. Whether figuratively or not.
I like to repeat the adage that the difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. Storytelling is, among other things, the craft of weaving an illusion. You are attempting to evoke in the reader a dream. You want that dream to be similar to the one you’re holding in your own mind as you craft your story. It needs to feel real, while also making sense—narrative sense. In a narrative, the events that happen are always connected to each and to the overall story. Things happen for reasons that relate to the intent of the participants and the meaning of the plot. But the real world seldom makes sense narratively; real life events that take place near each other are often unconnected, for instance.
The paradox of storytelling is that you can’t achieve that sense of reality and making sense by slavishly imitating the real world.
That is especially true in dialog.
So, dialog isn’t about exactly transcribing the real way that people talk. It is about creating the illusion of the way people talk, while omitting parts that don’t move the story forward. To get back to the list that’s being shared around: it isn’t that you can’t use any of those suggestions, it is that you should not dump all of them in just because they’re on the list.
If, like me, you read a lot of fanfic and self-published fiction, you see a lot of these awkward efforts to replicate in dialogue certain quirks and eccentricities of expression that people make in real life, or that actors do as part of their delivery of lines. Unfortunately, these replications often serve as a distraction rather than characterization. For example, in dialogue you might mention that when a character responded to a question with the word “yep” that the character popped the p at the end of the word. If the reader has ever known a person who does that in certain circumstances, or seen an actor doing it in a television series, say, they get it. If they don’t, they’re just puzzled. And during that moment that the reader is trying to figure out what it means, they are no longer in your story. You’ve bounced them from the narrative. You have destroyed the illusion you were so meticulously crafting. You are inviting the reader to stop reading your tale.
And if you do more of those things, you aren’t merely inviting the reader to leave, you’re actively chasing them away!
In real life people say “uh,” “um,” and similar non-words a lot more often than we realize. It’s a pause when we’re trying to pick a word, or figure out how to respond to something or just thinking through the situation we are discussing as we’re talking. If you put those non-verbal filler sounds in as often as they happen in real life, it becomes very annoying to read. Part of the reason we don’t notice is because the tone of voice and the cadence of the sentence (and if it’s a face to face conversation, facial expressions and other body language) give those non-words meaning to the listener. But the reader isn’t getting all of that. So, when writing dialogue, we use those non-verbal sound indicators more sparingly. We deploy them when we want to indicate the speaker is at a loss for words, or is uncomfortable in the situation, or something similar.
In real life we repeat words a lot. We may put the same word in to a sentence more often than it is needed. Like, we really can, you know, say what we mean to say, like, really, you know, in a really messy way. You know? And you can write a character talking in that manner, but you’ll find it’s difficult to keep up the pattern. And again, the reader needs to know why you’re doing it. If you have a character that is supposed to be annoying your protagonist, having all of their sentences ramble and repeat can make your reader as annoyed with the character as your protagonist is. Again, the key is to choose the non-standard grammar for a narrative reason.
Then there are facial expressions and gestures. I have a really bad habit during first drafts of having my characters nod a lot. You can read through a scene I just wrote and sometimes a third or even half of the switches in dialogue begin with the character who is about to speak nodding. And it’s really annoying after a while. In real life, people nod their heads, shake their heads, tilt their heads, waggle their heads and so on while talking. But just as with “uh,” we need to use it a bit less often than it happens.
The first time someone pointed that out in a rough draft, I went through and changed all of those “so-and-so nodded” to other things. I changed each and every one to a different thing. So the first character, instead of nodding, grinned. And then the next character wiggled his hand to indicate indecision. Then the first character frowned and tilted his head. And so on. When I read the scene to myself aloud after revising it, I started laughing part way through, because it sounded as if the two of them were dancing around each other in an elaborate musical number. So I had made it worse, not better. Not every line of dialogue needs a description of what the character is doing with their body. It is perfectly okay to use “[name] said.” Multiple times.
It’s also all right, if there are only two people in the conversation, to skip the name altogether every now and then. But don’t do it more three or four lines in a row. The reader will get confused, and it is really annoying to have to go back and count, “Susan, John, Susan, John…” when you lose track. And it is super duper annoying when you do that and find it doesn’t work. You get to a line that by your count should be John, but it says ‘Susan frowned in thought. “I don’t think so,” she said.’ I have had that happen in a book published by a large publishing house. I assume that during an edit round some lines of dialogue were removed, and the author didn’t double-check that everything still flowed.
On the other hand, you can get away with a lot of things in dialogue that don’t fly in the narrative portions of the text. People talk in sentence fragments and make grammatical errors, so you can do that in the dialogue. But make sure you know why you’re doing it. And don’t over do it.
While we’re on the subject of dialogue: someone sent me a link to this excellent blog post on how to punctuate dialog. Even if you think you know how to punctuate dialog, go take a look. Everyone can use a refresher every now and then.