Common Mistakes: Combat

This may turn into a series about common errors in literature, but we’ll see where it goes. For now, while it’s fresh in my mind, I wanted to address an area of writing that has problems a great deal of the time. It’s a loose relation to my last post where I talked about the need to research aspects of your book.

So let’s talk combat scenes in books. You don’t need to be a martial artist or expert gunslinger to write a good conflict, but luckily for me, I am experienced with a variety of weapons and martial arts styles. So I can give you both the perspective of a martial artist as well as the perspective of a writer–and I can explain better why you don’t need to be both.

The first problem we’ll go into is the issue of people who don’t understand how fights work in the real world. Before we get started, I recognize and bow to the “Rule of Cool” (which states that coolness is more important than reality), but there are limitations to it.

One of the first things many people don’t realize is how disabling some injuries can be. Even relatively minor ones. Coming from the annals of experience, I can tell you that being punched in the nose (even if you don’t even get a nosebleed from it) is enough to seriously distract if not stop someone. Punching someone in the face puts you at great risk for injuring your hand on the person’s teeth (which is why we don’t suggest people do it in real life) and leaves you open to all sorts of nasty diseases and infections. However, it will stop many people rather suddenly. Having your ears boxed is also rather awful, and I don’t suggest anyone do it. My favorite resource for understanding what certain injuries would do to a person in the real world is the book Body Trauma. I use it regularly. However, outside of purchasing a book, you can study what the injuries your characters are inflicting (and having inflicted on them) would result in using WebMD or other, similar, resources.

The reason I mention this is I recently was working on a manuscript where a character had fractured ribs, a severe ankle sprain, and an injury requiring stitches and the next day was going galavanting about the countryside as if nothing was wrong. The author and I had a discussion about the viability of the injuries and ultimately decided to scale down the hurt because the character needed to be well enough to take part in very physical activity. While, yes, you can justify adrenaline for certain amounts of activity after severe injury, make sure you think about what the ramifications are for the character and their ability to do things afterward.

Next, I want to address the idea of realistic combat. Rule of Cool here, but real fights don’t last long. As an SCA rapier fencer, I can tell you most bouts last less than a minute. If you are doing a sword and sorcery setting, you might find watching videos of ACL fighters in action. If you’re in a setting where firearms are more a focus, you will want to watch people doing shooting courses. For martial arts, you can watch videos of the style you’re interested in. If you’re less interested in people who are trained, you can look up videos of street fights of various kinds. I explicitly did not link videos of street fights because it could upset folks, and that’s not my goal.

Granted, watching that kind of might not appeal to you, but if you’re going to include fights in your books, you should know what they look like. I can tell you from experience, they don’t look like an anime. Even if you elect to have your story take a more cinematic view of fighting, you should understand that a fight is a fight, so don’t drag them on for three chapters like Dragon Ball Z.

Finally, you don’t need to over-describe every action. While you can choose to describe some parts more than other, you don’t need to detail out every piece of every motion a character makes. It can be simple enough to say, “he dodged left” rather than giving over-information about the character’s movements. Over-describing a conflict is a good way to take all the excitement out of it because it drags the pacing and will result in readers feeling frustrated and wanting to just know who wins. That isn’t to say you should omit all flavor text and dryly announce who is doing the punching, but don’t drown your readers in detailed descriptions of how the character moves either. It’s a balance, but with some time, study, and effort, you can make it work.

I hope you found this helpful, and I think next week I might write a blog about common errors I see in medieval settings.

Research, Research, Research!

I cannot tell you the number of times I have stumbled across an author who has had issues with facts in their manuscript. And I don’t mean little things. I’ve had authors who tried to flip safty off on revolvers (revolvers don’t have safeties as a rule) and who had someone doing cross stitch in ancient Rome (cross stitch didn’t exist back then). While I don’t agree with “write what you know” as a rule, I would rephrase that to say, “know what you write.”

The problem I have with “write what you know” is that it limits you to things you know now. Which is a problem. Also, since I write high fantasy and science fiction, I can’t really “know” a lot of the things about the setting since I invented it. However, what I don’t know, I can postulate or research. And therein lies the key: research.

I am a lucky woman. I have diverse interests and can talk intelligently about everything from police procedure to the ingredients used to prepare authentic Medieval recipes. While I don’t know everything (I really don’t), I have a brain full of factoids that, outside of writing, are useless to pretty much everyone. Maybe I’m not that lucky. But it does give me an edge in conversation.

The reason I know all those various things is research. I’ve studied a great many subjects at varying depths and, at the very least, know how to dig for information in a way that yields fruit. With that in mind, I have some suggestions for authors aspiring to learn more about just about any topic!

  1. Find an expert.
    No, really, find one. If you want to learn about firearms, go to a range or a store and start asking questions of the clerk. Also, consider finding someone who knows them to take you shooting. There is no substitute for practical experience. I have taken authors to the range before to let them experience what it’s like to fire a gun, and it gave them perspective nothing else could. Similarly, you can ask a martial artist about fight scenes, a scientist about science, maybe see if your local police are willing to talk to you about police procedure. It may seem daunting at first, but you will end up with far more authenticity to your writing than you would otherwise. Also, most nerds (and experts are nerds) love to talk about their subject of expertise. Seriously. Just ask us. We’ll talk your ear off.
  2. Learn how to use search engines.
    I don’t mean that in a sarcastic way. Using Google effectively will give you a great deal more data than if you wander your way through it. Also, no matter what they told you in school, Wikipedia is an excellent resource for the beginning of your studies. While there is occasionally misinformation on there, the curators do an excellent job of ensuring factual purity.

    Using Google effectively can include such techniques as using the proper keywords, using quotation marks to specify exact phrses, and other such things. It’s an art all in itself, and you may find your research becomes easier when you learn how to utilize your tools properly.

  3. Learn to recognize sources.
    When I was in college, one of the things emphasized to me was learning how to locate primary sources. A primary source is the article, study, work, etc. that is the origin of the story. It’s like reading Shakespeare rather than reading about Shakespeare. Secondary sources are useful and can help us interpret primary sources, but we must be careful because secondary sources often have opinions.

    In addition to that, make sure the sources you are using are real ones. This means vetting them. You’re more likely to get better information about the physical effects of a car crash from WebMD than you are from lolurmom.net. (I don’t know if that’s a real site; don’t visit it.) Evaluating sources is important because it means you can be sure your research is at least legitimate, even if you aren’t always correct.

While these cannot guarantee you won’t make mistakes, these three tools may prove useful to you while you are preparing your work. Also, make sure when you are at the stage where you need an editor, make sure you find an editor who knows your subject matter. Or one who is willing to research if they don’t know. I have caught factual errors in books more than once, even if the subject isn’t my forte. However, I also know when I am not the right editor for a book. It’s completely okay to ask your editor if they have experience with a subject, so don’t be afraid to do so!

The Importance of Imperfection

This is likely to be cross-posted on my brand new blog about roleplay (both tabletop and freeform). If you’re interested in the subject of tabletop gaming or freeform roleplay, please consider subscribing!

So, I’ve talked a lot about characters and their development on here, but I wanted to address something that is important to a character whether you’re writing them into a novel or playing them around the table during a game of Dungeons and Dragons: flaws. Too many times people try and make perfect characters, and those characters always fall short.

Real people aren’t perfect. We have bumps and warts and bad hair days. But when I’m talking flaws, I also mean more substantial than, “too pretty/handsome for their own good!” They should have real flaws. Flaws being things that challenge them, that make them grow. Things like anxiety, depression, PTSD, a terrible temper, or maybe they’re judgmental. Things that aren’t so pretty and may not be a great deal of fun to be around.

Let me give you an example taken straight from one of my works. My in-progress science fiction novel currently titled “Vigil” is about a character who starts the story as a coward. He’s hiding from what he can do and hiding from everyone in the world. He’s not particularly attractive, he’s not the smartest guy in the room, and by midway in the book he has PTSD. He’s not perfect, and he knows it. That said, he grows and changes and develops over the course of the story.

The fact that he starts the story imperfect makes him a little shake-worthy by some readers. Which is exactly what I wanted. He’s an IT guy who gets thrown into something way bigger than him and is scared of it. For good reason, too. Those things are terrifying!

So, when you design a character, edge away from perfection or perfection disguised as a flaw. Mary Sue characters are never fun for people to read about because what development can there be for someone who is already perfect?

The Things You Learn

It’s been awhile since I’ve been in here, and I’m not sure when or if I’ll be writing more regularly. And this entry isn’t so much about writing, so if you’re wanting to learn more about that, please see some of my other entries! I haven’t had many topics that I’ve felt a need to blog about as far as writing goes unless someone asks me something, so I sort of hit a brick wall with that one.

No, this entry is about me and my disability and my journey with chronic pain. If that’s not something you want to read, I won’t be mad. After all, this really is a writing blog more than anything.

That said, I don’t think you have to be disabled to understand some of the lessons that disability teaches you. It’s just that being disabled means you don’t get a choice in learning them.

1) It’s necessary to say no.

Saying “no” has had to become a way of life for me. No, I can’t do this. No, I can’t do that. No, I can’t afford to do this or that. Even if I want to do something, I need to be aware of my limited reserves for what I can and can’t do, and I need to fiercely advocate for those reserves. That doesn’t mean I’m mean or rude, but… it’s okay and necessary to advocate for yourself.

2) How to advocate for myself.

Kind of piggy-backing off the last thing, I have needed to learn how to do more than just say “no.” I’ve needed to learn to stick up for myself against judges (I’m fighting for Disability), against doctors who want to do procedures or who will ignore what I say, against people suggesting I do Kale cleanses or other ridiculous things. For a very long time, I struggled with speaking up for myself, and I’ve learned how to do it the last few years in a way that is both healthy and effective.

3) The value of real friendship.

Until a friendship is tested, you can’t know how serious it is. When you’re disabled like I am, your friendships are tested. You can’t go to the movies as often. You can’t go out and do things. You can’t help them move if they’re moving. Of course, there are plenty of ways you can support and love your friends. A lot of the time I feel like I’m a burden to my friends because it feels like I’m constantly asking them for things or leaning too hard on them or… I’m sure you get the picture. That said, I am so, so blessed with amazing, loving, compassionate friends in my life. When I need to lean on them, they are there and sometimes know to catch me before I realize I’m falling.

4) Good days are all the sweeter.

When you have as many days where you need a cane or crutches to get to the bathroom as I do, you learn to appreciate the days where you can do things. Going out and sitting in my garden, enjoying a day where I can do something physical, having a good conversation with a friend, going out and seeing a movie. Most people take things like that for granted. They don’t need to wait for a special “good” day (that elusive unicorn) to do things like that. For me, I stop and smell the roses because a lot of the time, my garden’s pretty empty.

I know a lot of this sounds trite and even campy, but all of these things are true. I’ve had to learn them. And all of these things are valuable, and they become moreso when you need to rely on others for help the way I do.

The Beat Sheet

Hey, everyone. I’m not dead, I’m just kind of quiet these days. I’ve been having some health struggles, and my livestream has been on hiatus pending some travel as well as a computer issue, so things have been pretty dead.

However, a friend of mine mentioned she’d tried to read about the Beat Sheet and felt a little lost in the explanation. I’ll be the first to admit that some people explain it in such a complicated manner that you’d need a literary degree to get it. And even then it’s questionable.

So, as per my usual thought process, my intent here is to break it down into simplicity. I did not come up with the Beat Sheet–that’s Blake Snyder, a renowned screenplay writer. In fact, the Beat Sheet was written for screenplay writers, so once you see this formula, you’ll never look at a story the same way again. I’d apologize, but I’m not really sorry for that. If you’re a writer, you need to look at story in an analytical manner. It can make going to the movies a little less exciting sometimes, since you can predict a lot of the plot, but I still enjoy it.

Anyway, for those of you who don’t know the Beat Sheet, it’s an outlining tool created by the aforementioned Blake Snyder. The essence of it is that it boils any story down into “beats”. These are the major points of the story. The function of this for writers is that it gives you a rough road map of where you should be and what your next beat should entail.

I know, you’re already squawking that it seems so limiting, and what about your creativity, and all that. But listen, we’ve been writing stories for thousands and thousands of years, and most of them follow the three-act structure. It’s just how we function as storytellers. This Beat Sheet is just a different distilling of that same structure that every story you’ve ever read (that’s any good) has. It’s how we, as a species, tell stories. I’m not limiting you, I’m giving you a canvas, paints, and a brush. You can put whatever you want in any collection of colors on that canvas, but the canvas and paints and brush and equipment are still the same.

Without further ado, let’s get into the Sheet.

Opening Image

This is the first thing we see in the story. In a movie, it’d be the opening shot or scene where we have our first contact with the world and with the characters in it. It should be something that catches the attention because you need to have something readers will want to stay in. This opening image is usually a scene. It’s not even a chapter long.

Set-Up

This is where we learn about the character’s life and world as it is, before the events of the plot, before things change. In video game terms, this is the tutorial. We learn about the way our world here works and what’s in it. You get a feel for things here and do a little world development. This is about a chapter, maybe two. (My chapters are about 1,700 words, so your mileage may vary.)

Theme Stated

This may have been done during the start-up. You don’t need to do this separate of the set-up phase. Though it can be done afterward. This doesn’t have to be a large section. It’s where you mention what the message of your story is. Don’t overthink it. The theme of your story might be something as simple as your main character wanting to find a love interest or something like that. While this sounds literary and hoity, it really means it’s kind of the space where you give the reader an idea of what kind of story you’re talking about.

Catalyst

This is where your story takes off. It’s where your female lead meets the man she’s going to marry or where the farmboy leaves the farm to become a great hero. Whatever kickstarts your story into happening is happening here. It’s the big leap from the world you’re in to the world you’re going to be creating through the story.

Debate

Change is scary. When the catalyst happens, your character will have some time where they have to figure themselves out and deal with what’s happening. They will deal with that reality in one way or another. Which is what the rest of the book is about. If they choose n ot to face whatever’s happening with the catalyst, then we won’t have much of a story. Even if they run from the catalyst, that can be part of the Debate.

Break Into Two

This is where we hit act two. That’s the hardest act for most writers to write. Welcome to it! This is where the character really starts their journey. We leave the world we established as their norm in the “Set-Up” beat and enter into where we are going. The character steps out onto the road and chooses to do the thing that will change their life.

B Story

This is where, if there’s going to be one, there’s a secondary story budding. If it’s a romance, we might be seeing the beginnings of a secondary plot. Maybe their conflict. If it’s another kind of story, it may prove to be a romance. Other times, it might be another things. “B” stories are a wide range of possible stories, and it’s a thing you can decide if you want to start or not. It’s not required.

The Promise of the Premise

This is the fun part of the story. It’s where the main character explores this new world, and the audience gets to enjoy it with them. This is exciting and a place where the reader and the character can enjoy the experience. It’s also where we get a full view of the world in the best way. If you’re going with the B Story, this might be where the romance is developed and begins to bloom.

Midpoint

Here’s where we hit a point in the story with two possible directions. Either everything in the world is great, or everything is terrible. Either the character has what they want, and it’s great or they don’t get what they thought they were at all and it’s awful. However, if they’re miserable it might be because they’re getting what they need and don’t realize that.

Bad Guys Close In

At this point in the story, all the negative things start creeping in. Whether the character was great or awful in the middle, things are changing. We have the antagonist, whoever (or whatever) this is, ramping up their work. Tension at this point needs to start climbing toward the climax of the story.

All Is Lost

This is the opposite of the midpoint, if everything is great. At this point, the character realizes they’ve lost everything they gained (or are afraid they have), or they realize everything they have now has no meaning. Whatever it is, they have a hard, sharp realization where something changes. Whether it’s the character being trapped somewhere and believing all was lost or whether they’re dealing with a huge falling out with the romantic interest or… what have you, it’s up to the story. But something big is going down.

Dark Night Of The Soul

Just after the realization that everything has gone wrong and that “all is lost” the character will grieve. They may feel hopeless, or desperate. They’ll be lost. And they are mourning. A mentor, a goal, a romance… something is gone, and they’re hurting from it. However, at this point, the closing of act two, they need this loss in order to pick themselves up and try again.

Break Into Three

They come through this period of mourning and discover a fresh perspective. Something changes and punches through whatever drew them into the dark night. They choose to try again and move forward. Things change. Progress is made because it can’t rain all the time.

Finale

This is where the tension is at its peak. The character has escaped certain doom and misery. They are now doing what needs to be done and finishing their fight. Everything between the “A” story and the “B” story is coming together here, and they are using that strength to create an ending for themselves. If this is a series, this doesn’t mean every single thread is wrapped up, but the main story is heading there.

Final Image

The last moment of the story where we see how everything has changed. Where the character is now. The moment that defines their future.

Update and Change of Scenery

Hey there, everyone! I’m sorry I haven’t been in here recently. To be honest, blogging has sort of fallen by the wayside. I may pick this up again at some point, but with how hectic life has become, I don’t know that I have the mental space for it right now.

The good news, however, is that I do a weekly live stream over on Insomnia Publishing’s Facebook page. I cover a lot of the things I’d cover in blogs here, and I answer questions live. The streams take place Sundays at 9pm. The streams are saved, too, so you can binge watch my insanity. I am also interviewing authors and other folk in the industry, so you don’t just hear my voice. Stay tuned for more of that in the future!

Using Social Media As A Professional

Social media is a seductress that sucks away tons of time we could be using for writing. However, it is also a useful tool for marketing. I’m not going to talk about limiting your time on social media or any of that. I’m also not here to talk to you about how to market using social media. That’s the realm of social media marketing guru, Kristen Lamb. No, indeed, my focus is a little different.

I have many authors, publishers, editors, and other professionals in the writing industry as friends on Facebook. They are also people whose news feeds are full of all kinds of things. Now, many of them use separate accounts (or pages) to distinguish their writing profession from their personal Facebook where they connect with friends and family. However more just use one social media account to serve both purposes. Most of this post will be focused on Facebook rather than the other social media outlets because Facebook is the one I am most active on. I find Twitter hard to follow and keep up with, and LinkedIn requires you to pay to play for a lot of their good services. Neither are bad platforms, but they just aren’t the one I’ve cultivated the most. However, this list of thoughts on social media use should be universal for all platforms.

1) Use your privacy settings.

I know a few people on Facebook who have their accounts set as public. That means everything they write goes to everyone in the world. While that can be useful and beneficial for some things, if you’re melding personal and professional that means you need to take an extra degree of care regarding what you post because everyone with an internet connection can view what you say. That means you absolutely should not  post very personal things on Facebook with that setting. If you had a fight with your partner, if you had a bad day you want to vent about, if you plan on using a lot of profanity (and that’s not part of your author platform)… you need to think about all those things and who is going to see them.

2) Think Before You Post

Before you put anything on your account, consider how it might impact your brand. For example, I do not post anything with profanity to my Facebook wall whatsoever (though if there’s some in an article, I’ll put a warning and maybe share the article anyway). I also explicitly avoid the topic of politics and do not permit political discussions on any of my Facebook posts. Why? Because they turn into arguments faster than you can say “this was a bad idea.” Now, some authors view their political activities as part of their world and don’t care if they are divisive enough to turn off readers whose opinions differ. That is a perfectly valid standpoint, but make absolutely certain that whatever you post, you do so with attention and care.

3) Know your posts will be scrutinized by potential clients/buyers

Yep. You can think, “Oh, this is my personal space to mouth off,” but you’d be wrong. The minute you start selling your book, you must begin selling yourself. That means everything you post in a public medium will immediately become a factor in whether or not someone will purchase your book or your service. If you’re a publisher or editor, authors will immediately start thinking about whether or not you are someone they want representing your book. This also includes whether or not you write in coherent English. If, as an editor or publisher, you are consistently writing posts that have major errors (which couldn’t be explained by autocorrect or typos), folks will throw red flags all over the place and not work with you.

4) Double-check all sources for articles

Due to the increased amount of scrutiny your page will receive by your audience, you need to make sure your sources and content are quality. If you are consistently posting fake news stories (the Onion doesn’t count), it will hurt your image as someone who can be trusted. This also includes industry stories and information. If you’re sharing information, make sure it’s vetted or at least overtly labeled as opinion. There’s nothing wrong with sharing opinion pieces, just make sure you aren’t sharing opinion as dyed-in-the-wool fact.

5) Know that everything you post reflects on your platform

Everything. When you are on social media, every single thing you post (and everything that could show in your news feed to others, like comments you make on friends’ posts) reflects on your platform and can either help or hurt. There’s a reason I exclusively post silly, positive, friendly things on my Facebook. That’s my choice, though, not something I’m mandating for everyone. Just make sure you’re aware that every single thing you post or share will impact the opinion of your readers. That choice is yours alone to make, however.

In the end, social media is what you make of it. You must make your own decisions about what you share or do not share, what you say, and what you do. If you rant and rave and curse and scream… well, that’ll impact the sorts of people who want to work with you or read your books. If you are sharing vulgarity, nudity, sexually charged material, or deeply political posts, that’ll affect them too. As an author, you need to view things differently because you are, essentially, a small business owner. The product you are selling is yourself and your work. If you want people to invest in you, work with you, or purchase your products, you need to be appealing. Your social media account (unless you separate one out that’s just friends/family) is no longer a private space for you to express yourself. Put that idea right out of your head. If you need a place where no one will judge, comment, or have the right to use that information to determine if they want to work with you then lock down your social media and/or get a diary. We all need to unload sometimes, but as authors we need to be careful how we go about it!