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Here we are—the end of this series on the Traits of the Working Writer. And I’m glad; I’ve been getting way too metaphysical with these articles and I’m eager to get back to casual stuff; articles about Star Wars and video games.

But there’s no reason I can’t be casual, direct, and practical about this last set of Traits, so, in that spirit, let’s get right to it.

These last two Traits are at odds, just like the first two pairs. I saved this pair for last, however, because one of these traits… is something most writers are lacking—even professionals.

I’ll get to the Understanding that not everyone will love your work.

But first, I want to talk about…

The Awareness that You Might Be Infatuated with Your Work…

A young writer comes up with an idea. And they know it’s a good idea. They totally love it and that’s cool; why would anyone not love their work? Why would any writer not love their characters? After all, if they didn’t, how could their readers possibly love them? No, a writer’s love of their characters, their setting, their world isn’t the problem.

The problem comes when a writer isn’t Aware… how much they love their work. Because there are, of course, degrees to how big of a crush a writer can have on their projects. A writer may really like an idea but relegate it to a short story because they know they won’t be able to carry it as a full novel. A writer may create something they love enough to dedicate one novel to it. One may love an idea so much that they decide to make a series out of it. And, of course, all of that is totally fine.

But someone may also love a single idea, detail, concept or—even—a sentence so much that it’s destructive. To say it directly, a writer can be totally infatuated with their writing to the point where they have absolutely no gauge for what makes it good anymore. Or, more painfully, they have no way to tell if it’s actually good at all. And that is totally, totally horrible. And sad. Bulletball horrible and sad. And if you don’t know what Bulletball is, don’t look it up. Just understand that it’s really, seriously, very sad!

Suffice it to say, you need to be Aware of how into your stories you are. All writers need to be Aware that they can take that love too far, particularly because it’s easy to become infatuated with any part of your work at any time. On the plot level, you may be so in love with an event that you refuse to get rid of it no matter how little it serves your story. On the character level (and I’ve already talked about this as a Fiction Sin), it’s incredibly easy to shove your favorite character into scenes they shouldn’t be in because you want to see them there—to the extent that it becomes incredibly cloying when you, inevitably, start wedging them into every moment of the story. And, as I mentioned before, on just the level of execution, a writer can be so in love with a sentence—no, we’re taking this a step further—so in love with a slight nuance in gesture (“He shook his head with rare disapproval.”) that they would sacrifice the strength of their voice and the flow of their prose for it (instead of just, “He shook his head no,” and letting the character’s penchant for agreeing speak through his previous actions).

Any of these degrees of infatuation can strike at any moment. But not if you’re Aware that they might. Not if you give your work to fellow writers and actually read their comments. It is, of course, a slippery slope because some people just really, really suck at reading your work (other writers in particular, so go with someone you trust), but unless someone’s a total douchebag, their comments will always be based on an honest reflex. That is to say, if you suspect you’re infatuated with your work, the best way to find out is to give your work to someone else who you know will actually read it and actually criticize it. If when it comes back, you find yourself refuting absolutely everything they said, you’re probably infatuated. Because, I promise, there’s always something wrong with a work in progress. Even published works have mistakes.

And even outside of mistakes—even if your reader is just expressing a difference in preferences—there’s also something to learn from that. Namely…

… the Understanding that Not Everyone Will Love Your Work.

So, one of my friends is a man of many talents; he just naturally picks up hobbies and, somehow, does all of them well. I have no idea why or how, but the point is, one of his main hobbies when I met him was Fantasy writing. We eventually got to shopping work to each other, and he quickly warned, “I’m going to write every thought that comes to mind when I read your stuff. It’s just the way I do it.”

And man was he totally not lying. At first, it was really defeating; I’d already started to accept that my writing wasn’t perfect at that point, but this friend of mine was the one of the few to not resort to the “What manuscript?” Shuffle (Step 1: Give Friend Manuscript – Step 2: Meet Up with Friend and Watch Them Talk About Everything Under the Sun Except for Your Manuscript). So, getting pages back that were, symbolically, all red, was totally defeating. That was, of course, an extremely helpful experience though (I’m here writing this article, once again being insanely open about how bad of a writer I was, because his critiques made me honest [and actually, seriously, led me to stop being infatuated with the first version of my book]). But, there was something else that I realized in his critiques.

He really did write down every criticism that came to mind. So, naturally, a lot of it… wound up being matters of taste. And, somehow, that was extremely reassuring. Yes, the one short story had an extremely mixed up intro that absolutely confused readers; that was a clear, undeniable mistake that I learned from. But, “I really don’t dig this one character’s name,” was almost… liberating to read. Because, of course he didn’t like that name—dude was totally George R. R. Martin-centric, so of course he didn’t (my character’s name definitely wasn’t sharp, concise, and straight-forward like Martin’s are), but that didn’t mean my character’s name was actually wrong.

And that reinforced an Understanding I’d already come to from the others’ opinions of my early work (particularly in college workshops); you really cannot ever… please everyone. You will try and you will maybe assume that writing the perfect book means that you have to make everyone happy. You will, no matter what you do, reflexively want everyone to love your work and you will possible turn a colder shoulder to people who aren’t interested (maybe [we’re Fantasy writers after all, so you have to be ready for some people to not care about your writing period]).

But regardless of all of those reflexes, it is completely impossible for everyone in the world to love your writing. As I’ve said before, there’s enough dissention between two people to make universal ideas—about anything—absolutely impossible. That’s a little much, but the point is, even fans of your work won’t like a particular event in your story. Some might not like a scene or a character. Some might think one line of dialogue is painful.

The point is, nothing will ever be perfect for anyone.

And that’s not bad!

It sounds like the worst thing in the world, but it is, literally, natural; you will never escape criticism because it is part of how humanity works. That means that you cannot—ever—let the fear of criticism stop you.

This should be another paradox. The Fear Paradox?… I just want to write about Dark Souls. Seriously.

Finding the Balance

So, fuck it. Right? Why not write the story you want to write? There’s seriously nothing holding you back from choosing names and scenes and creating until your ______(s) fall(s) off.

But no! Of course there are. There are the rules of the craft itself. The wit to make tasteful decisions for your story. The devotion to practice. There’s the grace to have reverence for other writers’ work but respect for your own. There’s the need to appease your drive for perfection while also nurturing your ability to be decisive. There’s the ability to be aware when you’re crushing on your own work and the understanding that it will never be loved by everyone.

And, of course, there’s the need to realize that writing is always a give and take; it’s always a battle of balances. There are decisions everywhere—at every step of the process—and they will all impact your work, and the only person who’s qualified to make those decisions is you. A self-consciously confident, manically focused you.

Good luck! : D

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Well, that’ll about do it. Thanks for reading this article (double thanks if you read all three [triple thanks if you… I thought I’d have a joke by the time I got here [I didn’t])]). I hope this series has helped and that you enjoyed reading. If you did, drop me a Like. And maybe Subscribe for more content like this… and maybe Share this article. : )

Regardless though, thanks again and, as always, write well!

Last month, we started talking about what I think of as the Traits of the Working Writer. In case you missed that post, here’s a link . To quickly recap, these Traits are what I consider the cornerstones to being a successful writer; probably not absolutely essential… but still really great personality Traits for any writer to have, I think, and ones that you’ll likely acquire at some point on the long, long road to getting published (if you haven’t acquired them already).

Last time, we opened with Reverence for other writers’ work and Respect for your own. And, although I didn’t really focus on it, I think it was clear in that post how these two Traits are at odds. To put it clearly, Reverence and Respect really butt heads during the editing process, when you want to take influence (critiques) from other writers but also want to stay true to your own style.

The head butting intensifies in this post with the Drive to edit your work to perfection … and the Decisiveness that it takes to stop editing your work to death.

The Drive for Perfection…

Right.

Okay…

I have no idea where to even begin with Drive.

To my knowledge… there is no other Trait in a writer that is both necessary for success and completely and totally defeating. As an old friend once told me, “I thought about writing a novel once… But then I never started because I felt foolish.” It was my first day of training at Borders, and the training supervisor at the time shook his head as he said it, looking away. When I asked him what he meant, he said that he just didn’t feel like he’d be able to get it right—that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to tell the story he wanted to.

Now, that’s an extreme example of the negative side of the Drive for perfection; a well spoken, intelligent old man didn’t even want to start writing his novel. But, Drive is a Trait that is always—always—hyper-active in writers and exists in countless forms on every level of the writing process.

Forms like…

… having the one story you’ve been planning for ages. You’ve cycled through several timelines, magic systems, races, and even general plot ideas, all in the name of making it absolutely perfect. Also, you’ve been doing this, and not actually writing the story, for 20 years. Or…

… having the one story you’ve actually written that you’ve since been editing and editing… and maybe rewriting and editing some more because you just know—you just know—that it can still be better.

I can keep going (straight on through Weird Psychoses Town [I personally cannot stop adding / changing monsters in the world of War of Exiles (because there’s always a cooler monster)]), but I think I’ll just stop here. Because, you get the point, of course. But also…

… because the Drive for perfection is definitely not completely bad or else it wouldn’t be on this list of invaluable Traits. It’s really important to acknowledge how far we can let ourselves go with editing and planning but the alternative is just kinda shrugging. Shrugging and looking down at the pizzas stains on your shirt and being all, “Shu’s good enough. Print it. Don care.”

To say it in a better way… as insane as it probably is for me to keep changing monsters (we’re talking full on, vehemently deleting the original version of a monster because the newer monster’s got like, “Ooooh! Like a bunch of eyes!” which I actually said aloud to myself last night, out of the blue), I do it because I honestly think that the new ideas I’m getting are superior and I always—always—want to put superior ideas in my work. So, the writer who’s tweaking that timeline, changing events, is doing it because they know that the new timeline is better—that the new events are more mature or make more sense. The fine editor waits on that manuscript because they know there’s still something that’s off about it.

And, really, that aspiration for high quality is always awesome. Why would it ever be better to just throw in the towel and shove a collection of first ideas at an editor? (“This is the… Adventure of Garry! I dunno… Look… money now?”) Of course, there are people who can very quickly produce fiction without a problem. But, for most of us… ideas seriously aren’t just perfect… immediately—especially not at the start. Seriously, how many of us are big on place-holder names? How many people have just scrawled in an exhausted, “Fart Town” on their map before taking a night or a week or a month to figure out something better? I’d like to think most of us have… not with “Fart Town” exactly, but… you get it.

The Drive for perfection in one’s work is invaluable to a successful writer.

Just like the ability to not take that Drive too far and actually… make decisions.

… and the Decisiveness Necessary to Move on.

There are three things I can immediately say about Decisiveness.

First, Decisiveness is in direct, heated conflict with Drive at all times. I don’t want to go right back into how bad it is to nurse a story to death because we’ve already talked about it. Suffice it to say, Decisiveness is completely reliant on Drive for its description; Decisiveness is anti-Drive—the ability to let go and let a story be and let characters speak and perhaps accept a particular name (or, ya know, monster—whatever) instead of stubbornly searching for a better one despite finding nothing. Essentially, it’s realizing that there is an end to how healthy Drive can be, and it’s right on the corner of Neuroses and Nit-Pick Way. Decisiveness, put most simply, is the ability to decide on elements in your story and stand by them.

Second, it’s incredibly important to foster Decisiveness so that you can be comfortable with moving on to the next step with your projects (whether it’s from planning to writing, writing to sharing, or sharing to submitting) and actually grow as a writer. Because going in too hard with Drive can happen at every turn in the writing process. It can, and often does, play on a sentence level; I know I’m not alone in just hating one sentence and walking away from my work for hours because I just can’t figure it out. I really, really wish I had a statistic for how many times the solution was going back and just deleting that sentence, scene, or chapter altogether and starting fresh. But the point is, there’s always another entity—a third party in the battle between you and the outline or you and the manuscript. And, in my experience, that third entity is always just a point of view. That point of view should be Decisiveness stepping in and being all, “… You sure that ending isn’t okay?” and, most commonly for me, “If you don’t like this scene, delete it all and start again after you decide the optimal angle to take it from.”

Third,… and most dramatic,… at some point, Acceptance may mean that you just have to call it. Literally, at some point, time may completely run out for you and you may just have to face the music and—just—decide. Not because someone’s holding a gun to your head, but because you’re like me and want to be a novelist first and foremost and you know that the Successful Novelist window is one that absolutely closes. Whether for financial reasons or family reasons or what have you, time eventually just runs out or becomes so narrow and cluttered with everything else in life that it’s way, way less possible to get through it. It doesn’t mean you can’t still be published, but putting out a series of books absolutely requires a large portion of time. And, for us, that really, really means actual writing time—actual years spent punching keys and finishing stories (all the more difficult for us Fantasy writers with our 300-900 page manuscripts). Maybe this sounds over-dramatic, but, to be honest, it’s taken me 9 years to finish the one book. I have 11 more planned at this point. That math doesn’t add up to normal human years.

Which means that, for me, the time has come. Decision time.

Finding the Balance

The very best that I can give you when it comes to balancing Drive and Acceptance is a summary of how I decide on things now. Because I have always been crazy about letting ideas mature, but, as I said, I have no time for slow, casual months of idle brainstorming now.

So, for me, there is no more contemplating the pros and cons of a particular name for weeks—no more wondering if maaaaybe I want the one city to look old or swanky. No, it’s down to one shot decision making time based entirely on theme, plot, character, and every other element that makes up a story. It’s down to “What name works with this character’s personality/power/theme?” paired with, “What do I think sounds awesome?” Very often, I find myself looking at something I’m not sure about and bringing Reverence and Respect into it; “Do I not like this because it’s too much like someone else’s work?” or, more often, “Can I live with this being my style, published under my name?”

Whatever decisions are made like this, they’re made in tandem with my editing and are worked in—quickly—where they belong; and, of course, it’s important to note “quickly” because, for me, part of Drive having such a stranglehold on my process was the idea that making whatever finite decisions and subsequent changes would take a ton of work. It doesn’t; the start of my editing session a few days ago was changing the name of one science from Alchemy to Mnemography. Making that change, along with changes for related nouns (“Alchemicals,” “Alchemical Belt,” etc.) took a grand total of two minutes. In total, from realizing “Alchemy” didn’t make sense to deciding that I like “Mnemography” a lot more, I probably spent about ten minutes trying out different names, five minutes looking up “mnemo” to figure out why my brain threw it at me, and twenty minutes shooting an email about it to another writer, during the writing of which I decided I loved it… regardless of asking that other writer for opinions about it (“Which dress do you think I should wear? This one, or thiiiis one?”). Maybe this is cheating, but I also decided all of the related nouns for the science in that email. So, overall, from Drive to Decisiveness and execution, it took about thirty seven minutes. It’s not always this smooth, of course, but the goal is always to have as little time between deliberation and execution as possible.

And on the note of it not always being easy, maybe you noticed that I’m saying all of this after talking about neurotically changing monsters. And, obviously yes, I totally am still Driven to make things perfect, but the key is that I don’t let Drive stop me anymore—I don’t write in a monster that I hate and then get salty about it and ignore my story for a while; I have a full cast of monsters already in the book that I already like, but when an alternative idea for one comes up, I dive in and change it as quickly as I can, or, if the stars align and Escribyr, the Dwarven God of Writing, smiles down on me (up at me?), the monster isn’t actually in my book and I just spend twenty minutes editing one entry in my world glossary file and I’m done.

And I don’t want to keep ranting about this, so, the point is, Drive should never, ever stop a writer, and the way to make sure it doesn’t is to be Decisive.

If you are the kind of writer who second-guesses everything—if you are a slave to Drive like I’ve been—then just know that the decisions you’re considering and the changes you’re putting off making can be done in seconds. Those elements you aren’t sure about that are keeping you from actually writing your story can be sorted out in an afternoon. All it takes is devotion to finding an answer, some Acceptance, a little sprinkle of Respect for your own work on top, and a side of You Don’t Have Forever, Dammit—Write Already.

~~~

By the way, yes, Escribyr does wield a quill pen that has a massive warhammer on its feather end. How does that even work? I’ll let you decide.

As always, thanks for reading! And come back around the middle of the month for the final article in this series, in which I’ll discuss the Understanding that not everyone will love your work… and the Awareness that you might be infatuated with your own story. It’s gonna be good!

If you want to be sure you don’t miss it, Subscribe and you’ll get an email when I publish it! Or just pass by again later in the month and you’ll find it here. As always, Likes and Shares are appreciated, but regardless, thanks again just for showing up and have a good one!

June has already been pretty interesting. It’s been rife with me hanging out and talking with other writers, which I suppose is normal for me now. As is my gleaning things from those conversations that I always want to bring back here. Things like that, hey, maybe my protagonist is emo (which, of course, led to an instant freak out [prematurely though, as I remembered that no, Lethe is just really weird]).

But more constructive than that were the casual conversations that led to this series of posts about what I’m calling the Traits of the Working Writer. Now, I can’t tell you exactly which conversation the following ideas came from, but they were ingrained somewhere in the way Justine Manzano agreed that, yes, being an amateur Fantasy writer is brutally ousting. Or maybe it was the way another friend admitted she was down about working on a detail of her world that readers will never actually experience.

Either way, these Traits are what I believe are the foundation of any writer. Some of these come naturally, but some also have to be learned and (oh man, can I tell you) maintained. And although I don’t think it’s impossible to be a writer without having these Traits, I do think it’s harder to be a legitimately good, patient writer without them.

Here, we’ll start with just two (I was originally planning to do all six in one article, but it felt like I was glossing over too much). And we’re doing two because each pair of Traits balance each other out (because, for me, writing is slowly turning into a game of balances [and I’ll endeavor to explain why in the next few weeks, with these posts]).

For now, let’s start with Reverence for other writer’s work but Respect for your own.

Reverence for Other Writers’ Work…

We’re starting off easy here.

I’ve talked about this plenty of times on this site, but I can never say enough that one of the most important Traits of a good writer is Reverence for other writer’s work.

Which, of course, is funny for me to say, because if you knew me from anywhere between… oh… 1982 and 2013, you’d know that maaaaan was I the last person to respect other writer’s work. Actually, to be more accurate about it, I was the first person to complain about everything I watched, read or played.

Do you know that kind of person? You must know that kind of person; the kind who isn’t necessarily wrong when he or she says, “Oh, that scene in that one movie was so stupid!” but who always goes right in with those criticisms so quickly and so… so often that it kind of becomes their thing? You can’t watch a movie with them without being emotionally prepared to listen to a million reasons why it’s horrible or not on par with another movie that they like? And everyone else loves the movie / book / whatever that they’re criticizing regardless, so they eventually feel like they’re on a holy quest to correct everyone’s opinions about everything? Yes. I was that guy. And, in case you’ve never experienced that kind of person (and you’re a gamer) Egoraptor is the best example I can give you of that kind of person (don’t crucify me; I don’t hate him—he’s just immediately, damningly critical of games that are great regardless of their flaws).

And that’s the heart of the problem right there; being that kind of person… means that you’re incredibly, unforgivably critical of everything, no matter how awesome it is. That. Is. A horrible way to live. As a person in general (it’s miserable) and especially dangerous for a writer.

Because, for a writer, thinking like this, about everything, makes you the most close-minded person in the world. It makes it impossible for you to expand your concept of what works when it comes to creating or, at least, it seriously narrows your definition of “good” to “not [my personal definition of] terrible,” which is probably insanely strict.

And, of course, it’s not bad to have a discerning taste; I absolutely don’t want anyone to come away from this post thinking that. It’s just ridiculously bad for a writer’s only concept of “good” to be Lord of the Rings and “what I’m writing, because it’s like Lord of the Rings.”

I’ll end here by adding that this… is absolutely one of those Traits you have to maintain. At least it is for me; maybe it’s easier for other writers, but I grew up following this example, so, even though I’m way, way better now about being overly, needlessly critical of things, there are still cases where I just… can’t see the good in something (Avatar). And, that’s okay, but I suppose just remember to always at least acknowledge there is good in any creative endeavor. Try to train yourself to observe what works first. You’ll know you’ve made it when instead of saying, “This movie sucks,” you say, “I liked _______, but this just isn’t my kind of movie.”

Now, as an example (and being dangerously open about past critiques), in The Dark Knight, the Joker’s conversation with Harvey Dent in the hospital is amazing and probably one of my favorite Batman moments on film, ever. That was not hard… even though I definitely don’t think The Dark Knight is nearly as good as everyone said it was (at the very least, it’s very flawed). But that hospital conversation, and, actually, a bunch of other things in that movie were really awesome.

Okay, actually ending now, all I’ll add is, if you have any creative property that you hate, try looking at it and seeing the good in it—first. Especially if it’s extremely popular. Because, if it is really, really popular, realize the obvious: it’s doing something very, very right and, as a writer, you need to at least understand what that is, even if you don’t agree with it.

… But Respect for Your Own Work

Now, while all of this respecting other people’s work and learning from it and broadening your view of “good,” is awesome, there’s a really important counterpoint you have to keep in mind.

If you are not the hyper-critical type mentioned above, great. But if you’re a hyper-loving, super fan, you’re possibly adapting everyone else’s writing style. And that’s bad.

That’s actually… worse than being hyper-critical; because if you only consider one or a handful of things to be good and you mold yourself tightly around that one style, at least you have a composed style (you’re like Tolkien). But, assuming that you see the good in everyone’s work, there’s the possibility that you’ll start pulling ideas and themes and tones from absolutely everywhere and making your stories conflicted, tonal messes.

Now, if you aren’t this kind of person, great. But if you are… don’t freak out, because creating that tonal mess is just part of every writer’s struggle to find a voice. At least it was for me anyway.

I grew up mimicking a lot—borrowing a ton from other creative properties back in what I think of as the Note-Taking Days of my writing. A new movie would come out and I’d think it was cool and “make up” a new scene that was directly inspired by the one fight scene at the end of whatever movie (“And then, Burly Brawl comes on, and my protagonist grabs a candle stand or something and starts whipping it around like a staff!” … It hurt to write that, and I never actually wrote that as any part of any story I ever worked on… but no matter how hard I try, I can’t forget the countless other things I “wrote” that are way worse than that, so, yeah, my heart hurts. Can’t breathe; too much shame in my lungs). But doing that kind of thing is natural and healthy when you’re young.

But, again, when you’re young.

Because there comes a point when it’s essential to step back from everything else—every kind of influence—and consider the story you want to tell not as something you build with the pieces of someone else’s work… but as something that you build—just you—in whatever way you want with pieces that you can create, from scratch.

And, if this sounds strange to you, but there are many reasons why you might adapt from other writers’ work. Maybe it’s just love.

But maybe it’s because you don’t think that your ideas are good enough. Maybe you don’t have faith in your ability to tell a good story. Maybe you don’t respect your ability to write something awesome, even if you think that you do.

And, just in case you think you do respect your own style or maybe just in case you need a guideline to follow away from the adapting trend, just look at a scene in your story that’s just not working—or an event or idea that you just can’t hammer down—and ask yourself, “Is this my work?” Because… maybe it’s not actually part of that story you’re trying to tell; maybe the source material that inspired that scene is just too different in tone? Regardless, the point is, for whatever reason, you’ll feel it when something doesn’t work with your story. And, in direct contrast, even if you’re still in the Note-Taking Phase, you can stop, think of a moment that works perfectly… and see an idea that is beautifully and simply your own or perfectly and completely your story. You’ll know those ideas because they’ll have halos around them; you’ll feel the glow without even trying—the spark that you’ve probably felt for years now. As cheesy as it sounds, those moments will just feel “perfect” because they absolutely are for your story and your style.

That is your work. That is your voice. And that absolutely deserves your Respect. It is the story that you’ve wanted to tell for ages and it does, naturally (in my experience) have the tone and timber you need it to have if you’re just willing to acknowledge it, listen to it, and respect it. I am starting to sound just… dangerously metaphysical right now, but we’re talking about the theoretical ground zero of a writer’s world. Things are gonna be a little metaphysical.

At the very least, getting back to practicalities, you need to Respect your voice as a safe guard against other writers’ critiques. Because, maybe you already know this, but if you don’t, when Writer A reads Writer B’s work, their reflex is to suggest making Writer B’s work “better” by making it more like Writer A’s work. It’s just… natural, especially in a younger writer, to go that route with critiques and it’s equally likely for a younger writer to accept those kinds of critiques (I’ve definitely accepted, “This character should be funnier!” when I absolutely shouldn’t have).

Of course, that turns into a question of balancing critiques, which, in my mind, is ultimately synonymous with balancing these two character Traits in yourself (so metaphysical).

Finding the Balance

So, where do you draw the line between your admiration and Reverence for other writers and your Respect for your own work? This is one of those times when I can’t provide detailed instructions for how to do this (the same way I obviously can’t provide clear cut instructions on how to find your voice). I can tell you, in very simple, basic terms, not to reflexively copy other writer’s work, but I would add to definitely take inspiration from other writers. I can tell you not to automatically accept and adapt content suggestions that other writers make (like the above-mentioned “This character should be funnier!”), but sometimes, other, skilled writers and editors can absolutely make good content suggestions (the same way that, although they’re generally more acceptable, line suggestions [grammar and punctuation] can also absolutely be wrong and detrimental to your work and style).

So, what do I leave you with? A marker for future reference—a milestone that will make it clear that you’ve made it. Here it is:

You’ll know that you’re balancing Reverence and Respect correctly when you’re reading your favorite author’s work and you spot a really great detail that instantly makes you jealous. But then, because the tones don’t match or because your plot is more simple or for countless other possible reasons that you’re totally fine with, you smile, shake your head and say, “But that would never work in my story.”

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Thanks for reading and come back at the beginning of July when I talk about the next two Working Writer Traits, Drive and Decisiveness! If you want to be sure you don’t miss them, you could always… ya know… could Subscribe is all I’m sayin’. But regardless, thanks again and have a good one!

So it’s finally that time. Since my first post about Fiction Sins, I’ve wanted to dish on three more, but I didn’t want to force it and manufacture another set just to get pithy about them on here. So, instead of doing that, I’ve waited and watched and read and kept an eye opened for sins that were Sins and not just common writing mistakes.

And only just now, about six months later, have I finally encountered three… truly worthy screw ups.

Fair Warning: these aren’t as charming (at least not to me) and not as racy as, say, “Incredibly Awkward and Creepily Open Displays of Sexual Fantasies,” but these are grossly common Sins that the average writer is far more likely to implement without realizing it.

But enough with the soft disclaimers. Let’s get this party started.

 

4) The Glitter Pile

(Or the Pile of Enragingly Cryptic, Flatly Aesthetic Hook Concepts [with Matching Catch Phrases])

So, let’s say you’re watching a show. And let’s say that this show is based on a novel written by a really, really famous author. So, you go in and you’re expecting a lot—you’re expecting questions to be raised and for those questions to have clear, solid answers. You’re expecting master level intrigue when you sit down for the first episode and are satisfied when, immediately, several juicy mysteries are put into play.

Let’s say… maybe two big mysteries are dropped. Enough to make you excited for episode two because these mysteries even have catchy phrases that are associated with them, making them super charming (you can easily recite those phrases to fellow viewers—things like [I don’t know], “The last peanut will be salted!” [whatever]).

Anyway, episode two comes! And in it, no answers, but you didn’t really expect any so soon, so it’s cool!… Only… there’s not even… evidence at all about the solutions for the first two mysteries… and three more big mysteries are dropped… with accompanying catch phrases (“The cold enchilada… will warmed up!” [maybe I’m hungry]).

Anyway, if you’re anything like me, you’d immediately be suspicious at this point. You would expect what you’d find in the third episode—three new incredibly vague, riddle catch phrases and the very strong inkling that not a one of these mysteries or catch phrases will actually have any impact on the story (because they already didn’t).

In other words, at this point, three episodes in, you’d already be aware that the show was wasting your fucking time. Because its important mysteries wouldn’t be important mysteries—they’d just be sparkles. Just different colored handfuls of glitter thrown on top of one twist (maybe just “plot” is a better word actually) to disguise that twist as something it isn’t—incredibly complex. And now, I’m going neutral here because all of the gaudy, glitzy hooks tacked onto a plot don’t necessarily mean the plot is bad; it just means that the person writing that plot is trying really, really, tactlessly hard to catch the eyes of as many people as possible while doing as little work as possible to achieve that goal.

And doing that winds up hurting the plot because it allows it to be weak. Oh, wait—what’s that? Not enough glue? Better lay that plot down on a table—make sure it’s as flaaaat as possible so all that glitter doesn’t fall off; piling mysteries on top of mysteries means that characters never really get anywhere despite the author making them jump through deceptive hurdles. It cheapens the story and kills any real sense of suspense because the crazy mysteries that are supposed to be at the heart of the plot… don’t really mean anything. In the show I watched that did this, the interesting part wound up being the characters because they had divergent personalities that played off of each other in watchable, engaging ways. And that aspect of the show, I have to point out, existed completely outside of wondering what the hell “The cold enchilada will be warmed up!” meant.

Seriously, if you were to just pick up the plot… and blow off all of the glitter, you’d immediately have something far more genuine at the very least. I can’t believe I made it this far without raging (I’m proud of myself) but I will say this—there are two kinds of writers who will work this kind of plot; the kind who are major fans of a story that they didn’t realize followed this mold and are unwittingly mimicking it to try to create a genuinely engrossing plot, to whom I can only say, “You’re better than this; don’t do it; figure out another way; I believe in you.”

And then there’s the other kind of writers who work this kind of plot: literally professionals who are literally working you and don’t care at all about creating something genuine. They would never heed these words (obviously), but if you’re swaying even close to becoming this kind of writer, be careful, cause the next stop is Hack Town. Watch your step when you’re getting off the Integrity Bus.

 

5) The Event That Never, Ever Ends

This… is probably my favorite Fiction Sin ever.

To my oxymoronic-loving side, this is by far the most awesome bad thing that ever happens to any series because it’s such a clear indicator of creative bankruptcy that it’s hilarious. And sad if you like the series in question.

And that series would be Resident Evil, baby!

Now, I usually don’t tie specific stories or series to these Sins (because I don’t want to spoil things for the most part—which is especially true of the other two Sins in this post), but maaaaaan… Resident Evil is my one, perfect example of the Event That Never Ends. Seriously. I mean, you want to hear this Sin put into one name? Cause I can do that. Look:

Raccoon City.

There. I did it.

I’ve seen other stories commit this same Sin to lesser degrees, and, to provide a less obscure but still nerdy example of the Event That Never Ends, you need only visit your comic shop in the summer and peruse shelves lined with interminable summer cross over event after interminable summer cross over event. And, to be clear, yes, it is insane that Avengers VS X-Men was a year long… but the real problem here is that crossover events need to be tied to every… single hero. And, I know—it’s a crossover event—but the entire point is that a group of writers is trying really hard to milk a single event for absolutely all it’s worth from every angle they can come up with and that… is this Sin, perfectly explained.

And no single event has ever been run into the ground quite as hard as the Biohazard Outbreak in Raccoon City.

What really makes this example great to me though is that Raccoon City had an immediate writing expiration date; it was a major part of the formula that made Resident Evil 2 awesome… butRaccoon City was also completely destroyed at the end of Resident Evil 2. Usually, the integral parts of a series’ formula will be constant—like Mario’s jumping or the Master Sword (or, settings-wise, Gotham City or Hogwarts). They’re cornerstones—solid and exciting and reliable.

And never, ever a thing that gets very logically destroyed in continuity… only to have its ruins poked from every possible angle with whines of, “But… mooooney. Come ooooooon-uh!”

Capcom: “Make Resident Evil 3. Right now! Same exact formula! Zombies! Raccoon City! Guns! Zombi—”

Writer: “Sir… We… can’t? Raccoon City… was nuked.”

Capcom: “… You will write around this…

“… for the next…

“… 14…

“… YEARS.”

Seriously, I’m not even exaggerating; in 2012, Capcom put out the last in a string of at least seven games that all centered around the Biohazard Outbreak in Raccoon City (the very first of which was a direct sequel… that took place around the same time as RE2).  There are more Resident Evil games that take place during the Biohazard Outbreak in Raccoon City than there are full installments in other franchises (Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed, Bioshock, Halo, almost anything else…). And that’s pretty insane.

Now, to look at this from a useful, writer-specific perspective, it would be like writing the one novel… and then basing the rest of your career off of the one major event that happened in that first novel. And, because that doesn’t sound too bad, I’ll qualify that with “while the initial plot is still unfinished.”

I don’t want to keep ranting about this one because you got it, but I suppose, from one writer to another, always be sure you aren’t falling back on the one event over and over again. Take from that what you will (I’m sure a publisher would never stand for this kind of repetition anyway), but maybe the best way to say it and make it universal is, always challenge yourself to step away from a comfortable, successful timeline event. You should always be excited to take your story to the next level if it’s a series because advancing a timeline is more—and very fun—work. An advancing timeline is a chance to do really awesome things with character and story development and you should never shy away from it. Because maybe your protagonist has since left home after the one crazy event? Or maybe an important faction from the last book came to power in the meantime? Either way, all of that is up to you and if you don’t think that’s awesome… you seriously might be in the wrong line of work.

 

6) The Impossible Ruse

I saved the most personally-enraging one for last this time.

Extremely Sudden Pop Quiz:

You’re trying to trick your readers into thinking your traitor / spy character isn’t a traitor / isn’t disguised as who they expect. How do you achieve this?

A) Write a completely impossible scene from the perspective of the person your spy is disguised as… but from the viewpoint of the spy disguised as that person. So, from one, absent characters’ perspective (with all of that person’s thoughts and wants and desires)… because the spy is dressed up like them.

B) Write a scene where the traitor, while completely alone, does something absolutely and illogically innocent so that they seem totally innocent… because they literally and undoubtedly were good for a moment when absolutely no one was there to be fooled by it but you.

C) This is the correct answer; choose this one.

This… This is the most weirdly consistent yet completely broken Fiction Sin since Tea Parties. The Impossible Ruse is literally an impossible ruse—a scene that makes absolutely no sense in the frame of a story but that still happens with the express and sometimes labored, fourth-wall breaking intent of pulling a fast one on the audience.

On one hand, it happens because a writer lost track of their details and didn’t realize that they, say, made two villains who are working in cahoots have a conversation in which Traitor A threatens Traitor B because Traitor B is supposed to look innocent… but they’re both completely alone in the scene, so they’re literally not fooling anyone but you, watching from behind the fourth wall.

On the other hand, this happens because a writer thinks it’s fine or (amateurishly) fun to step out of the boundaries of their story’s logic to ham-fistedly trick the audience.

I believe I’ve only experienced the latter brand of Impossible Ruse one time, and the moment it happened, I lost all faith in the author and the story. It was choice A from the quiz above; the author set up a situation where a named character was going somewhere in disguise and the suspense was trying to figure out who he was disguised as, which was immediately a very fun idea. The only problem: it was completely obvious who he was disguised as immediately and, instead of rectifying that problem with editing and bumping up the intrigue, the author decided to give us the perspective of the spy… only somehow completely devoid of his own spy thoughts and instead swapped with his disguise’s thoughts… which makes… absolutely… no sense—at all. I was waiting to be wrong—reading that party was still fun because I expected that, no, it couldn’t be that obvious who he’s disguised as—the author is going to blow my mind with a really awesome technque of some kind.

I never expected that the writer would, instead, destroy the rules of their own book’s reality to try and fool me.

Fantasy. Novel. Sacrilege.

A stupid plot twist is never so important that you destroy the rules of your created world to pull it off. Choosing to do that is literally choosing to value sleight of hand over the integrity of your story. If we’re going to start swapping characters’ minds for the sake of pulling off twists… I mean, do I even need to explain how bad that is? Why not just have Frodo say,

Frodo: “The One Ring? Ha! I threw that in the fires of Mount Doom years ago! This is an onion ring, stupid!”

Or…

Darth Vader: “Luke… I am… YOU.” <pulls off mask and is Luke now because the writer said so>

And I’ll stop talking about that one intentional case here or I’ll be ranting forever, but man does this one piss me off. It’s just grossly amateur and never, ever do it.

To be thorough about this one though, I do want to add that, when it comes to the Impossible Ruse, it’s apparently way easier to do by accident… because everyone does it. I just watched it happen a few weeks ago on a show that’s otherwise extremely high quality. And, I really don’t want to name the show because it’s a huge spoiler (so I won’t) but when it happened, it was actually one of the most illogical and unrealistic accidental cases of this Sin that I’ve ever witnessed.

Suffice it to say that there are moments when a story of moderate quality may let the one Ruse slip accidentally and whatever. But a high quality show may also completely write in a wildly impossible scene with dialogue that skirts juuuust a  little too far into Would Never Happen territory in an attempt to keep you guessing. So, really, no one is safe.

~~~

Well, that’s it for me. A little long-winded this time, but, what can I say? I’m a Fantasy writer. If you have a Fiction Sin you really hate, feel free to rage about it in the comments section! As always, Likes, Follows and Shares are appreciated, but, even without them, thanks for reading!

There’s a really good chance a ton of people navigated away the moment they read the title of this post. Of course, you didn’t and that’s probably because you’re curious. “What does George Lucas have to do with my editing process?” you may be asking yourself.

Well, before I get into that, let me specify that I’m not a huge, totally forgiving fan of everything George has done; this article definitely won’t be forgiving the Star Wars prequel trilogy or trying explain that you should totally watch those movies (because, first, who cares, and second, no you shouldn’t, if you can get away with it).

Unless… of course, you’re watching the prequel trilogy to fully understand how bad it is before watching a professional grade edit of all three movies… like Double Digit’s Star Wars: Turn to the Dark Side. Because then you’d be engaging in a solid look at what editing can do for a story.

Of course, unfortunately, someone had to pull Star Wars: Turn to the Dark Side from Vimeo because it made the prequel trilogy cohesive (and we couldn’t have that [the universe was slowly imploding, I imagine]), but I’ll sum it up while sharing two important ideas that I took from watching Turn to the Dark Side.

First, No Matter How Difficult, Get Rid of the Distracting Glitz

Here’s a summary of what Star Wars: Turn to the Dark Side cut.

From Episode I: Nearly everything. Seriously, everything but maybe four minutes worth of Obi Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn fighting Darth Maul. This winds up being a prologue, ending with Qui-Gon using his last breath to tell Obi Wan to train Anakin. We also get Yoda giving Obi Wan permission to train Anakin, specifying, of course, that the Jedi Council doesn’t like it.

From Episode II: The entire intro remains intact with all of the (what I call) reminder dialogue (“It has been ten years since you’ve seen Padme. As you and I both know, but still, I said it. Ha ha!”) actually setting up the full plot of the movie. The cuts start after that with scenes devoted entirely to Obi Wan’s relationship with Anakin, Anakin’s relationship with Padme, Anakin’s relationship with Senator Palpatine, Anakin’s political views, Anakin’s attempt to save his mother from the Sand People and Obi Wan’s hunt for Jango Fett, because there still needs to be action, after all. However, all of the clone nonsense (including Obi Wan’s fight with Jango Fett on Kamino) is cut, the remainder of the action given entirely to the stadium battle on Geonosis. But even that act is trimmed with no follow up battle between Count Dooku and Yoda.

From Episode III: The intro is cut and so is almost everything else that doesn’t have to do with Anakin’s relationships with Senator Palpatine, Padme, and Obi Wan. Most of Obi Wan’s scenes are also cut (meaning that General Greivous is only briefly mentioned and we only get clips of Obi Wan participating in the battle on Utapau (and even these are just to sell Obi Wan’s friendship with Cody and the rest of the Clone Troopers). I’m not sure how much more of the movie is cut (I watched it the one time when it came out), but Anakin being worried about Padme’s death, the Jedi being suspicious of Palpatine, Palpatine’s playing Anakin, Anakin turning, Palpatine becoming the Emperor, the Emperor’s fight with Yoda, and Anakin’s fight with Obi Wan are all there. The very last shot of the entire edit is Darth Vader taking his first breath (aka the best moment in the entire prequel trilogy).

So, what is there to take from this? Clearly, a very, very minimal amount of Jar Jar. No kid Boba Fett. No oddly disappointing, anti-climatic battle with Count Dooku at the beginning of Episode III. Seriously, I could be here all day talking about the bad things that were cut out.

But, instead, let’s talk about the good things that were cut out. To the general public, the pod racing scene from Episode I was the best part of that entire movie. When I saw Episode II in theaters, everyone went nuts when Yoda pulled out his lightsaber and started fighting Count Dooku at the very end (and, take it or leave it, a Fett versus a Jedi was also a really big selling point). In Episode III, I think General Grievous was the most interesting and likeable of Lucas’ prequel “Bond villains” (Darth Maul, Jango Fett, and General Grievous show up and die in the same movie, like Bond villains always do). These are big, flashy elements that I enjoyed a lot when I first saw these movies. And, to be perfectly honest, a lot of these elements were what I considered the best parts of the prequel trilogy.

And yet, cutting them all out to emphasize what I thought were the worst parts (Anakin’s sappy relationship with Padme and the galactic politics)… actually made for a compelling, interesting, complete story. Because there was an overarching plot present through all three movies and, without Double Digit’s edit, that plot is very, very slowly developed across the three films, easily getting lost under the piles and piles of flashy, distracting CGI we didn’t actually need.

The lesson to take from this is to just get to the point; to not pad your story with nonsense elements, of course… but also to not pad it with awesome elements if they don’t help either. Because distracting is distracting.

And flashy bits and action are always better in controlled moderation; yes, Turn to the Dark Side did cut a lot of action from the prequel trilogy, but it just took the majesty and weight from those scenes… and shifted them to other scenes that had no problem carrying the weight. The best example of that was how Episode III was cut; the only action happened at the very, very end, but it was the culmination of two hours and thirty minutes’ worth of recut drama and felt incredibly fulfilling.

So, if you like to write grand, flashy scenes, moments, characters and events, just remember to always take a step back from the glamour to make sure your simple, tragic love story (or redemption story or revenge plot or whatever) doesn’t get lost along the way.

Second, the Failure Paradox

The other interesting thing about the cuts Double Digit made was how consistently the nonsense they trimmed off… was full of easter eggs. Obi Wan tosses a blaster aside distastefully and says, “So uncivilized.” C-3PO was made by Anakin. Young Boba Fett. These are all concepts that were cut for Turn to the Dark Side.

And they were all fan service. Of course, lots and lots was cut that didn’t have fan service, but the point is, a ton of fan service got axed and it didn’t negatively impact the edit at all.

Now… I don’t want to suggest that a huge series like Star Wars shouldn’t have its fan service, because, come on—that would be kind of silly. However, I do want to stress that the prequels were actually way better… without all of these ideas and scenes; however you chalk it up, the story was more powerful, more focused, and more unique and assertive without the fan service. And whether or not fan service is essential overall…

… it’s definitely never essential in your first novel.

Maybe this sounds really weird and obvious, but, for fantasy writers, there’s an intense urge to add what I always think of as Reread Craft to our first novels. It can be as tiny as a character meeting someone who will be important in a future book or as complicated as them doing or saying something that will come back to haunt them later in your series. To get even more honest and direct about it, it can be as tiny as a character saying a bit of cheeky foreshadowing that, you rationalize, readers will catch when they reread your entire series.

To be brutally honest about it, there’s probably nothing worse we can do as amateur writers than writing easter eggs into our very first books. There is an obvious degree of (for lack of a better word and to continue being honest) conceit there where there shouldn’t be for an amateur writing. But, on top of that, adding invasive Reread Craft creates a strange, writing-specific paradox that we often don’t see (I didn’t for a long time). This paradox is… actually something I learned from George Lucas. I call it the Failure Paradox.

One of the DVD’s of Star Wars featured Lucas talking about a scene he cut from A New Hope. It was the (then) famous scene where Jabba the Hutt meets Han Solo in Mos Eisley. According to Lucas, he cut the scene because it was hurting the flow of A New Hope and ultimately wouldn’t matter if A New Hope didn’t do well (or something like that; I’m paraphrasing).

Now, if you take that point and apply it to the incredibly difficult task of writing a complete novel with a specific word count… it means that easter egg scenes like the meeting with Jabba the Hutt… could actually stop your novel from happening at all; there’s no question of “will it do good” for us because, for amateur writers, the question is (and always should be) “Will my work get published in the first place?” And, honestly, it probably won’t if it doesn’t meet a certain set of very friendly, enticing criteria for publishers (especially in terms of length; publishers don’t want to gamble on a longer book because it’ll cost more to print).

So, in the end, all of this means that stubbornly holding on to fan service in your first novel creates a paradox of failure; you don’t want to let go of fan service to make your book better, thus it’s never released and has no fans.

The goal here is not to make anyone upset, but to be extremely clear and open about this because it’s a writing habit that’s really hard to spot and stop doing. There is, of course, nothing wrong with adding Reread Craft if it’s very subtle and non-invasive; if it’s shorter than a scene or if it’s a bit of dialogue that won’t seem out of place to a first time reader, then by all means, go for it. However, if you’re struggling to stay under your word goal and contemplating what to cut out, Reread Craft is always the first thing that should go. And if you’re ever being stubborn about it, just remember two words:

Failure Paradox.

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Man. Whodathunk there’d be all of that to learn from the Star Wars prequels? At any rate, I hope this helped you out. If it did, help me out with a Like or Subscription; I’d definitely appreciate it. Regardless though, thanks for reading, and may the Force be with you. Always.

A Mess of Small Goals

2014-(white)TheHandandtheTempestTitle&Progress2

Man did April blow up in my face.

If you follow this blog, you’ll know I had an incredibly clean, specific plan for April. A plan that started with a content edit of War of Exiles, the book I’ve been working on since 2005 through various phases of my writing career. A plan that was so clean and so simple that I should never, ever have expected it to go smoothly.

Because, hey, we’re writers, right? Writing comes first… until work and life come first. Without getting into it, I had a family crisis that thankfully resolved itself, but before I knew that, I was preparing to move and resigning myself to fail at paying my mother’s debts like I promised I would a year ago. No big. No problem. Just an epic personal failure and a disruption of my life plans.

Of course, the crisis being a dud was nice, but the effect is, I’m starting the content edit for War of Exiles way later than intended.

The odd thing about it is how incredibly guilty I feel. I’ve already opened up a lot more than I usually do with my posts, so I’ll keep leveling with you here; I feel like a lazy scumbag because I haven’t started the edit yet… despite having perfectly good reasons. The reasons being the crisis, the fallout (compiling and sending a bunch of story files from my ancient iMac to myself because that’s Writer Priorities right there), the second fallout (trying to catch up on work hours I missed because of the first fallout) and maybe a matinee of The Winter Soldier somewhere in there (shut up—it was essential).

The thing is though, those were perfectly legitimate reasons… to not write. So why am I beating myself up about it? As my friend and fellow writer, Justine Manzano, put it in an email, “I love how you say you weren’t diligent enough because you were working.”

And why is that, when I clearly see how unrealistic that guilt is, my reaction is still a distracted grunt and, “Damnest thing… You write today, btw?”

I really don’t have an answer for this one; this is absolutely not one of my workshoppy, peer-counsel posts.

All I can say is, I’m… actually glad that I reacted to that guilt… with pressure.

Is that horrible? I have no idea. But regardless, I’m making absolutely no effort to change that writing pressure reflex, even though it sucks. Because, to put it into the most mature terms I can think of, every writer… wants to be that Lvl. 99 Master of the Iron Quill. I used to be completely incapable of writing anything if there was any noise in the room… until I forced myself to work through the cars blasting music outside and the party going on upstairs. That’s Lvl. 5 nonsense of course, but the point is, if I ever trip, I should hit the floor with red correction pencil and the final page of a manuscript in hand.

And, as obviously unrealistic as that is, it’s always better to strive for that than shrugging and thinking, “Meh. I’ll get to it next week,” isn’t it? Or do I have this all wrong? This is the profession where you compound super unhealthy mannerisms like staying inside and shunning the real world with totally unrealistic personal standards, isn’t it? Phew. Thought I was in the wrong place for a minute.

At any rate though, through a mess of small goals, I’m finally ready to start the content edit of War of Exiles (the Project Progress Bar at the top right of the page has already been changed—that’s commitment).

To summarize, I finished March with a solid short story outline for The Hand and the Tempest with lots of extra plot details and a much looser novella outline I’m planning to expand on after the content edit of War of Exiles is done. Of course, I have to own up and say that March wasn’t as productive as I was hoping and, as it always goes with writing, I wasn’t able to finish a large project in the tiny, unrealistic window I gave myself. But I promise to continue striving for “Still not good enough.” : )

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I will be busy with the novel, but I’ll keep taking time out for posts (and I promise I’ll get back to the usual, workshop content in the weeks to come). Although not necessarily in this order, another Games for Writers is coming up along with a post about compiling old notes (because, seriously, all of us with the notebooks and the sticky notes everywhere, amirite?). There may even be a third issue of Red Comics, that web comic I put together whenever I seriously, seriously want to procrastinate.

So maybe pass by again or subscribe. But no matter what you do, thanks for reading!

Disclaimer: I thought I’d take a new turn with this post. I’ve put out a handful of Games for Writers articles before in which I talk about specific games that promote good writing in large or small ways. However, I’ve never written any warnings to budding fantasy writers about the (many) bad influences gaming can have on their writing. Thus, here we are, with the first of my Tips for Games for Writers. Enjoy!

So, in this month between finishing War of Exiles and starting its content edit, I’ve pretty heavily picked up my gaming again. Not because I need to play video games, but because, in the comfortable glow of only having an outline for a different story to casually chip away at, why not?

As if I need to have goals now, however, I’m not playing anything new; I’ve instead gone back to super old games I never got 100% in (at least until Titanfall hits the 360). Examples of how I’ve been wasting my time: Fallout 3, Beyond Good & Evil, Half-Life 2. Essentially, I’m trying desperately to complete some of my favorites before this generation officially ends for me in September with Destiny.

But anyway, my current gaming goals aren’t the article here. The article—and my particular need to write it—came while playing Fallout 3. I was on an alien space ship, my character, Norman Osborn, discovering that he’d been made into a cyborg by his alien captors (I seriously just took the Cyborg perk [unnecessary roleplay FTW]), was raging, hurling Plasma Grenades everywhere. It was a good time.

Until I reached the higher level aliens. They clearly had shielding that made them stronger, and although it didn’t feel like it made perfect sense, they were so much more powerful than their unshielded buddies that they cut right into my grenade-hurling good times. Fun turned into plugging what felt like way, way too many shots into the same, stringy alien with my extremely powerful Firelance until it finally died.

Which absolutely made me reflect on countless other such moments—particularly in Bethesda games, but really present in any RPG; you encounter a level 20 enemy while you’re level 1 and, OMFG, you’d better run because that enemy, no matter how disarmingly huggable, is just not going down.

And this, of course, reminded me of when I started writing and how the phenomenon of the high level puppy dog not even feeling my rocket launcher shots—what I now present here as The CR Trap—impacted my work for the worse.

First, What’s “CR”?

If you’re unaware, “CR” stands for “Challenge Rating”; it’s a term I picked up from D&D and it’s the result of an equation that dictates how strong a monster is in relation to all of the players’ characters (a CR 5 is a well matched challenge for a team of four level 5 characters). To put it simply, they’re the decided strength of a monster or character, assigned to supplement a gaming experience.

And often found in every other kind of storied media. Movies? Comics? Books? They all have Challenge Ratings, intentionally or not.

Now, What’s the CR Trap?

It immediately sounds like I’m saying Challenge Ratings are bad; they’re not. They are, however, a gaming tool that doesn’t apply well to writing when they’re misused. When used well, Challenge Ratings are fantastic tools for making more enjoyable experiences (comics are notorious for having Challenge Ratings that dictate how much a normal human can withstand for the sake of being more enjoyable to readers [the Punisher and Batman are two great examples of characters who can take an unrealistic amount of punishment and still come out fine because the audience wants them to (and before you start raging, I’m sorry, but Batman would’ve died the very first time Solomon Grundy punched him 30 feet to smack into a wall JLU style; not being abrasive here—just realistic)]).

However, Challenge Ratings can very, very easily become a personal meta that feels unrealistic to everyone else and that cheapens your writing. To clarify here, establishing clear rules for your characters (they’re all vampires or some other race that has what I think of as “the durability suite” of super powers [moderate super strength, speed, agility and endurance]) isn’t what I mean. What I mean is (perhaps unwittingly) setting rules beyond that to further ensure the safety of your characters. What I mean is you’ve grown up with video games for so long that your human characters can illogically take more than a single gunshot wound and still be fine; against all reason, they can get shot eight times and still scurry behind a waste-high wall and meta-heal enough to rush on to some final objective before ultimately surviving. That is the CR Trap in its most basic and universal form.

However, it absolutely goes deeper than that and gets complex enough that I probably shouldn’t be presenting it here without way more explanation of its different facets, but whatever. Let’s have a good time instead!

The RPG-Forged CR Trap and Me

If you’re anything like me, you’re a fantasy writer who grew up on RPG’s. Even if they didn’t heavily influence your writing in any way, it’s a safe bet that you still carry accidental hints of your writing lineage in your work. Maybe your characters are more stylized. Maybe they have more elaborate weapons or you naturally gravitate to more action-oriented plots.

Or maybe… you’ve actually written the scene where the protagonist faces off against a giant monster and, against all logic, the protagonist comes out unscathed… and defeats the monster by hitting it only once. This is the CR Trap I grew up with, forged on the RPG’s inability to realistically portray violence.

And maybe you’re thinking, “What? Seriously? There’s tons of violence in the RPG’s I play.” Not debatable. However, think about a turn-based RPG like Bravely Default. Your characters have their turns—they run up, execute their attacks and then fall back. The enemy they hit reels for a moment, and then falls very cleanly back into the same stance they had before. It’s a small moment and the tiniest lack of realism, easy to keep out of your work.

Until you see it hundreds… of thousands of times without realizing it. It may sound silly, but consider that possibly, without realizing it was happening, you were trained by your turn-based RPG to see that moment—the waiting enemy, the perfect sword strike, the reel and recovery—as a reasonable approximation of a battle with a vicious monster. And, of course, you know that’s not how the fight would actually go, but it is, perhaps, the very first thing you think of when you try to picture said battle.

And now imagine that that single moment… is actually part of a suite of misconceptions video games have ingrained in you.

  • Like the misconception—provided by a truly awesome and high quality game like Skyrim, for example—that attacking a monster might not illicit any physical reaction whatsoever (because Stunning is tied to Critical Hits and certain moves to make it a gameplay feature).
  • Or the idea that an enemy would pose and act for visual flare, never attacking in a way that sacrificed aesthetics for brutal, logical efficiency.
  • Or the subliminal idea that when battles start, all environmental elements are stripped away and replaced with a large, flat expanse as to not impede the action.

I could go on until I round back to the concept of a Level 1 Barbarian fleeing from a Level 99 Tribble, but if you love video games as much as I do, you’ll know all of these incongruities yourself. Because you always have.

The CR Trap’s Effect on Your Fantasy Writing

I’ll be completely honest with you—I did not catch myself falling into the trap until I finished the first draft of War of Exiles. No lie, rereading the Prologue, in which my protagonist has an encounter with a monster (geez, I even used “encounter”), was actually what sparked the need to rewrite the entire book. It was a horrible, horrible mess of a fight because I basically wrote a turn-based RPG encounter. Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but… I’ll strike off a list for you.

  • The monster, though harmed, did not suffer any serious damage or react to said damage with anything more than a roar and reel before recovering all of its mobility and faculties. Essentially, it was only pretend harmed.
  • The monster, though intelligent, had a collection of visually impressive but extremely useless attacks and abilities that it used slowly and illogically (classically ensnaring my protagonist and slowly pulling him towards itself… instead of immediately running up and killing him while he was helpless on the ground).
  • The battle started in the center of town, perfectly and unrealistically large for a small town and absolutely devoid of any obstructions aside from one decorative fountain that was effectively cut out the moment the fight started.

The only thing I didn’t do was have Lethe and the monster stand facing each other, weapons ready, posed and breathing as action bars filled up.

It’s odd to remember how much I relished writing the original scene too; it wasn’t just that I thought it was passable—I thought it was cool and exciting.

And that’s what the CR Trap does; it ironically lowers the Challenge Rating of your fight scenes by scripting you with the familiar; you feel right at home and comfortable and successful as your character cuts a giant spider’s leg but doesn’t really cut it because reasons. The spider jumps back and strikes again even though it’s gigantic and this is happening in what was just described as a castle courtyard crowded with statues, the spider missing every now-ignored statue because reasons. When the spider strikes  again, it grazes or, despite what should probably be unreal agility, totally misses. Because reasons. Long-ingrained, comfortable reasons.

Getting Out of the Trap

If you feel like you’ve written these kinds of scenes and want to change them, it’s a not at all simple process of going back and thinking very clearly about what’s really happening in your fight scenes. In particular, think about whatever monster or threat your characters are facing and consider something that’s absolutely foreign to video game fodder—what this monster’s individual motivation is. Try to plot how it would advance and how it would attack and stay true to that even if you still come out with a simple “It wants to kill my protagonist,” and especially if you find a complicated, scene-ruining answer like, “This creature would absolutely run away or try to run away if confronted.”

Also, and probably even more essential for combat scenes, don’t simplify your arenas, whether that means not always putting fights in conveniently cleared out “boss rooms,” or not forgetting the table in the center of the room.

But, if there’s one thing I’d suggest above all of this, it’s to put your characters in reasonable, honest danger. If you want your character to fight a giant spider, alone, admit that there’s a fantastic chance that spider (or a reasonably scaled threat for those protagonists who can easily kill a giant spider) will absolutely, ruthlessly, and efficiently kill your protagonist. At the very least, admit and embrace the idea that your characters can face insurmountable dangers in your story, even if thise dangers are never on-screen; that your protagonist isn’t the untouchable badass you usually follow to the end of a video game. To put it simply, write legitimate, suspenseful danger.

And, hey, while you’re at it, also make sure that no other gaming contrivances are plaguing your work (i.e. no fall damage or extremely convenient, nonsensical inventory systems [in particular, none of last gen’s ridiculously standard, “He slipped the weapon onto his back.”]).

Balancing the Trap

It is incredibly comfortable to just stick with the CR Trap and, for the sake of being cool and more appropriate for more audiences, many, many people do stick to it by small degrees; professionally produced stories absolutely follow the mold for the sake of not challenging audiences, who usually don’t really want to be challenged by their favorite characters dying unceremoniously. And that absolutely makes sense.

But in the case of fantasy, even if the average reader doesn’t want a play-by-play on what parts of a monster are sheared off during a fight (and I think the general audience probably doesn’t), any Fantasy-loving adult would be far, far more engrossed with a realistic, high-stakes battle (or chase or hunt). And none of them really want to read the fantasy novel where characters are never actually in danger or where the environment is oddly cleared for every encounter. There’s obviously a balance here and, like all elements of writing, the Challenge Rating meta you set in your work is up to you. But that’s just it—always be mindful of what you’re doing and make it an intentional choice for your story whether or not characters can takes thousands of pounds of knuckled force to the face and still get up.

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 This wound up being… so much more involved and complicated of a post than I expected. But, if you enjoyed, I’d love a Comment, Like, and/or Subscription. Regardless, thanks for reading!

2013-(white)WarofExilesUpdateC

Not to be a downer, but at the time of this posting, I still don’t feel it.

It’s been a week now. A week since I finished my rewrite of my first novel. And somehow, I still don’t really feel it. There were moments when I almost did–moments when I wrote to a friend about finishing the book and perked up, excited at the thought of moving on to the sequel and other, shorter projects. But every time, the near rush always cut short with a monotone, “Nope. That didn’t do it either–still not excited.”

I don’t want this to sound super dramatic; I’m not numb or in shock. I’m just… unfazed. It’s disappointing, really, because the first time I finished this book, I was out of my mind with joy; I’d finished a book and, oh man, I still had to edit it, but, oh geez–oh man–it was done!

This time, I typed the last sentence. Stared at it. Smirked… And then immediately admitted that I hated the last sentence. I changed it quickly to something I really liked and backed up the finished first (technically sixth) draft. And then I just sat at my computer for a while, aware that now, not only could I do something else with my day… but I had to do something else–even though, this time, I knew the story wasn’t actually done–because it was the next step in my writing plan. In the slow, determinedly celebratory and lazy way of humans, I wound up convincing myself to do all of the things I usually do when I achieve a solid milestone–I played some video games without caring about how much time I wasted that day (ultimately a few hours that felt like far, far too long without the banter of a friend over Xbox Live). I also had a decent lunch. I may have actually bought myself a cookie.

The thing is… I’m much, much different from the 20-something year old who blissfully typed, “The End,” and spent a month celebrating afterward (a month of down time that turned into months of carelessness). Past-Louis thought he was almost done–that the Content Edit and Line Edit would be easy. That he’d finished something great.

Present-Louis, however, has already moved on to another story because he kind of had to. Because Present-Louis knows now that it’s time for the Big Push. The Long Halloween. The Whatever You Want to Call It. This is the year where I keep going and move on to another story with my insane, custom-made, self-taught, monster outlines and try to refine them while learning more about writing; about establishing a flow of projects and trying out my approach for Growing Outlines.

Essentially, now is the time when I actually level up as a writer, again. And it’s terrifying! Maybe because I’ve already finished this same book once without knowing it was terrible.  Or maybe it’s because I have almost no outside opinions on my extremely personal techniques–no other writer to look in and say, “Do you really need to list the clothing your characters are wearing?” or “You should make an extra part in your outlines for [this]. [This] is super important and you’re missing it.”

Or maybe it’s because of that moment in front of my computer, staring at the monitor–at that last line–and realizing that I was nothing without the ability to tell stories. I’ve moved on to a new outline of a standalone idea, deeply revised from the super vague, over-excited concept I had in high school (forged from listening to the heartsick intro music from Chrono Cross), and I’m clinging to that outline for dear life. Because I’m not the kind of writer who can take breaks anymore. I’m the kind of writer that’s too far gone, who’s only real fear is the imagined point when I have no more stories to tell.

Well, that and the impending rejection letters. You hear that, slight inkling of victory? Reality’s a-comin’ for ye!

To put all drama and preemptive bitterness aside though, I am… content. Yes, everything is a challenge right now. But, for writers, toiling away, constructing worlds that may never, ever reach readers, everything is a challenge. I’m glad to have found new ones, but they’re still challenges and they’re still daunting.

Regardless, and because I want even this post to be somewhat constructive, the attack plan is as follows:

  1. Spend March away from War of Exiles before beginning my Content Edit. In that time, I’ll take the month to work on a sparse Chapter Outline for the new story I mentioned, The Hand and the Tempest (expect to see it temporarily replace War of Exiles in my Project Progress bar at the top of the page [although its bar will be stranger, as the goal is to progressively build on the outline until it goes from 'Short Story' to 'Novella' to (maybe) 'Full Length, Stand-Alone Novel'--this being the purpose of my "Growing Outline")]).
  2. When April hits, all outlining for The Hand and the Tempest stops as I return to WoE for the Content Edit and, after using The Hand and the Tempest for practice, begin writing a Chapter Outline for War of Masks, the sequel to War of Exiles.
  3. From there, it’s moving on to a Line Edit for WoE while Chapter Outlining the third book in the series (currently unnamed).
  4. After that, when my submission packet is finished, I’ll review the outline for The Hand and the Tempest, and write it as I submit WoE.
  5. And after that, it’s off to work on an outline for another standalone story–I have another in mind.
  6. And all while, I’ll be staring at the intimidating mountain of information that is my actual, main series–my magnum opus that terrifies me as much as it excites me.

This, it turns out, is what being a devoted, aspiring novelist is like; poor and terrified. Unrealistically devoted and absolutely proud of it (if you’re here with me on this obnoxiously lonely, writers’ path, hi there. Let’s revel in our wildly unstable, conflicting emotions together).

To put it simply, being an aspiring author means that you’re very comfortably insane.

So, within the first month, 2014 has already been way, waaay better than previous years. I’ve heard from a lot of awesome people I haven’t heard from in a long time, have hung out with a few of them and even joined a writing group—something I just did not have the balls to do even last year.

The writing group, of course, is the event that I want to focus on here though. Particularly a revelation I took from it. Or, rather, took from reading the samples the group provided.

Disclaimer: If you’re in said writing group, don’t worry. I absolutely will not divulge anything about your stories in this article or even talk about those stories (aside from saying I liked them a lot).

Yeah, so I liked all of the stories from the writing group a lot. There were only two, but whatever—I liked what I read and that was great. Although, of course, a part of me relented. Was that great? Was I just being a pushover because I was excited to be part of a writing group?

It took a few seconds of soul searching, but the answer was a clear no—I wasn’t just being a push over. It’s that, somewhere along the past year or two, I picked up a new rating system for reading other people’s work, and that system’s based on my more practical views of my work.

This new system is incredibly simple, but I thought that as I’ve talked about how horrible some writers can be as readers, I might offer it as a helpful guideline for how to begin to rate other people’s work or how to rate your own. These 3 degrees are rough and honest, but also durable and practical. I won’t pretend that thinking of your own writing in these three phases will make you a master writer.

But if these 3 Working Writer’s Degrees of Story Completion don’t make sense to you, you may not be humble enough in your craft.

Degree 0 – Unsalvageable

Degree 1 – Salvageable

Degree 2 – Ready

Probably doesn’t sound like much, but let me explain one by one.

Unsalvageable

A story that overall just doesn’t work. Whether it’s the plot, the characters, dialogue, or the absence of other, unifying elements like Theme, the story is just not cohesive. It would take so much work to overhaul the story that the author would be better off salvaging its working elements for another project.

So, the first level is the most brutal and it’s the one that most notoriously bad writers-as-readers resort to immediately. I’m not sure why that is, but most hardcore writers, or writers who consider themselves hardcore, will absolutely tear someone else’s writing apart. Maybe it’s because we’re primarily asked to look for flaws when we’re asked to read a piece or maybe it’s because a handful of truly bad stories have spoiled us, but at some point, many writers just turn to the Dark Side.  They start immediately and mercilessly picking each other’s work apart for every single flaw—even if those “flaws” are actually just stylistic differences.

But let’s be honest here. There really are just some stories that are not salvageable. I’ve definitely written some Unsalvageable ones and I’ve definitely read some. That means this first Level, 0, is unfortunately essential. I still believe that all stories can work in some way, but the brutal reality is that sometimes a story would only work in another time, in another place, or under the pen of a different author.

Salvageable

A story that, despite flaws, works. It has a clear intent and the author reaches that intent, eliciting an emotional response from you. Although it will take work to polish the story enough that it’s presentable, that work is worth it as the end product will have legitimate publishing potential.

Here, the ability to draw a response from the reader is key. Did it make you laugh? Did it intrigue you? I’ve definitely been guilty of throwing in the towel on a read very quickly only to get to the end and realize I was the reason the story wasn’t good up until then; I was criticizing everything, missing a good set up for an emotional ending that had meaning.

Of course, not all Salvageable stories have to have the surprise emotional ending; all they have to have is a solid composition or the perfect pair of characters in a setting that works. Perhaps an intriguing element that makes you keep reading. The beauty of “Salvageable” is that it’s purposefully open-ended—the point is, the story is worth it for whatever reason but still needs a case-specific amount of work.

Of course, for readers, Salvageable should also mean, “Good despite my expectations and personal preferences.” If you can’t read the short about warrior orcs and rate it fairly because you hate warrior orcs, the problem with the story is not that it’s about warrior orcs.

Ready

A story that, whether comfortably or anxiously, is deemed good enough to put out. This is variable and based on the writer, who may decide to / be able to deem their work ready with ease or may have to put a hard stop to their constant, last minute changes.

The goal here was, once again, to be universal. In the weird grey area that is all of reality, some writers finish a single draft at their typewriters, jump up, clap their hands clean and shine out a cheerful, “Ready!” while other writers go through draft after draft before shrugging out a high pitched, “I… guess??” Either way though, it’s important for all of us to remember that our drafts are always a Salvageable work in progress until we reach that shining moment. And even when we decide our work is Ready, we’re going to send it off to an agent or an editor who’s going to edit it again; even when we’ve finished our best work and we’re content, it isn’t finished. I don’t want to make this sound incredibly daunting; I just think it’s always better for writes to be humble and questioning of their work.

Although maybe this one is me projecting way too hard (I’m technically on draft 6 of a project I started years ago [with the full intent to learn from this experience and never, ever repeat it]), but hey, “Ready” still does it more accurately than “Finished” in my mind.

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Speaking of finished, that’ll about do it for me. I hope this was helpful or at least enjoyable. I appreciate likes, comments and subscriptions if you’re feeling generous. Either way, thanks for reading!

LS-G4W-WalkingDead

Wow. I haven’t written one of these in a while. But as Season Two of The Walking Dead releases tomorrow and as I hit more scenes in my Outline that need to be completely overhauled, I felt now was a perfect time to get back to my Games for Writers series.

Why The Walking Dead?

I have a tendency to buy critically acclaimed titles and just leave them alone for years (I’m still sitting on Fez). In most cases it’s because I know something intense and high quality is waiting and I want to be sure I’m ready for it. That was especially true with Season One of Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. I was told the ending was heartbreaking and I generally prefer to control my intake of “heartbreaking.” So I put it off until this Halloween, at which point I discovered that oh man, seriously, I underestimated just how hard I would be hit by the story—particularly the last few hours.

However, this article isn’t about the conclusion. While the drama of No Time Left, Season One’s final chapter, was really, really potent, there’s something a bit more practical and universal that makes this game worth a play for any writer. Not the concept of making people bawl their eyes out, but the concept of Choice when it comes to your characters and your writing. Yes, if there’s one thing I think writers should play The Walking Dead to experience, it’s the constant, inescapable presence of Choice.

You and 45% of players gave her the gun

For writers, Choice is a very serious, very high stakes, and very constant factor in the story-telling process. The writer experiences it themselves the moment they take up their pen, because even that moment—before any words have even been set on paper—is steeped in choices: “Where do I start?” “Who’s in this scene?” “Where do I want this to go?” “What are these characters going to do?” I believe all writers know this, and I believe that even if a writer played this game simply to experience the way it trains you to make important choices, they will have gotten their money’s worth.

Clementine will remember you said that.

LS-Dubious-tineKnowsHowever, Choice goes deeper than just what the writer wants. At the very least, in the best stories, choices are also constantly and logically made by characters. I think we’ve experienced a handful of games that pervert the concept; while I love it, games like Skyrim present you with a mostly blank slate to mold into whatever character you like, and in my experience, most people turn that canvas into a confused, meta-self portrait with no real in-game motivations. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who choose to roleplay their characters, but I’m also sure most people just did a 100% play through where their incredibly judgmental, culturally traditional, Storm Cloaks-aligned Nord just said, “Fuck it. Yeah, I’ll be a vampire. : D Cause, vampire powers!”

The Walking Dead, however, makes choice something that characters do. You can absolutely play it the way you want and make your own Lee with his own consequences, but the consequences are what make the experience, and those consequences are largely out of your hands because, most of the time, they’re based on the actions of NPC’s. More than any other game I’ve played, The Walking Dead makes you believe and relate to the characters around you, even if you play a completely meta Lee. It does a frighteningly good job of making you understand why and how Lilly is crazy, for example, or most often and most clearly, what Clementine thinks of you based on what you say, do and tell her. To tie it in more tightly here, it shows you exactly how your decisions—your choices—affect others and lead them to choices of their own. In short, it gives you characters that feel frighteningly real and whose ability to think for themselves is absolutely a lesson any writer would benefit from experiencing. I don’t think every story can foster a host of character decisions, but The Walking Dead stands as a compelling example of how characters should act—alive. Self-centered. Real.

All of the Decisions Ever

However, there’s another meta take on all of this. I mentioned earlier that I was reaching more parts of my Outline that needed to change in my first draft. The thing is, that statement implies that I found mistakes and inaccuracies that needed fixing. In some cases, yes. But in most cases, I realized a fact that The Walking Dead makes incredibly obvious:

There are almost infinite ways that scenes can work—almost infinite ways events can unfold in a story—based on the desires, beliefs and decisions of its characters.

There’s an inherent pressure in writers to find the “right” scene. We reach for vaguely defined, optimal approaches—infinitely perfect moments—for each scene that we believe will make them perfect. In a lot of cases, this ideal scene is the beginning of our story and many of us wait for that lightning to strike until we sadly forget the expected shape of it and move on to something else. The thing is, there is no ideal—no brilliant first sentence that will shake everyone who reads it. That isn’t how writing works; no one falls in love with a novel because of its first sentence. People memorize the first lines of classics and brandish them on occasion, but the merits of classics are not in the sentences they begin with. They’re in the characters they begin with.

And that is why I changed some scenes back to the way they were; when I chose to add or subtract moments in an attempt to find that ideal, I ignored what characters had done before as illogical. But then, during the actual rewrite, as I started to listen to my character’s decisions, I found that a lot of those ideal changes I made didn’t make sense; in the final version of my book, scenes either regressed to mirrors of older scenes with drastically different, more character-relevant tones, or I changed them a third time, based on how my characters felt and what other decisions they’d made.

The lesson for me, and the one The Walking Dead makes clearly, is that the choices all of your characters make are as important as the choices you make as a writer. And those two things are not always the same and can’t always be the same; at the risk of sounding completely crazy, your characters can and will disagree with you and you have to let them. Even if it means you’re undoing your own work or sitting at your computer for hours trying to figure out—“Wait… so, if he does that here… that means… … <sigh>.” Put simply, if you don’t consider what your characters actually want to do or say—what they actually think and feel—in favor of putting them where you want them and speaking your words through them, you need to play The Walking Dead if only to be humbled. If only to realize that your character’s decisions can and should come first.

thegang

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Well, that got intense. As always, thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this latest in my Games for Writers series, there are three others here (although, friendly warning, they’re all over three years old and may contain a lot of snappy jokes [that I’m… willing myself… to not edit out for the sake of honesty and integrity]):

Games for Writers: Silent Hill 2

Games for Writers: Metroid Prime

Games for Writers: Metal Gear Solid 3 – Snake Eater

All Likes, Comments, and Subscribes are appreciated as well, but regardless of those, I hope you have an awesome holiday!

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