When the worst thing that CAN happen will ALWAYS happen (in fiction)

I hate fiction where the worst thing that can happen, will always happen.

A lot of writing books tell you “Make it worse! Did you? Now make it worse, again!” This is done as a technique to increase tension in a story.

But when the worst thing and the worst thing alone happens consistently, it starts to erode my suspension of disbelief (or, the believability of the story goes down). No matter how bad someone’s life is, no one has the single worst possible thing happen to them in every and any situation.

(Unless you’re Job from the Bible, but thank heavens that was only one story and not a trilogy!)

It doesn’t make logical sense for a character’s parents to die, then his mentor, his dog, his best friend, then his girlfriend turns evil, his leg is chopped off, (actually, this is starting to sound like an interesting story and a bad analogy). I’m trying to say it doesn’t make sense to look at all the possible outcomes of a scene and to ALWAYS pick the single WORST potential outcome. There are times, many times, where you want to pick the worst, or one that’s pretty bad. But to feel a little more REAL, you need to sometimes pick the good outcome, or, more often, the OK outcome.

This problem, however, usually isn’t enough for me to shut a book. Though my suspension of disbelief and my trust in the validity of the story are damaged, I usually see that as a plot problem. If the writer has done his most important job, I still care about the characters enough to want to know what happens to them.

The true problem comes from thinking “What’s the worst?” to thinking “What’s the next logical thing to happen with everything here?” Part of the problem is foreshadowing, but sometimes, you wonder why the enemy arrow always hit’s the throat. Or the character makes the wrong choice every time. Or the bad guy wins every time. Mix it up. Make it make sense.

And most of all, don’t feel you have to always make it “THE WORST.” Also, don’t feel you have to listen to my rules either.

 

Booyah!

How to discipline your creative brain

In short, rid yourself of the mindset that you have a Creative Brain and an Analytical Brain. Create a new mindset where you have 1 brain: A well-trained, well-practiced, and highly-disciplined Creative Brain.


In talking about Heinlein’s rules, Dean Wesley Smith says that writing is a creative activity, that we shouldn’t grind all personality out of our work by rewriting. He also says that we must read constantly; we must analyze the writing of others; we must study craft, prose, and, most importantly, storytelling techniques; we must actually write; and we must finish what we write.

Heinlein’s Rules:

  1. You must write
  2. Finish what you start
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order
  4. You must put your story on the market
  5. You must keep it on the market until it has sold
  6. You must study the craft (I added this, from comments Dean made)

In reading his book, a metaphor took form in my head. Currently, most people view their brains as being the creative brain and the critical brain.

The creative brain is like a hippy, wild and free, running around with no forethought, no discipline, making scattered notes on the piano or splattering paint all over the walls, all wild and random and instinctual expression.

The analytical brain is like a librarian, strict and stern, concerned with order and organization and cleaning up the messes of others, following behind the hippy and trying to find what it considers “good” music or an “artistic” paint job based off of what others have said before. Whatever fits the librarians prescribed beliefs survives, everything is muted or painted over.

This is a BAD mental model. It makes it so that the hippy bears no responsibility, and the librarian has all authority but is often following the trend so much that whatever “art” is left is drab, boring, and so much like everything else.

A new mental model is needed. Instead of two halves, there is one whole. An artist. A musician, a composer, a dancer. The artist has all the creativity of the the hippy but doesn’t lack foresight. The artist has all of the discipline of the librarian and none of the generalizing prescribed notions.

The artist finds the balance between expression and creation, discipline and focus. It is to take the hippy and offer focused practiced and study. Not to see what is commonly accepted by other professionals (like the librarian), but to learn how to create an experience for the consumer. A powerful emotional experience, tested and learned step by step, with focused practice. Not wanton splattering of random ideas nor the arbitrary slaughter of all but the most statistically accepted by values that seem to exist “just because.”

Dean Wesley Smith says:

“Rewriting is when you do a sloppy first draft with the intent of “letting it sit” (dumbest thing I have ever heard) and then “fix it” later.

This lazy attitude is the attitude of the hippy and the librarian (which actually ends up being a LOT MORE work). Have the attitude of the Artist. Dean says:

“If you tell your creative voice to do it right the first time, the story won’t be broken.”

Train your creative voice. Read a lot. Consume stories. Study how stories are written. Use that in your writing. Practice. Practice. Practice. Become the writer you were meant to be.

 

p.s. Read everything by Dean Wesley Smith. His words about the business of writing have transformed the way I approach the writing career.

Is my fantasy too European?

When I saw that agents are looking for non-European fantasy, I wondered if my fantasy fit that criteria. So I underwent a process of self-examination and I learned that I DON’T write European fantasy. Nor do I write Asian fantasy, American fantasy, Middle-Eastern fantasy, or African fantasy.

I create my own cultures, from scratch. I take ingredients from different cultures and invent new recipes. I don’t copy a recipe/culture and tweak it slightly, I start from the ground up and invent entirely new dishes.

I’ll emphasize that:

I don’t appropriate and tweak other cultures for my fantasy. I create entirely new cultures from scratch.

One novel (Two Masters) features a culture inspired partially by ancient Israel (a tribal system with a strong religious influence) and partially by early gunpowder-era Japan. However, the culture’s religion draws from Catholicism and the government is theocratic meritocratic dictatorship (1 leader rules absolutely, with laws based on religion, and other leadership positions are attained by passing specific tests and quizzes better than others).

Another novel (Robbing Gods) has a culture that’s almost like a China going through a magical industrial revolution. Another culture is inspired by Jews, Native Americans, with a little bit of Nazi ideology. They’ve been driven forth by other races for centuries, found a land to call their own, but other races have still oppressed them. After growing sick of this, they’ve rejected all other races and are willing to commit genocide to have a land for themselves.

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You read that right, I used Nazis and Jews as inspiration for a culture. Once wanderers (like the Jews), then struggling with settlers (like the Native Americans), and now they’re willing to slaughter all not of their race, considering themselves superior (Nazis). Oh, and their leader is sort of like a mix between Hitler and Joan-of-Arc. She’s brutal, but loves her people and feels she is inspired to do what she does.

I find that my favorite fantasy uses this “invent a new recipe from random ingredients” method. Brandon Sanderson’s way of kings is ridiculously difficult to pin down as having been inspired by one certain culture (magic tech, kings and princes, racial discrimination based on eye color, people with white eyebrows that never stop growing).

I suggest giving this method a try. Invent brand new dishes and brand new worlds. What if there were a race of humans who had spikes in their elbows, believed in a god made up of the thought-energy of their ancestors, lived in outhouse sized homes by themselves (1 per person, privacy is greatly important), and their government was based on taking what everyone thought and putting it through a series of mathematical equations to decide what to do.

Which culture inspired that? Oh and they fight with sword-shoes. (I just came up with this.

I’m done worrying. Now, I could do better with having greater diversity in my stories, and having stories with less western modes of morality. I’m trying to do better with that. But with that also I’ll invent my own diversity. I can’t represent African-Americans in a world where there are none, but I can create my own minorities and give them a voice, reflecting the same pain felt by minorities in our world.

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My advice: Create brand new dishes. You can definitely create Native American, African, or Polynesian fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with that (in fact more fantasy of those kinds would be nice). But know that you’re not limited to slightly tweaking the cultures that already exist.

You can create an infinite amount of brand new ones from scratch.

 

Booyah!