Category Archives: Writing & Indie Publishing

Writing- and publication-related discussions, commentaries, forcefully asserted opinions, and advice. Also, writing exercises, and dumb looks (I’m known for looking dumb; seriously, it’s on my resume).

Sex & Violence

Sex & Violence

Of all the scenes to ever trouble the weary fingers of the career author, those which rely on sex or focus on action and violence are the most difficult to write—and, from the writer’s own perspective, often the least satisfying. Both involve the same two hang-ups: action, and intense and passionate emotion, which can be difficult to convey in swift and sudden fashion.

This, of course, is how you often want the heart of an intense scene to progress: buildup aside, you want things to proceed briskly, rather than getting lost in the details. The mind of the reader needs just enough to work with so that they can fashion an image of what’s going on for themselves.

With that in mind, how should you go about conveying this kind of imagery, ensuring that enough bridges the gap between writer and reader—without knocking the reader’s head against the wall, just to remind them that it’s there?

Pace Your Scene

The Devil is in the details… so avoid them. Use the buildup to your sex or action scene to establish atmosphere. Describe a few important details; when you visualize the scene itself, what stands out? Is it the color of the room, or the texture of a wall—perhaps as someone’s fingertips run along uneven masonry? Does the creaking of a bed remind your main character of the treehouse that their long-vanished father built for them as a child? Establish atmosphere before reaching the heart of the scene, using colorful, vivid, but increasingly clipped detail.

Your audience will remember the atmosphere. Now, it’s all about the action. Think of it as the foreground to the atmosphere’s background.  Describe actual action in minimalist terms—whether it’s combative, or sexual… or both, if you’re into that sort of thing. Be sparse with your description, but make sure that what you do use is well-written and relevant. As a rule, you shouldn’t describe superfluous detail that stands starkly in contrast to the atmosphere you’ve already laid out.

With the conclusion of your action sequence, hearken back to the atmosphere briefly, just to tie it all together. Make a final, departing reference to the texture of the wall, or the creaking of the bed, before you continue with your story. Unlike the buildup to an action scene, the ensuing story can return to its previous pace abruptly—not without acknowledgement, but some of the most accomplished authors in existence manage this with a short paragraph, if not a single sentence.

The transition from the main force of an action scene, back to dialogue or narrative, can be as abrupt as the action itself.

Know What You’re After in Advance

sex violence action scenes writing
I’m 60% certain that this falls under “sex.”

The broad strokes of this are obvious (“it’s a fight sequence with the villain,”) but let’s take things one step further than that.

By overcomplicating an action sequence, you risk giving your reader too much to absorb. Sudden changes, such as points that profoundly affect the narrative, need to be indulged quickly—or else they run the risk of interrupting the scene. That’s sometimes a desirable thing, but certainly not always.

Suppose that you’re writing a tense Victorian crime thriller. Your heroine is a young heiress who spends her night fighting for London’s impoverished lower classes—mask and all, although her primary tools are her father’s dueling pistol and her brother’s rapier. You’re writing a scene where she finally comes upon the villain she’s been pursuing. The setup is quick; there is both cause and vengeance at steak. You’ve laid the groundwork: a fiery intensity of emotion, a keening Warrior Princess cry that leaves her foe backpedaling, and our femme fatale draws first blood.

In so doing, she unmasks her foe—revealing the face of her brother, whom she had thought dead, and for whom she had been seeking vengeance all along.

I’ll even give you the benefit of the doubt, and assume that there’s more to the story than that, Shyamalan. Her brother, as it turns out, isn’t the villain at all: he’s been working against the same forces that she’s been fighting, the whole time, but he always did his best to hinder her progress and—in so doing—keep her out of harm’s way.

He’s less interested in the greater good, and more in avenging an unfair slight against his family’s honor. He’s done terrible, horrible things in the act of pursuing his vengeance. Your heroine is confused, and she wants answers, but that rage is still there—she knows what he’s done. She’s seen him do it. The righteous fury of the cause rises to the surface…

It’s a bit much, isn’t it? To be conveyed during a fight scene?

You’ve got two choices here. Progress the action scene for a time, giving your reader some satisfying, adrenaline-pumping excitement, before the unmasking of the noble heroine’s brother. The foe can appear to be toying with her, only to have it later revealed that he was simply trying to avoid doing her any harm.

Once he is unmasked, have the heroine stagger; convey a cold, hard shock, and shift things into a tense dialogue to explain what’s going on.

The other option is to continue the fight. In place of cold shock, there is the fiery anger of betrayal; the heroine redoubles her efforts against her treacherous brother, who is not so unwilling to do her harm that he is willing to risk his vendetta by falling to her sword. The two continue fighting, but there is brief, clipped dialogue intermixed with the action—don’t use four words, when three will do, and only cover the broadest possible details. Major revelations should pause, if not end, the scene.

Too many people get lost in the scope of the detail with an action scene that’s important enough to have more at stake than the simple result of the action itself. They try to introduce new plot elements mid-fight, to change the atmosphere entirely, or to introduce lengthy, interruptive dialogue in between every act involved. This kind of thing bogs an action scene down, and is better reserved for the consequence of a scene—not the mid-point. Full paragraphs and a sudden mood change is a transitory point, not something to indulge in while the bullets are flying.

Pace your Writing

We’ve gone over pacing a scene, but there’s something else to remember about pacing: it applies to your actual writing habit. The greatest writers all say the same thing: “just write.” Sit down, and write. Write until you don’t have anything else to write. Write until you’ve hit the end of your ideas and you’re rambling—then ramble some, before stopping.

Never, ever “edit as you go.” Editing as you go is writer’s block waiting to happen. It’s 100% assurance of dissatisfaction with your own work, and for something as important as an action scene, you don’t want to second-guess yourself unto eternity.

With sex and violence, it’s more crucial than ever that you just… keep… going, until you’re done, and then don’t let yourself change anything right away! Continue writing your story. Write it until the end. Write subsequent action scenes; during the editing process, what you’ve written later may inform some minor tweaks you want to make to what came before, but you’ll be far more likely to be happy with what you’ve written in context. Editing sex or violence as it’s written is the surest way to wind up mired in what I like to call “porn syndrome:” too much detail, not enough reality.

Trust Your Reader, Trust Yourself

This point is critical, but is too often overlooked: you need to relax. Your reader knows what they’re after in a story. Have faith in yourself, in your ability to convey the desired imagery for this scene in the same way that you’ve held your reader’s attention thus far. By the same token, you should also trust that your reader is enjoying your story; if they’ve made it to the sex, or the action, they want to appreciate the scene—but they also want to know what’s coming next. It’s very unlikely that anything you’re likely to do, if you relax and let the words flow, is going to shatter their immersion or ruin their appreciation of your work.

By staying true to yourself—to your vision, your established style, your existing techniques—everything will most likely turn out fine, without a lot of hassle.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen

As a writer who has spent the last couple of years trying to transition into new genres and mediums, I’d be very interested in what you have to say about this, or any of my other articles concerning advice for writers. If you have questions, comments, or concerns, please feel free to share them in a comment below.

If there’s anything I’ve left out, such as some strategy which has worked well for you in the past? Share it in a comment as well—for the benefit of anyone else who might come along!

The Devil’s Bean?

The Devil’s Bean?

Currently, this article condemning Red Bull is #trending on Facebook. It is an example of #fakenews. It contains shoddy, limited, and low-effort research. The low-quality graphics and basic errors in grammar show a lack of careful editing, which also manifests itself in the subjective content.

Here is why you should read such content with a critical and otherwise well-informed eye, and never accept it as the sole source of input for your opinion.

The Source Article has Nothing Specifically to Do with Energy Drinks, Let Alone Red Bull

Nothing about the article has anything to do with #RedBull, or even with “energy drinks” in any general sense. The content relates, solely and entirely, to the effects of caffeine. Important natural processes, which are always at work in your body, are cast in a villainous light, thereby making the effects of caffeine appear far more insidious and pervasive than they actually are. The Church of Latter Day Saints, one of the most notorious advocates against the use of caffeine in the modern world, even clarified its policy five years ago; they now explicitly allow Mormons to drink caffeinated soft drinks, some of the least healthy caffeinated beverages in existence.

You Always Lose Valuable Nutrients When You Urinate

This is why animal waste (ours included) makes such an effective fertilizer. The digestive process is simply not that efficient. This is a point that is regularly raised to make soft drinks, energy drinks, and alcohol look worse than they are, but it would happen even if you drank nothing but crystal-clear mountain springwater. Meanwhile, anything that *isn’t* water (including milk, soy milk, almond milk, and fruit juices) will suck more nutrients out of your system than water will; such is not the exclusive province of caffeinated beverages.

Releasing Sugar Into Your Bloodstream Is Part of Your Liver’s Vital Function (You Need This to Be Alive)

Your liver’s normal, everyday function includes the release of sugar into the bloodstream. Insulin is used to turn sugar into chemical fuel, so more is produced in response to more sugar. This is how you get more energy and stave off exhaustion, which most of us are trying to do when we drink caffeine in the first place.

Blood Sugar Spikes Happen Every Time You Consume Anything Edible (Again, Necessary for Life to Exist)

When you consume anything edible, your body turns part of it into sugar. This sugar is processed into chemical energy by your cells, and used as fuel. This is where all of our energy comes from; supplementing with B-Complex Vitamins doesn’t “give you” energy. Instead, it makes the process more efficient; you lose less of what you’re already taking in. If what comes out of your bottom doesn’t look like what went in at the top, that’s because part of it was chemically altered to produce sugar.

Your Body Naturally Stores Chemical Energy as Fat

Excess chemical fuel is stored as fat when its energy is not needed. The article implies that this is some diabolical twisting of your body’s systems by caffeine. This is how your body normally works. The problem, here, isn’t what you’re taking in: it’s how much of it you’re consuming, and what your daily routine looks like. You shouldn’t drink energy drinks if you’re sitting around on your ass all day. You also shouldn’t eat a lot, or drink anything but water, if you’re sitting around on your ass all day. While we’re at it, you shouldn’t sit around on your ass all day. That is unhealthy in itself. These processes, the way in which your body creates and stores chemical energy, are why that is unhealthy.

Let’s Talk About Red Bull, Since The Source Didn’t Bother

Red Bull does have a lot of sugar, but the total amount (including processed sugar) is no greater than the total amount of sugar found in an equivalent volume of fruit juice.

Its sugar content is roughly equivalent to the maximum daily sugar intake advised for an adult human. That’s in one normal-sized can. It’s equal to about 4-9 teaspoons of sugar, depending upon how high you heap those teaspoons. Many of us put that much in 1-2 cups of coffee, and we’re otherwise generally very careless about our sugar intake regardless (on average, we consume 2 times the recommended daily intake), but that doesn’t objectively make Red Bull any better.

The issue here is the accessibility of that sugar. Processed sugar is easily accessed, and quickly stored (often, I’ve found, in the hips).

Except, there is sugar-free Red Bull. There are also sugar-free varieties of most other energy drinks.

You can restrict your energy drink intake to when you actually need that extra energy, which will burn more sugar without storing the excess as fat. The American Heart Association’s maximum daily intake advisement is based on averages in both body size and daily activity levels. A person with more non-fatty tissue can safely consume higher amounts of sugar. A person with unusually high activity levels, such as someone who gets 30 minutes or more of physical exercise in a given day, will burn through substantially more calories.

The average intake advisement only involves 100 – 150 calories per day, maximum. It is so restricted due to the necessity of making room for calories from other important nutrients *within the average daily allotment of 2000 calories*. An amateur bodybuilder, someone who works out for 1-2 hours per day, may consume 2-3 times as much. It’s all about healthy activity levels and well-informed habits.

Energy drinks are not the Devil. Caffeine is heavily consumed by countries with some of the highest life expectancies on Earth, including the US and the Nordic countries. Articles like the one I’m referencing present a woefully incomplete and deeply skewed angle that is designed to mislead. This is so they can trend on sensationalism, which is exactly what this article is doing.

Modern Genres: Five Characteristics of Successful Steampunk

Modern Genres: Five Characteristics of Successful Steampunk

steampunk hero gunslinger clockworkSteampunk has been described as “Victorian science fiction,” a futuristic version of a world long past—but never far from our hearts. It’s characterized by a solid industrial setting, advanced steam-powered technology, defunct scientific theories, Victorian English aesthetics, and (frequently) alternative history; it is worth noting, however, that—unlike cyberpunk, which is usually set in the urban landscape of near-future Earth—steampunk regularly departs from real-world settings completely.

Steampunk may also incorporate metaphysical themes, of the sort more commonly associated with fantasy than science fiction: there may be a great clock tower, in which there lies imprisoned a figure who is the embodiment of all the world’s sorrows. There might be a massive engine of unknown origin at the center of the world, which drives the life-force of an entire race of living machines, inevitably leading to a conflict of interests whereby its function would seem to endanger humanity. Steampunk grew, in part, out of early twentieth-century pulp fiction set within the Victorian era, and ethical questions of human progress and advancement were a common thematic element in Victorian writing.

In honor of Peter Jackson’s upcoming feature film, based upon Philip Reeve’s steampunk novel Mortal Engines, let’s explore five of the characteristics which successful steampunk novels have in common.

Creative Anachronism

steampunk hat goggles steam-powered technology Victorian fashion

Steampunk features advanced technologies, often with abilities which would be incredible even by modern standards. At the same time, there is a strong element of retro-futurism; these technologies are anachronistic, as they may have been imagined by a fiction writer living in Victorian times. The steampunk writer must take the forward-thinking but still fundamentally limited prescience of the modern science fiction author, and imagine what the same individual might have written about 150 years ago—give or take a few decades.

Common technological elements of the steampunk genre include steam power, early experiments with wireless and electrical technology (which are often presented as being both powerful and uncontrollable, save perhaps by a few gifted individuals), complex mechanics driven by clockwork mechanisms, hydraulics, orreries, and automatons. Steampunk automatons are frequently represented as true artificial intelligences—either the unfortunate victims of uncaring men, or the monstrous offspring of a botched experiment. They are often cast as either the casual hero, striving to be human, or the tragic villain, whose responsibility for their own actions is deliberately debatable.

Meanwhile, the feats which such devices are capable of achieving may include such noteworthy accomplishments as the replication of solid matter, teleportation, the generation of free energy, travel beyond “the spheres” of the known universe (during a time when even the concept of the galaxy and the composition of stars were unknowns), and the reanimation of dead matter.

The Ambiguity of Power

Steampunk incorporates contrasting views. On the one hand, the nature of scientific progress and human achievement is placed under a critical microscope—but this is not to say that such ideas are presented as inherently bad. Rather, the suggestion is more that careful thought needs to be put into such concepts, lest we make ill-considered decisions—with potentially cataclysmic consequences.

In fact, steampunk embraces the concept of scientific advancement and achievement. Anything which is unknown or “outside” the laws of science is, if not invariably bad, certain to be sinister and suspect. Extra-dimensional powers and spiritual entities, where they are present, have ulterior motives and agendas that are at worst malevolent; at best, their plans take on such a long view that most characters can simply sidestep any scrutiny of their ethical considerations.

If a character in a steampunk story is fiddling with alchemy, researching sorcery, or dabbling in the occult, the powers with which they are contending are portrayed as dark and ill-advised influences. Magic and technology mix and react in uncertain ways, with magic (where it exists; it’s not a universal element) being portrayed as the essence of chaos. Its very use may serve to break down the natural order of things, and—if it is even successful—there are always unanticipated consequences.

Steampunk DIY: Do-It-Yourself

The Victorian era—the actual Victorian era—was a time of almost steampunk-clockwork-deviceunprecedented invention and technological innovation, as compared to all the rest of human history. It also saw the growing frequency of large corporations, railroad barons, and captains of industry, and introduced (at least to the popular perception) the widespread idea of intellectual property theft as a damaging, criminal enterprise.

In modern times, for example, we recognize the frequent theft of ideas perpetrated by Thomas A. Edison, as well as his propensity for ruining the livelihoods and careers of his competitors so thoroughly that some died in relative anonymity many years after Edison himself was long gone.

The steampunk genre pays underlying tribute to the more genuine side of the spirit of Victorian innovation. Large organizations and powerful individuals are usually presented as having stolen their ideas, often for dark and sinister ends. The most remarkable innovations are the prerogative of individual, independent craftsmen and innovators, often unrecognized for the true extent of their genius, who are forced to assemble their gadgetry more or less single-handedly from secondhand materials. Time and again, the day is saved thanks to the life-long efforts of an unsung “do-it-yourselfer.”

A Motley Aesthetic

steampunk soldier officer steam-powered prostheticThe appearance of steampunk settings has a lot in common with the era on which they are based. The average individual is not clean and well-kept, save perhaps in higher echelons of society—which are invariably keeping the majority of the population oppressed. Technology is functional first, and neat second: neatness, where it occurs, is one of several traits that tends to be characteristic of the corporate presence, the inner circle, and other parties with sinister or suspect motives.

Patchwork riveting, scavenged materials, and dirty streets intermingle with other cobbled-together visual elements, such as clothing and personal accessories which incorporate bits of the steampunk aesthetic. They may be functional, such as a steampunk or a clockwork-driven prosthetic limb, or they may be purely decorative, serving no apparent use—except to make an individual stand out as being a character in a steampunk setting.

Steampunk is a gritty, hard, and visceral setting, one that is based profoundly on visual imagery and readily recognizable components. The profound nature of its underlying themes is manifested directly in the way everything else is presented. Things look a certain way—right or wrong, benevolent or dangerous, friendly or hostile. There is, of course, a meta element to such a presentation: the visual nature of the genre is for the reader’s benefit, leading to the dramatic tension of a character interacting with something we know to be dark and sinister—even if we don’t quite understand why.

A Disenfranchised Society

Steampunk, like the other ‘punk genres, embraces the lone and asocial hero. Sometimes, a small group of these may be forced to work together, and might even find some common ground, but there is always a maverick streak—a sense of rebelliousness, which encourages them to rise up and work against a corrupt and inadequate system. The system, after all, is something that most people simply accept, for the sake of the greater good or simply not rocking the boat. As a result, there is a certain amount of ambiguity in the main characters’ actions; some part of why they’re fighting, or working against the system, is based on their own internal dissatisfaction—or other needs that must be reconciled.

They might be doing the right thing, but not entirely for the right reasons—and they may not be going about what they’re doing in the best way. That’s not to say that the steampunk hero can’t be a clearly right-minded individual, only that they frequently aren’t, and the latter seems to be the ingredient of more highly-praised and critically-acclaimed steampunk. One of the great forebears of the genre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—while not a work of steampunk in itself—features two primary characters: Victor Frankenstein, an obsessed man who follows blind ambition to a result that was dark and ill-advised from the beginning, and his creation, a creature who is at once terrible and innocent, as tragic a villain as any in the last two centuries of modern fiction.

In steampunk, nobody is perfect. The people in power are corrupt and uncaring; the do-gooders are naïve—and often obsessed—and the common people are either bitter, broken, or angry, reduced to the dog-eat-dog state of doing what it takes to survive. The villain may have the best of intentions, but fail utterly in their realization, and the hero might use the absolute darkest methods. In the end, steampunk is about upsetting a carefully constructed balance, often one that is stressed as having stood the test of time for most of human history up to that point, in response to the growing need for individual recognition and personal satisfaction. It is not a genre for the faint-hearted, or the unusually reserved.

It is, however, a lot of fun to read.

Need More (Steam)?

 

How to Tell an Indie Author that You Love Them

How to Tell an Indie Author that You Love Them

indie authors love reviews
I mean, who doesn’t? We’re all so clean and well-irrigated.

Write a review. Please. And, thank you.

There’s a lot to be said about this, but that’s the cold, hard gist of it. Each year, hundreds of thousands of new writers join the millions who are already engaged in self-publishing. Thanks to platforms like Amazon and CreateSpace, millions of new books are flooding the worldwide market.

I recently joined the ranks of new authors (The Death of Constance is a BDSM erotic thriller, available now, if you’re into that sort of thing) along with my coauthor Amburgese Rain; it’s been an adventure, a rewarding experience, and a lot of fun. A simple release party on an indie authors group on Facebook can lead to a few hundred dollars in sales, right away, but for anything bigger—to climb the ranks; to become known? That takes some serious elbow grease, thanks to the level of competition.

This is not a bad thing. It’s “the more, the merrier.” And, thanks to eBooks, reading habits are actually on the rise: print sales are gradually declining, but the difference is vastly outpaced by the number of people using e-readers. Until conclusive evidence is presented as to e-readers somehow being “harmful,” there is no reason to discount electronic readership as being somehow “different.”

I love a hard copy as much as the next B&N haunt, but—ultimately—books are books. I’m sure people complained when we stopped using clay tablets, and again when we stopped using parchment scrolls.

Another Non-Sequitur “Nick Can’t Stay on Topic” Moment: Digital Information Death

To those worried about the eventual decay of electronic media, a phenomenon sometimes called “digital information death” or “digital information disintegration,” modern books disintegrate after a few decades. Books from five decades ago are frequently in worse shape than books from five centuries ago. The medium of the written novel began using cheaper, less durable materials a while back, and nobody noticed—except to appreciate the associated decrease in pricing, which e-readers have once more delivered.

Back to Indie Books and Writing Reviews

save authors help indie books write reviews
My review type is 0+. There’s a shortage.

The sheer number of new books and fledgling authors has led to the saturation of many commonly read genres, both in fiction and in nonfiction. As a rule, “commonly read” equates to “commonly written;” it’s mostly readers who become writers, and the self-publishing community relies heavily on community support. People also tend to write within genres and subject matter which they personally enjoy reading about.

As a result, there are simply too many books for online publishing and marketing platforms to keep track of via traditional methods. This has resulted in their finding ways to essentially narrow down the list, without actually discriminating directly against authors based on subject matter or preferred genre. To be fair, the latter is the avenue being taken by many traditional agents and publishing houses (it is common, for example, to stumble upon “no longer accept manuscripts within the fantasy genre” in the course of one’s search for a potential outlet).

What the online platforms have done, in response to the glut of new literature, is to focus related product searches and other incidental promotional efforts on customer reviews. Books on Amazon are ranked, referenced, and promoted based upon customer rankings and reviews, with books that have no reviews loitering in a negative space that is in some ways even more disadvantageous than having an overall negative reception.

How to Write a Review

amazon goodreads reviews indie publishing
Give a hoot! TEASE YOUR EYEBROWS! Also, write reviews.

There are lots of places which offer tips and advice on how to write the perfect review. What they tend to neglect (though not always; thanks for the ample assistance, Kyle!) is the fact that even something quick, low-effort, but high-energy is far more valuable than nothing—even more than a standalone rating. The simple act of taking a few moments out of your day to submit a review at all is what Amazon and other markets are looking for. The rest is icing. Sweet, sexy, succulent icing—but still icing.

Reviews in places like Amazon and Goodreads don’t have to be lengthy. They can be as simple as “Great job; can’t wait for the next one!” or even “I liked it!” along with an honest rating. Goodreads also offers other forms of engagement, including a forum for questions, quizzes, and trivia questions relating to the book.

Frankly, many authors don’t pay enough attention to these features.

Would You Like to Know More?

  • Amazon’s Customer Review Guidelines. They’re pretty much common sense, but everybody involved in the industry ought to read them at least once as a reminder.
  • The best reviews on Goodreads; a weekly/monthly/annual/all-time list of the site’s 50 most popular book reviews in the United States. If you really want to do your favorite authors a favor in return, this is where to go to find some good examples. It’s applicable outside of Goodreads as well.
  • From Bustle.com, Nine Websites for Readers Who Think About Books All Day, Every day. As with Goodreads (which is on the list) it’s to the indie author’s benefit to be familiar with these websites as well!
  • Join The Hive on Facebook, a group dedicated to indie authors pooling their resources to provide a mutually supportive boost to new authors. Mind you that “mutual” is a point of emphasis—but it’s the effort that counts!