The worst sentence ever: “Mistakes were made”

In my day job as a journalist and editor, I eradicate a lot of passive voice. Let’s face it, 95% of passive voice usage is bad writing. It’s the easiest thing to attack when I first sit down to edit something. Find the passive voice construction, figure out what the subject and predicate of the sentence should be, rewrite. It’s the fastest way to improve someone’s writing. The next step? Strip out adverbs. Third step? That’s a trade secret.

Anyway, I highlighted some wisdom from Stephen King in my blog recently. He once wrote that the use of passive voice is a sign of a timid and insecure writer. I absolutely agree with him.

But there is one example of a passive voice sentence that is not indicative of timidity. “Mistakes were made.” This sentence is a dodge. It’s an example of political obfuscation, cowardice and cunning. Countless politicians and hacks have used this sentence construction to admit fault without actually pinning any blame to themselves. Look at the sentence: “Mistakes were made.” Who made the mistakes? This sentence certainly doesn’t explain it.

Wikipedia has a helpful list of historical uses of the sentence. President Ulysses S. Grant used a variation of it while discussing corruption in his administration. Richard Nixon used it quite a bit during the Watergate scandal. Ronald Reagan used it while discussing the Iran-Contra affair. Bill Clinton used it while discussing some fundraising shenanigans.

“Mistakes were made” is a slippery phrase people both in and out of power use to avoid accepting full responsibility. My fellow journalists should not allow politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats to get away with it. If you are at a press conference and you hear a senator or a CEO utter those words, interrupt him or her.

“Mistakes were made.”

“Excuse me, Senator. Who made those mistakes.”

“Um, I did.”

That’s right. Pin those people down. Their communications directors and pollsters have trained them to never actually say “I made a mistake,” and civil society suffers as a result. These people are avoiding accountability. Someone might counter and tell me, “Oh, we know what they mean. We know they made the mistakes.”

Well sure, we know it. But we have to extrapolate that truth for ourselves. We’re not really hearing an admission of guilt from Nixon, Reagan or Clinton. There is no accountability in their statements. Language is a powerful thing. There is a reason why they are using passive voice in this case. They know what they’re doing. And we should call them on it.

Just contemplate the emotional reactions you have when you read these two sentences.

“Mistakes were made.”

“I made a mistake.”

You cannot deny the power of that second sentence. The person speaking those words is taking a stand. They are claiming responsibility for something that went wrong. We, the listeners, hear and accept that admission of guilt. And in some small way, we accept it. We’re ready to move on. We’re ready to fix whatever went wrong.

The person speaking the passive voice is hiding in the shadows. We may be angry about those mistakes, but the speaker is being slippery. Maybe he made the mistake. Maybe someone else did. We can’t be sure because no one and standing up and taking the blame. So we feel cheated. We feel lied to. And the person who speaks the words gets to dodge blame in some small way. It has to stop.

“Mistakes were made” is the worst sentence in the English language. We need to kill it.

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Why the love? Give your characters a reason to want each other

Writing about relationships — whether romantic or not — in fiction is hard, but I think you can make it a little easier if you think about that relationship as a character.

Character development is perhaps the most important step any writer needs to take before embarking on a story. The needs and wants of a character drive plot, create conflict and help readers sympathize with the character and his or her story. A writer has to flesh out those needs and wants with concrete details about the character that convince the reader of their authenticity. If you give your character experiences, emotions and physical attributes that make these needs and wants plausible, the reader will buy into the fiction and care about your story. Why is your character angry? He lost his job. She can’t throw a ball like she could when he was younger. His daughter doesn’t call him as much as she used to. She struggled with learning how to read and it still affects her confidence years later. Characters are driven by these challenges and when you write against these conflicts, your characters come alive.

The same holds true for the relationships that characters form, whether in friendship or romantic love. There has to be something between those people that bonds them together. And that relationship should evolve if it is central to the plot of the story. As the characters change, so too should their relationships.

I recently read “Wormwood is also a Star,” a novella by Andy Stewart that appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is an inventive and enjoyable story, part murder mystery and part romance. Although I liked it a lot, something was missing. There is a romantic relationship at the center of the novella that the author hasn’t fleshed out.

The characters are having an illicit affair, and Mitka, the female protagonist, is torn between her passionate love for Vitaly and her sense of obligation to her husband Yuri. This triangle has a lot of things going for it, but one essential piece is missing. I never saw any explanation in the story for why Mitka had fallen in love with Vitaly.

Vitaly has some paranormal attributes that make him intriguing on the surface. But he’s mostly a flat character. In fact, he’s a cipher. He’s a teenage boy who is emotionally unsophisticated and expresses almost no needs or wants throughout the story. He has a wound, in the form of a sister who committed suicide. But we only perceive that tragedy through the eyes of Mitka. Vitaly never really expresses any feelings about this loss throughout the story, except at the end of when he expresses a desire to be reunited with his sister.

The author never presents a moment or a feeling or an experience that explained why these two people were together. Mitka was simply in love with the boy who was more than a decade younger than she was. Perhaps the relationship was about her own pathos. Perhaps Vitaly was meant to be a cipher and so the relationship was meant to be one-sided. Still, the affair rang hollow to me. The passion they had for each other seemed inauthentic. And it kept me from truly buying into the novella.

Overall, Stewart’s novella is a good read, but that flaw in the story’s core relationship held me back because most of Mitka’s actions throughout are driven in part by her love for Vitaly. It’s not the only relationship that drives the story. Her relationships with her father and husband are also pivotal. They are also more well-developed, which makes them work.

In my in-progress novel, I’ve been fleshing out some central relationships between characters. Some are romances. Others are friendships. Still others are mentorships. I find that the more time I spend treating these relationships as characters, the more realistic they are. And as those relationships develop, they drive the plot. One of my characters finds himself torn by loyalties to two different mentors. As I strengthen each of those relationships, the dramatic tension for the character is heightened.

I’m bolstering the portrayal of those relationships with tiny details. A couple lines of dialog here. And kind gesture there. A promise of reward here. A punishment there. These things flesh out the relationships and make them characters in their own right. The relationships develop their own narrative arc. I don’t feel comfortable pushing my plot forward until I’m convinced that all of the relationships intertwined throughout have a firm foundation. If I neglect this step, I’m convinced that my readers will not buy into the story.

Three lessons learned from Stephen King’s “On Writing”

On Writing by Stephen King is much more of a memoir than I anticipated. I expected it to be more prescriptive, like many of the books on writing that I’ve read. But King had a different lesson in mind. He decided to show how his life had shaped his writing, and vice versa.

King does offer some instruction on writing in the latter half of the book. I took away three key lessons from it.

1. The first draft is for you.  The second draft should be for everyone else. King says he learned this approach as a teenager from his first newspaper editor, who told him: “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

I’ve been a journalist for more than a decade, and I know this lesson well. Reading it in King’s book was a good reinforcement. Every piece of writing I have ever done has begun as a story I told to myself. I think that’s my favorite part of the process — getting the story out there so that I can enjoy it. I admire the heart of the story. I enjoy the turns of phrase. I stuff in every bit of information I have that I think is interesting.

When I’m done, I read it as a reader, not  a writer. The second draft is for everyone. Maybe a turn of phrase is too florid for someone who isn’t particularly impressed with my writing skills. I take that out. I notice some repetition of an idea or information, so I make some cuts. I examine whether my reader will have any unanswered questions. I ask myself if I’ve given the reader a reason to start and finish the story. As King says in this book, you write the first draft with your door closed. The story is just for you. Then you open the door upon starting the second draft, because after that the story belongs to the whole world.

2.  Fear is a writer’s enemy. King writes: “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”

I’m an editor as well as a writer, and I’ve seen my fair share of bad writing. Some of the worst writing has come from writers who had no confidence in their abilities. They assumed that whatever they wrote was going to be terrible. And they fulfilled that prophecy.

King points out that overuse of the passive voice, for instance, comes from a writer’s timidity. The writer is fearful of asserting an idea too strongly. He or she backs into ideas or actions rather than boldly laying them out for the reader. The timid writer writes “Joe was shaken by his own quick decision to shoot the guy” rather than “Joe shot the guy and trembled.”

The same goes for turgid prose. Overuse of adverbs and adjectives. Reaching for cliches rather than coming up with something original. Writers do this when they think their writing is plain or dull. But a confident writer can pen lean prose that rivets an audience. Any inexperienced or tentative writer should approach the second draft of a story with the intention of cutting 50% of all their adverbs and adjectives. Replace adverbs with more descriptive verbs and nouns. Those are the most powerful words in any sentence. Adjectives and adverbs are like perfume. Too much will give you a headache.

3. A good story with good characters beats everything else. This sounds simple, so let me quote King: “When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story.”

What does this mean to me? It’s not the gimmicks that really matter. Genre writers might be able to catch some eyeballs with some fabulous world-building, cool magic systems, and awesome technology. But in the end, readers want good characters that they can relate to and care about. And they want a story that pulls them along.

With that in mind, you should try to put a something real into all of your characters. Give them a piece of you or a piece of someone you love. Or someone you hate.  You don’t have to make your characters analogs of yourself. Every human being is complicated by thousands of memories and feelings and fears and desires. Just give one or two of those things to your characters. Yearning for a lost love. A desire to rise to the top in a career. A fear of heights. A weakness for cookies. These things make characters human. And you’ll find it easier to add other traits and quirks to them that don’t necessarily come from you.

Once those characters come alive, the story also comes alive. Whatever your characters want will drive the story.

4. King had another lesson related to the one about a good story, a lesson I disagree with. He says plotting isn’t important. Character and situation is important. Put a good character in a situation that they need to get out of and the story will come. Apparently that is King’s approach to writing his gigantic novels. Obviously it works for him. He’s made a fortune with it. Others subscribe to this approach, too.

I can’t operate that way. I do build characters and I do put them into situations. But I also need to have a plan. Otherwise, I get stuck. I don’t have to start with that plan, but ultimately I need to have it. I need to map the plot to some extent. Thousands of other writers agree with me, so I won’t bother to argue the point.  Some writers are gardeners and others are architects, or as Chuck Wendig would say: Some people are plotters and some are pantsers (i.e. seat of their pants).

A meditation on women in fantasy and scifi

I read a short story this week by a well-respected science fiction and fantasy author that had five characters — four men and one woman. The physical description of the one female character started with “high-breasted.” Not her hair color or eye color. Not her complexion. Just “high-breasted.”

The author’s treatment of the character didn’t improve from there. While all the male characters in the story had reasonably complex personalities, the woman in the story served almost exclusively as a sexual foil. She slept with two of the other characters in the story. And her personality was generally just a reflection of the protagonist. She amplified  his personality rather than challenged it. She was only a “high-breasted” source of moral support.

I’ve been acutely aware of issues like this ever since a sexist cover of the magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ of America touched off a heated blog debate among authors in the market. Many authors, both men and women, have written very thoughtfully about this issue, like Delilah S. Dawson and Mary Robinette Kowal. Chuck Wendig has written a whole series of posts about the issue.

I’m an unpublished genre author and my experience with this situation is limited. I don’t have anything substantial to add to the debate. But this whole episode has made me much more thoughtful about how I portray women in my own work.

When I was describing the fantasy novel I am writing to a female friend of mine recently, she asked me if it had any strong women characters in it. My answer was a qualified yes. I had some interesting women characters, but not any strong women characters. The book has three protagonists — all boys or men. There were two major female characters. One dies early on. The other is pivotal to the plot, but rather passive. I think this is a problem.

The issue has been percolating in the back of my mind as I work on the book. Coincidentally I reached a point in the writing process where the book wasn’t working. The plot was not coming together the way I wanted it to. I started avoiding the book. I lost the will to deal with it.

I stepped away from the writing process for a couple weeks and did a lot of thinking. I realized that I needed to change some the motivations of my principal characters to unlock the plot. To do this, I needed to a couple more characters.

I decided that the new characters would be women. Not only women, but powerful women. Not damsels in distress. Not sex objects. Not foils. They would be well-rounded characters with their own hopes and dream. They would command respect within their communities. And they would have the ability to determine their own destiny.

These characters were not there to fulfill a quota of strong female representation. I needed them in the book. And as soon as they were added, the pieces of the plot started falling into place. With these women there, I was able to change the relationships between the men in the story. The women took on some of the roles previously played by male characters. The plot became more complex but it also started to make sense again. The book is back on track and I’m excited to be work on it once more.

Fantasy novel revision: Introducing Horace

Here is a revision of the first couple pages of an early chapter in my book. It introduces Horace, the main character, as a child. He is an adult for most of the book, but here we see him when he  uses magic for the first time.

This revision is based on suggestions made by an editor I met with at the Manuscript Mart at Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace.

If you want to learn more about Horace and the nature of his power, stay tuned 🙂

When Horace was five years old, he used magic for the first time. In his mind it wasn’t magic. It was just a wish that came true.

Horace and his brother Zain were walking home to their village of Stony Field. They had spent the day sitting beside the West Tower Road, near a spot where a nasty wheel rut was baked hard as stone by the summer sun. It was the only road that led out of their village, to the border town of West Tower. A few wagons made the journey between the towns every day.

When wagons struck that rut, their wooden frames groaned, their drivers cursed, and — if Horace and Zain were lucky — something good would shake free from the wagon load. The drivers never noticed. But Horace and Zain would scramble forward and scoop up whatever fell. Mama sent them out to beg and scrounge every day for whatever they could, and this rut was generous to them. Today they had collected two winter apples, a head of lettuce, a small loaf of hard, black bread, an onion, and a wooden mug. Six-year-old Zain carried their treasure in a patched linen sack slung over his shoulder.

There was one other prize that Horace had wrapped in a dirty rag and stuffed into his pocket. It was a handful of seeds.

“Mama will find out about the seeds,” Zain said. “Seeds go in the garden.”

“I want to feed the bird,” Horace said.

“She’ll hit you with her broom.”

“She won’t know.”

A house finch with a brilliant red neck had been perching on the scrap-wood fence that Mama and their older brothers and sisters had built around the family’s garden. Horace thought it was a beautiful bird, with its narrow brown body and the shock of raspberry-red feathers around its neck. Every morning it would land on the fence and whistle a couple notes. Horace waited for the bird to see its red feathers, but it didn’t stay long. It was searching for food. It was waiting for something good to grow in the garden. Horace knew birds liked seeds.

“Don’t get beat for a stupid bird, Horace.”

“I won’t!”

They walked in the tall grass that lined the West Tower Road. Stony Field was only a mile away, closer if they cut across the rocky field that gave the village its name. Horace had no shoes, so crossing the field was always hard on his feet. The stones left bruises if he wasn’t careful. Zain cut toward the field and Horace followed.

“I’ll race you,” Zain said.

“All right.”

As Horace sprang forward, Zain pushed him to the ground and sprinted away.

“Not fair!” Horace yelled. Horace was the youngest of his seven brothers and sisters, and the others were always pushing him around, including Zain. But Zain made a joke of it when he shoved Horace. They laughed about it together as brothers. Zain was the second smallest, so he knew it was hard to be the little one.

Horace got his hands and feet under himself and prepared to stand. He stopped. He had landed on an earthworm and crushed its middle. It was twisting back and forth trying to right itself, but its middle wouldn’t work.

Horace felt a desperate, guilty sadness as watched the worm struggle. It was dying and it was his fault.  Well, it was Zain’s fault, too. Zain had shoved him down. But Horace didn’t like the idea of something dying because of him. Stony Field had already had its share of dying. So many of the men had gone off to fight in the emperor’s war. They marched away and they didn’t come home. Horace’s father was one of them, but Horace didn’t remember him. He was only a baby when their father marched to war.

Horace watched the worm struggle in the stony earth and wondered if a worm could feel pain. He touched its crushed middle with the tips of his fingers. It was cold and moist. The worm just twisted and twisted. Horace closed his eyes.

“I’m sorry, little worm. I’m sorry I landed on you.”

He imagined the worm all better. He wished he had never hurt it. The thought made him dizzy. Then the dizziness passed and he felt tired. He opened his eyes and shook his head to clear it. He didn’t want to fall asleep in the field. Mama would be mad.
He looked down at the worm. It was whole again. It crawled away.

“Oh,” Horace said. “Isn’t that lucky?”

The lazy fantasy world-building of a 1,000-year-old empire

Guilty as charged! I’ve set my novel in a 1,000-year-old empire.

Author Rachel Aaron blogged this week about the absurdity of millennia-old fantasy fiction empires. An eternal empire is lazy fantasy world-building that authors use to create a sense of historic scale, she wrote. The problem isn’t necessarily the length of time that these empires exist, but the lack of change within them.

To me, enormously long blocks of time in books where things stayed basically the same are the epitome of lazy world building. Want to make something sound impressive? Add a big number to it!

Aaron points out that these empires are full of people who are more than props or names on a character list. They’re inventing things. They’re striving to improve their lives. They rebel. They fight wars. Civilization evolves. Empires fall.

Even the Roman Empire split in half within half a millennium, and the Roman western half collapsed nearly 800 years before the eastern Byzantine half finally crumbled. Empires are not static. They wax and wane. They break apart. They rise again as something new. Aaron writes:

The point is that generations of thinking mortals do not pass time idly.

In other words, don’t be lazy with your fantasy world-building and throw a big impressive number out there for your readers to ponder. A 10,000-year-old empire might sound impressive, but you better prepare to give the reader a sense of time passing and also be ready to explain how that empire held together for so long. An empire that old probably fought its earliest wars with bronze swords and  its last wars with muskets. Are you prepared to explain that much history? You don’t need all the details, but you need to sketch together enough history to make your reader believe in it.

The book I’m writing takes place in a 900-year-old empire that has been ruled by the same dynasty throughout all that history. That first detail is a problem that I’ll probably have to address.  I started with that large number because I needed a broad sweep of history. I wanted to establish some distance between the action of my book and a series of historic events that took place centuries before. These historic events not only shape many of the rules of my world, but also influence some of the characters and ultimately drive the plot.  The sweep of time also shapes the evolution of the magic system in my book. Magic was nearly erased from the world during a series of pogroms against people who practiced it. Only centuries later did magic re-emerge under tight legal controls. And the magic that emerges is a pale shadow of the powers wielded by people centuries before because so much knowledge was destroyed and lost to time.

I’m only 80% through my manuscript (it stands at 100,000 words today), but I’ve started revising it based on some advice I received from an editor and an agent. I admit that the stability of this empire that I’ve invented has troubled me, although at the time my book takes place the empire is in decline. I’ve been thinking about how the civilization of the empire has evolved over those centuries. Aaron’s post confirms that my instincts are right.

It’s a good thing I”m in revision mode. I’m open to making big changes right now. In addition to plot and character changes, I need tweak the history of my world. I’ve done a tremendous amount of fantasy world-building over these seven months, but I’m still a novice. I have a lot to learn. So thanks to Rahcel Aaron for the good tip.

Novel Revision: Page One

This is the first page of the novel I’ve been working on. It’s a fantasy novel set in a secondary world analogous to Medieval Europe (no points for originality).

Anyway, I’m in the midst of heavy revision of the 95,000 words I have written so far. I’m drafting a new outline based on feedback I’ve received from an editor and an agent.  Here’s page one. I’m trying to balance character and setting on this first page. Villiard is one of three protagonists Some might argue that I should spend more time on him and less on the setting in these first paragraphs, but I want to pull the reader into my world. And the city where the book takes place is very much a character in its own right. 

Let me know what you think, if this this is working or not.

A city can do horrible things to a river.

Villiard Lopin walked along the bank of the River Weiss, and he could see and smell the depredation. Hundreds of miles to the north, where Villiard was born, the Weiss was a wide, green-blue channel where fish leapt from the water and ducks swam with the current. As a boy he had traveled to its icy headwaters at the foot of the Routeau Mountains that marked the northern edge of the Helmonic Empire. The fish at the headwaters were fat and fresh and delicious. Here in the city, of Vaydeenum, fish that knew no better to stay upriver bellied up and floated with the current.

Downstream from its headwaters, the River Weiss carved through its valley, the Weiss Valley, the empire’s breadbasket. The river watered crops that fed tens of thousands of people. It flowed past villages and baronies, abandoned castles and ancient monasteries. It flowed past Five Oaks, the town where Villiard had grown up.

As the valley gave way to the great coastal plain of the Ashen Sea, the river was throttled by the Vaydeenum. Here in this city where Villiard now lived, the Weiss was not the river that he remembered from his countryside boyhood. He could could smell the rotten stink of the Weiss choking to death on the foulness Vaydeenum. He saw rotten, dead things float by, and he longed for Five Oaks. He had left so much behind to come to this city in search of a fortune to replace the one his ancestors lost. But to see this river so abused and debased twisted at his heart. Hundreds of miles to the north the Weiss was still the river he swam in as a child. After a long day of working in fields he had drunk from it. He had led herds of sheep to it for watering. But here the city had changed the river, and it had changed him.

Vaydeenum was a provincial capital of the empire, its central citadel visible for miles. It had sprung up as a trading town millennia ago around a ford. Over the centuries as it grew, the city had pressed against the banks of the Weiss, dirtying its waters and choking the life out of it. Vaydeenum was a muddy, dusty, sprawling miasma of stone and brick, winding streets, trade and power. As the river ran through its heart, past tanneries and sewers and slaughterhouses, the water congealed into a fetid sludge.

Like all rivers, the Weiss escaped the city that abused it. It flowed south into the coastal plain, where it forked and forked again into a wide delta that spanned for dozens of miles until its urban putridity emptied into the Ashen Sea, where the water would be redeemed in the salt and the sun.

No one could catalog all of the foul contributions that Vaydeenum made to the River Weiss, but some people specialized in tracking very specific adulterations, including Villiard. There were people who trawled the Weiss for its contents. The remains of wrecked riverboats could be salvaged for wood and nails. Orphans and urchins would swim in the stinking mire for half-rotten fruit that had fallen from boats. And then there were the bodies. The body’s were Villiard’s business.

Human relationships in epic fantasy: Give me some quiet moments

As I was recently approaching the 95,000-word mark in the fantasy novel I was writing, I thought to myself, “I really wish I could just have a scene in a kitchen where my protagonist can talk to his girlfriend about something mundane. How was your day? How was work?”

In a genre where someone is always saving the world, fighting monsters, casting wondrous spells, or fulfilling a prophecy, who has time for the quiet moments?

Author Brian Staveley published a refreshing guest blog from his wife Johanna about how heroes of epic fantasy tend to be crappy boyfriends. And she’s right. Her take on the hero of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series:

I can still be fairly certain that it would suck to go on a first date with Rand al’Thor – always talking about himself, never picking up on hints, alternating between needy and surly. He doesn’t know how to make Egwene feel pretty, even though it’s clear that she really cares about her hair and all he’d have to say would be something like, “Hey, Egwene, I really like your your new ‘do.” Nope. Nada. Instead he “stares at that braid as if it were a viper.” By the end of Eye of the World, he doesn’t even recognize her face. Okay, fine, he’s just been through some epic stuff with one of the Forsaken, but still… Epic hero? Check. Terrible boyfriend? Check.

Hey, I loved The Eye of the World when I was 14, and I still enjoyed it when I read it a second and a third time, but let’s be honest. Rand al’Thor is a bad boyfriend. He’s a pretty complex character, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time on dates. He doesn’t spend a lot of time relating to people. He’s brooding. He’s leading armies. He’s fighting evil. There’s not a lot of time for his humanity to shine through, except with his own tortured internal dialogue.

Too many fantasy authors (and genre authors in general) focus too much on driving their plots forward. Given that the fate of the kingdom, world, galaxy or universe typically turns on the outcome of the plot, it’s easy to see why we do this. Who has time to talk about relationships when the evil devil king is leading an army of undead against the city?

But quiet moments are often the moments that allow us to fall in love with a character. They help us find a reason to root for the hero to get the girl (or boy) in the end. Not every scene has to have global consequences. Not every seen has to drive plot. And when you are devoting a scene to pure character development, don’t be afraid to throw in a little domestic drama. Your hero forgot to pick up a pail of milk at the market. His wife is so angry. They have a fight. He remembers why he first fell in love with her. He goes out to a field in the middle of the night and milks the neighbor’s cow for her.  Sure, in the next chapter he’s going to get into a sword fight with the mad prince, but for a quiet moment, we see what he’s fighting for and we care.

I recently read most of a fantasy novel, the first in a series, that had had some decent critical acclaim. (The book and author shall remain nameless out of respect.) I had to put this book down after about 350 pages. I simply didn’t care about any of the characters anymore. The hero had multiple relationships that were critically important to him and that motivated him to do the things he had to do. He had a best friend. He had a forbidden love that he longed for constantly. He had a mentor whom he loved and hated. But none of these relationships seemed authentic to me because the scenes that would have given them authenticity were missing. I never saw him fall in love with the girl. I never saw him strike up a friendship with the friend. I never saw him connect with the mentor in such a way that he would develop a complicated love/hate relationship with him. Instead, I was told that these relationships were there and I just had to take the author’s word for it. That’s not good enough. That’s bad writing.

If you’re going to make up a world for a fantasy or science fiction novel, don’t forget during your world-building to set aside some time to think about how human relationships work in that world.

When and how do husbands and wives connect with each other? It can’t be when the goddess of love commands them to.

How does a teacher or mentor win the respect and admiration of his pupil. It can’t be because he has snazzy armor.

How did your hero fall in love with the object of his love. It can’t be because she tugs on her braid in such a cute manner. Or maybe it can. But show me why it’s cute. And show me what he does and says when he sees her tug that braid. And then let those two kids go for a walk and talk about something other than Voldemort.

Muse & the Marketplace takeaway: Novel revision time

So I went to my first Muse and the Marketplace, the annual writing conference held in Boston by the wonderful nonprofit Grub Street. This was a big event for me because I had signed up for the show’s Manuscript Mart. The Mart is a unique feature of the conference where writers can sign up for meetings with literary agents and book editors who have donated their time. The agents and editors will read 20 pages of your manuscript and a synopsis ahead of the show and then sit down with you for 20 minutes.

I signed up for a meeting with an agent and an editor at a major press and sent them the first 20 pages of the fantasy novel I’ve been writing since December (95,000 words written so far).

The meetings happened yesterday, and they were productive but painful. Long story short, although I have good ideas, my synopsis revealed some holes. I need to re-plot the book. I also need to rethink my character arcs. My beta readers love my characters and other aspects of my writing, but this editor and this agent saw past that. They wanted to see more depth. They wanted my characters to have more at stake.

Bottom line, a character can be well-rounded and interesting, but that’s not enough. They must have a wound that drives them. They should be striving to regain something they lost. Or they should be seeking to right a wrong that was done to them. They should be trying to restore order in their lives after something has upended everything.

I thought I was doing these things with my characters, but it’s clear to me that I need to do more. I need to raise the stakes.

For a few minutes I came away from these meetings discouraged, but as I drank a beer with a bunch of other writers (including my mom), all I wanted to do was go home and write. I had the urge to revise.

The manuscript I have was only 75% done, but I’m not going to finish it. Not yet. I’m going back to the beginning. I’m going to rip pages a part and revise. I can’t go any further into this book until I’ve gotten the first few acts just write. I need to make sure I have a good story before I finish it. I’ve spent a few hours on it so far. The first chapter is gone. Important elements of it have been integrated into subsequent chapters.

I’m also digging deeper into the inner lives of my characters, seeking out their pain and disappointment, they hopes and dreams. I’m going to pull it all out of them and make them desperate to push my plot forward.

Here’s how the book starts now:

A city can do horrible things to a river.

Villiard Lopin walked along the bank of the River Weiss, and he could see and smell the depredation. Hundreds of miles to the north, where Villiard was from, the Weiss was a wide, green-blue channel swollen with life. As a boy he had traveled to its icy headwaters at the foot of the Routeau Mountains,  which marked the northern edge of the Helmonic Empire. The fish that far north were fat and fresh and delicious. Here in the city of Vaydeenum, fish that knew no better to stay upriver bellied up and floated with the current.

Villiard knew the river well. Downstream from its headwaters, it carved through the great Weiss Valley, the empire’s breadbasket, watering crops that fed tens of thousands of people. It flowed past villages and baronies, abandoned castles and ancient monasteries. It flowed past Five Oaks, the town where he had grown up. As the valley gave way to the great coastal plain of the Ashen Sea, it was throttled by  Vaydeenum. Here in this city the Weiss was not the river that he remembered from his countryside boyhood.

He could could smell the rotten stink of river choking to death on the foulness of the city that he now called home. As he saw the rotten, dead things float by, he longed for Five Oaks. He had left so much behind to come to this city in search of a fortune to replace the one his ancestors lost. But to see this river so abused and debased twisted at his heart.

Hundreds of miles to the north the Weiss was still the river he swam in as a child. After long days of working in fields he had drunk from the Weiss.  He led herds of sheep to the river to water them. But this city had changed the river, and it had changed him.

Novel writing roadblock: Getting past the wall at 93,000 words

I started writing a fantasy novel in September. The book is based on an idea that’s been floating around in my head for a couple years. When I started writing, the book just flowed through me. I was churning out 5,000 to 6,000 words a week. I wrote an outline. Then I wrote a new outline. The chapters practically wrote themselves. I went from having two protagonists to three.  Secondary characters emerged everywhere. They wrote themselves. I have 23 secondary characters. I have dozens more tertiary characters. I’ve created a magic system. I’ve written the outline of 1,000 years of history in the world I created. I’ve drawn maps. I’ve created a polytheistic religion, some rudiments of language. This book is rich and vivid. My beta readers are loving it.

But I hit a wall at 93,000 words. I diverged from my outline around 40,000 words ago and I’ve strayed so far that the outline is useless. For the past two weeks I’ve been unable to write. Instead, I’ve been revising earlier chapters, filling in gaps in character arcs and plot elements. But moving forward has been impossible.

I’ve felt depressed over the last few days. I open up the book in Scrivener and try to forge ahead, but I just get tired and distracted. If my book were a five act play, I’m moving trhough act four right now. It’s crucial to get it right, but with my outline shot to pieces, I’m not sure where to begin. Starting the next chapter is hard when I’m not sure what I want it to be about. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my characters or my plot.

Last night I decided to forget about all that. Instead I let myself write whatever I could. My beta readers tell me they love my settings and my characters, but sometimes they want more sensory detail. So I decided to start there. Establish a setting and dig into the senses. Here’s what I started with. I knew that one of my protagonist Dosh, a thief and a cutthroat, needed to disguise himself as a soldier and go to the dungeon in the city’s central citadel to retrieve someone. So I put him there. I didn’t want to worry about how he got there or who he was with. I just put him in the place he needed to be, and I focused on what that experience was like. Here’s what I came up with.

The one thousand-year-old dungeon of Vaydeenum’s citadel stank. So may generations of people had sat in darkness, shitting and pissing in a a hole in the the floor of their cells, wearing the same rags for years, and picking at their daily meals of stale, moldering bread and gruel. During his years as a street rat, Dosh often frightened himself with the thought of being locked up in a dungeon cell for theft or murder. Now here he was, wearing the armor and livery of an imperial soldier and marching down the rows of cells as if he were the dungeon keeper and not a thief and a fraud.

Now I needed to put someone else there, someone to get Dosh out of his head (he’s been feeling sorry for himself) and get him focused on the task at hand. So, I had a prisoner call out to him.

“Oy, boy, you’re not old enough to carry a sword,” a grubby man said through the small, barred window on his cell door. His dirty hands were wrapped around bars. Dosh could see a wrinkled, bearded, dirty face.

Dosh was going into the dungeon with his boss, one of my nasty villains named Bern the Cooper. But I knew they needed at least a third person for the task I had for them. So I created another henchman. The Cooper has a lot of henchmen, but most of them are useless thugs who are too incompetent for sending on a delicate job. I’ve giventhe Cooper, three good henchmen, but one is too young for this job. Another got a very nasty concussion three chapters ago. The third is too dark-skinned to pass for a soldier in this city.   So I created secondary character number 23 (yes, this is getting out of hand, but I needed a competent henchmen). This new henchmen needed to establish his competence. Thus, I introduce said henchmen, Barrett Gwinn.

Barrett Gwinn, a man of the Lane who was accompanying Dosh and the Cooper into the dungeons on this job marched over to the cell door. A brown, leather-covered cosh slid out of his right sleeve and into his hand. He raised it quickly and smashed it against the bars and the grubby man’s fingers. The man howled and disappeared from the tiny window. The tiny club disappeared up Barrett’s sleeve again.
Barrett winked at Dosh then looked away. But the man in the cell was right. Dosh looked too young to be a soldier. The army that controlled the city was composed of veterans. Dosh had had a good look at the ones that garrisoned the citadel. The youngest one he’d seen was at least ten years older than he was. And they all had a far away look about them like the affairs of Vaydeenum were beneath their consideration. The Cooper had said these soldiers had returned from the war in Esseven Mil just months ago. They had been fighting overseas for at least four years.

Now I’ve noticed in those last sentences that the story is flowing through me again. I’m throwing out details about what the soldiers who have returned from war overseas look like.  But before I let myself move forward in the story, let’s circle back to setting the scene. The more setting I can ground myself in, the more I can immerse myself in this world. Then I hope the book will start writing itself again.

The stinking dungeon was dark and damp. Some torches burned in sconces along the walls, but many had burned out, which added to the gloom. Many of the cell doors were in shadows. If faces watched from the tiny barred windows, Dosh could not see them. He stared at his booted feet as he paced behind the Cooper. His feet stirred the dirty straw that partially covered the stone floor of the corridor. Aside from their footsteps and the occasional moan or scream from a cell, Dosh could hear dripping water somewhere in the distance. He considered that it could be someone having a slow piss.

At this point, I’m ready for Dosh and my other characters to do their job. They are there to retrieve someone through deception. An hour later, I’ve written nearly 1,400 words. Writer’s block is cured, at least for one night!