Going Beyond Your Depths

A reminder: This post courtesy of Julie Jarnagin’s 101 Blog Post Ideas for Writers.

90. Adding depth to your writing

Oh man, this post could go in so many different directions depending on how we think about the word “depth”. My brain is beginning to hurt just thinking about it. Couple that with the fact that I’ve never so much as submitted a manuscript to an editor, agent, or publisher, and I find myself wondering if I’m really one to talk. But as with several of the other posts I’ve written in response to the 101 Blog Post Ideas, I’ll go ahead and give you my thoughts and opinions, and you can take them for what they are. For additional info, I suggest wandering over to Kristen Lamb’s Blog. She’s written advice on almost every aspect of writing and she’s about as close to an expert as I’ve ever come across.

So…depth. There’s no doubt about it, you want your writing to have depth, but that’s a fairly broad term. Are we talking about emotional depth, depth in the plot line, or depth within our characters? Are there other forms of depth we could be considering? Probably, but these three are the ones that come to mind right now, so let’s talk about those.

First of all, emotional depth and character depth, which actually go hand-in-hand. Maybe this isn’t an important aspect to all readers, but for me it’s an absolute necessity. If I, at some point during the reading of the story, do not feel emotionally attached to a character (not necessarily the main character) then I feel like the author has not done his or her job. If the book in question is part of a series, failing to make me feel emotionally invested in a character will result in my failing to continue on to the second book in the series. That’s not to say that every character has to have an elaborate back story that endears me to them, but someone in the story has to make me care about them. Otherwise why do I care what happens to them? This sort of depth is best achieved, in my opinion, by finding reasons for your readers to bond with your characters. Harry Potter gains our empathy because he’s an orphan and we feel sorry for him for having to grow up with his awful relatives. Eddard Stark gains our approval because he’s an honorable man who cares deeply for his family and finds himself in a difficult situation that pulls him from them. Frodo Baggins has us rooting for him because he’s clearly the underdog with no discernible skills or abilities. Your characters have to have both upsides and downsides, merits and faults. The main reason that so many people hate the character Bella Swan is because she’s too goddamn perfect. Even her “faults” are played off as things that make her more adorable and endearing to the other characters. It pulls the reader away because you find yourself wanting to see her fail just to prove that she’s capable of failure, and that’s not a great way to think about the character who is meant to be your hero. Your characters have to be human (even when they technically aren’t) or else your readers can’t get inside their heads and feel for them, become them, and find themselves desperate to see them succeed.

As for depth of the plot, this is something that will vary from book to book, genre to genre, but the basic element remains the same. You do not want your story to be predictable. Now obviously a psychological thriller is going to have a lot more plot depth than a supernatural romance, but the point is that you have to occasionally give your reader something surprising or upsetting. If your reader is constantly thinking “this is what’s going to happen next” or “this is totally the big reveal” and it turns out that they’re right, that’s not a good thing. Sure, some level of predictability is to be expected, and there are always going to be those readers who somehow always seem to know what the author was thinking while writing the story, but most readers crave some kind of mystery to their books. You don’t want to be able to figure out exactly what is going to happen because otherwise you could just write the story yourself. One of the reasons the A Song of Ice and Fire series is so interesting is because it constantly has you guessing. You’re never quite sure who is a good guy or a bad guy, or what might happen next, or what just happened ten pages ago for that matter. You don’t have to create a labyrinth of mystery, confusion, and intrigue, but you have to give your readers something worth looking forward to. Reveal a good guy to actually be a bad guy or vice versa. Throw in something magical or otherwise supernatural just because it would be surprising and interesting. Kill off a character that the reader would have thought was important or had become attached to (this one doubles for emotional depth). Keep your readers guessing, basically, because that’s what keeps them moving on to the next page, and the next, and the next. Why do you think so many television shows end on a cliffhanger every single freakin’ episode?

In general, when writing your book, think about what it was you liked about the books you’ve read. Think about the types of things that made you like the characters, what events made you gasp or cringe or cry, what about the story made it impossible for you to put the book down. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and that all the different types of books have already been written, and any truly good author will tell you that part of being a writer is stealing from other writers. Use those concepts to figure out what is good about other books, and to imbue your own stories with those successful elements. Build depth by learning to recognize it in the writing of others. And when in doubt, remember what I always try to remember: if my writing doesn’t affect me, emotionally and mentally, then how can I possibly expect it to affect others?

Caution: Avoid At All Costs

A reminder: This post courtesy of Julie Jarnagin’s 101 Blog Post Ideas for Writers.

43. Mistakes to avoid in manuscripts

My three answers to this prompt are based on personal experience with what I’ve seen people do when submitting excerpts to be critiqued on Critique Circle. If you’re a writer and you’re reading this, feel free to add suggestions of your own in the comments.

– One major thing I notice is that tons of people (at least when they’re looking for critiques) pass along pieces of their work that are drowning in spelling, grammatical, and punctuation errors. This is a huge turnoff for anyone who is reading the piece, whether it be for critique, editing, or publishing purposes. I know that no one is perfect, definitely not myself, and that mistakes will be made, but when you’re reading a piece and you find ten spelling errors in the first half a dozen sentences, you begin to wonder if the piece was submitted to you by a five-year-old. Additionally, I’m sorry, but if you don’t have a half-decent grasp on grammar and punctuation, you might have to reconsider your field. Again, I know no one is perfect – I myself often feel that I’m putting in way too many commas while also feeling that every single one is justified – but if the person reading your piece is finding at least one mistake in every single sentence, you are absolutely not going to be taken seriously.

– Word abuse is a complaint I’ve come across many times, and I can definitely understand why. Have you ever read a book in which the author seemed obsessed with a few particular words or phrases and used them constantly to the point that it was both noticeable and annoying? I definitely have. It’s not something that any writer does on purpose (at least I don’t believe so), but sometimes there is just a word you enjoy and so it weasels its way into your work over and over again. I myself have a tendency to overuse the word “incredulous”. I don’t know why, but it seems to come up constantly and makes editing a nightmare as I struggle for different words to use to break up the bad habit.

– The dreaded Mary-Sue Effect, or more recently known as the Bella Swan Conundrum. If you’ve never heard of a Mary Sue, it’s a name given to characters who are unnaturally perfect, with no discernible flaws to speak of. These characters are written to be the ideal person, loved by everyone, someone who never makes mistakes and is naturally perfect at everything that matters. These types of characters have existed for a long time, but one of the new pop-culture-reference examples is Bella Swan from the Twilight Saga. Bella is not special in any way, other than for the fact that the psychic vampire Edward Cullen cannot read her mind. And yet, despite her decidedly common nature, she is portrayed as (to put it bluntly) the Center of the Universe. All the male characters love her, except for the ones who think her important enough to want to kill. She is constantly surrounded by danger, drama, and conflict, and she always comes out of it completely unscathed. She succeeds in everything she tries. This is not how a main character should be. Some readers love this kind of character because they like to imagine that they are that character…this is called wish fulfillment, and while it can serve it’s purpose, it is not good literature. Good characters should have flaws. They should make stupid mistakes and suffer for them. They should have to struggle for their successes, and they should have to deal with all the same issues that life throws at all of us. If you want to make a good character, make them real, not ideal.

I Write Like…

A while ago I stumbled upon this website, I Write Like, and just recently a fellow blogger linked to it and brought it back to my attention again. The idea, basically, is that you copy and paste an excerpt of your writing to the webpage and it analyzes it and tells you which author you write like. It analyzes based on word choices and writing style (which I’m assuming refers to sentence structure or some such); I can’t imagine that it’s terribly accurate, but it’s still interesting to see who you get. 🙂

For my zombie novel, Nowhere to Hide, I got Charles Dickens, even when I had the site analyze super-creepy and/or gory scenes. It has me very interested to actually read some Charles Dickens that isn’t Oliver Twist. o.o

For my Final Fantasy fanfic, I got Edgar Allan Poe, which just fathoms me. I could imagine getting Poe for my horror novel, but for a video game fan fiction? Wuh?

For my supernatural romance, tentatively titled Moonlight, I got David Foster Wallace. I have no idea who this is, so I’m going to have to do my research, but if his writing is anything like mine in this particular piece, I’m very interested already. lol

I analyzed several different scenes from my fantasy epic novel because it’s been written and re-written so many times that nothing fits together properly anymore. I got Jonathan Swift and Ursula K. Le Guin for two of the scenes, neither of whom I’ve heard of so again I must do my research. For another of the scenes I got Stephanie Meyer, which has prompted me to re-analzye my own writing stat.

The bits and pieces of what will someday be a space fantasy gave me Anne Rice. I know Anne Rice, of course, but I’ll have to read some more of her work to actually get an idea of whether this is accurate.

And finally, my Chrono Trigger fanfic gave me…J.R.R. Tolkien. o.O I, uh…totally can’t see it, but thanks for the compliment, I Write Like! lol

The thing that really amused me about this was that – with the exception of the aforementioned fantasy epic – I tried multiple scenes of each work and got the same results regardless, so there must be something there that the site is seeing. Very interesting. Now if only I could glean some of the success of these famous authors! lol

30 Days of Truth – Day 14

A hero that has let you down.

Stephen King. Here me out.

A while back I got really into Stephen King books. I love the way he writes, so I was grabbing whatever I could find at yard sales and flea markets, getting the new stuff for Christmas and birthday presents. I read tons of his stuff, horror and otherwise. This binge of King’s work came at a time when I hadn’t really written anything in a long time, and reading his work got me moving again. He’s part of the reason I started writing about zombies. So, in that way, he’s a bit of a hero to me.

But here’s the thing…I don’t tend to follow the lives of, well…anyone in media. So normally I wouldn’t know a damn thing about King other than that he writes some pretty good books. But then, one day, I stumbled across a quote online from King, bashing the hell out of Stephanie Meyer. For those who might not know (to which even I have to wonder if you’re living under a rock), she’s the one who created Twilight, with all the…sparkly vampires and whatnot. When I saw the quote I looked a little deeper and found several quotes all of King just tearing into Meyer. He says she’s an awful writer, that Twilight is utter rubbish, and so on and so on.

Now this is a bit of a mixed opinion that is going to sound ridiculous:

I agree that Stephanie Meyer is an absolutely terrible writer.

I loved the Twilight books.

I’ll give you a few moments to put that together, as I know it doesn’t make any sense. But the thing is, you can be an awful writer and still make people happy. I cringe at the writing in Twilight. As a writer myself, some of the things Meyer puts to paper make me want to gag. But I enjoyed the story for the same reason that some people are obsessed with B-movies. Yeah, it’s awful, but it’s also fun.

This is the reason that King is a bit of a “fallen” hero to me now. Logically I know lots of celebrities probably do/say similar things, but to hear him bash Meyer relentlessly bothers me because even if she isn’t very good at the essentials, she still created a story that made lots of people happy, and that’s all that really matters. If you try hard enough you can poke lots of vicious holes in Harry Potter (*cough*timeturner*cough*), but King praises Rowling because he likes her writing.

I guess what it comes down to is that I’m not a fan of bullies, and that’s what King comes off as here, at least in my opinion. What he says about Meyer’s work makes me wonder what he would say about Harlequin romances, which have made endless amounts of money and made millions of women happy, even though many of them are beyond ridiculous.

And this entry has gotten way too long, so I’m just going to leave it at that.