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On Writing (Novels, Short Stories and Editing)


JoeSchmuckatelli
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Disclaimer: for anyone stumbling upon this thread - it is a continuation of an in-progress discussion in another sub-forum, but one that diverges from the topic at hand.  I'm moving that discussion here.

Having said that - If anyone wants to join in and discuss writing, editing and anything else related - I welcome the discussion.

 

@KSK and @Spacescifi

Here's something I've found that seems helpful: The Story Grid - Story Grid  It seems to be a good resource for helping writers understand and appreciate the pacing, obligatory conventions of the genre and other things that editors might appreciate, but writers may not fully grasp.

 

...

To continue our discussion:

 

At some point I do intend to write something for publication, but I want to make sure that the next effort doesn't just start off with me writing something I think is fun... but it actually has a good foundation, proper structure and pacing and is something that feels like a good story - thus leaving me with only the challenge of writing something interesting...

@KSK  I've read a lot of King's work, but pretty much stopped after he had his accident and every story became about a writer who had something bad happen to him.  I don't remember if I read that specific title, but I'm going to pull it (again) and see/revisit what he writes about writing.  What I do remember about him was his talk about 'the flow' (or however he put it) when the story almost seems to pour out of you and you know its good.  I had that experience (in the novel attempt).  Heady stuff.

Driving to an appointment today and thinking about all this I found another two authors I might compare:  Robert Jordan and Gene Wolfe. 

Jordan is an able craftsman who found a formula and success.  I absolutely hate his work.  Trite, formulaic and ultimately boring - because the bad guys are obviously bad, the good guys are obviously good, and the bad things happen to a whole host of non-characters while the heroes wring their hands over it and are mildly discomfited by the bad guys until at long last they SAVE THE DAY and EVIL is thwarted for eternity.  He does, however, have a craftsman like command over the structure and pacing of Story, and his stories - while all the same, just with different 'paint' are easy and accessible and comfortable and successful. 

Wolfe on the other hand is a mastercraftsman, a true artist, who fully understands the formula and knows how and when to depart from it.  His stories can, at times, be difficult to read because of this - but his characters and themes stick with you.  No two stories are alike.  I have kept every book of his I've bought.  I've thrown away every Jordan novel, sometimes without finishing it (my eyes get tired from all the rolling).  I think my mistake was trying to write like Wolfe without first having been Jordan.

To return to my carpentry analogy:  Any DIY homeowner can go to Home Depot and with the right tools can install a door and trim out a room, JoeSchmuckatelli Remodeling can build you a fabulous addition to your home, but neither of those are going to look like Frank Lloyd Wright designed it.  Right now, with my writing, I'm the DIY guy.  Once I figure out the tools, a few, very close friends might look at it and say 'huh, it doesn't suck'.  I need to get to the Remodeling Professional stage (knows the craft, knows the material, has all the tools) if I want to progress - only then should I attempt (again) to be FLW!

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Yeah, when you do find that groove, you remember why you love writing! Other days (to use a possibly apocryphal and bowdlerized quote from King), it can feel like shoveling dung from a sitting position.

With regard to the foundation, pacing and structure, I think a lot of that is down to the editing process simply because a lot of it is only apparent in hindsight once you've got the whole story in front of you and can see what needs to be cut out, what needs to be elaborated on, what could do with a bit more foreshadowing etc. etc. 

That's with limited experience mind - my one stab at a novel length work is a KSP fanfiction and it's right here on these forums (link in my signature file for the curious). It's never going to trouble a publisher's desk for any number of reasons but if it were, the very first thing (amongst many others) it would need is a solid first editing pass to knock the beginning into shape, whittle out the excess characters, cut out scenes that didn't really add much, and get rid of the plot threads that seemed really cool at the time but didn't really go anywhere in the end.  Pacing and structure in other words. 

I'm reluctant to recommend them - you'll know your own mind when it comes to the kind of writing you want to do - but I've found short stories to be a good format.  They're much less of a time investment than a novel so they feel more achievable.  They're good for taking an idea and exploring it, maybe taking that one cool scene you've wanted to write for a while and turning it into a finished piece without having to worry about What Happens Next.  You do need a story to go with that one cool scene but that doesn't have to be fantastically complicated - in fact can't be fantastically complicated since you've only got so many words to cram it into.  

Edited by KSK
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3 hours ago, KSK said:

Yeah, when you do find that groove, you remember why you love writing! Other days (to use a possibly apocryphal and bowdlerized quote from King), it can feel like shoveling dung from a sitting position.

With regard to the foundation, pacing and structure, I think a lot of that is down to the editing process simply because a lot of it is only apparent in hindsight once you've got the whole story in front of you and can see what needs to be cut out, what needs to be elaborated on, what could do with a bit more foreshadowing etc. etc. 

That's with limited experience mind - my one stab at a novel length work is a KSP fanfiction and it's right here on these forums (link in my signature file for the curious). It's never going to trouble a publisher's desk for any number of reasons but if it were, the very first thing (amongst many others) it would need is a solid first editing pass to knock the beginning into shape, whittle out the excess characters, cut out scenes that didn't really add much, and get rid of the plot threads that seemed really cool at the time but didn't really go anywhere in the end.  Pacing and structure in other words. 

I'm reluctant to recommend them - you'll know your own mind when it comes to the kind of writing you want to do - but I've found short stories to be a good format.  They're much less of a time investment than a novel so they feel more achievable.  They're good for taking an idea and exploring it, maybe taking that one cool scene you've wanted to write for a while and turning it into a finished piece without having to worry about What Happens Next.  You do need a story to go with that one cool scene but that doesn't have to be fantastically complicated - in fact can't be fantastically complicated since you've only got so many words to cram it into.  

 

I agree... several movies and TV shows have their origin in short stories.

 

A well written short story is better than a novel that is all over the place when it comes to quality.

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Funny thing is, I'm looking at the short story format as more of a 'personal lesson in discipline' - to teach myself how to craft an effective story in the short format rather than something I'm naturally attuned to. 

 

My past writing efforts, even those I'd consider 'short' are actually novellas.  The 'first draft' of the novel I wrote was over 600 pages (going from memory).  When I started looking at it critically, I did not so much edit it as attempt a total rewrite - which I eventually gave up on, even though some of the rewritten stuff is pretty good; transforming the whole word-barf original into something with proper structure is a sisyphean task.  The other 'stories that live in my head' are all complex, multi chapter works with dozens of characters.

So... partly I'm waiting for a 'killer idea' to pop into my skull that would work as a short story.  Every now and then, I get an inkling of something... but none (thus far) strong enough to make me give up my other forms of entertainment and delve in.

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5 hours ago, JoeSchmuckatelli said:

Funny thing is, I'm looking at the short story format as more of a 'personal lesson in discipline' - to teach myself how to craft an effective story in the short format rather than something I'm naturally attuned to. 

 

My past writing efforts, even those I'd consider 'short' are actually novellas.  The 'first draft' of the novel I wrote was over 600 pages (going from memory).  When I started looking at it critically, I did not so much edit it as attempt a total rewrite - which I eventually gave up on, even though some of the rewritten stuff is pretty good; transforming the whole word-barf original into something with proper structure is a sisyphean task.  The other 'stories that live in my head' are all complex, multi chapter works with dozens of characters.

So... partly I'm waiting for a 'killer idea' to pop into my skull that would work as a short story.  Every now and then, I get an inkling of something... but none (thus far) strong enough to make me give up my other forms of entertainment and delve in.

That's the trick. Sacrificing what you love for something you want to love... and will if you grow competent.

 

But that takes time away from what you already love.

 

Something has to give....

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7 hours ago, JoeSchmuckatelli said:

but none (thus far) strong enough to make me give up my other forms of entertainment and delve in.

 

1 hour ago, Spacescifi said:

That's the trick. Sacrificing what you love for something you want to love... and will if you grow competent.

I would argue against this line of thinking. 
I'm writing full time now, but that's no reason to give up doing the other things I love... in fact, they can be really helpful at times.
Sometimes my best ideas come when I'm doing something like playing around in my garden, or watching something old and campy.
If you plan on doing this for a living, you need to make, and take, the time it requires, yes.
But do not do it all the time. Take time to let your mind relax. Sometimes that's when the best ideas happen... when you least expect them.

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26 minutes ago, Just Jim said:

 

I would argue against this line of thinking. 
I'm writing full time now, but that's no reason to give up doing the other things I love... in fact, they can be really helpful at times.
Sometimes my best ideas come when I'm doing something like playing around in my garden, or watching something old and campy.
If you plan on doing this for a living, you need to make, and take, the time it requires, yes.
But do not do it all the time. Take time to let your mind relax. Sometimes that's when the best ideas happen... when you least expect them.

 

I never meant in totality... but realistically your day to day has to change if you want to write fiction.

Honestly if you work full-time, and have home/family/other obligations, the only way you will have time to write is to seriously curtail time spent elewhere.

For example, avid gamers who work full time with other obligations after are literally up against the wall if they want to write fiction.

At the very least one needs to measure out the time they will devote each day and each week on writing/research for fiction and neither do less or more but stick to it. For it is possible to both overwork and do too little.

 

Moderation is advised.

Edited by Spacescifi
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1 minute ago, Spacescifi said:

 

I never meant in totality... but realistically your day to day has to change if you want to write fiction.

Honestly if you work full-time, and have home/family/other obligations, the only way you will have time to write is to seriously curtail time spent elewhere.

For example, avid gamers who work full time with other obligations after are literally up against the wall if they want to write fiction.

At the very least one needs to measure out the time they will devote each day and each week on writing/research for fiction and neither do less or more but stick to it. For it is possible to both overwork and do too little.

 

Moderation is advised.

That is true, yes. I misunderstood a bit. You absolutely need to set time aside to write if that's what you want to do... and stick to it.   

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Huh. a Wolfe fan...somehow fitting.

I've finished a couple of novels by Gene Wolfe. I've started a few more novels and never finished due to hitting the "I don't have a Master's degree in Literature" wall. Similar problem with the equally-sophisticated Toni Morrison, although I love her work.

I've ready many of Wolfe's short stories, and the one that sticks with and haunts me is: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Cabin_on_the_Coast

I tend to stick to Zelazny, Vonnegut, and Le Guin, where I can at least intuit 90% of what's going on.

 

Now you've got me thinking about why Severian is who he is...

Even in his later years, I still see him as a lonely, isolated, and detached little boy. All the self-mastery and philosophizing in the world won't fix that. I think he does arrive at some Buddhist state of Oneness with the Universe, but I don't recall that he ever truly connects with another human being, or with himself.

I think a lot of young men (myself included) go through a phase of wanting to be as detached and dispassionate as Severian usually is. What aspiring Sigma Male wouldn't want that professional career?

Variations on Autarchy are often though as an end-goal of many philosophical systems (exs. Stocism, Libertarianism, MGTOW).  Or as I like to call them, "Philosophies for adolescents by people desperately trying to prove they don't have mommy and daddy issues." Ultimately, chasing Logic, Virtue, and Mastery is about seeking approval and justification from the universe, and all of that seeking is fear-based. Adulthood comes when one can exist and be present without the burning need to know why. Anyone who doesn't try first is a flarping quitter, though. ;)

Sorry for the tangent, literature gets me thinking.

 

I got about 1/3 of the way through Knight before putting it down. I think it's covering a similar very distinct phase of young-malehood. I should finish it, and get into Wizard, as I'm interested to see where it goes. Wolfe seems to be a firm believer in "necessary phases", and I don't disagree with him. I'll probably re-read Zelazny's Amber series first because I understood and saw the character growth more clearly.

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1 hour ago, FleshJeb said:

I got about 1/3 of the way through Knight before putting it down. I think it's covering a similar very distinct phase of young-malehood. I should finish it, and get into Wizard, as I'm interested to see where it goes. Wolfe seems to be a firm believer in "necessary phases", and I don't disagree with him. I'll probably re-read Zelazny's Amber series first because I understood and saw the character growth more clearly.

Funny thing: Knight was better, IMO, than Wizard - but he revisits themes he wrote about in On Blues Waters... and yes, the 'clueless young man stumbling around women but ultimately ignoring them because he wants to do something else' is a theme in Knight but there's some good writing, too.  Knight and Wizard were 'light Wolfe' IMO.

There's a couple of standouts: Soldier in the Mist and Pirate Freedom.  I really enjoyed those.  I even liked An Evil Guest - but it has its detractors.

Severian.  I keep meaning to go back to those and see if I still like them.  I read them as a young man.  (Many, many books that I really liked when young, I just cannot get past the second chapter any more)

 

... Zelazny, no argument there, and I've read quite a bit of Le Guin, Andre Norton and the old classics.  I'm a Cook fan as well - but 

1 hour ago, FleshJeb said:

Philosophies for adolescents

Describes an odd and late entry into the Black Company series.  The first two Dread Empire (collections) and Instrumentalities of the Night are worth a look, but one of my faves is Tower of Fear (good, stand alone novel).

Lately, Mark Lawrence, Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont for the unbelievably good world-building.  Miles Cameron, as well, if you like technically correct sword fighting and interesting worlds.

...

 

...

 

Now you've got me thinking: 

Oddly - I have thought at length about why it is so much easier to write about adolescents and young adults than older adults.  Largely it has to do with the Heroes Journey.  Young people are still writing their stories.  For an older person to follow the same path, ignorance and inexperience don't work as a starting place... in fact, the older person almost has to be self-destructive to go on a journey of self exploration.  You need your characters to make mistakes, and I think as readers we are willing to forgive mistakes from the young much more so than we are willing to with older people.

 

...

On literature: I've read a translated Dante (the whole trilogy) several times, as well as Name of the Rose (twice) plus others of Eco.  Eco has some fantastic characters.  I usually don't like 'literature for literature's sake' - just because reading should be fun, not a chore.

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7 hours ago, JoeSchmuckatelli said:

What genre?  And how did you decide to go full-time, if you don't mind my asking?

I am the full time writer for KSP2 as of about 2 weeks ago. How I got here is a very long story

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3 hours ago, Just Jim said:

I am the full time writer for KSP2 as of about 2 weeks ago. How I got here is a very long story

Congrats! 

I hope someone does an interview, then, so we can read both about the KSP2 story and how you get there! 

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1 hour ago, Spacescifi said:

 

What.... the original KSP did not have a plot did it?

KSP2 does?!

 

15 minutes ago, JoeSchmuckatelli said:

Congrats! 

I hope someone does an interview, then, so we can read both about the KSP2 story and how you get there! 

Oh, wait... no. I'm so sorry. I should back up a bit and be more specific.

KSP2 does not have a storyline. That's not what I meant by writing. I mean all of the actual written text in the game. If you go back and look at closely KSP1, there is quite a lot.  That's our job as writers. 
It's not quite the same as writing fiction, and in many ways much more challenging,  because we have some very strict and exact goals in mind. 

As for an interview... not my call. Maybe someday???

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1 hour ago, Just Jim said:

in many ways much more challenging,  because we have some very strict and exact goals in mind. 

Well.. I for one am highly likely to read most of your work, then.  While we have lots of guys with the maths and physics backgrounds that enables them to 'just get it' I'm still a 'gist' guy when it comes to the technical stuff.  So I'm actually looking forward to your work and the tutorials! 

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6 hours ago, JoeSchmuckatelli said:

Well.. I for one am highly likely to read most of your work, then.  While we have lots of guys with the maths and physics backgrounds that enables them to 'just get it' I'm still a 'gist' guy when it comes to the technical stuff.  So I'm actually looking forward to your work and the tutorials! 

Thanks you. One thing I can say (because Nate has already said this) is we are not making the game easier. But we do want to make it easier to learn. We want the information that players need, tutorials, etc, to be more understandable and accessible. 

Anyway, to bring this back on topic, I ran across this video a couple weeks ago. It says it's for screenplays and screenwriters, but there is a lot of very good advice for any kind of writing, including short stories and novels
 

 

 

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21 hours ago, JoeSchmuckatelli said:

Oddly - I have thought at length about why it is so much easier to write about adolescents and young adults than older adults.  Largely it has to do with the Heroes Journey.  Young people are still writing their stories.  For an older person to follow the same path, ignorance and inexperience don't work as a starting place... in fact, the older person almost has to be self-destructive to go on a journey of self exploration.  You need your characters to make mistakes, and I think as readers we are willing to forgive mistakes from the young much more so than we are willing to with older people.

Man, there's a lot to respond to in this, but I'll stick to the above:

I have a somewhat contrary but complementary opinion (what's new?): 

You're right in that purity and single-minded purpose look much better on the young. In the old, it's tragedy and madness (King Lear?). I don't think that one has to LIKE the protagonist, just understand them.

Time and distance and clarity of hindsight make for easier writing...and the issues are simpler. I don't think there's ever a point where we cease making mistakes, it's just that the attitudes and responses are different, and the demands and inertia are higher. It's more of an internal story, and the backdrop tends to be much less important. Setting and environment is probably much more fun to write.

The older person just makes different kinds of mistakes, and I think the journeys of self-exploration are more intentional. As is the self-destruction, if one identifies something in the self that one thinks needs to be destroyed. I've not actually read his books, but I think this is something that Steve Martin (that jerk) writes the preamble to in Shopgirl.

Writing prompt/character study: Sam Elliot-type. Full of "common sense" and gravitas, and surety. Until one day, someone asks him, "If you've got it all figured out, then why are you an alcoholic?" Actually, Sam Elliot has probably already done that bit, and if he hasn't, I bet Kris Kristofferson has.

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Got a buddy of mine - he's a NoS war hero.  Saved a bunch of people.  He too was 35 at the time.  

He's been a bit of a disaster for the last couple of decades. Nothing bad, just can't get out of his own way - because nothing matters. And nothing measures up.  He's starting to turn his life around. In fact things are really looking up. I'm happy for him.  Love the guy. 

I was thinking about him - and what writing his 'heroes journey' would be like... And it's just depressing.

Because its backwards.  He starts out 'saving the world' and then for two decades goes through the opposition phase only to succeed in coming back to the baseline that everyone takes for granted. The heroic culmination of his journey is to become average. 

I think that is not uncommon for older adults as protagonists. There is a saying in the law: 'a good settlement is one where when it's all over, everyone involved is unhappy... But it's done.' 

The young have the luxury of the no compromise attitude - but pretty much all of us who've survived to become old?  We've all trodden a wandering path. 

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On 1/29/2022 at 12:02 AM, Spacescifi said:

I never meant in totality... but realistically your day to day has to change if you want to write fiction.

Honestly if you work full-time, and have home/family/other obligations, the only way you will have time to write is to seriously curtail time spent elewhere.

For example, avid gamers who work full time with other obligations after are literally up against the wall if they want to write fiction.

At the very least one needs to measure out the time they will devote each day and each week on writing/research for fiction and neither do less or more but stick to it. For it is possible to both overwork and do too little.

Moderation is advised.

I can speak to that directly.  

When I started writing First Flight, I made a conscious decision not to pick up a couple of very tempting video games. I knew myself well enough to know that gaming was always going to be easier than writing, so putting those big, shiny, time-sucking delights out of temptation's way was probably going to be a good idea. Likewise, towards the end, when I made a conscious effort to prioritize my writing for the sake of getting the darned story finished. It's fair to say that my self-discipline for the seven years in between those two points was... inconsistent, hence the often glacial pace of story updates.

On the other hand, for many of the First Flight years, I was consistently working 13-14 hour days (including commuting time), and I can promise you that the very last thing that I typically felt like doing with what remained of my evenings was cudgeling my brain back into life and sitting down to write. I could generally find time at the weekends though.

Basically, you need to be honest with yourself.  You may need to cut back on other activities to find time for writing, or it may be that you can find time for writing by cutting out 'wasted' time in your schedule. In my case, that would involve realizing that Gaming Forum X is always going to contain more junk than I can ever read, so why am I spending so much time trying to prove otherwise?  Likewise, that time spent hunting out the few nuggets of interesting stuff on Facebook (in amongst the torrent of junk that the Algorithm chooses to send my way),  could probably be used for more fulfilling occupations. At the risk of being a curmudgeon, I would include excess writing research in here too - it's all too easy to disappear down endless rabbit holes of 'research' and to persuade oneself that that's OK because it's 'writing stuff'.  Ask me how I know.

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On 1/28/2022 at 4:17 PM, JoeSchmuckatelli said:

Funny thing is, I'm looking at the short story format as more of a 'personal lesson in discipline' - to teach myself how to craft an effective story in the short format rather than something I'm naturally attuned to. 

*snip*

So... partly I'm waiting for a 'killer idea' to pop into my skull that would work as a short story.  Every now and then, I get an inkling of something... but none (thus far) strong enough to make me give up my other forms of entertainment and delve in.

It's a total cliche, but write those inklings down.  Pen and paper, notes on your phone, MyBigPileOfWritingIdeas.docx - whatever.  Sometimes the simple act of writing down an idea will immediately spawn some follow up ideas too.  Even if it doesn't, then having a scrapbook of bits and pieces of story ideas that you can refer back to can be helpful.

I tend to find that my story ideas accrete bits and pieces as they go along until I've got enough to start writing. For example, I had an idea for one scene (plus a really lame pun based on that scene to use as a title) that seemed like an interesting place to start but which I wasn't quite sure how to turn into a story.  A bit later, I tacked on some other ideas that I wanted to bring in, including a very bare-bones outline of the overall story.  then I thought up a snippet of dialogue, including a couple of quotations (and the reason why those quotations were relevant. A bit later still (quite recently) in fact, I figured out an opening scene and how that would segue into my original concept scene.

End result, I have about a page worth of scene ideas, story outlines, fragments of research and other odds and ends, that was put together over a couple of months, and that's probably got enough material in now to work up into a story.

More to come on this but I need to hand over my desktop machine for a while. :) 

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Picking this up again, "write what you know", is another cliche but another useful one.  That doesn't have to be particularly exciting (although I'm thinking that the most famous marine who ever lived could probably point to his share of excitement :) ) and certainly doesn't have to be autobiographical or involve writing yourself in as a self-insert character - unless you want to of course.  But personal life experiences can be useful for helping to flesh out a story idea, or give you an unusual perspective to write a story from, or just give you a bit more familiarity with a topic that you can then use to work the odd detail or correctly used bit of jargon into a story to give it a bit more verisimilitude.

This can also be helpful when submitting your piece for publication. Depending where you send it, some editors actively request that any previous writing credits (stuff you've had published elsewhere) or relevant personal experience - to the story - are included in your covering letter. 

Last point - don't get too hung up on waiting for that killer idea. Taking a fairly well trodden trope and putting your own twist on it can work fine too. And just because you're writing science fiction, that doesn't mean you have to use an exotic setting, or super-advanced far-future technology.  One of my pieces was largely a slice-of-life story, revolving around fixing some blocked plumbing in a glasshouse. There was a little more to it than that but all the technology involved was either available today or was a very short extrapolation from present day stuff.

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On 1/29/2022 at 3:38 PM, Just Jim said:

Thanks you. One thing I can say (because Nate has already said this) is we are not making the game easier. But we do want to make it easier to learn. We want the information that players need, tutorials, etc, to be more understandable and accessible. 

Anyway, to bring this back on topic, I ran across this video a couple weeks ago. It says it's for screenplays and screenwriters, but there is a lot of very good advice for any kind of writing, including short stories and novels
 

 

 

 

Wow I watched a bit of it, and will watch more later.

"Actions define character."

That statement i profound, since writing character sheets has become popular, even standard, and then turningvthe character loose to see what they do in A or B situation.

But that is an overly complex way of solving a simple problem.

Look at their actions and that tells you who and what they are. It may not tell you WHY they are but the why matters at lot less than who they are and what they do.

Who we think we are and what and who we actually are aren't always the same.

Note what Major Kira says about judging people, it is spot on.

Even IRL on job interviews they ask about your former achievements (actions) because that tells them more about who you are than if you just said who you are.

Because actions speak louder than words. I would also say that what have not done also speaks just as loudly.

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21 minutes ago, Spacescifi said:

"Actions define character."

I totally agree!  

What is really fun is after a while your characters will start to write themselves in your head. It's weird, but true. The more you start to define them, the more you know them... the more you can predict what they will say and do in a certain situation without having to really think about it.  I've had it happen a lot writing Emiko. Without me really doing anything, I would sit and dream up all the dialog between my characters just by sitting back and listening to them in my head.

The great J. Michael Straczynski sums it up really well in this:
 





 

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