So I have two Rules of Writing (so far). Be specific, be intentional.
Time to unpack that second one. I’ve broken it into several categories.
Be intentional: Everyone plays favorites.
Everyone has favorite characters and types. For a long time, almost everything I wrote involved a tall, skinny, white, redheaded female outcast. I am tall and white, I grew up something of an underweight loner, and I still think red hair is way cooler than blonde or brown.
Not good reasons to always use the same character.
I could usually handwave or worldbuild a justification for it, but those were after-the-fact, tacked on to cover what, even then, I knew was a problem. My characters were weaker because they weren’t intentional– I didn’t think, “How can I show that this character is genetically different from her family? I know, redheaded stepchild!” but, “It doesn’t make sense that she’d have red hair. I’ll, um…” and then handwave frantically.
The Redheaded Outcast is not the best character for the job, she’s just the first character to come to mind.
Case in point, though it doesn’t involve the Redheaded Outcast: Totipotent.
When I wrote that story, Bea was a man named Barry. First thing to come into my mind– here are two partners, Mosy and Barry. I thought a lot about Mosy, not at all about his human. When I sent it to my crit group, they were understandably confused, not only because I didn’t give enough information in the story but because I was in Pronoun Hell. I changed Barry to Bea…
…and the story got better. I avoided Pronoun Hell, first off, and Bea works as character in a way that Barry didn’t. I wrote two stories with Barry and only one with Bea, but Bea’s the one who has stayed with me. She does exactly the same things Barry did, but she changed more than the pronoun.
I used Barry because he was the first character to come into my mind. I didn’t use him on purpose. I used Bea on purpose, and she works better.
This holds true for relationships between characters– do you find yourself writing lots of brothers holding their own against the world*? What about the traditional Disney family, with a princess and a king but never a mother? Does every protagonist have a snarky older sibling who’s probably just jealous?
*this pattern in particular annoys me because I see it so often… and never sisters.
Look at your settings: are they all Fantasyland, a generic urban fantasy city, steampunk London, or the interior of an otherwise undescribed spaceship?
Did you do it on purpose?
Try to see your patterns and remember that you can break them. Pay special attention to stories in which you have to handwave or otherwise justify irrational decisions– those are when you may have used the wrong character or setting.
Be intentional: You, me, and an ass.
This is part of the previous point, but it bears separating out.
Did you notice what characteristics I didn’t list for the Redheaded Outcast?
She’s able-bodied. She’s more or less an atheist. She comes from a culture where it is assumed everyone will have enough to eat. She’s able to go off on her own without worrying about anything other able-bodied adult humans would worry about. She hasn’t been physically abused. She has all her teeth.
These are things that are true about me, but they are about me on a different level from ‘blonde’ and ‘white’, partly because I haven’t dug into them as much. These are things it doesn’t even occur to me to mention, nor think of. I sidestep them entirely because they are so much a part of how I see myself, but not something I’m used to doing on purpose. I don’t write the Redheaded Outcast any more, but almost all my characters are still able-bodied, not fat or short enough to affect them as more than description, and secular.
I have missed opportunities here.
It’s easy to spot a line of redheads through a dozen stories. It’s harder to pick out assumptions about how the world, and the people in it, work.
Again, this carries over to settings. Have you considered what the average person in your steampunk city thinks about science? If you do, you now have choices about how they’ll react in a riot, how they’ll treat your lab-coated heroine, and what happens to decommissioned war machinery. If you shrug it off– if you don’t take charge of that decision– well, you don’t have those choices.
Assumptions are really hard to find sometimes, but when you kick one over, you get a new set of challenges. We’re spec fic writers. We love new things.
Be intentional: The Third Artist
I have no idea where I first heard this story, and of course it’s been heavily filtered through my brain, but I think it summarizes some of the problems beginning writers have.
Build a gigantic, beautiful art museum, fill it with all the greatest art you can think of– paintings, sculptures, textiles, everything. Take a bunch of infants and raise them in this museum. Give them all the materials they want to create more art, inspired by the glorious work all around them.
Build a second museum to house their creations, and raise a second generation of artists in it.
Build a third museum, and then look at the art that the third set of artists create. They’ve never seen a tree, but only the painting the second batch painted, inspired by and imitating the first batch, who are inspired by and imitate the paintings of people who have sat in the shade on a college quad, walked home through a winter’s night and been wary of the crows, and seen row upon row of saplings at the nursery waiting to be planted in the spring.
No one ever means to be the third artist.
Look at the stories you take in. Do you read a lot of urban fantasy? When you write about werewolves, do you go to folklore and animal behavior texts, or do you steal the cool bits from Patricia Briggs and Kelley Armstrong? Did you mean to write a wolfpack inspired by your favorite books, or did you think you were being wholly original?
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking inspiration from others’ work. There’s a conversation going on through a lot of stories– this is part of why it’s so much fun to pick them apart and study them. Every fairy tale retelling is part of a conversation. Every vampire, scary, sexy, or sparkly, is part of a conversation. Every second-world fantasy is connected to Tolkien, Jordan, and C S Lewis. It’s a very slow discussion, yes. But– you knew there was a but— you have to know what you’re saying. This means saying it on purpose.
Be intentional: A gentleman never offends accidentally.
I have written horrible stereotypes both racist and sexist, invoked patriarchal tropes, reinforced assumptions based on cultural misunderstandings, and generally been ignorant of context. Some of this was when I was thirteen and hadn’t heard a lot of racial slurs or encountered feminism beyond Girls Can Do It Too, Probably Better; some of this was when I was twenty and thought I was enlightened enough; some of this was this year, and I probably haven’t figured it out yet.
Did I set out to offend? Nope. So the fact that I did so counts twice, both for the error and for the lack of intent that led to it.
It’s better to be offensive because you have considered your options and consider giving offense to be the best of them than because you had no idea it would be a problem. “I didn’t know that it’s always the black guy who dies,” effectively removes you from the conversation– you didn’t know, so what else can you say? You have unwittingly reinforced a trope you didn’t mean to and that you might not like, having met it. “I wanted to show that the idiotic white kids will survive because their parents have money and other white people are more willing to welcome them, and that the black man who did so much to keep them alive ends up dying not because of the monsters but because of racism from the white humans they finally meet,” opens up a discussion. You’re using the trope rather than having it use you.
Be intentional: But what have you done lately?
Most of the rest of what I have to say is philosophy-of-writing. This is a mechanics issue.
You’ve just written absolutely the best story. Everything came together– the characters are perfect, the setting’s novel, the political system is bewilderingly appropriate, the action makes it hard to sit down even though you’ve edited it a dozen times, the emotional arc still makes you cry. It all just happened, like a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky, and you sell the story and win a Hugo and live happily ever after.
So what do you write next?
Lightning doesn’t strike every story, and if you wait for it to do so, you’re going to be out in the rain a long, long time. If your brilliance happens by accident, you can’t repeat it. Maybe what you thought was lightning was actually gamma-radiation. Maybe it was the bite of a radioactive spider.
You can’t order lightning. All you can do is pay attention to what makes a story good, lightning or not, and then do more of it. Look at your sentences and how they work. Don’t accidentally write a wonderful sentence and then accidentally write a dozen clunkers– pick that first one apart, if you’re lucky enough to have it, and then intentionally write more wonderful sentences. Don’t stumble into the perfect group of wounded characters and try to meet more by stumbling into random people. Notice the wounded characters, study their interactions, and for the next story, build a better group.
Learn from the lightning-strike story. Don’t put up copper pipes and saw down every tree in the neighborhood hoping for a second strike– figure out how to hook up a generator. Don’t despair that you can’t recapture that effortless blaze of perfection– take it as an example. You are capable of great things.
If you do it intentionally, you can do it twice.