How to Make A Living as a Professional Fiction Writer
Larry Correia: Writing Class–Week 2
Yes, I know, it has been months since I put the first one up, but real life has a tendency to get in the way of one’s plans. It will be nothing like this long until I get the third one up, I have the transcription finished and just need to convert it to HTML. With luck, it will be up later today. The final one may take a bit longer, I have some deadlines for my book and some commitments on an iOS program I am working on. With luck, however, it shouldn’t take more than a week. To help navigate this very long document, I have added links to all the sections at the top. Hopefully this will have been worth the wait.
Last time, we talked about the different ways of plotting. There is no real specific order things should be in. You can have the “big idea” first, or maybe you have a particular character you want to use, or possibly you just have a cool scene you have envisioned, whatever the spark is that gets you writing, that is fine. There is no order to how you develop the elements of your novel, there is no checklist, it is whatever makes it work for you. Dan Brown and I have a two-hour exercise where they go through and plot a novel on the fly. (insert John Brown links here) Here are some of the ways to do this.
See if you can plot a novel in thirty minutes, you might be surprised. First thing you do (guidelines only). Come up with your general idea. Your book is just a series of events. If you start thinking about how hard it is to write a book, it is just because you are looking at the whole thing at once. How do you eat an apple? One bite at a time. That is how you write a book, one scene at a time. You think about your book, and it seems insurmountable, because you are having to write between thirty and forty (or more) different scenes, and that seems like a lot. But, think of it this way. You have the beginning and you have the end. You know where you are starting and you know where you are ending. That is a couple of scenes right there. You have some pivotal events you need to happen. That is a few more scenes. You want to introduce your characters. That is some more scenes. You want to introduce the villain, advance the plot, have resolutions to your character arcs. That is a few more scenes. Next thing you know, on your rough outline, you have your thirty or forty scenes and boom, you pretty much have a book.
Pacing and Intensity
We need to talk about pacing your plot. Pacing is a very important thing that a lot of writers don’t really think about. Unfortunately, it is the kind of thing that you either get right, or you get wrong. It is also one of those skills that you get better at as you work at it, one of the developed skills of the professional author. It is kind of an instinctual thing.
When you think of your plot, don’t think of it as just a sequence of events that’s just a line. You want to wick up the intensity, then dial it down. Pick it up and then take it down. Think of it as more of a wave. The reason you need to vary your intensity is to keep the reader engaged. If the intensity of your plot is at the same level all the time, it just becomes noise.
Pick on Michael Bay movies. Think about the Michael Bay movies you have seen, about the plot. Have you ever been at one of his movies, and it is intense, intense, intense, explosion, explosion, explosion — and you get bored? So, he has managed to make you bored of explosions. That takes skill. The problem is, where do you go from explosions? And the reason why is because if you were to chart the plot of one of these movies that bores you, it is because it looks like this (see included diagram). The intensity is always at a maximum, so intense has become the new normal. You can’t really take the intensity any higher, because you have already taken it to the max and pegged it there. This sort of plotting leads to big, huge, spectacle movies that you only watch once.
Books are the same way. If your plot is something like “Race, race, race, race, race, end,” then race, that super-intense stuff, that exciting stuff, has now become the norm, and your readers become bored. Howard Tayler (author of Schlock Mercenary webcomic and the “Writing Excuses” podcast) refers to it as “action fatigue” and the example he uses is the movie Avengers. In the final fight in New York, there is a long sequence where they show each hero doing something amazing, Black Widow jumps onto a speeding hovercycle, then has a midair fight with a bunch of aliens. Iron Man goes whizzing by her, then he and Captain America clear a bunch of bad guys using some teamwork. Iron Man flies up and we see Hawkeye frantically picking away at bunches of hovercycles, then one that he shoots out of the air crashes into the back of a huge alien ship-monster flying around Manhattan where Thor and Hulk are on a rampage, just tearing it up. Then Hulk takes a huge piece of metal and drives it through the spine of the creature, causing it to crash into the street and then slide into a building. The scene ends with Thor and Hulk standing triumphant on the downed enemy ship. Then Hulk sucker-punches Thor.
But here’s the thing. The director of Avengers, Joss Whedon, must have had this scene in front of a focus group or something, because the sustained intensity of the scene is very high — midair fights, desperate battles against overwhelming odds, Thor and Hulk riding on the back of an alien monster — but just as it starts to get boring, Hulk takes to opportunity to pay Thor back for some perceived slight, and everyone laughs. What did he do there? Intense action, intense action, intense action, audience getting bored, Oh! that was funny! So, he tweaked the intensity of the scene so that the audience didn’t lose interest.
As an author, you need to do the same thing. You will take the intensity of your plot up and down. You have to tweak your pacing. There will be scenes where things slow down. That is so your characters can catch their breath and your readers can catch their breath. So, you need to think about your plot. When I was starting out, I didn’t really recognize this principle, but I did have some instinctive understanding of it. I used to joke, “If I go forty or fifty pages and nothing has exploded, I get really nervous that my readers are going to get really bored.” And that is the real core of the principle. You never want your readers to get bored. But you can have them get bored because there is too much action, too much happening. This is a problem that I have to deal with, because I write fiction that is strongly action-oriented.
One of the complaints I get from people who don’t read a lot of action-adventure stuff is that they get bored because the action scenes are too long. I think that my scenes are fine for my target audience. I have a reputation as an action writer, and that is what people buy my books for, that is one of my specialties.
But that sort of book is not for everyone, and one of the common complaints in my negative reviews is that people start to skip over the fight scenes. If people start to skip over parts of your book, it may be that you have not varied the intensity of the book enough. I have an issue where I tend to keep the intensity too high for too long. The opposite end of the problem is some of the stuff that is not for my target audience, but is like Oprah Book Club books.
Instead of having the intensity and the action overly high, it is set too low. It might be something like “Sad, sad, navel-gazing, sad, I’m an alcoholic, my wife left me, sad.” And then the book ends and it wins a bunch of awards.
The books that stay with you tend to have something that engages you. Beyond the idea, beyond the characters, the story’s intensity goes up and it goes down, and it drags you along with it. Because it keeps shifting gears, it keeps your brain engaged. So, when you are having people read your book, you want to find out if there are any times when they get bored or confused. In fact, that is one of the primary purposes of alpha readers, to answer the question, “As a reader, are you ever bored or confused?” Anyplace that happens in your book is a place that needs to be fixed. Really, most of the things that screw a book up boil down to one of those two problems.
Importance of Characters
I have Christopher Walken at different ages as a character in my books. Harkenness in Hard Magic is Christopher Walken. As a matter of fact, the artist for the interior art of the book asked me about the description of the characters, and I said that Harkenness was Christopher Walken, so the first portrait of the character was just a likeness of Christopher Walken, and I said, “Uh, no, you can’t do that, because it is just a picture of Christopher Walken, and that is going to get me in trouble.”
The reason that people keep reading a book is because they care about what is happening. If fast-paced, high tension action is all that happens in a book, then after awhile, it stops seeming like an actual threat to the characters, and the reader stops caring because it doesn’t seem like there is any danger. This completely defeats the purpose of the high-tension action scenes and fights, since the only reason they are in the book is to subject the characters to perceived risk.
Speaking of characters, let’s return to the Michael Bay explosion movies for a moment. Did anyone actually care about the human characters in Transformers? I kept hoping that Shia Lebouf would get stepped on so they could get back to the cool giant robots. There has to be a reason for the reader to want to get dragged along through this varying intensity emotional roller-coaster of plot. That reason is usually the characters.
Once you have your basic plot outline, once you know the story you want to tell, you need to populate it. The more your characters seem real, the more they seem like people, the more genuine they are, the more the readers are going to care about what happens to them.
I consider myself more of a character writer than an idea writer. I love characters. Given a choice between a big, strong idea for the plot and interesting characters, I will fall on the side of the characters. Ideally, you will have both. Also, things can change according to your genre. A romance novel is going to be considerably more character driven than it will rely on some clever plot idea. Hard science-fiction, on the other hand, is almost completely an idea-driven genre. I have read a bunch of hard science-fiction novels that I remember well that I couldn’t convey even the first bit of information about the characters. For example, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, there was a robot named HAL and maybe an astronaut named “Dave.” And a monkey with a bone. But I don’t remember anything about Dave’s traits or reactions. So, to an extent, the reliance on character depends on what kind of writing you are doing.
But, in general, characters are the key to a really good novel. Because, if you have a really awesome idea populated with boring characters that no one cares about, the book is going to fail for the readers. I remember many years ago, there was a book that caught my attention because of the back cover blurb. I can’t remember the author or the title, but the idea was that there was a group of protohumans, sort of like Neanderthals, but one of the more minor groups. They had not died out, like all the rest of humanity’s less evolved cousins, but had been living in secret amongst humanity for thousands of years, plotting their eventual takeover and destruction of mankind.
It was a great plot-idea novel about secret conspiracies of ancient humanoid survivors, plotting to kill us all. It was fascinating and a great pitch. However, the book was boring. Boring as could be, and I cannot recall a single thing about any of the characters in the book. Then, there are other books where the characters are so strong that one can’t recall anything about the plot, but the characters stand out so much that the book sticks with you. It depends on what you are trying to write.
One of the first thing I do when writing a book it to get my plot, then I go to put my characters in. I start thinking about things like, “Who would be the best person to tell this kind of story?” As an example, let’s talk about the character choices I made on Monster Hunter International and Hard Magic, and why I made those choices when I did the plotting. When I wrote Hard Magic, I had already sold Monster Hunter International, and I had a much better idea of what to do than when I was starting out.
When I wrote Monster Hunter International, I was basically making it up as I went along. My idea was that the characters in the book were the survivors of all the Hollywood horror movies. So, the characters were chosen using the criteria, “Take all the stereotypes of all the various horror movies, and stick them into the Monster Hunter universe.” Julie — the love interest for the protagonist — fit the “hot librarian” stereotype. Holly — a stripper who survived a vampire attack — was the “amoral blond sexy girl” stereotype. Trip — a teacher who survived a zombie attack on his high school — was the “black guy sidekick” stereotype. Lee was the “smart guy Asian.” The book even had a “wise mentor who doesn’t speak good English” in a spirit guide that the protagonist sees in his dreams. When you put it in these bald terms, it sounds really bad.
Still, the idea was that I would take all these stereotypes and try and give them some heft and some background. I wanted to play with the basic tropes of the characters. Holly was originally just a stripper, but now, five books into the series, she is one of the most popular characters in the books. Why? Because, in a team made up of badass monster killers, she is the single toughest person on the team. Not physically tough, but mentally tough. She is the ultimate survivor. She is the hardest person on the team, she has had the hardest life, and she doesn’t care about things. That is how I wrote her.
Then, there is Trip. The basic stereotype is a buddy-sidekick jock, but then I started thinking about, “What is it that makes this guy a survivor?” He started thinking about Trip’s backstory. He was a coach and a high school chemistry teacher and he had to kill his students who got zombified and that traumatized him for the rest of his life. Why? Because he was probably the nicest guy on the team. Whereas Holly is the hard one on the team, Trip is the soul of the team. He’s the paladin. He is honestly the most good, kind-hearted, decent, honest person on the team, and also, I made him devoutly religious. I used to live down South, and I knew a lot of Baptists, and I told himself, “Doggone it, I want to have a Baptist who’s awesome.” So, Trip is a devout Christian, and a nerd. Despite the fact that he played college football and he is this great big ripped scary dude with dreadlocks, he plays Dungeons and Dragons. He plays War Machine. He paints miniatures. He is a complete geek. Why is he a geek? Because he grew up super poor, in the sticks, and it was one of the things him and his nerd friends could do for free. And how he learned to read was that he got introduced to comic books. That’s how I learned to read.
Character Growth and Development
So, this is how I took these rather flat stereotypes and turned them into these pretty cool people. The even cooler thing is that, as the series progresses, these people interact, and as they interact, the characters grow. So, if they have these sort of love/hate relationships. The thing is, the more you think of your characters as people, and the more you flesh them out as actual human beings, just like real people, they are going to get along sometimes, and other times, they are going to have conflicts, because everyone is different. Sometimes people get along and other times they have personality clashes. If you have wooden characters and they have personality clashes, then what happens? One character is good, and the other character is bad. But that is weak and boring, and is nothing like real life. On the other hand, if your characters are human, and there is a reason they are the way they are, then they are going to clash.
One of the characters that I did originally in Monster Hunter International, who was introduced strictly for the purpose of giving the main character a foil, was Grant. One of the things I consider a great achievement in the Monster Hunter series is to take characters that I originally introduced for the audience to hate and then later having a book from their perspective where I make the readers cry when it looks like I am going to kill them. So, Grant was introduced as a pretty-boy, super-successful, super-smart, overachiever, good at everything for the main character to hate, for the main character to compete against, and to provide a romantic rival to the main character for Julie’s affections. Originally, I didn’t have him fleshed out that much, but then I have this great scene where, in the freighter fight, I have the pretty-boy overachiever screw up. He makes a bad call, and it is a bad call that puts the main character in a terrible situation that should have killed him. Why did Grant make the bad call? Because he was scared, so he made this bad call. And that scene humanized this character more than anything else I did with him. So, this results in this guy being a failure for the first time in his life and simply cannot deal with it.
As the series goes on, he winds up working for the government, who are not technically the bad guys, but in the Monster Hunter series, they are always very hostile to MHI, so are close enough to enemies as makes no difference. So, Grant goes to work for the government, then, as the series goes on, he becomes a better and better character. So, he is still an overachieving, know-it-all douchebag, but the reader understands why he is a an overachieving, know-it-all douchebag, and as time goes on the reader begins to root for him to become a person. At the end of the fifth book, Grant becomes Agent Franks’ partner, which everyone then feels enormous sympathy and compassion for Grant, because Franks’ partners are usually just traveling organ banks. Basically, not a good position to be in. Very short life-expectancy.
Another character that I introduced in the first book that was meant to be a foil, an antagonist to the MHI crew, was Agent Meyers. He is an supervisory special agent whose sole purpose in life seems to be to make life difficult for the good guys. I worked with the government for many years, worked in military contract procurement, so I know all about the government screwing with people, and Agent Meyers represents my personal experience and life experiences of dealing with uncaring, rigid government bureaucrats. Every petty bureaucrat I ever met added some facet to Agent Meyers’ personality. I didn’t do a lot of development on Meyers at first, but as the series progressed, I had some great ideas as to Meyers’ backstory.
In the first book, Meyers has a throwaway line where he reminds the good guys that he had one worked for Monster Hunters, but they had a falling out of some kind. So, when I was developing the sequel and I was developing the plot underpinnings and the backstory, Agent Meyers became the perfect person to fit the slot, and then this really awesome story of betrayal and redemption grew up around a guy who was a secondary character and almost an afterthought. As the series goes on, he becomes one of the pivotal characters.
So, you need to think about your characters. When you are fleshing them out, your main characters are the ones who will be the most highly developed. They will get the most love. You need to think about: What makes them tick? Why are their reactions the way they are? What is their background? Where did they come from? These all need to be answered. You will think about your secondary characters less, and then your tertiary characters like the guy you buy your burrito from who shows up in one scene and asks, “Would you like beans with that?” That guy, you don’t care about. He doesn’t matter. These kind of characters are often known as “spear-carriers.” Guys like “Guard Number Three.” He doesn’t matter, he is just there to get killed dramatically. On the other hand, he may turn out to be important later. Secondary characters sometimes have this bad habit of shocking you and going off on unanticipated tangents and sometimes get their own novels.
Don’t be afraid to draw from real-life people you know when you are populating your imaginary worlds. Tweak them to fit your needs. You don’t really need to be totally loyal to your friends, nor should feel obligated to tell them you are doing this, especially if you are going to kill them. That being said, the most awesome and the most violent death scene that I have ever written was in Warbound. One of the main characters just goes out in a blaze of glory, and the character is based on a real friend of mine. I told him, “Dude, you go out like a Boss. That’s all there is to say. It is the greatest death scene.” But he was cool with it, he thought it was awesome. The character is Lance Talon, who is based on a friend of mine who is basically unchanged from his real-life counterpart. Both of them even have a limp.
Character ideas are everywhere. I wrote Frank Sinatra into a novel, as a knight, like in King Arthur and the Round Table, and it worked great. Feel free to steal characters from movies, just tweak them for your needs. There is nothing wrong with having a cast of characters drawn from other fiction, from real people, from actors, from people you have just made up from whole cloth, and you populate the movie in your mind with them. There is nothing wrong with that. I have known writers who will find a picture in a magazine of a person, clip it out, then paste it somewhere where they will constantly see it, because that person in that picture was their inspiration for a character in their book. One advantage of this method is that it helps keep your vision of that character consistent.
I recommend that you use a character bible. I have not always done that myself, and I have regretted it at times. By a “character bible” we mean a document that contains everything there is to know about that character, all the pertinent facts. So, anything that is ever mentioned about that character’s background, history, appearance, motivations, is written down in the character bible. Then, when you are later writing about this person, you don’t contradict yourself. This way, your left-handers don’t become right-handers, blue eyes don’t turn brown, brunettes don’t become blonds without benefit of hair coloring. Although this doesn’t sound complicated in one book, by the time you are writing the fifth book in a series, and the first book was written six years previously, you may not be able to remember if you mentioned where this character went to college. Since that is exactly the position I am in now with Monster Hunter Nemesis, I am sort of kicking myself for failing to provide character bibles for my cast. The thing is that even if you don’t remember some small detail of background, backstory, or appearance, your readers will, every single time.
The problem, particularly with long running series with huge casts of characters is that the human brain is only capable of tracking about two hundred to two hundred and fifty people at one time. If you look at the evolution of human society and the way that our civilizations have developed, you can only have this small number of two hundred and fifty people active in your brain at one time that you “know,” or remember well, at the maximum.
For normal people, that is friends, families, coworkers, acquaintances, Facebook friends, whatever. And they have to keep all these people in their heads. Of course, for us writers, now we have to add the imaginary voices in our heads. That is why my wife goes with me on book tours. She is my handler. I can’t remember people or names because my mind is so full of the imaginary people in the books I have created. I now have three or four full series with hundreds of characters, and there is no way I will be able to keep them all straight without something like this character bible. These character bibles are really important, because they keep you from violating fundamental facts you have already established about your characters.
If you are collaborating, a character bible is extremely valuable. If two of you are going to be writing the same character, you must be on the same page and working off the same assumptions as to what that character is like, else, things will turn out badly. For example, I am doing the Dead Six series with Mike Kupari. We have done two novels and are working on the third and final novel of the trilogy right now. Mike and I had to very specifically detail what these characters are like because there are scenes from a particular character’s point of view where I am describing that character, and then, later on, Mike is writing the same character. And sometimes, we are both writing dialog.
So, what we would do is, for a character that I invented and “owned,” when that character would appear in one of Mike’s narrative scenes, I would go ahead and write the dialog for the character. So Mike would go through and write what needed to be said and then I would go through and put the dialog into that character’s voice. Vice-versa, when characters of Mike’s appeared in my narrative scenes, I would write basic dialog for them then Mike would tweak it to give it the proper voice.
Speaking of dialog, every character is going to have his own “voice.” Each character will sound a little different from any other character. Think about your characters here. Characters talk. Dialog is a huge part of most books, all the stuff in quotes. Since each character should have a unique voice, then the mark of a really good author is that they can have a group of people talking at the same time, and they don’t have to stop and say “blah blah blah,” XXX said. “Blah blah blah,” she said. “Blah blah blah,” Bob said to have the reader identify the speakers, since each speaker sounds different enough from the others that you don’t need it. The reader can tell by the words, the speech patterns and the verbal tics who is saying what.
In fact, a lot of times when I’m editing other stuff and I see a page of dialog and they need XXX said on every line so you can tell who is talking, that is kind of a mark of an amateurish author. It looks and feels unprofessional. There is nothing wrong with dialog tags like Bill said, or Jill said, when you have three or more people talking, because it starts getting confusing otherwise.
I didn’t really become aware of this whole issue with too many dialog tags until I started getting my books in audio. If you have a good narrator (which I have been fortunate to have), then you become really aware that the dialog tags are really extraneous. So, one of the things to watch out for is: Don’t over use dialog tags. The only time you need dialog tags is to keep it from being confusing. There will be times when the reader won’t be able to tell who said it unless you inform them who said it. If you don’t put something like that, then the reader gets confused, which is bad.
If your character says something like, “Look out!” or “Oh no!” that could be said by anyone, so you have to identify the speaker using a dialog tag. Now, if it is a string of “F*** f*** f*****y f***, oh no!” then that is going to narrow it down. Probably, for most books. Although I don’t know what kind of book you are writing, so maybe it doesn’t narrow it down for you.
Repetition in Dialog and Writing
A side note on profanity, both in your narrative and in your dialog in your books. I especially got this because I have a large military audience for my books. Although you may be using a “realistic” amount of profanity in your books, you need to dial it back. You don’t want to overuse profanity in your books for one reason: Listening is different in your brain than reading. As you read, subconsciously, your brain is reading the line below and the line above the line you are actively reading. So what happens is, as you’re reading a paragraph, you read the first line, then your brain is already skimming the second line. Then, as you actively read the second line, your brain is pondering the first line and skimming the third line. By the time you are actively reading the third line, you are still subconsciously reading the second line and looking at the fourth line.
So, let’s say that you are writing about a Marine, and the first time I wrote a short story about a Marine, I sent it our to about fifty Marines and asked them, “You know, what I can I do to make this more realistic?” and the main advice was “More ooh-rahs and f-bombs.” But here is the problem with the f-bombs. If, in real life, the person would use two f-bombs in one sentence, which, if you have worked with Marines, you would know that’s not an exaggeration, that’s actually kind of mild. If I wrote both those f-bombs in one line, then the reader is going to read it when they read the line above, read it when they actively read the line with the f-bombs, then read it when they are on the line below.
So, what happens is that instead of seeing two f-bombs, the reader sees six f-bombs, and they have those six f-bombs in their head. So, in reading, it’s much more overpowered than when talking. That subconscious reading thing is also why you want to avoid over-repetitive word use in general. What I mean by over-repetitive word use is, if, as you are editing your work and the same word appears over and over and over again on the same page, like the word fall appears again and again because you’re talking about the time of year before winter, then you need to change that around. Otherwise, the reader is going to read that as a lot of falls.
The joke that me and Mike Kupari had while we were writing Dead Six is that we wished there were more synonyms for the word “explode.” Because we were writing a book with bombs, action, adventure, explosions, explosions, explosions, and explosions, so you’d read some action scenes and it would be that explode would show up eight times in one paragraph, because there weren’t a lot of other words we could use for explode.
So, this is a little more advanced editing technique, but don’t worry too much about it in the first draft, just get stuff on the page. When I wrote Hard Magic, I decided part-way through to check on the whole profanity thing being three times as powerful in writing as it is in spoken, because my editor, Toni Weisskopf, told me about it. I had one character, Madi, who is one of the bad guys, who swore quite a bit. So, I did a global search for swear words, and I found that Madi used the f-bomb eighty-eight times in this book, and he is only in about five scenes. I realized, “Oh crap, I really cannot do that,” and I finally cut that number down to like six before I was done.
Dialog Dos and Don’ts
When you are writing that kind of thing, you just need to keep that in mind. The other thing is, don’t write dialog perfectly realistically. If you ever read a pure actual transcript of how human beings talk, you’ll notice there’s a lot of “ummm,” “uh,” “the the the,” “you know,” and “the thing that we, you know, that thing,” kind of words. Something like that can make up lines and lines of nonsense that add nothing to your dialog. Don’t put something like that into your dialog unless there is a dramatic reason to do it. If you write dialog the way that people actually talk, it’s going to annoy the crap out of your readers. If you put all the filler that we all do in our normal conversation into your written dialog, it is going to be horrible. If you were actually to write all the times people use “and, um” in their conversation, you would have thousands of occurrences of “and, um” in your book. That may sound awesome when you’re getting paid by the word, but it won’t fly. Also, you need to watch for ellipses in your work. The dot dot dot can be great, I love them, but like the f-bomb, it is something you need to use sparingly and don’t get carried away.
Be careful with dialog. The key to dialog is that it doesn’t need to be 100% accurate, it needs to read well, it needs to read smooth, and it needs to be transparent to the reader and not draw attention to itself. It should just be there to move the narrative along.
Another thing to watch out for is don’t get hung up on regional dialects. People often get tempted to write out dialects phonetically. For instance, have you ever seen a book that has someone with a Scottish accent, and the author feels the need to spell everything out phonetically or they have a hillbilly character and they speak a completely incomprehensible from of English? When you read these sorts of things, it hurts your brain. Anytime you do something like that, you are making it hard for the reader.
If you recall, you have a pact with the reader. Anything that makes them stop and realize that they are reading a book because you made them work for their entertainment, you aren’t keeping your side of the bargain. Now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t ever do dialect, or the “and, um” and “err” interjections, you just need to tread carefully. I’ve done this with different characters who speak bad English. An example is Mordecai in Hard Magic. He speaks terrible English, and I use that to great effect with his character.
If you are going to do that, make sure that you are consistent with it, make sure it makes sense, and make sure it’s enjoyable. Also, when you’re doing stuff from translation, keep in mind that a lot of languages don’t use contractions like Americans do. Also, it’s important that your dialog somehow contribute to the book. You can’t waste space with the things a character says. One of the difference between dialog in real life and dialog in a book is that the dialog in a book needs to have a purpose. It needs a reason to be there. We make a lot of pointless small-talk in real life, a lot of conversational filler.
The problem with filler in a book is that it really irks the reader, they don’t like it, and they can tell if it is just filler, so don’t give them filler, give them solid dialog. A famous quote from Elmore Leonard (author of Get Shorty, 3:10 to Yuma, and the story Fire in the Hole, which became the television series Justified), who was a fantastic author, was “Don’t write the parts that people skip.”
Of course, there are a lot of books that consist mostly of conversations between people, mostly dialog among the characters, like My Dinner with Andre. However, that is not the kind of book that I personally like to read. The only thing that I know about My Dinner with Andre is that they made fun of it on an episode of Community. Some people like that sort of book, but New York Art House is not a genre of books that sells well.
Dialog That Pops
Unless you’re one of these art house books, all your dialog has to have a reason. You have heard about some authors who have “dialog that pops,” you’ve probably all heard that term. For instance, people talk about Joss Whedon (director of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Avengers), because, if you look at his work, he has some really snappy dialog. Here’s the thing: Is Joss Whedon’t dialog realistic? Not at all. Human beings are not that witty.
The cast of Firefly, everything they said on the Serenity was hilarious and awesome. Or poignant or fitting. Nobody talks like that in real life! But we all wish we could, so I prefer the Whedonverse version of dialog, because it’s cooler.
In real life, we say stupid, boring crap, but don’t put the stupid, boring crap into your book unless there’s a reason to put the stupid, boring crap in. I mentioned Elmore Leonard earlier. He was the executive producer for the FX channel show Justified, and may have done some of the writing. I think that Justified was the best written show on television, period. It had the best dialog ever. If you want to see good dialog, snappy dialog, amazing dialog, watch Justified. It’s American Shakespeare, you will thank me later. It’s amazing. Best dialog ever.
But people aren’t that sharp in real life. It’s entertainment, and entertainment is cooler than real life, that’s why people read it.
Fleshing Out Your Characters
The more you flesh out your characters, the stronger they’re going to be. There’s nothing worse than a bunch of interchangeable characters that are boring. Because then nothing that happens to them matters, and the readers don’t care about them. So, then we go back to the pacing and plot, where we talked about caring about the characters. This is where it comes in.
If I don’t care about your interchangeable, boring red-shirts who I can’t remember their names, then “Oh, no! They’re about to get eaten by the monster!” evokes a yawn response from me. I can’t tell them apart, so I don’t care if they get eaten by the monster. In fact, there are books where I’ve rooted for the monsters to start killing the characters because I didn’t care and the sooner the monster killed them all, the sooner the book would be over.
So, you need to flesh out your characters, that way, when they matter, they matter, and when you put them in danger, your reader is like, “Holy crap! Bad things are happening!” One of the favorite characters I ever wrote was in Monster Hunter Alpha. I have a female sheriff’s deputy whose name is Heather. I love Heather, she’s a great character. Heather has been one of my more popular female characters for one reason, and this is fascinating.
Spoiler Alert: She becomes infected with lycanthropy and becomes a werewolf. There is a scene where she is talking to another werewolf, asking about what it means to be one. She’s trying to come to terms with this horrible awful badness, this unbelievable thing that has happened to her. The werewolf is telling her about the psychotic fits of rage, and the extreme violence, and this and that, and how horrible and depressing it is. Then he starts talking about the physical nature of it and how, every full moon, he tries to put on twenty or thirty pounds, because when it’s the full moon, he’s going to lose twenty or thirty pounds because of the energy expended in changing and how, basically, werewolves can’t get fat.
And she says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. You mean I can’t get fat?” And he’s like, “Yeah, you can’t get fat.” Now you have to understand that Heather is a little overweight, and she has struggled with her weight her whole life, and her mom really struggled with it and died young from diabetes and other complications of being overweight, so this has been a thing for her. And up this point, the whole story, she has been trying not to buy donuts from the vending machine, because she is watching her food intake. This, of course, is a blatant cop stereotype, and she is a stress eater. So, she gets to this scene and says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, Harbinger, you are telling me werewolves can’t get fat?” and he says, “No, they can’t get fat. You burn too many calories.” She says, “So, I can eat whatever I want?” “Yeah.” “Pie.” “Yeah.” “All-you-can-eat pie.” “Yeah.”
This is a such a wonderful scene, because it is so believable, in the middle of this bleak, dark, situation, where everyone is hiding out from the monsters, and she is saying, “I can eat a whole birthday cake and wash it down with a super Big Gulp and not get fat.” “Yeah.” “This. Is. *AWESOME!”* “But you still have the psychotic murder rage!” “That’s ok! I can’t get fat!”
Now, all of a sudden, because we’ve fleshed out that character while I was writing this, it’s just a funny, funny moment, and every single reader I have who’s ever struggled with weight looks at that scene and is like “Sweet, I want to be a werewolf.” The thing is that I understand that, since I have to watch my weight myself. I ate thirty dollars of sushi rolls before class tonight.
Anything you can do to make the characters more appealing to the readers is fantastic. In Hard Magic, I got a lot of compliments on the opening scenes, which is kind of a reverse Grapes of Wrath because I’m writing from the Portuguese perspective in the San Joaquin Valley, and there’s an old Portuguese guy complaining about the Okies. If you read Grapes of Wrath, it’s about all the poor Okies and the Dust Bowl and how they move to the San Joaquin Valley to get away from it. Here’s the thing: My grandfather was an old Portuguese dairy farmer when I was growing up, and he used to complain about the Okies, because his people, my family, settled the San Joaquin Valley in the first couple decades of the twentieth century, so the Okies were, to him, like this horrible crime wave that came in and took everything over. That’s what I grew up with, hearing these stories. The Grapes of Wrath people were not the victims, they were the villains, to my grandpa.
So, when I wrote those opening scenes, I had this old Portuguese dairy farmer, just bitter and angry and tough as old leather, complaining about the Okies. Why? Because it was all stuff my grandpa said. So, I put that in there, and all of a sudden, it became real and poignant. I use this to introduce one of the main characters, Faye, who is a Traveller, but she is a young Okie girl, who goes on to save the world and become superhero-like powerful by the end. It is little things of establishing things why people are what they are that. So, this dairy farmer has all this bitterness and anger because his life is hard as hell, but then he has this moment of kindness where he takes pity on this little refugee girl, and this deep pity he has for her, and suddenly, the reader’s perspective is twisted and changed, and it makes all these characters more real.
It really depends on what you are trying to write, but even an author like me, writing big, face-punching action scenes, and big action-adventure novels, to be able to get those little bits of humanity in there, to make the characters more fleshed out and real, it really pays off. The more you can get stuff like that in your book, the better you are going to be.
Think about your typical action movies, and your typical hero, John “Slabhammer Rock Hardfist” Smith, and most of these guys are interchangeable. So, they don’t matter. That is why, when I was writing Monster Hunter, I wrote a character who, if it ever got made into a movie, he could not be played by a regular action hero. That was the original goal. I wanted someone who was different. So, I tried to make him human. Which is funny, because then I got accused of “Larry Sue,” because I wrote him as an accountant. The reason I wrote him as an accountant, though, is because I needed the most stereotypically boring job that anybody could think of. Having done it most of my life, I know that the stereotypes about accounting. Actually, accounting is a lot of fun. Although writing is way cooler. Anyway, anything you can do to humanize your characters, do it.
Character Voice and Perspective
On character voice, something that you need to think about is that every character is the star of their own story. This applies to bad guys as much as good guys. It is very rare to have an effective bad guy in a story who is just there for mustache-twirling evil. Your bad guy needs to have motivation, just like your heroes do. Your bad guy needs to have a reason why he is doing what he is doing. He might just be a psycho-killer, he might just be a lunatic who is there to threaten your heroes with an axe. That’s fine, that’s still motivation.
You need to put yourself in the head of every single of your characters and figure out why they’re saying what they’re saying and why they doing what they do. Be true to the character’s motivation, be true to the character’s sense of humor, and be true to their beliefs. Even bad guys love somebody. Even the bad guys have a reason they do what they do.
When you are writing characters, and this is related to the decision to write in first-person vs writing in third-person, it is very important to remember that whoever your narrator is for the scene, the viewpoint has to be written through their lens, their viewpoint, their perspective. Everything is going to be colored by their perception. The exception to this is if you are writing third-person omniscient, the “God Narrator” point of view. However, most fiction is written through one person’s lens. So, whatever you write, it has to be how that person perceives it. When I say that, I want you to think about your character, and this also ties in with the character bible, think about that character’s skill, knowledge, abilities, courage, and experience.
Let me give two different examples. Let’s say I am writing from the perspective of Jake Sullivan from Hard Magic. Jake is a WWI combat veteran who survived the biggest battle in human history, who worked as a hard-boiled Raymond Chandleresque detective, who then went to prison in an almost gladiatorial magical prison and survived six years being the number one badass there, despite all the efforts from up-and-coming challengers to replace him, then he is released. So, when I have a fight scene from Sullivan’s perspective, he is very analytical. The stuff is going down, and he is cool. He knows he is in danger, but he is going to do what has to be done. He never gets flustered. Sullivan gets angry, but he keeps it under control. If he gets hurt, he’s like, “OK, how do I deal with this? This has to happen, this has to happen here.” He is thinking. So, he is very analytical, almost like a computer during a fight.
Another character from Hard Magic is Faye. Faye is a hyperactive sixteen year old girl who, in the modern world, would be given massive doses of Ritalin. Her brain is going a million miles an hour, she is completely nuts, when the book starts, she has no experience whatsoever in fighting, and she’s never done anything like this before. So, Faye’s action scenes are “WAAAH! Holy crap, what is happening? Got to get this, and that, and that over there, and what is this?” It is complete and utter chaos, with this happening and that happening and EXPLOSIONS! and then, she’s also kind of psychotic, at least on a scale of psychosis, so she’s popping people left and right with absolutely no moral compunction whatsoever. So, when I write Faye’s action sequences and compare them to Sullivan’s, they are completely and totally different, based completely on the perception of the character. Now, I’m using action sequences as an example, but this applies to everything.
If you are writing a romance scene from the perspective of a nerd who is not used to pretty girls talking to him and then a pretty girl talks to him, what is his perception going to be if he narrates this scene? “Hrrr, derp derp.” That is the time you would use the dialog tags “and, umm,” “errr,” “you know” and such. It makes sense in that case.
However, if I’m writing that same scene from the perspective of Mr. Suave Ladies Man Cool Guy Handsome Dude who gets all the chicks, then it will be totally different. He’s calm, he’s in his element. He’s going to narrate that scene in a completely different way.
So, each person has their own way that they view the world, and each of our views is different. As I said, that is one thing that I like about third-person, because I get to switch to whoever I think has the coolest view of the action. But it is not just the coolest view, it is the coolest perception. So, it’s whoever has the most interesting take on it. Because, when I am narrating these scenes, I get into their internal dialog, and into their thought processes. So, it is whoever has the coolest thought processes and you need to get that in there, too, because it is really really neat.
Another nuts-and-bolts point here. If you obviously have something that is inside someone’s head, just like dialog tags, you don’t have to have “blah blah blah he thought to himself.” You can skip the “he thought to himself.” It should be obvious from the context. Particularly if you have it in italics, like I do above. It is a common usage to put internal thoughts in italics. In that case, you really don’t need to put “he thought to himself,” unless there is a reason to do so.
I have to do it sometimes when you have people talking telepathically back and forth, because telepathic thought is also commonly put in italics. Then it gets complication to tell between telepathic speech and internal thoughts and you have to use dialog tags.
Stealing Other People’s Characters for Fun and Profit
You may be tempted to use knock-offs of other people’s characters. You need to tread carefully if you do that. Don’t copy anybody, for legal reasons, it’s bad. And on a moral level, it’s horrible and dishonest.
Let me give you an example of the way that you can use other people’s characters. I am reading a novel by Julie Frost, and her main character is basically werewolf Tony Stark. He’s not Tony Stark Tony Stark, but he embodies all the characteristics of Tony Stark, and you could see Robert Downey Jr. playing this character to perfection. So, she wrote werewolf Robert Downey Jr.
Is her character Tony Stark? No, it is an original work, it is not him, a different character, actually, her character is a private detective. It is a different work, but it is the essence of the Tony Stark character. And that is fine. There is no issue with her trying to capture the Tony Starkness of Tony Stark.
If a character is in the public domain, like Sherlock Holmes, then steal away. You can write Sherlock Holmes all you want. Anything else, though, legally, you should not try and write using those characters. If you start writing about Mickey Mouse in your book, you are going to get sued by Disney. If Luke Skywalker shows up in your books, expect to hear from Disney’s lawyers.
But, inspired by other characters is great. In fact, there are a number of character archetypes. As an example, Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly is Han Solo, just slightly more grown-up. Character archetypes are going to recur, and these archetypes exist for a reason. Actual copying of another person’s character is very bad, though. Let me reiterate that: very very very bad.
Now, satire and parody are different. Legally speaking, if you are writing comedy and you are parodying something, that is perfectly fine. That’s why I can write the Adventures of Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance Agent and I can have President Adam Baldwin, and that will be fine.
Using Historical Characters
Another area where you have free reign is with historical characters. You can put them in different settings, change them around, whatever. In Hard Magic, I have Raymond Chandler as an accountant who was also fighting magical samurai, and Robert A. Heinlein aboard a giant battle airship bombarding giant kaiju. After all, we have recently seen Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.
I am a history nerd. I love to read history. History is full of wonderful things that you can use for fiction. History is full of ridiculous things that an author couldn’t put into a novel and expect people to find them believable. I think that all writers should read history. There are so many ideas, settings, occurrences that you can steal from actual historical sources.
I use Black Jack Pershing as a character and I use John Moses Browning as characters in my book (Hard Magic), and in real life, both those guys were such interesting, cool people that they make just wonderful fictional characters without any changes at all.
Pershing was amazing. He was a complete badass. John Browning was inspired by God. John Browning was a gun wizard, in real life, then I gave him magic in my book.
History is full of stories. Eric Flint used Belisarius in one of his books. The writings of Harry Turtledove are just filled with real history that he takes and then plays with it. He is like the godfather of alternate history. Eric Flint and Harry Turtledove are the two most prominent examples of this whole entire giant genre. They take the real history, insert fantastical elements, then tweak it, often with the real-life historical characters. And a lot of times, you don’t even need to change anything. Just leave the historical people as they are, and have them react to your new elements.
However, the closer you get to the present day, the more careful you need to be. There is copyright law and stuff. In Hard Magic, I use a lot of fabricated historical quotes where I would take actual quotes from historical people from the 1930s and earlier, and I would change them to fit my magical world. I would use them as chapter bumps to get a lot of world-building squeezed in without having to do any info-dumps. So, I would use real quotes, then I would tweak them. Now, I couldn’t do that with anything after the 1950s, because of copyright law. Anytime I used a real quote, I had to be careful about the timing of the quote. I found that out because I used one Raymond Chandler quote because it was perfectly appropriate for my usage, and I had to make sure that it was properly attributed and all that stuff. Before the 1950s, knock yourself out.
You can actually even get away with defaming an historical figure who is dead, if it is like four generations since they lived. On the other hand, if you took my grandma and write a bunch of derogatory defaming things about my grandma framed as truth, then you might be looking at trouble. I might sue you. If I were to write Bill Clinton, Serial Killer, that would cause me trouble. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson, Serial Killer, that’s far enough back that no one is going to say anything. Of course, people are a lot more likely to believe in Bill Clinton, Serial Killer than Thomas Jefferson, Serial Killer, because Thomas Jefferson was cool.
The closer you get to real, living people, the more careful you have to be. However, I used Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a bad guy in my books. FDR is very popular with certain segments of the population, but he also did some really skanky stuff in real-life. In Hard Magic, I have 140,000 people with magic in America who are considered unpredictable and possibly dangerous. This perception causes the United States government to round up these people without due process and inter them in camps. This is one of the subplots of the Grimnoir Chronicle. A funny thing here is that I got a negative review that said, “Larry is just ripping off X-Men about the camps.” But, of course, X-Men stole the idea from FDR who really did inter 140,000 Japanese-Americans without due process during WWII. So, I copied real-life for that. In fact, I even used the same locations and architect for the camps as were used for the Japanese internment camps. I welcome the one-star reviews from people who know so little of history. It is a badge of honor. However, having FDR doing these scummy things, I got a lot of flak for that in certain quarters. If you’re not offending someone, you’re not doing anything. Churchill said, “I have always felt that a politician is to be judged by the animosities he excites among his opponents.” So, if you irritate someone, you are doing something.
Let’s talk about character arcs. The character arc is the growth and journey of the character during the course of the novel. Primarily, it is for your main character, but it can also be for your secondary characters as well. The character arc is concerned with what the character is doing, where is he going, and what is he learning as he does this. How is all this changing him? Characters who don’t change over the course of a book tend to be boring. Sometimes you can have characters who don’t change, and that is part of the appeal of the character. In fact, some iconic characters, when you change them, you risk turning the readers off, because that is the appeal of the character, that they are a rock, and unchanging surety among a chaotic world.
Most characters, however, learn and grow and need to evolve. Sometimes that change is in positive ways, other times, it is in negative ways. Sometimes, the end of the character arc is that the character dies. Sometimes, not everything gets resolved, not all the questions about the character are answered. But, in general, when you make the reader a promise, and when you have this character who you’ve set up to do something, the reader expects that something you have promised to happen. You can surprise them with what the something is, but the something needs to happen.
When you are thinking about your big overall umbrella of a plot, character arcs are little subplots within that. Now, your main plot might be the main character’s arc. It might be Like Skywalker becoming a Jedi. It might be Frodo getting the Ring to Mordor. That’s Frodo’s character arc, Frodo resisting temptation. But Sam had his character arc, too. Sam winds up carrying Frodo, Sam winds up carrying the Ring, Sam’s the guy that’s not tempted, Sam is the real hero of the whole thing.
Redemption is a recurring theme in character arcs, and there is a reason for that. It is a topic that appeals to basic human storytelling, and in Western society, we are all about redemption. There is an almost endless number of character arcs and ways to have your characters progress. If you think about most of the popular characters that you know and love, there is a character arc associated with why you like that character. There is somewhere they are going, or there is something they are doing. When you are doing your overall plot, think about your characters. I don’t tend to think of character arcs separately when I am doing my plot, but if I can come up with something cool for the character to do, something for them to accomplish, I try and do it.
Earlier I mentioned Holly, the former stripper from Monster Hunter. I give glimpses of her backstory at times in some of the books, but it isn’t until the fourth book in the series that we get the full view of what she has gone through. She gets a huge hero moment in the fourth book, and it is not even so much the resolution of her character arc, it is just a point on her journey along it. Another time, you want to spice things up, so you introduce a new character.
I introduced Owen’s (the protagonist of most of the Monster Hunter books) little brother in Monster Hunter International. He was a fantastic guitarist, his whole life was being a guitarist, he’s a great musician and a famous rock star, and he gets his fingers cut off and then surgically reattached, which, as you can imagine, caused his guitar skills to go to hell.
He is now a recurring character in the series, and he has an arc that is going on because he was a guy at the top of the world, then he fell. We made him a loser, at the bottom, in the pit of depression and despair. He’s drinking himself stupid. He’s working at a really crappy, second-rate Las Vegas hotel. The funny thing is, he’s flipped and learned to play the guitar left-handed and he is still amazing, but he himself thinks that his playing is crap, it’s garbage, and his playing will never be as good as it was before. Since he can’t be the best anymore, he’s ruined and is ready to give up. Then his brother shows up and tries to drag him out of his slump, but he doesn’t want to be dragged, so they have a big fight, and Owen leaves.
Later on, horrible things are happening, and Owen is in trouble and stuck, and supernatural forces are trying to save the day, but they need someone of Owen’s bloodline, so they call on his boozer brother, wake him up from a three-day binge, and tell him he needs to go on a quest to save the world. This is in book four of the series, and all of a sudden, this guy, who doesn’t have the skill, knowledge, training, or experience of the other Monster Hunters is forced into a situation where he has to go and be the hero. He totally blunders through it.
I used to teach shooting, and we would do simulation sessions where we had to shoot each other with paint balls or airsoft guns or something like that. I would play the bad guy. I learned that normal people, under the effects of stress would tend to mangle their words. So, a person thinks they are going to say something cool like, “Drop the gun and show me your hands!” like a cop in a movie, but you don’t. I had one person who was so frazzled in the class that they pointed the gun and yelled, “Drop the Freeze!” So, while Mosh (Owen’s brother) is trying to play hero and bungling it, there come a point in time when he points the gun and yells, “Drop the Freeze!” Before he threatens the bad guys, he is trying to think of what he is going to say, and then he pulls it and yells, “Drop the Freeze!” The guys he pulls the guns on look at him like, “What?”
Anyway, these are the sort of character arcs I like to put into existing series, and they work. So, I introduce a new, recurring character in the series, which people like and have fun with, then introduce a new arc for that character that we can resolve over several books. You don’t need to completely resolve the arcs within a single book. I introduced Agent Franks in Monster Hunter, but it wasn’t until book five, Monster Hunter Nemesis, that we get his full backstory. And Monster Hunter Nemesis is the bestselling book I’ve ever had.
There are many ways to treat a character arc. Some people like to have a bunch of questions that pin down the changes that the character undergoes as a result of their arc, but I prefer a more organic approach. Sometimes, if I am going for an overarching theme for the book, I will use the character arcs to support that theme.
An example: In the book Dead Six, we have the character of Lorenzo. When the book starts, he is a scumbag, a jerk, as another character describes him, “he’s a self-absorbed, godless narcissist.” If you left him to babysit your kids, when you came home, he would have sold your children and looted your house. He is a bad person. This is the hero of the book. The main character, the protagonist. However, he is still a likable character, the readers enjoyed him. As the series goes along, his character arc is that he starts to have some human interactions with other people, and his character arc is him going from scumbag to hero. By the end of the second book, he actually makes a heroic sacrifice. But the whole time, he’s kicking himself, because he knows it’s stupid. He knows it’s stupid, but the readers love it.
The other character in that series, Valentine, is a war-junkie. He’s addicted to war. One of the big parts of his character arc is taking him from a mope who is trying to be a regular person, even though he knows he can never be a regular person, he’s trying, but repeatedly fails at it. Finally, though, he embraces what he is and becomes a leader and a hero.
Integrating Character Arcs in Your Novel
The character arc is yet another tool in you box to do what you need to do as an author to accomplish the mission of the story. So, you don’t have to have one for every character in the story, and sometimes you can get away without one, but at the least you need to have some form of change for your main character.
Now, certain aspects of the character arc may occur to you after you have done your first draft. Don’t let that worry you. There are times that, because I am too close to the book as I am writing it the first time, I don’t see things. When I finish a book, I like to take a week or two off and step away from the book entirely. Then, I go back and reread it. Sometimes, when I do that, I realize, “Wow, if this character makes this decision here, it changes everything.” It makes it better, it makes it stronger. A small example. One of the minor characters in Monster Hunter Alpha, a bad guy, a woman who’s a witch. She has a scene where werewolves are looting the town on her behalf, she has all kinds of horrible things that her minions are doing on her behalf, and as all this is going on, she realizes that it is her birthday, so I end the scene with her eating a cupcake with a candle in it in celebration.
My editor, Toni Weisskopf pointed out that if we started the scene out with the birthday song and the cupcake with the candle and wrote the scene backwards from there to show why this young woman who is doing a completely normal thing like celebrating her birthday is having people loot the town and kill the citizens and all these horrible things, that we have a mini-character arc for her, and it adds a human touch to the villain. Also, it ties in nicely to the story of the villains and what they were trying to accomplish. The theme of Monster Hunter Alpha is “What does it mean to be human.” In the book, we have humans, like this witch, doing horrible, awful things, but we also have inhumans, like werewolves, doing brave and awesome things. So that was a character arc that wound up being inserted into the book later in the editing, because it shows the villains as kind of the mirror image of the heroes.
So, feel free to put a character arc in at any point before you send the book out for final printing. In my rough drafts, I am not nearly as smart as I seem from the finished products. All that comes in editing, and through the miracle of computer word processing. If an idea to improve the book comes to you, put it in and tweak your manuscript. That is why I say that outlines are not written in stone, because great ideas are going to occur to you as you write, and you want to revise to take advantage of them.
Worldbuilding and Settings
Let’s talk about settings. If you are writing about a real-world location, obviously, going there is the best option. If you can’t then do enough research to fake it, or, better yet, find someone from that area and pick their brains. I have never been to upper Michigan, but Monster Hunter Alpha is set there. I had book reviews from the area I set the book saying “Larry Correia must have lived here at some point, or spent summers here or something, because he nails it.” I’ve never been there, but I have two friends from there. Mike Kupari, co-author of the Dead Six series, and Steve Loma, a guy I used to work with, who were from there, in fact, they went to the same high school. I created a fictional town in that part of Michigan based upon where they lived. The reason I had to make a fictional town was because I was going to kill the entire population during the course of the book, and I didn’t want to do that to a real town.
I made this fictional town and fleshed it out. There were people, places, and culture unique to that town. Upper Peninsula Michiganers have a distinct culture and I used all this. Then I had Mike and Steve read it, and they would say, “Oh, we would say that this way.” or “No, you need to use this term instead.” and I used all that. And everyone in that part of Michigan is Finnish, and the Finns loved this kind of thing, and so on. I stuck all this stuff into the book and it made it more real.
Another example. I did a giant action scene at the end of Spellbound where I had a giant kaiju monster rampage across the Washington DC Mall. It was an alternate history, so I got to cheat a little as to what buildings were where. However, I used Google Earth to look at things. I had never been to the Mall, so I had to take everything from satellite photos. I looked at Google Earth, carefully plotted out the advance of the monster as it smashed all the building.
Since it was set in 1933, I had to have a giant monster. 1933 was the year that King Kong came out. The kaiju is climbing up the Washington Monument and swatting biplanes. It is awesome. I just tracked the progress from maps I made of the location. When I went on book tour for the book, one of the stops was DC. I went to the Mall, and I walked the path of the monster, and, you know what? I nailed it.
However, there is a cautionary tale here, also, of the danger of using real-life places and people. In the Grimnoir Chronicles, Teddy Roosevelt died in WWI. He did a Rough Riders 2.0 and led a magical battalion in war against the Kaiser’s zombies and was killed by demons. So, I put a Teddy Roosevelt memorial on the Mall. Obviously, this doesn’t exist in real life, because he wasn’t killed by demons during WWI. I even describe it as “Teddy Roosevelt, on his horse, fighting demons.” I get a review that says, “There is no Roosevelt memorial on the Mall. Larry Correia didn’t do his research.” I have to admit, that person is correct. The memorial of Teddy Roosevelt fighting the Kaiser’s demons during WWI is not on the Mall.
The other day, I was speaking with Jim Butcher (author of The Dresden Files) about this exact topic. Someone was complaining that Butcher’s version of Chicago (which is where most of the action of The Dresden Files takes place) is not very realistic. You couldn’t use his descriptions of Chicago to get around the town, for example. Butcher agreed, for one very good reason. He said, “I do that for the simple reason that I don’t want my fans harassing homeowners and business owners. The only places I use that are actual places in Chicago are places like museums, sports stadiums, and parks.” Big things, that everyone in town knows and they can all find. But everything else, he makes up, because it really doesn’t matter.
Yet another example. In the series Breaking Bad, they throw a pizza on the roof of a house. The house they use is a real house of a real person, in Albuquerque. Since that aired, for years, people have been coming by and throwing pizzas on the guy’s roof. For years, they’ve been throwing pizzas on this poor guy’s roof because his address is on the internet. Butcher doesn’t want that happening to anyone because of him, so he makes everything up.
Research and Technical Expertise
Anyway, it’s important to do your research on a location. You need to obviously understand the geography of a location, but the culture of a location is even more important, in my mind. I live in Utah. I can’t say how many times I have seen something with a scene set in Utah, and the people butcher the culture. No one in Hollywood seems to have the slightest idea of what life in Utah is like. So, you wind up with a scene where the women are in their bonnets and butter-churning dresses and the men all wear hats and have long beards with their fifty-two wives, out in the desert. The people are backwards cultural weirdos who get around in wagon trains. Hollywood endlessly butchers Utah’s culture. It would only take five minutes of talking to an actual person from Utah to discover that we aren’t anything like that.
People who don’t do their research violate that contract with the reader that we authors have, ruining that reader’s enjoyment. So, you really need to think not just about geography, but culture, also. If you are going to write about a culture, about a people, you owe it to the readers from that people to get their culture as correct as you can. These things are important, because nothing will kick a reader out of a book faster than screwing up stuff about them. I am a religious man, and I hate, just really hate, when all the religious people are just bad stereotypes. So, think about what you are, and what you know, and think about all the dumb, stupid stereotypes about people like you. Anything that violates your culture is going to immediately kick you out of the story.
I’m a gun nut. Man, I can’t watch anything on television. As an example. Most shows where they talk about guns are as stupid as if a program had someone getting into a car through the trunk whenever they wanted to drive around. That is how bad the misinformation is.
If you write negatively about something, you are going to offend people. That is all right.
Book Organization and Formatting
I don’t even put chapters in until I’m done. I don’t add chapters until I’m done. The problem with writing by chapters is that you’re going to wind up moving scenes around, and then it messes everything up. So, what I usually do is write the whole book first, then get the scenes in the order I want, then I insert chapters, based on how long I think the chapters should be, and I try and keep the chapters consistent in length throughout the book. So, I try and set it up so that chapters cover x number of words, so in some books, I’ll have fewer, longer chapters, and in other books, I’ll have more, shorter chapters. I don’t usually do a chapter per scene, instead a chapter will be two or three scenes stuck together that kind of make sense together. So, I do my chapters dead last because, if I do it earlier, it becomes a distraction.
“Write What You Know”
Everyone has heard the saying, “Write what you know,” but there is a lot of misconception and confusion about that. I hear people use it as a positive, but also as negative. Like most of the other “rules” of writing, it’s just a helpful suggestion. What it comes down to is that when people say “Write what you know,” they mean that if you know something better, then you are more likely to write about it in a convincing manner.
When I was talking about writing about a culture that you are not part of, that was an example. If I am writing about Finnish immigrants living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I need to do my research, I need to do my homework. If I need to write about a gun-nut accountant, done! No research needed. Easy-peasy. That’s the difference between write what you know, and write what you need to find out about. It’s not a commandment either way. Some people get really worried and they think, “I can only write about things I actually know,” and then it scares them away from writing about things they want to write about, because they’re not experts.
The problem is that, a lot of these things, nobody really knows. For instance, I write fantasy, but I have never personally fought a dragon with a sword. Obviously, I can’t “know” about sword-fighting a dragon. I have never wrestled a bear. If you are writing a thriller, most of you have never done cool-guy foot chase spy adventure things. Brandon Sanderson skipped writing horses for four or five books, because horse people are crazy. Seriously, you think gun-nuts are bad when you screw things up? Horse people are a thousand times. People shy away from things that they don’t know about. Personally, what scared me was romance. For a long time, I shied away from writing anything with relationships involved. I’ve been married for seventeen years. I have only had one successful relationship in my life, and I sucked at dating. I was terrible at dating. I dated a lot, and I was really bad at it. If my wife passes on, I’m hosed. Especially since I married up, so I’m really double-hosed if she goes. I shied away from writing emotional-entanglement type stuff because I was scared to. I figured, “I don’t know anything about that topic.”
Some people shy away from writing action scenes because they’ve never done anything adventurous in their life. Don’t let this stuff scare you. You are writers, your job is to use your imagination to tell a story. All you can really do is to write about the things you want to write about, and the stuff you don’t know, fake it ’til you make it. Do your homework, do your research, then pull it off best as you can.
One of the best things you can do is to find alpha readers that know about the stuff you are writing about. If I am going to write an action-adventure scene where Army Special Forces guys are going to overthrow a country, then if I can get some alpha readers who are Special Forces troops who were trained to overthrow a country, then they are going to help me to write the stuff that makes sense, and they’re going to correct me when I’m wrong.
So, there are some areas where I know my stuff. I am a gun-nut, I used to do it for a living, and I know a lot about guns, I’ve had a lot of gun training, I know my craft. My co-author on Dead Six is Mike Kupari, and Mike is an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) guy, like the bomb squad in the movie Hurt Locker, in the suits and things. That is what Mike does for a living. We know our stuff. We wrote this action novel and we got this alpha reader who is a real-life Jack Bauer, like on 24. He is literally Jack Bauer. He is a real bad mamba-jamba. He fights terrorists for a living. He’s a former Army Special Forces lieutenant-colonel turned US government Special Response Team (SRT) team commander. This guy is amazing, he knows everything there is to know about his craft.
We gave him the manuscript for Dead Six. We thought we had done our homework. We told him, “Please, what we’re looking for is any technical inaccuracies in this book. Anything that we did wrong, that you would do different, please let us know.” He sent us back 8 pages of notes. It was all stuff that, if you didn’t do this sort of thing for real, you would never know. As a cake-eating civilian, these are things I would never know like, when you are disembarking from a helicopter in the movies, what do they always yell? “Go, go, go!” Not right, according to our alpha reader. Marcus says you would never do that, because it sounds too much like “No, no, no!” which is what you would yell if things go horribly wrong, and then the helicopter takes off without you.
It is a bunch of little things. There is one scene where they are taking down a compound, and he said, “We’d used suppressed weapons to take out any stray dogs, just so they wouldn’t bark.” That is because they have stray dogs everywhere in the Middle East. So, we put stray dogs that barked that our people had to be on the lookout for. They had to take out packs of stray dogs.
There is another scene where they take out a yacht. Mike is a bomb guy, so Mike thinks everything can be solved with explosives. So, we have a scene where they use flexible linear shaped charge to blow a hole a hatch to get into the engine room of the yacht. Marcus stopped him and said, “I know you love bombs, but we would never use a flexible linear shaped charge below the waterline of a boat, we would use a Broco torch, to cut a hole in the door, throw in a flash bang and then cut the door. So, we put that in. We had to look up what a Broco torch was (Ed – Broco is a company that makes cutting torches especially for use while cutting underwater.), then we put it in. So, you get all these little things, and all of a sudden, these little things make the book so much better than what it was before.
So, when we say “Write what you know,” everyone writing a book has areas of expertise, subjects that you know, things that you’re good at. Run with that stuff. If I can put gun-nuttery, a love of accounting, and Portuguese dairy farming into my books, then I can pull it off. But other stuff I don’t know, I’m going to have to learn more about. Don’t let the need to research something or to learn about something dissuade you from writing about it. If you are going to write Scottish time-travel romance novels, no one has ever gone back in time and fallen in love with Braveheart. Yet, there is an entire genre of that in romance. No one has ever dated a high-school sparkly vampire. Yet, there is another entire genre of that, too.
Fake It Until You Make It…
What you can do is to extrapolate stuff out from your real-life experience. Think about emotional situations that you’ve been in, and how it relates to what you are writing, and if you can channel those actual emotions, those actual feelings and those actual things that you have done and have experienced and have felt, then get that into your writing.
One thing that I tell people in a seminar on writing action scenes that I do at conventions is “Most action writers have never been punched in the face.” Now, you can look at my nose and tell that I have been punched in the face, it’s been broken three times. Most authors have never been hit, most authors have never been in a fight. Most authors have never been in a really violent encounter. Sometimes, if you are reading an action scene by an author who has never experienced any of this and they are just phoning it in, you can tell. The action scenes come across as flat, bland, emotional and soft. What you are seeing there is someone who has failed to do their work, who has failed to do their research. I think all authors should go out and get punched in the face. They would write so much better about being punched in the face after that. On second thought, if you go out and do that after reading this, I would probably be liable, so don’t do it.
However, what I’m saying is to fake it until you make it and the things you can’t fake it on, learn as best as you can. I am a gun-nut. If you are writing the kind of fiction that has guns in it, do at some rudimentary research so you don’t kick all the gun-nuts out of your story when you get your facts wrong. More importantly, go shoot a gun at a range and see how it feels. See what the recoil feels like, how loud the report is, what it smells like, how bright the muzzle flash is. You take all that information and put it in your book, and all of a sudden, you’ve take a scene that would be flat and you’ve made it more visceral, more poignant, more powerful, because you are now putting your own experiences and impressions into it. You are getting into the motion, the feel, the totality of the situation.
When my first novel, Monster Hunter International, was rejected everywhere, the first scene is where the main character is fighting a werewolf. The main character fights off the werewolf and survives. It is a great, fun sequence. But here, we have the scene where the werewolf is trying to eat the main character, literally chewing on his arm, and one agent told me, “You know, you need to stop here and tell me how the character feels. You need to get into how the character feels in this situation.” I’m like, “No, he is getting eaten, he is not feeling.” That told me right away that this agent was not my target audience. Because, my target audience is all, “Punch the werewolf! Kill the monster!” What do you feel in a moment like that in real life? “Oh crap, oh crap. I’m going to die, I’ve got to kill this werewolf.” That’s what you feel. You don’t stop and go through the poignant emotions, thinking “Gosh, I’m being clawed to death and will soon be eaten. This reminds me of my relationship with my grandmother.”
…But Run It By the Experts
So, you need to get up to speed on these things. I’m talking about action, because that’s what I specialize in, but anything I write about that I don’t know well, I’m going to do some homework on. If I am going to do some information security, IT hacking stuff in my book, I need to talk to someone who does that for a career. I did a story about Marines at Quantico, then I got on Facebook and asked, “Hey are there any Marines here who served at Quantico in the last five years who could proofread a story and tell me if I got all the Marine Corps stuff right?” I had fifty volunteers, and I sent it off to them.
Anything like that you are going to do, make sure that you get hold of people that have a clue to have them look at it for you. Aviation, for example. In Monster Hunter International, I had an Mi–24 Hind. This is a Russian helicopter, kind of like the muscle car of helicopters. It looks really cool. I have the Hind hover over a freighter and have the heroes rappel off it onto the freighter. That morning, I got an email from a helicopter pilot, telling me, “A Hind can’t do that. It needs, blahblahblah, forward speed blahblah, can’t hover.” So, I got it wrong. Here is something cool, though. If you have an in-world reason that makes sense for why you got it wrong, you can pull it off. Because later that day, I got another email from the same helicopter pilot who says, “Oh, you explained it. You have a magic orc pilot driving the helicopter.”
So, when you are writing things, you can cheat and get things wrong, as long as there is a reason for it in the context of your world. In my alternate history, for example, in the Grimnoir Chronicles, there is one point where I have a radio commercial for Burma Cream. In real-life, it was Burma Shave, and someone called me on it, saying, “You got that wrong.” I said, “No, it is an alternate history, the name is different,” even though I really did just write down the wrong name from the 1930s.
So, write what you know, do your homework, but don’t become slavishly devoted to it. If you can find someone who knows about what you are writing about who is a fan, you can often get them to do all the hard work of figuring out an in-world justification for what you are doing, saving you the trouble of having to do all that tough thinking.
Know How Much Information Your Audience Wants
Now, the place where this really really matters is in hard science fiction. Hard science fiction fans are the ones that will be kicked out of the story if the concepts aren’t right. These are the people that will sit down and do the math to find out if the ship that David Weber is writing about would really be able to perform the maneuvers as described with the propulsion system given in the number of gravities and atmospheric pressure stated in the text at the speed the ship was supposedly moving. Me, I’m a fantasy writer. I’m like, “A wizard did it,” but for hard science fiction, and I can’t emphasize this enough, make sure that some of your alpha readers are subject experts in what you are writing about and that they check your facts and your math. Of all the genres, hard science fiction is the one that you must get your facts right to have any success at all. That is why the fans of this genre read it, because they love the big ideas, and they want it all to make sense and fit together.
The other genre you need to get right is epic fantasy. When you are world-building, you have to ensure that all your fundamental concepts work together and fit tightly together. Your basic postulates for your fantastical world need to feel right, because we all live in societies that we have innate understandings of, and if your society in your book doesn’t make the same kind of sense, then it will kick the reader out of the story. If you don’t make a believable society in an epic fantasy novel, you will hear about it from your readers. So, all the aspects of your fantasy world, no matter how outré, needs to be plausible from the reader’s perspective. They need to be internally consistent and make sense. Horse people are bad. Sword people, oh my god, if you get sword stuff wrong, you will hear about it. If you are going to write something about with sword fighting in it, make sure that you get it right. For one book I did, I brought in a man who was an expert in knife fighting, he knew all there was to know about fighting with knives. He was a martial arts expert with knives, loved knives, was a walking encyclopedia of knives. He gave me a line that was brilliant and went into the book. I came to him and said, “I want to write a knife fight.” He stopped me and said, “Knives aren’t for fighting, knives are for killing.” I was like, “Holy crap! That’s a great line, that’s going in the book.”
When you are preparing to write about a subject, anything that you research or find out comes under “reader plausibility” or “reader acceptability.” If your world has a reason to violate the rules of reality, like “magic orc pilots,” that’s awesome. But anything that is not part of the fundamental premises of your book, if you are going to screw with reality, it needs to make sense. One example I use a lot is, for us gun nuts, is taking the safety off a Glock (Ed. – Glocks don’t have external safeties that can be actuated by the shooter), or people wait to go into a fight, then chamber a round, or they chamber a round in the middle of a fight after shooting several times. It drives us gun-nuts crazy. The example I use that everyone can understand uses a car. We all know how to drive a car, and the gun examples are like someone writing that someone walked up to his car, crawled into the trunk and then drove away. You just got kicked out of the book when you read that, because no one would enter their car through the trunk, and we all know it. That is how gun-nuts feel about this other stuff. That’s how horse people feel when the horse is basically a magic motorcycle that runs on hay. That’s how the sword people feel when you have the two guys whacking the edges of the swords together, with sparks. You can’t have a good sword fight without sparks, dramatic sparks.
Now, you also have to know the level of sophistication and desire for accuracy among your target audience. The movie Pirates of the Caribbean wasn’t an accurate presentation of the pirate culture in the Southern Atlantic Ocean in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but that didn’t matter, because everyone was having fun with it.
On the other hand, there are books like Eric Flint’s series 1632, where a mining town gets sent back in time and people have to adjust and survive, where the audience expects every bit of the information presented to be as accurate as possible. The whole point people read it is to find out exactly how people would overcome the various problems they run into, and they expect the solutions to be scientifically correct and factually accurate. The research that goes into that series is amazing, so, the fans of 1632 expect total accuracy.
In my own work, if I were to screw up a gun thing or a tactical thing, I would never hear the end of it. If I were to screw up some technical aspect of things, my fans would, make fun of me and laugh about it for years, and I would never live it down.
The History Channel’s program The Vikings is very popular, because a lot of people apparently really like Vikings. However, there are a lot of folks who are really into the historical things who are railing about it, things like, “That is not the kind of roof that they would have put on their house!” But, it is still successful. There is no right answer to the question of how much historical accuracy is enough, it depends on the kind of story you are trying to tell.
If you are writing a Tom Clancy style techno-thriller, and you spend an entire chapter talking about how a nuclear bomb works or how a submarine propeller works, then people expect a very high level of accuracy.
Another factor you need to think about when writing a book like that is, how much will the story benefit from sliding the actual historical facts into the narrative. A lot of people enjoy reading a good story that also will tell them about a place or a time that they know nothing about. If the book has enough educational nuggets in it, then the reader will feel smart as they read it. An example is Jurassic Park. That was the first book that most Americans read that actually explained what DNA was and how it worked, so we all read Jurassic Park and said, “Wow! I’m smart now, and I know what DNA is!” That was Michael Crichton’s thing, that was what he did in his books, he would take a subject and he would get all these interesting factoids and things about the subject and he would put them in the book. He wasn’t always 100% accurate but he would get all this stuff and incorporate it into his story and package it for a mass-market audience who weren’t experts on these subjects of airframes and how the TSA study airplane crashes, but they would read his books and they would think, “Wow, I know all about airplanes now.”
So, if you were to write something that was about historically accurate Vikings, but was aimed at a mass-market action-adventure audience, you might think, “I can get all this historically accurate stuff in, then people will read that and think, ‘Wow, I know all about Vikings now!’ ” then it might be worth doing all the extra effort to make it historically accurate.
I have a friend that is writing an alternate history novel where the Vikings populate the Americas, and they start having a war with the Aztecs. This is a fantasy, so the gods like Thor, Odin, and Loki are on the side of the Vikings, but the Aztec gods are also in the mix. Now, despite him having the gods taking sides, he still is trying to make it as accurate as possible, as far as technically and culturally.
Personally, I tend to fall on the side of accuracy, if it can be done at all, because I think it makes it more fun for me. But then, I am a research nerd. I love to research things. Now, there is never too much research unless it is keeping you from finishing the book. Some people think that they need a Masters degree in the subject before writing, and they will procrastinate for years researching before writing the book, but you are failing as an author in that case, since the goal of the author is to create stuff to sell and make a living, so if you are procrastinating to research, you are screwing up.
So, research enough to get a good idea of what to write. I find that the more I research, the more cool ideas it gives me when I am working on the “big idea” for my plot. On the other hand, if I spend more than a month researching the topic, I am wasting valuable writing time. So, after a month goes by, I jump in and start writing, but I will continue reading and researching for fun. I can always go back and change the manuscript if I got something incorrect.
While you are spending six months or a year writing this book, continue your education on the subject, but don’t ever delay the creation of your art to get the history perfectly correct. The important thing is to get the book written. The writing is the hard part, not the research. You can always edit the book to fix historical screw-ups.
You Work For Your Readers, No One Else
Let’s talk about message and writer working for the reader and not the other way around. This is a pet peeve of mine. First off, for the record, contrary to what has been said about me, I am not against message fiction. It is perfectly fine for you to have a message in your fiction, that is completely cool. The problem comes when you put the message ahead of reader enjoyment. Have you ever read a book where the author beat you over the head with whatever the author’s message was? To the point where you no longer enjoyed the book? Most of the books they had you read in high school, right?
What I am getting at here is that there is nothing wrong with message. Every author is going to have a message, their book has some sort of theme. If I have an overall message in my books, it is that you need to take care of yourself, because no one else is going to take care of you, you need to get your crap together. There is nothing wrong with messages in your book, but don’t ever make the reader work for you. That is a cardinal sin in an author. You work for the reader.
One of the problems with being an author is that authors tend to get this high and mighty over-inflated opinion of themselves. “I’m so brilliant, I’m an author, the masses just don’t understand my greatness.” Sorry, bullcrap, shut up. No one wants to hear an author go on about crap like that.
Believe in Yourself
You’re just a person, like any other person. You want to tell your story and get your story out where people can read it, that’s great. Don’t be a jerk about it. What we are seeing in fiction these days is that people think that message is mandatory. That your book has to check certain boxes to be acceptable or to be good or to be literature or to be worthy of being published. That all crap. Write what you want to write, write what you think is cool, write for your audience, and write for yourself. Don’t write for critics or bossy, pushy know-it-alls, don’t write for bloggers, none of these are your boss.
Your boss is the editor who is writing your paychecks, or, if you are self-published, it is you and your audience. That is who you need to appease, that is who you need to make happy. Don’t let other people tell you what to do. The thing is that once you get your work out in front of people, you will get bad reviews and get people who personally insult you. If you have thick skin, you can read this stuff, but if you don’t have thick skin, don’t read your reviews, skip them. Some years ago, I was on a panel with James Dashner (author of Maze Runner). He was on top of the world. When the Maze Runner movie came out, he sold like 700,000 copies of the book Maze Runner. These were actually hardcovers, so he was doing really well and on top of the world. He’d just quit his day job, and he was all excited and he’d just been on a world book tour. So, we were on a panel together. He told us how exciting the tour had been. He would go all these places, and everywhere he went, he would meet with thirty or forty awesome people and they were all fans and loved his work and he was so excited. He was having fun, and since his is a YA book, he would go to schools and people loved him and he was having a great time. Then, he came home, and goes on Amazon and reads his reviews. He read this one-star review that was like, “You suck, and your’e lame and stupid, and your stupid face is stupid.” When he reads it, he’s heartbroken. He’d just been on a month-long book tour where everyone told him how much they loved his book and how it was awesome, then he runs into something like that review.
The thing is that people are going to try and drag you down and break your spirit. Screw them! They don’t matter. If they hate your stuff that much, they aren’t your target audience, so they don’t matter. So, don’t let the bastards drag you down.
I have a thick skin, so I tend to engage critics more than I should. Here is a funny story. As an author, you should never respond to your reviewers. It makes you look petty, but this one time, I had to do it. I was reading this one-star review on Amazon, and it was “This book is lame and stupid blah blah blah and I hope he dies in a fire of cancer.” Then, he says, “If you want to read good urban fantasy, read Jim Butcher, not this garbage.”
That same day, on Facebook, Jim Butcher posts a review of Monster Hunter International, says it’s great and that he loves it, then says, “This book is great, it’s fun, you guys should read it. Best orcs ever.” So, I respond to the guy who gave me the one-star review on Amazon with a link to Butcher’s Facebook post and the comment, “Hey, Jim Butcher disagrees.” So, should I have done that? No, but it was really funny. I just couldn’t resist.
The point is that there are hugely successful, amazing authors out there who get flak, who get hate, get despised by people. Just blow those people off. They aren’t important. They don’t matter. The thing you are really looking for when you get review from people is reviews from the people you’re trying to sell books to. They’re your primary group, and what you want from their reviews is consistency. Because, there are some really successful fantasy and urban fantasy novels, novels in my genre, that I don’t like. They’re not my thing. I would give them negative reviews if I were to read them, but those authors have a lot of fans and that author is successful, I am just not in that author’s target audience. It doesn’t make that author wrong or bad because I don’t like his stuff, it just means it is not to my taste.
So, you need to be the same way. Rise above the petty criticism. Take pride in the work you are doing. You know you’re good, your fans know you’re good, and if you don’t have fans yet, you’ll get some and they’ll tell you you’re good. Pay attention to them, and everyone else? Forget them. That’s really all I can say about that.