Mapping My Writing Style

It’s the first post of 2019 for me. A good time to look forward, to catch of a glimpse of new vistas, to sing of the body electric of new stories to be written and read and shared and reread.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the style of writing. Not just what we say, but how we say it. I’m focused on how we string words together, how we connect this sentence to that corresponding paragraph, and how we cause lines of text, black letters on white backdrops, to become images and full-fledged scenes inside our readers’ heads. We have our motifs, our formulas, our grammar, and our cadence. Some of us prefer to sound like we speak with a Received Pronounciation; others, like a Southern drawl on a muggy August evening; and still others, like voices raised against midday traffic on Fifth Avenue.

There’s all sorts to writing that I can’t put down a definitive list. So, instead, I’ll just focus on what I have in my writer’s toolbox.

  • Colorful female protagonists
  • References to Latinx culture and Catholicism
  • Social justice perspectives
  • Frequent LGBT romances
  • Vivid descriptions of scenery as an “establishing shot”
  • Multiple interior monologues
  • Third person limited POV
  • Use of dialogue to establish character and move the plot
  • References to Shakespeare, classic works of art and fiction, and pop culture
  • Low-stakes drama and comedy
  • Description of sunlight and interior lighting to establish mood

Looking over my own list, I can see a few points worth noting. For example, I write a lot in the language of TV and films, where I use establishing shots and key lighting to cultivate my settings. My scenes tend to center on two or more people engaged in a conversation, be it a love scene, an argument, an investigation, or a nightmare. I use my scene lighting and my dialogue to build up the overall mood of every scene, to evoke something straight out of German Expressionism.

And, sure, I did include some content here. Mostly recurring motifs. I write about women, I write about Latinos, I write about Catholic spirituality, and I write with an eye toward social justice. All things near and dear to my heart. I make allusions to Shakespeare and pop culture. I am sarcastic as hell, and so are my characters. I’ve written things that try to be big and adventurous, but really, I’d rather do something small and lighthearted.

Overall, I’d say that I write about people discussing things and growing because of their discussions. I write about feelings more than actions. Take a look at any of my stories, from my Digital Eyes, Family Ties anthology to some of my newer works, and you’ll see there’s a lot of depth to what a character might be feeling over how much action they’re accomplishing. You won’t find any James Patterson thrillers or Stephen King horrors in my work. I’ve nothing against those kind of authors, but I’m more the guy whose work you pick up when you’re sleepy and you just want to curl up with something not-so-heavy on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

Style matters. Sure, you can give me a book that has more poetry than plot, and I can get bored real quick, but I also think that we can’t just write for the sake of driving a story from start to finish. We need to consider our native languages, our personal tones and phrases that keep popping up in everything we create.

Readers, if you’re also a writer, what’s your style like? Have you found yours yet, or are you trying something new this time around? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.

Don’t Stay in Your Lane: Writing Outside Your Genre

You’re a writer. Yes, you reading this blog. I’m talking to you. You might not know it, but you are, in fact, a writer. Everyone has an inner artist, an inner storyteller. The only trick is that the writer can organize their inner art, their close-held stories, into a printed format for other people to enjoy. And one of the ways that we writers organize our stories is by genre.

Genre tells us what kind of story you’re writing. If I go to the Science Fiction and Fantasy section of a bookstore or Amazon, chances are I’ll see a few covers with dudes swinging greatswords at a dragon, or a female astronaut floating in space. If I go to the Romance section, I’m expecting at least two people with a Connection by the end of the novel. We judge movies the same way, too. Go to your local theater, or hop on Netflix, and see what the posters and cover photos all look like. You can spot your Romantic Comedy, your Action-Adventure, your Political Thriller, and your Superhero Franchise Installment all in one go.

All well and good, but what happens when you’ve gotten comfortable with a genre as a writer?

How We Got Here

This is something I’ve been wrestling with for a few months lately. For years, I wanted nothing more than to be a science fiction and fantasy genre writer. I wanted to fill the world with a glorious cyberpunk revival. I wanted to write about androids in space, and elves hatching ancient plots against trolls and goblins, and so on. And to be fair, I did get that far. In 2012, I wrote a short story anthology by the title Digital Eyes, Family Ties, and last year, I won NaNoWriMo 2017 with a sci-fi thriller manuscript called Real Presence.

Now, the sci-fi style was nothing new for me. But the “thriller” was. I love movies like The Bourne Identity, but I’d never tried to write something like that before. And I have to say, it was an educational experience. How to cut chapters shorter, and how to keep the energy moving without (hopefully) diluting the audience’s interest in my heroines Melody Ambrose and Lauren Nowak, on the run from evil corporations and elite assassins in the Bay Area. I had to go and study what worked with stories similar to the one I was trying to tell.

If you want to expand your writing, it’s good to challenge yourself. Being able to show you’ve mastered one genre is good, but showing how much range you have as a writer is better.

Mix and Match Styles

Consider this, then, for a new genre exercise. Take whatever story you’re working on, and look at what your characters do and where the story takes place. Then consider changing up the action and setting for this story.

For example, one of the stories I’m working on right now is a modern-day drama about two women working on a film crew in Hollywood. One woman is an Indian-American girl who’s dealing with a bad breakup by getting back in touch with her family’s Hinduism. The other is a Midwest gal who wants to be a celebrated director, but she has to deal with a tough studio head and her visiting evangelical brother. It’s literary fiction in genre, but with two competing subgenres: a Künstlerroman (“artist’s novel”) about a Midwestern director, and a Hindu-inspired story of spiritual transformation. By seeing how the two stories intertwine, we can see how they make for a stronger overall plot.

So, how about this for your story? Suppose your vampire story was also a mob family crime drama? Imagine if your newly made bloodsucker now has to navigate the world of vampire families, all feuding with one another for territory? Think Dracula meets Goodfellas or The Godfather. Or suppose that you’ve got an amazing story about a young princess who overcomes the odds to rescue her kingdom from an evil wizard? We’ve seen plenty of those stories, but what could we add to this? Maybe the story isn’t a medieval fantasy, but an urban fantasy. The “princess” is the last heir of an ancient family, fighting an immortal wizard hiding in plain sight on Madison Avenue, and their “kingdom” are the scattered elves, dwarves, and fairies trying to eke out a living in the slums and alleys. Suddeny, we go from a generic medieval setting to a lively modern one.

Genre matters. It matters to the author who needs new ideas. It matters to the publisher who wants a good title to put out for sale. It matters to the avid reader looking for something to buy and devote their time on.

You lose nothing, dear reader, by trying something new in your work. Even if it doesn’t sell or pick up interest, you’ve tested yourself and learned something new.

Happy writing to you all!

How to Write a More Effective Villain

Eric Porter as Professor Moriarty, archnemesis to Sherlock Holmes, in “The Final Problem.” Copyright © 1985 by Granada Television.

All villains are antagonists, but not all antagonists are villains.

Sometimes, you have a story where the natural villain is the Evil Overlord who threatens to enslave or wipe out every good person in the world. But other times, you have a guy who, if the hero weren’t around, wouldn’t be evil per se. In fact, he might be the hero of his own story and just have a goal that runs counter to our protagonist’s mission. It’s easy to give your antagonist the qualities of being an absolute, irredeemible bully, if not a monster, but sometimes that’s too much.

The difference between a villain and an antagonist

When you write a villain, you can write someone who exists solely to oppose the hero. They have no life or purpose outside of that original desire. But that’s not always a bad thing. The Joker is still a compelling nemesis for Batman, after all. He’s admitted in multiple stories that his life and his schemes would have no meaning without the Dark Knight to oppose him. But an antagonist could well be the hero of their own story.

Ask yourself: “Who or what does my villain care about, if they care at all?”

We learn, for example, that Darth Vader cares about finding his son in The Empire Strikes Back, but that knowledge doesn’t take away from his menace throughout the movie or its sequel. If anything, it sets up the battle for him, because Luke sees a chance for his redemption, while everyone else (including the audience) sees a man bent on twisting his son into a copy of his dark self, all while serving a tyrannical regime.

We also know, from shows like Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, how a drug kingpin like Gus Fring can be utterly ruthless, but still likable. He truly does care about his employees at Los Pollos Hermanos, and he does mourn his friend Max Arciniega, whose death motivated his whole revenge plot against the cartel and the Salamanca family. We might still be rooting for Walt to overcome Gus, but we still can sympathize with the latter for his positive qualities.

Getting better with villainy

So, how can we advance our idea of a villain in the story we’re writing? Let’s start with a few simple steps.

1. Give your villain an opposing goal to the hero.

Take a film like Guardian of the Galaxy. If Peter Quill wants to make a profit by selling the Orb, then Ronan the Accuser wants to take the Orb and use the dark power contained inside. Or how about The Godfather? Michael Corleone doesn’t want to be involved in his family business, but rival Dons like Barzini and Tattaglia are willing to kill his father and brothers in order to take control of the Underworld.

The better you can define what your villain wants and what he’ll gain by it, the more clearly you can define the stakes for your story.

2. Look for opposing qualities.

If your hero is a rough-and-tumble girl from a bad neighborhood, then your villain can easily be a well-bred gentleman from an aristocratic family. If your hero is too proud to admit their faults, then your villain might well be humble and diligent about correcting every mistake. It’s not enough for these characters to have opposing goals. Their very traits need to distinguish them, even if they belong to the same profession, like two rival cops in a police department or a pair of athletes facing off in the big tournament.

3. Consider what your villain does offscreen.

This is a big factor that some writers don’t take the time to think through. I should know; I’ve done it loads of times.

When you’re writing your story, it’s easy to think, “Okay, so my hero is doing this in Act One, and then this in Act Two, and then he does this…” But if you have an active villain, then what are they doing throughout the story? Sometimes, you’ll see their actions onscreen. Sometimes, you won’t. It’s those offscreen moments that matter.

For example, when we look at the first Star Wars movie, we don’t just follow Luke Skywalker and his attempts to rescue Princess Leia. We also follow Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin, who manage things on the Death Star. They have to convince their allies in the Imperial leadership that they have everything in hand, and that they are on the verge of wiping out the Rebellion. They also face setbacks with their prisoner, Leia, when she resists torture and later lies about the rebel base to save her planet. Small details, perhaps, but they also raise the stakes for our heroes, and they reveal a lot about the character of our villains. They have a story arc that exists outside the heroes’ efforts.

Villains come in all shapes and sizes, and some are more noble or more vile than others. The only question you have worry about is how effective they are for the needs of your story. Because if your story isn’t pulling its weight around the hero’s actions, then your audience might end up rooting for the villain to win out of sheer annoyance.

How to Write for Your Ideal Reader

If you’re going to be in the business of telling stories, you need to know your audience. Maybe you write travel articles for a living. Maybe you want to pitch your screenplay to a movie studio or TV network. Maybe you’re writing the Great American Novel. Whatever the case may be, you still need to know who’s going to be reading your work. You need to sell them on why they should want to read your work after Page One.

I’ve spent a few posts on this blog on how to write good stories (just check out the tag “writing advice” for more details). But I haven’t really talked about the other side of the storytelling process: the Reader.

If you’ve ever read Stephen King’s book On Writing, you know that he likes to write for one person. Namely, his wife Tabitha. Many other authors do the same. They’ll write for their spouses, for their parents, for that one childhood friend, or for that kid hanging out by the comic book store after school. It helps to imagine your Ideal Reader. To picture them in as much detail as you can, even if they’re not a real person like Stephen King’s spouse is.

So, if you’re curious about how to start, let me tell you about Sam.

Sam isn’t real. She’s someone I created as my Ideal Reader. Here’s what I wrote down about Sam.

Sam, a woman in her late 20s who’s big into books and digital tech. Maybe she’s a freelance writer and too burned out to even consider writing in her spare time. Maybe she’s handling research or video editing for some multimedia company. In either case, she’s looking for a break. For an escape. That’s why she’s a fan of science fiction and fantasy stories, or books that delve into different cultures. She just wants something she can sit and read during lunch, or a nice Web series that she can crack into at the end of the day. Sam has her own life to live, her own love interests and friends outside of work, but she’s into this world that I’ve created. It’s a cool, safe outlet for her brain. Because, dammit, she wants to think and feel something new, and not just what’s trending or what she’s been assigned.

Now, let’s break this description down. These are questions that you should ask yourself when you’re crafting your own Ideal Reader.

1. How old is Sam?

“Late 20’s.” That tells us she’s young enough to know about the big franchises of the late 1990s and beyond. So it’d be safe to reference stuff from that era.

2. What kind of work does Sam do?

“Freelance writer, research and video editing for some multimedia company.” So, Sam is someone who works with the media. She writes and edits Web content. She’s probably familiar with the latest platforms and trends.

3. What kind of stories does Sam like to read?

“Science fiction and fantasy stories, or books that delve into different cultures.” This matches with what Sam wants from her media: an escape. She doesn’t want James Patterson novels. She’s looking for exotic, colorful worlds.

4. How much time does Sam give herself to read or watch?

“During lunch” and “at the end of the day.” The time Sam has when she’s not working is limited, so she wants to make the most of her lunch breaks and her weeknights. If she’s got a book at lunch, then maybe she’d like to get through a chapter in under half an hour (and a similar amount of time for TV with dinner).

5. Why does Sam want to read my work?

“Because, dammit, she wants to think and feel something different.” This says just about everything you need to know about Sam. The other details are useful, sure, but this is the heart of the matter. Anyone can read a story that’s just passing time, but if you’re going to read something and enjoy it time and time again, then it needs something to pull you back. In this case, Sam wants to break away from her writing and editing duties. She wants to put herself inside someone else’s brain for a chapter or an episode.

That’s the kind of experience that I, as a writer, have to deliver for her.

So how about you, dear readers? Do you know what the Ideal Audience in your head looks like? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.


5 Things I’ve Learned From Joining a Weekly Writing Group

If you’ve been following my Flash Fiction entries over the last year, then you know that I’ve been getting a lot of good material out of Write It Up! This weekly writer’s group is a pretty amazing circle of friends and aspiring authors, with none of the critique or competition that you might find in other groups.

The way our group works is like this. Every week, our organizer will hand out Post-It Notes to everyone at the table. Then we each have to write down a short prompt on our note, pass it to the person on our right, and write down another prompt. We repeat until every Post-It has a unique setting, character, object, story challenge, and genre written on it. Then, using whatever random series of prompts we get, we each make up a story from those prompts within the span of 45 minutes to an hour. It’s a great way to stimulate the imagination and break out from the comfort zone.

Being with this group for over a year now has helped me grow as a writer, and not only in how many hours I’ve put into writing with them. Here are just a few lessons I’ve picked up from my group.

Connect the dots between random ideas.

That’s what writing stories is, isn’t it? We’re taking the weird random nonsense of real life and putting it into a neat package, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

So, at this group, sometimes we give each other wild prompts like “Paris,” “lumberjack,” “snowglobe,” “getting robbed,” and “romantic comedy.” Imagine if you were the lucky soul to get all that as your prompt for a story. Scary, I know, but it can be done. In fact, a lot of my stories start out like this (just check out my Flash Fiction page). All it takes is a tiny spark of inspiration, like picturing a lumberjack in Paris, and letting your imagination do the rest.

Work with a deadline.

At this group, we usually don’t go beyond an hour for writing up our short stories. Let’s be honest. Which would you be prouder of: that half-finished manuscript sitting in your hard drive or a genuine story that you wrote and read to your friends within an hour?

Get to know your audience.

One of the great immediate benefits to having a writer’s group is getting immediate feedback to any story you write. You’ll hear which lines or jokes stood out. You can see in real time when they’re paying attention, because boy did that scene not go where they were expecting. And who better to give you criticism and useful notes than a room full of fellow, experienced artists and friends?

Don’t wait for perfection.

When you have only 45 minutes to an hour to write up a good story, you can’t sit there and worry about whether or not it’s perfect. You only have to make it good. To get your friends in the group to hear and appreciate what you’ve come up with. So maybe you have one or two typos. Maybe you’re not the best at dialogue, but you can at least nail it on narration and character action. Whatever it takes to get your premise into a story with a beginning, middle, and end, as carried out by characters you like to write.

Enjoy yourself whenever possible.

If you’re not having fun, then why write? Yes, yes, I know that writing is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. So is every other profession or hobby if you put enough work into it. But there’s something enjoyable about coming up with a story for someone you like and getting to hear their reaction to it. It’s one of the best feelings in the world, hands down.

So, readers, it’s your turn. Do you have any experience being part of a weekly writer’s group? Any lessons you’ve learned from those groups? Share your stories in the comments below.