Words with Ino #4 – Dialogue Tags, Part 2 (The Said Quandary)

Wew. Moar words. Let’s do it.

So! Way back when, I labeled #1 as being dialogue tags, part 1. At long last, let’s get around to part 2.

Said.

Okay, so, fair warning. This is probably one of the most hotly contested topics I’ve seen online and in the writing community, and people definitely get passionate about it. So, full disclaimer here, all I can do is state my own opinion on it, and there’s no reason you can’t go the other route and still be quite successful in your writing.

What the fuck are you talking about, Ino? Yes, I can already hear you guys back there. So, in short, what we’re looking at is the decision of what verb you should use in your dialogue tag.

In general, there are two basic schools of thought that I’ve seen. The first is to use ‘said’.

“That’s stupid,” Alex said.

“No, you’re stupid,” Casey said.

For this case, ‘said’ will be used primarily as the dialogue tag.

Now, I’ll dive in a little more in a moment, but in short, the second school of thought goes that said should be rarely used, and other dialogue tags should be favored and used in variety.

“That’s stupid,” Alex exclaimed.

“No, you’re stupid,” Casey retorted.

Okay. So, I’ll come right out and say it. With those two as the main ‘options’, I’m here today to urge you to use ‘said’ as your primary go-to.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t always feel this way. I think that a lot of the controversy and conflict comes from a few points – I know that when I was younger and trying my hand at writing things, it was very much a case of “said isn’t descriptive, and writing should be descriptive, right? And wouldn’t using said all the time be repetitive?

To top it off, I had a good vocabulary, damn it. I read a lot of books to learn all the words that I knew, and I wanted to use them. So I did. I used everything under the sun, and I felt pretty strongly about the notion that people who advocated for ‘said’ were just oversimplifying fiction.

And then….something changed. Honestly, at a certain point, when I was reading through conversations and posts at places, and seeing people talking about how said is good, I got curious. I thought, there’s no way this is right. So I went and I found my favorite book by my favorite author, and I flipped it open. I’d prove all of them wrong.

Huh.

Somehow, despite this word being apparently incredibly repetitive and annoying (according to internet experts everywhere), I’d never once noticed it being abused in rapid-fire use throughout my favorite author’s works.

I checked another book. And another. And each time I found the same thing – they were using said almost exclusively. I’d just never noticed.

Once I realized this, once I started paying attention to it, my viewpoint started shifting. It wasn’t an instantaneous thing – it took months of writing and critique, slowly changing my opinions. But in the end, there was a noticeable trend.

Things for you all to look forward to.

When I read a piece someone gave to me to critique and it made a point of using varied and always-changing dialogue tags, I started finding it stood out to me. A lot. It didn’t flow naturally, and it felt choppier – all things you want to avoid as a writer.

Before I realized it, I was in camp ‘said’ – a place I never intended on being. And I was opinionated about it.

Enough, Ino, you say. Get to the point.

The idea behind using said as a dialogue tag, then, is that it’s a ‘nothing word’. When you use said, it has a way of dropping out of sight altogether. It’s repetitive, sure – if the reader is actually paying attention every time it’s used.

But they’re not – or they shouldn’t be. The dialogue tag is only there to inform them of who’s speaking, after all. So when you primarily use said, the reader’s eye will more often than not just skim over it, wiping it away entirely. This is a good thing.

There are of course some exceptions. I’ll start by addressing one of the counter-arguments – that the dialogue tag can be used to inform the reader of how the character is speaking, moreso than just who.

Yes. That’s true.

My counter to that, then, is that if written properly, the rest of the information should already be contained in the context of the sentence and how the character is moving/speaking. Give your readers some credit. If the scene is structured well and they’ve got a good mental image of what’s going on, they really don’t need you to be spelling everything out for them.

Like I said, there are exceptions, naturally. Most authors have a list of words that they’re at least comfortable with tossing in. I use muttered, murmured, whispered, hissed, and snapped, each in turn. But, good rule of thumb, there should be 5-6 uses of ‘said’ for every instance of these words.

To go along with both that and the point before – if you’re worried about ‘said’ becoming repetitive, or you’re trying to include more context in the scene, drop a dialogue tag entirely!

Alex folded his arms across his chest, glaring down at Casey. “That’s stupid.”

A lot of writing is about establishing ‘ownership’ – ownership of dialogue, ownership of paragraphs. You’re conveying to the reader which character is the one taking the actions. If you pair up dialogue with an action or descriptor of the character who has ‘ownership’, then you can drop the dialogue tag entirely. The reader already knows it’s them, after all! And now you don’t need a fancy dialogue tag to establish that Alex is annoyed.

You can also eliminate the need for dialogue tags entirely if you have rapid-fire back and forth between a limited cast!

Now, the ideal situation, then, is to create a scenario where you have a mixture of A) Dialogue tagged with ‘said’, B) Tags dropped where they’re totally unnecessary, and C) Lines ‘tagged’ using character actions instead of dialogue tags at all. Whenever possible, it is ideal to avoid the topic as much as possible!

Something like that.

Why does all of this matter, you ask?

Well, besides for the comments I’ve put above about how it’s damaging to how the story flows, I would say that it’s important to keep in mind that readers can become desensitized very quickly. If you go around using strong vocal verbs for every last dialogue tag, then it’s going to be harder to create an impactful line.

Essentially, you’ve raised the ‘floor’ on your dialogue. Every line is ‘special’ – so none of them are.

When you actually have a big moment, then, when a character is behaving in an extraordinary manner, it’s much more difficult to convey that. The reader is already used to each of those tags being varied and different, and they’re glossing over it. So you lose that extra little oomph.

Again, I know this one’s liable to rustle some jimmies. It’s a hotly debated topic, and I know that everyone’s got their own way of doing it.

Just remember that my way is the right way.

/s/! It was /s, damn it!

[Review] The Brotherhood of Sfarr – Mark P. Davies

Thanks for stopping in!  Let’s dive right into the next of the book reviews I’ve got going.  The book I’m going to talk about today is The Brotherhood of Sfarr, by Mark P. Davies.  This is the first book in the Weavers and Wyrders saga, of which according to Goodreads and Amazon there are two books out thus far.

Here is a link, for those interested.

Brotherhood of Sfarr

The Brotherhood of Sfarr follows Jenna and her younger brother Hahn as they arrive in Frethenia.  Their uncle lives there, and Jenna wants to start an apothecary.  Her hopes are dashed when she discovers that women aren’t permitted to do that.  Upon arriving, they’re forced to watch as a woman is Incasted for being a witch, which means she has her tongue cut out.  In their attempts to help the ‘witch’ and find out why she was being punished, they uncover a plot by the local church to eliminate an ‘alternate doctrine’, and begin to see the signs of an ancient prophecy coming to life surrounding their land’s next queen-to-be.

All…right.

Okay.  So.  I will be up front and honest here – I DNF’d (did-not-finish) this novel, at about 30% of the way through the text.  As such, the comments and critique that I leave here can only in good faith apply to that section of the book.  With the cat out of the bag, the question becomes why, and what went wrong for me with this book?

I’ll begin by talking about some of what I think this book does very well, before delving into the critiques.

Above all else, it’s very, very obvious that a great amount of love and care went into this book.  The world is exquisitely developed, with everything down to moon charts created to accompany it.  I’m sure that Davies has put an astounding amount of time into creating the universe and setting, and that shows.

Additionally, I think that the imagery contained within was really exceptional.  If you’re looking for a read that could really engage your senses, then this could be a good fit for you.  A great deal of care is taken to illustrate the scenery, and show the characters’ attempts to find beauty in their world.

As with the scenery and world, the grammar in this novel shows the same level of meticulous care.  Mechanically, the sentences and prose in this book are rock-solid, and the only issue that I’d pick with it on this front isn’t really a grammar issue (I’ll discuss it more below).

So.  That’s what clicked for me.

What didn’t?

First and foremost, the single biggest barrier that I had to reading this book was a powerful concentration of series-specific jargon.  There were new names for everything, from shirts to gowns to meals to days and so on and so forth.  I think that worldbuilding and creating a detailed, intricate world is an admirable goal, and I’m not saying to not have any of that in the book, but there were instances where a single paragraph would have four or five terms I didn’t know in it.  At that point, it became an imposition to my reading, since I had no basis for understanding why those terms were important enough to warrant being different and new.

I think that this problem for me was emphasized with the way each series-specific term was treated as a proper noun – I mentioned a bone to pick with grammar above, and this is it.  The story has creatures called mala, which are akin to rideable birds.  ‘Dinner’ was also renamed to ‘evenmeal’

Now, when these terms were referenced, it would be written as, say,

“Jenna urged her Mala onward with a nudge.”

“Hahn licked his lips, his mind already on the Evenmeal ahead.”

In every instance, these series-specific terms were capitalized, and this in my mind really served to continuously make sure that they stood out to the reader.  Where I might have otherwise grown used to them, as I should have, and blurred over them, instead they were set apart as different and special every time they were used.

In the end, rather than make the world feel unique and alive, they just served to hide what was happening in the story behind dense text and events I didn’t have the vocabulary to understand.

I did feel that especially at the start, there wasn’t enough attention given to characters’ identity/motivations.  I struggled a lot with Hahn especially – He’d wax poetical about the way the water filled up the bathtub, making complicated comparisons to society and learned behaviors, and then turn around and call Jenna “sis” like a child.  In time, I figured out that was because Hahn is supposed to be a prepubescent boy.  Given his ponderous nature, that frankly didn’t come across, and so his character always felt conflicted to me.

It continues on through where he’s ‘negotiating’ with two women to spy for him.  After they agree, one asks if he’d have ‘put them to death’ if they didn’t, and he smiles and says yes.  It feels incredibly out of character with how he’d been established thus far, and it makes him seem more brutal/warriorlike than the ‘cunning’ the audience is told he is.

Likewise, even though we as the readers were told often that Jenna was a warrior, it wasn’t played out as such.  Jenna comments at one point that the locals clearly have gotten ‘witch’ and ‘warrior’ mixed up, since they keep calling her a witch.

Well, at that stage, Jenna has had prophetic dreams, tried to open an apothecary, prepared and administered strange/magical healing remedies, and prayed to a lesser/unrecognized goddess.  And has not gotten in a fight or any such business.  Frankly, the cityfolk are right, and Jenna is wrong.  She certainly presents like a witch more than a warrior.

In the end, telling the audience someone is a certain way isn’t enough.  They have to be shown to act that way, plausibly and naturally.  Throughout the whole opening section, I felt like very little care was given to the decision making process of the characters.  They acted often seemingly without regard for danger, or without even stopping to muse if it was a bad idea before deciding they needed to act despite the risks.  It reduced their agency.

Finally – I’m putting this last because it’s more structural and less story.

I was reading on kindle, through my phone, with the text side pretty small (I don’t like to change pages often).  While I was doing so, there were a number of times when I’d change page, and find that the entire next page was a single paragraph with no breaks.

Situations like that made the book very, very difficult to read, as any points of importance were hidden behind a seamless wall of flowered prose.  I’d recommend that another look be given to the formatting, to try and break some of that up.

And…I think that’s about enough xD

I do think that there’s a ton of potential in this series and from this author.  At the core of the story was a story, which certainly held a lot of promise, and given the obvious care Davies took with his world, I’m completely certain that there were some good and exciting things coming down the line.

My overall rating: 2/5

Would I recommend this story to you: I think this story could appeal to those who enjoy fiction with dense, visually-intensive prose, or those who enjoy a worldbuilding-heavy story.

Percentage of book read: 30%

Words with Ino #3 – Succeeding on /r/WritingPrompts

And now,  it’s time for something completely different!

Now, I’ve talked to a lot of you.  We might have chatted in our wonderful, lovely discord server, hint, hint. Maybe we exchanged PMs on Reddit, talking about who knows what.

But many of you have stated an interest in starting to write, or have already started writing.  That’s part of why I’m doing these posts!  And, more than likely, I suggested writing on /r/WritingPrompts to you as a good way of getting your feet wet.  I’m biased, after all.

“But, Ino,” you say.  “There’s a lot of prompts, there.  And when I posted, I didn’t even get a single upvote.  And someone told me I sucked.  What now?”

Well.  Here’s the dirty little secret I’m going to share with you all, right here and now.

WritingPrompts is a game.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  It doesn’t have to be a game.  For many people, WritingPrompts is just a casual place to try out writing now and again, and that’s 100% absolutely fine.  Everyone writes in their own way, at their own pace, and the important part is your own take on it, and your own experience.

But many of you, contrastingly, have asked how folks like some of us on the server got started – how we got our feet under us, how we started building a name, how we eventually progressed to doing serials and books and cool, vaguely adult-ish things.

And so, I’m going to break the first rule of WritingPrompts, and tell you guys a bit about how to play for keeps – and win.

Subreddits and you

When I started writing, we called them vanity subs.  That term still gets thrown around a lot, but I think times have changed.  It’s more common to just see them called personal subreddits, and I like the change.  Because calling them a vanity sub implies that you’re making a subreddit about you, to soothe your own ego, and that’s really not the case.

To put it simply, having a subreddit allows for a few different things.

First and foremost, having a personal sub gives you somewhere to collect your writing pieces.  You’ve got them in your comments, sure, but trust me.  It won’t take long before they vanish into your comment history, never to be seen again.  Without my subreddit to keep a log of all of them, I’d have lost a lot of my older prompt responses, and that’d be sad.

Having them in one place also allows for a prospective subscriber to check out other things you’ve done!  If someone likes what they’ve read, give them the ability to read more by you!

The last point I’ll touch on regarding subreddits is this – a lot of folks use circular logic when it comes to why they shouldn’t have a subreddit of their own.  “I don’t need one, Ino,” they say, shaking their head stubbornly.  “I have no readers.  I have no projects, yet.  I’m not popular enough for a subreddit.”

But here’s the thing.  Without somewhere to subscribe to you, that person is going to wander off into the blackened, filthy depths of reddit, without another thought given to you.  Maybe they really liked that prompt response you did – it doesn’t matter, because without a way to keep your name on their reddit, it’ll be a long, slow process of trying to win people over by sheer number of prompts responded to.  Definitely doable – but needlessly difficult on yourself.  Without a subreddit, it’s much harder to get readers.

Quick note – creating your own subreddit requires a certain amount of karma.  I think it’s 20?  Something along those lines.  It’s not much, and it’s definitely doable even if you’re a lurker.  But it’s something to be aware of!

“All right, Ino,” you say.  “I’ve got my subreddit, like you said.  But the last time I wrote no one bothered to read my-”

Be quiet and stop fussing.  Visibility on WritingPrompts is what everyone’s after – Getting your story seen is just a good feeling.  Everyone wants to feel like their words were read and enjoyed and didn’t just die in the cold, black emptiness of the internet.  And this is where the ‘game’ I mentioned before comes in.

The Game

First – Often times, when I see newer writers start posting on the subreddit, their process goes something like this.

They find a prompt they like and which seems fun.  Now, most people are going to simply click on the subreddit and start reading prompts, just like any other subreddit.  So they’re going to be reading off /hot, more than likely.  In fact, the odds are good that they picked a topper.

Inorai’s Translation Service: Among writers, we refer to prompts that hit the top of /r/writingprompts as ‘toppers’.  These are prompts that get a lot of karma, a lot of visibility, and might even make it to /all.  I call prompts that enter that wonderful, mysterious land tip-toppers.

The issue with this is that WritingPrompts, like many subreddits, has a bit of a…problem.  Well, it’s not so much of a problem and more just how Reddit is designed.  When you have a thread, it’s by default sorted by hot/best/whatever-the-fuck name they’ve decided to call it to sound a little bit less generic.  It’s their algorithm, essentially, saying “This comment has gotten a lot of comments in the last little bit, compared to the other comments in this thread, so we’re going to call it the ‘best’ and put it at the top.

No, I don’t have access to the inner workings of their black magic.  Hell if I know how all of it works, precisely.

Good time for a disclaimer.  I’m not an admin for Reddit, I don’t have access to their programming, and I’m not some whiz kid.  All of these comments are purely based off my own experiences and those I’ve discussed with other writers on WP.  These are the ‘facts’ that we’ve based our choices off.  I can’t guarantee that we’re right, but it’s about as close as we’ve gotten.

Ok.  So.  We’ve got Newbie Writer A, who I’m going to call Earnest, and they’ve picked out a prompt that sounds fun.  Which is a current topper.  Heart in their throat, they mash their keyboard madly, churning up their very best story just as quickly as they can and grab that mouse and hit that Submit button and-

Nothing.

Their prompt sits right where it rested, a lonely ‘1 point’ resting next to their name.  Confused, they look at the thread.  It’s…active.  It’s very active, in fact, with the thread’s karma skyrocketing.  But it’s like no one’s looking.  Maybe it was just too soon.  Their mouse slides up to the refresh button.

Nothing.  It’s unchanged, in fact.  Again and again they refresh, waiting as the minutes drag on into hours.  At last, when they’d just given up hope, the little orange envelope in the upper right-hand corner of the screen lights up.  And so does their heart.  They leap for their inbox, a smile breaking out across their face.  Finally, it’s here.  Their reader.  Finally, they can-

You suck.

Oh.

So, what went wrong?  What exactly happened here, and what can poor Earnest do next time?

So, like I mentioned – WP, like every other subreddit, is bound by Reddit’s code.  And given the way that WP’s stories are written, and the length that often goes into them, most readers will only read a single story on any given prompt.  The top story, in fact.  I think this is reinforced by the fact that once many people have read a story, they’re both ‘satisfied’ with the prompt, more often than not, and they now associate that story with it.

Or maybe I’m full of shit.  It’s hard to say.  But it’s a simple fact of numbers that the top story on a prompt is much, much more likely to be successful, and often will get orders of magnitude more points than the second story.  The further you go down the prompt, the more pronounced this is.

This is not to say that you can’t get attention on existing threads – some threads will skyrocket for a long time without anyone writing for it.  Some threads have a first story that’s frankly bad, and so a well-written second story can unseat it.  Quality, as always, is really the important factor here!

So here, at last, we have the basis of our game.

  • Find the prompts that are getting lots of upvotes, and thus will remain visible
  • Achieve the top spot on said prompt
  • Succeed in making that connection with a reader, and keep them coming back.

For the purposes of this, we’re really going to look at the first point in this post.

The Selection of the Prompt

This is the first step, and honestly, there’s no magic bullet here.  There are tricks, which I’m going to tell you about, but nothing I can tell you here will guarantee you a topper.  Really, the only key to winning a top spot is time.  You’ll need to be consistently writing prompt responses, and throw out a lot of lines.  If you don’t make it, that’s fine.  Try again.  And again.  Sooner or later, you’ll get one!

To begin with, when looking for a prompt, stay away from Hot and Top like your life depends on it.  Those are threads that more than likely already have stories written for them, and those stories will have a substantial lead on anything you can write.

There’s a bit of a debate as to this part, but what we can all agree on is that if you’re going topper-hunting, you should be browsing either /rising or /new.  Most other writers will tell you to watch /rising, as that’ll tell you which threads are on their way up.  Me, personally, I like to watch /new.  I’ll get into why more a little bit later.

So, you’ve sat yourself down in the /new queue.  You’re watching the prompts roll in, one horrible, meme-laden thread at a time.  What’s that?  Numbers over their heads?  People screeching insults in their head at people and having someone actually respond?  The fifteenth thousand Guy Fieri prompt?

Yeah, it’s a cesspool.  I know.  I really do.  But if you want visibility, that’s how you get it.

So, watch the numbers of upvotes.  Every writer will tell you something a bit different as to when something is a ‘topper’, but really, you just want to watch how they’re behaving.  A good-scoring prompt should start accelerating from a few minutes onward, and continue without any noticeable plateaus.  Ideally, for a topper, I’d like to see that it’s sitting at a good 10-15 points by half an hour in.  That’d tell me it was fairly solid.

And here we get to why I like to watch /new.  Last night, in fact, a group of us was sitting around #WritingChat in the WritingPrompts discord (Yeah, that’s a thing too) chatting, when a few prompts were linked as possible rising toppers.  We weren’t sure.  But one looked like it had potential – A 17 minute old prompt, with 9 points to its name.  That would be a pretty good candidate for the next topper, if the timing was right (more on that in a minute.)

I had my suspicions.  I know it’ll shock most of you to know that on Reddit, people are kind of assholes sometimes.  Sometimes, people lie.  And, in fact, they cheat.

A lot of times, you’ll see a prompt shoot up all at once, right after it’s been posted.  And then you’ll see it do essentially nothing after that.

Do I have proof of anything?  God, no.  But I can suspect all I like, and no one can tell me I can’t xD Threads like that reek of vote manipulation and bots, and it’s something that would be very hard to spot on rising, where you can’t see it from the very start of its lifespan.  If something continues rising, accelerating on its way up, that’s a good topper.  If something has an initial surge and then plateaus, that smells odd to me.

The prompt stalled at 9 points, by the way, and froze right then and there.

“There are thousands of prompts a day, though, Ino,” you say.  “And yet there are only a handful of actual successful prompts.  I have a life.  How am I supposed to magically be on when one of them comes in?”

Well, luck does play a role.  Not going to lie to you about that much.  But as for when a topper is going to roll in, there is some rhyme and reason to it.  We call it the topper cycle.

In short, WritingPrompts, and Reddit’s algorithm, does much the same thing with threads as it does with comments, although again I don’t know the inner workings of their black magic and I’m just sure someone’s going to inform me how wrong I am.  One way or another, there are going to be a few prompts which make it as toppers and get pushed to the top – and there they’ll sit, lording themselves over the rest of everyone.

They’ll sit there for about 15ish hours, in fact.  More or less depending on how strong they were.  And there’s the kicker.

There are two toppers at any given time.  That’s just how it works.  Two.  And when they age out, they’ll fall away – at which point those slots become open again.  So you can begin to predict a new topper based on A) how old the existing toppers are, and B) if there’s a prompt already on the rise, aiming for one of those new topper spots.

If there’s already a new topper on its way up, more than likely, that’s it.  I’ve seen rising toppers unseated, but it’s absurdly rare.  Once something is shooting towards the front page, you’re not going to see anything else to rival it for the next cycle.

Now – toppers, in my experience, do tend to fall around a few key points, and there are periods of the day that could potentially be more likely to see them in.  This is even less scientific, and again, every writer has their sweet spot when they like to look for them.

I find that I have good luck with finding toppers from about 8am-11am and 2-4pm, both EST.  If I were asked to tell you why, I’d say that’s because these are the times when A) redditors are waking up, and B) when they’re bored at work, waiting to go home.  Or getting off school.  Maybe I’m totally off base, that’s just my guess.

With that said, there are times when I check in the morning, and I find that a topper got posted at, like, 5am.  And Silvertongue was posted in the night (right before I went to bed, in fact).  So, anything can happen, in the end.  But those are the times when I’ve had successes.

Once you see that prompt get the upvotes rolling in, well, the timer’s on.  Everyone likes to win those prompts!  So get in thread, and start writing!

A Quick Note On /r/WritingPrompts Etiquette

I know that winning a topper is a big deal.  It’s exciting, it’s fun, and it can get a lot of attention for your stories.  But if this is a game that you’re wanting to try your hand at, be aware of a few no-nos that you should stay away from.

First – yes, winning top story is important.  And especially for those of you who might not be as experienced in writing or as fast on the keyboards, I know that more often than not it winds up with you hitting ‘Submit’ – only to find that three other people submitted stories while you were still typing.

It sucks.  I know.  We’ve all been there.

However tempting it is, though, remember that you should still post a complete, well-formed prompt.  A lot of times we’ll see people post excessively short prompt responses on rising toppers, pretty blatantly for the express intent of squatting on that top spot.

It is not considered acceptable to post a short response, and then edit it to add in the remainder of your prompt response once you’ve finished it.

It’s a little different if you’re doing a entirely different second part – again, it goes back to the idea of your response functioning on its own.  It’s fine to do more than one part on a prompt (clearly).   Just make sure that you’re not leaving a half-assed prompt for the purpose of karmagrabbing or ‘reserving’ a spot at the head of a topper.

Also.

This one is a little different, in that it’s actually expressly against WP’s rules, but although karma is in play on WP, you’re not allowed to do things like gate your content behind karma or leverage upvotes for yourself.  So that means nothing like “If I get 100 upvotes I’ll write another part for this”.  That could actually get you in trouble with the moderators.


It’s far from an exhaustive list of the ins and outs of writing on WP, and there’s a lot more to be covered like how to write a prompt response that will draw in readers or how you should utilize your subreddit/manage your serials.  But, I think this topic more than stands on its own!

So, if anyone has any other questions on anything I’ve put here, or has something else about prompting on WP, please let me know!

And I leave you with a question of your own – have you noticed any quirks with the algorithm, or with toppers?  When do you like to find your prompts?

[Review] A Tribute at the Gates – CJ Aaron

A Tribute at the Gates - CJ Aaron

Well, well.  Something different yet again?

One of the things that I think a lot of people don’t really ‘get’ is exactly how important reviews are, especially to independent authors!  If a book has no reviews, regardless of how many sales that author has made, that book will be viewed poorly. As such, one of the goals that I’ve made for the new year/the future is to start seeking out books from independent authors or small publishers, which have few reviews to their name, and dig into them 🙂

If you have suggestions as to candidates, of course, please let me know!  I won’t be accepting titles from people I know, or from contests I’ve been involved in, for the sake of neutrality.  Just as a disclaimer!

Now!  With this in mind, this morning I read the first book for this goal, and so here’s my first entry into this.

Note: I’m going to do my damndest to avoid spoilers, for any of you who may want to read this – and I do recommend it, it was a fun, engaging read!


A Tribute at the Gates – by CJ Aaron

Tribute at the Gates starts readers off with a dark, foreboding premise.  Certain individuals carry a compound in their blood, alexen, which can be distilled down through an unknown process – implied at the cost of the person’s life – and made into an elixir which grants longevity to the drinker.  The kingdom in question issued a decree stating that all children are to be tested, and the children found with this compound are separated from their families, the rights to their blood auctioned off to a noble family, and are raised as slave labor until they’ve matured enough for the ‘Harvest’.

The book follows Ryl, a young man whose blood contains a particularly special compound.  Where other ‘Tributes’ contain passive quantities of alexen, his is ‘active’. This is something which hasn’t been seen in ages, and makes him quite rare.  In fact, the researchers for the nation know little to nothing about his particular blend of alexen and how it will behave.

The premise of the book, then, is fairly straightforward.  With his Harvest impending, Ryl slowly begins to awaken to his own powers and come into his own, all while the brutality of their captors ramps up and tensions between the guards and him increases.  With his newfound powers in hand, albeit covertly, Ryl sets out to find a way for him and his fellows to escape the Harvest – and survive the situation they’re in.


I have a bit of a hard time reading, of late, partially because I’ve spent so long proofreading and critiquing people’s stories around the community.  As such, I’ve found I really have a difficult time getting into a book if there’s too much wrong grammar-wise for me to stumble over.

I was pleasantly surprised, then, that Tribute flowed very nicely, and was by and large very well structured for an independent novel.  It wasn’t perfect – I think that some of the dialogue could have been touched up with some added commas, and there were many instances of using commas where question marks would have been more appropriate, but it wasn’t an imposition to me reading!  So, that was immediately a huge mark in this book’s favor.

Now.  There were a few things that I thought this book did really, really well.

Ryl as a character was very relatable to me, and behaved by and large very understandably.  I enjoyed the relationships that he had with the other tributes, and I thought that his motivations were one of the stronger parts of the story.  The will to survive is always going to be strong, and the author did a very nice job of making the reader feel constrained, closed in by a fate out of the character’s control.  It was pretty clear that Ryl was going to be the ‘Chosen One’ of this novel/series, given the setup, but I’d say that there’s definitely still a line of interest there for the reader to find out what happens to him and his friends.

Possibly the thing I liked best about this book, though, was the ability that the author had to create tension and strain on the reader.  It’s a sign that I’m well-immersed in a book when I’m getting physically anxious reading it, and that was something that definitely held true here.  Aaron did an excellent job of carrying the line of tension throughout the book, building upon it to heighten the moods around even of the book’s events and action scenes.  The immersion and emotions in this book were done very well, which is huge for me 🙂

With that said, there were some areas that could be worked on and improved upon, in my opinion.  In particular, there were three main areas that I’ll discuss here.

Starting at about 15-20% of the way through the book, and running to about 30-35% of the way through the book, there was a lengthy scene of exposition and conversation between Ryl and a side character, where the magic system and history of the world was rather matter-of-factly laid out.  This side character then leaves, not to be seen again in this book, and most of what is discussed isn’t really…relevant. At least, not in the content covered in the first book. I can see its importance, in that it establishes where Ryl’s powers are progressing to, but I feel it was clumsily handled.  I found myself skimming, to the point I nearly DNF’d the book, but decided to keep going and see if the story picked back up. It did, and I’m glad I kept going, but that was a substantial issue in my eyes.

The second issue that I had is much, much more minor.  There were a few sections where characters would behave inconsistently – Ryl asked the aforementioned side character why he was sitting by and letting the tribute system stand, for example, upon which the character exploded on him to not accuse him of complacency.  The next paragraph, the side character informed Ryl that with powers like theirs, they had to be careful to always remain in control of their emotions. With no apparent signs he was aware of the irony.

There were a few other cases, like Ryl commenting he was glad to be going to a different village because it would be less brutal than being under their Master’s thumb – only to be savagely beaten upon entering.  Much, much later, he asked another tribute what was happening, since the village was supposedly more friendly to them, but up until that point, he never expressed shock or surprise that things weren’t as he’d previously expected.  So on and so forth.

Overall, these inconsistencies were just a passing matter, and unimportant to the actual story.  Simply something that stood out to me, and was a bit jarring while I was reading!

The third issue is something rather more worrisome for me, and does have some impact on how I feel about the first book, even while it doesn’t have any impact on the main storyline.

Through the first book, one of the main antagonists is the master of the compound.  He’s taken a grudge against Ryl in particular, in large part because of the negative attentions from the royalty that have been brought down on the tribute system due to actions Ryl takes.  He seems to blame Ryl personally for this watchful eye being placed on him, and responds with increased violence against Ryl, up to and including assassination attempts.

To me, this frankly didn’t make a lot of sense.  Harming Ryl, as one of the most potent bearers of alexen in the kingdom, would be a death sentence – this is explicitly stated, in fact.  And yet, the Master seemingly doesn’t care? His soldiers are overheard saying to “make it seem like an accident”, sure, but that doesn’t seem like it’d hold water for long.  By and large, this character seemed like a caricature of a villain, without proper development given to motivations.

Now – like I said, in the end, that character really doesn’t affect the main storyline.  It’s more of a passing thing, especially given how the end of the book plays out. It did make me withdraw from the story at points, where something seemed particularly unreasonable, but it didn’t ruin the story as a whole.


So, where does this leave us?

On the whole, I found Tribute to be a fun, engaging read.  Be forewarned. It’s a very, very dark book.  There are some fairly explicit scenes of abuse and violence, and it includes sensitive matters like rape, although not as explicitly depicted.  The characters are young, and it’s definitely a coming of age novel, but it’s not a young adult novel in my eyes.

With that said – I know I’ve listed off flaws here, and it might seem like I’m piling on, but I was serious when I said there were things that this book did really well!  I found the storyline to be a fun, interesting take on an old, familiar storyline. I don’t think it broke out of the mold, but it did a very solid job of telling the story in a way that was enjoyable and catching.  This is only the first book in a series, and the story feeds directly into a hook for book 2. Be aware of that!


Would I recommend this story to you:  Yes, to those of you who enjoy dark fantasy novels.

Will I be reading the next book in the series:  Yes!  My comments on flaws aside, I found the world to be an interesting one, and I’m very interested in seeing where the author takes it.

My overall rating: 3.5/5

Words with Inorai #2 – Planners and Pantsers

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Have some cats, too.  It’s Christmas.

Welcome back to Words With Ino!

Today I wanted to switch gears a little bit – last week’s post was more grammatical, more on the rules side of things.  Today, instead, I wanted to discuss a concept that’s a little more top-level, and a lot of that’s because these are terms you’ll hear me talking about a lot.

Planning and Pantsing.

I get asked a lot what my process is for writing, for plotting, how I come up with stories or how I develop them out.  A lot of times, people ask how they should be doing it, or what the ‘right’ way to do it is.  Now, of course, the short answer is that there is no explicit right or wrong way to handle developing a story.  Everyone processes it differently, because everyone thinks through the creative process differently.

Wow, how incredibly generic and unhelpful that is for me to say.  Wonderful xD Let me explain a little more.

To use a broad brush, there are two different schools of thought when it comes to plotting and storybuilding.  Both have their own advantages and disadvantages, and frankly, it’s not black and white, it’s a spectrum. People are going to fall somewhere in the middle of these two.  But these are the two, dammit.

I’ll just note – this is more of a sensitive topic in writing, as is Worldbuilder’s Syndrome.  This is really just my opinion, which has been based off the experiences I have. But everyone is different, as I said, and your take might be totally different!  These will be terms and concepts I come back to a lot, so it’s really important to get them out there 🙂


Planning

Famous author example: Tolkien

This is really quite simple, and it works pretty much like the name implies!  Planners like to have a well-established premise and plotline before they begin, down to designing characters and plot twists and making sure everything is in just the right place.  A lot of the planners I know use Scrivener, which is a writing program that allows for you to link different blurbs and insert ties back to character descriptions and just offers a ton of tools for really making your world very methodical.

The planners are the folks you’ll see with timelines, with character sheets drawn up for the cast and everything laid out neatly.  How you choose to explore your world is, of course, up to you – but we’ll discuss Worldbuilder’s Syndrome at a later date xD

Like I said, both of these schools of thought have advantages and disadvantages.  So let’s look at some of that, shall we?

Advantages –

Since planners are planning out their world beforehand, they can take details that might not come out until later in the novel or series and ‘seed’ them beforehand.  They can take advantage of their worldbuilding and use it to make their world feel fleshed out from day one. Also, with the plotline laid out a bit more thoroughly from day one, planners tend to have a better idea of where they’re going, and might have fewer instances of hitting roadblocks.

Disadvantages –

The urge to flesh everything out can be fucking tempting.  I understand. I know. But, there are limits to what is needed, and planners are at dramatically higher risk of falling victim to Worldbuilder’s Syndrome.  That’s a bigger topic than I can discuss here today xD

I would say one of the fears that I have about planning things out too methodically is the inflexibility you develop.  Stories morph and change and grow as you write them, until you look back and you’re not quite sure how you got there. I think that going too far with planning can make you feel like you have to stick with the plan you made, and that can make you rigid.

The other disadvantage to carefully fleshing everything out beforehand, in my eyes, is that it becomes very tempting to just dump all of those lovely little details you created on the readers.  You made them, after all – why not use them? But then the reader winds up drowning to death under a flood of custom-made languages and history going back centuries. It’s a careful balance!


Pantsing

Famous author example: Stephen King

“Ino, what the hell is this pantsing thing you keep mentioning?”

Could not tell you the number of times I’ve been asked that xD

Pantsing is just a shortened name for ‘flying by the seat of your pants’.  Which Google informs me is a reference to early aviation, where pilots would fly without proper instruments, based on their instinct and intuition.

Pantsers are exactly the opposite of planners.  I’ve also heard it referred to as ‘Discovery Writing’.  Basically, the idea is that you take a premise or concept, and rather than methodically laying everything out, you just dive straight on in and see where it goes.

That’s….pretty much it xD you give each of your characters some proper motivation – what they want – and a goal to work towards, and then you turn them loose!  As long as they behave logically and make choices that are realistic to how they’d actually behave, they’ll follow the story through on their own.

Again, as with planning, there are definitely advantages and disadvantages here.

Advantages –

Because you’re letting the characters and plot flow as they will, deciding the route they’ll take more on-the-fly, pantsing can help with making the chapters flow more naturally, imo.  The characters will be as strong as your mental image of them, in short, because they’re controlling things rather than their character sheet making choices.

Pantsing also gives you the ability to adapt your story as you go.  Change your mind on something? Want to take things in a bit different direction?  You can do that, because you don’t have anything set in stone to begin with 🙂 You can avoid the tear-stained pages of worldbuilding notes that have suddenly become useless!

Lastly, worldbuilding as you go allows you to drip-feed information to the readers.  You won’t be dumping a pile of exposition on them, because you don’t know right then, either.  You’re focusing specifically on what’s relevant for that scene.

Disadvantages –

Of course, there’s always a flipside.  If you’re going into a story without a concrete plan, the risk for finding yourself in a corner does become more of a thing.  Lookin’ at you, GRRM.  In my personal opinion, ‘writing yourself into a corner’ is less of a thing if your characters are making logical choices, since they’d still be making choices and taking actions.  The issue more becomes that the actions they take don’t have good outcomes, or the outcomes you want.

Given that you’re not planning ahead, it’s also harder to do things like seeding plot twists or big reveals a great deal in advance.  It can be done, absolutely – but you’re going to have to be a bit more flexible with it, and you’re going to have to really focus on how all of the motivations of your characters interact and conflict.

It’s also easier to find yourself in a soup, a position where you’re just meandering.  If your character’s motivations aren’t strong and outlined clearly enough, then the story itself can lose its direction.


How do I know which I am?

By trying stuff out!  Write a lot! Experiment with doing your plotting different ways, and see what feels natural for you!  If something feels awkward, don’t do it. Also, I’ve split these up into two distinct categories, but it’s definitely a spectrum.  Most people are a blend of the two types, in varying amounts 🙂

Unfortunately, it’s one of those things that you’re going to have to play around with.  But there’s no right or wrong way to do it, so whatever you do that allows you to puke your words out the best, that’s your way!

What do you do/Personal experience wordvomit

Yeah, it’s not really a secret, and you can probably tell from reading this, but I definitely fall on the ‘pantser’ end of the spectrum.  In terms of my own experiences, I would say that planning just doesn’t work for me personally.

When writing something like these books, I have two methods of organization.

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First, I have the ‘big picture’ story maps.  These are a page or two long each, just a bullet point list that states the ending I’m working towards and key scenes/events that I have in mind to get there.  This, for example, is the original big-picture map for what eventually turned into Nightsworn and Ascendant. Aaaand, yeah, you can see that a bunch of the stuff on there never happened, or happened differently xD

 

 

 

xJNMR7U.jpgThen, I have chapter maps.  These are just bullet point lists too, and typically detail everything that is going to happen in that chapter, in the rough order it happens.  I basically sit down and dream through the chapter, before I write it, and then scrawl that down so I can reproduce it in words. It’s really important to me, in that it lets me write much more quickly.

Some plot twists I’ll have laid out a long, long time in advance.  Like, I already have twists in mind for books 2 and 3 of Silvertongue, and there are ‘twists’ (sort of) that happen in, like, Chosen that won’t be revealed/explored until the prequel books.  Those, I’ve been sitting on for over a year xD Typically these are key scenes that I really want to have happen, or just fun things I’ve had in mind that help to shape where the book and story goes.

Other times, I’ll have instances where I’m like, “This would be a really good place for a reveal, but I don’t quite know where I want to go with it yet.”  In cases like that, I’ll leave myself ‘flaps’. I’ll drop hints, names, clues, etc, and lay up what’s coming while I figure the rest of the details out 🙂 Sometimes I have what’s to follow very laid out, sometimes it’s just an abstract idea.


And that’s about enough on the topic, I think!

Writing and producing something creative is really an individual thing, and no two people do it quite the same.  If you’re interested in making something, keep trying until you find the way that works for you! And of course, if you have any questions or want to muddle through something, hit me up!  I’m always thrilled to talk writing!

Last but not least – Merry Christmas (almost)!  It’s been an absolutely amazing year with all of you, and we’ve come so damn far haha.  I hope all of you enjoy the holiday season and have a great time here stuffing your faces!