Dissecting Rogue One – A Writing Exercise

Disclaimer: This post will contain *heavy* spoilers for Rogue One, summarizing the plot from start to finish. Do not read this if you haven’t seen the movie.

jyn

[Our heroine.]

I loved Rogue One, as did many people. However, different people had different experiences, and even those who liked the movie have called out flaws. One of the most common flaws I hear is that the main characters didn’t have a decent arc, and that the characters weren’t well-developed, particularly Jyn Erso.

I have the opposite opinion. I loved the characters (especially Jyn!) and I saw clear character arcs. Many feel differently, and I want to be clear I’m not looking for an argument. I was simply fascinated that people could experience a movie so differently, and wanted to explore why it worked so well for me. For purposes of brevity, I’m only going through Jyn’s arc, though I feel the others have arcs as well.

Before we get started, we need to talk about how Rogue One tells its story. Rogue One relies heavily on what I call the “iceberg” method of storytelling. Rather than having character motivations and backstories spelled out (here’s a flashback that shows everything, or characters monologuing their innermost feelings!) all we are shown is the tip of a (figurative) iceberg. The rest is left for us to infer from character action and dialogue.

troopersblog

[Taking cover is for chumps. Stormtroopers charge the laser fire.]

A writer using the iceberg method sees the entire iceberg, of course. They know their character well, but choose to feed us only small clues. They show us things about their characters, rather than telling us, and let us put the pieces together. They raise questions we want to answer.

The writer lets us connect the dots (like a detective) instead of connecting them for us, and personally, I find this really fun. What follows is my recollection of what happens in the movie and how it built Jyn’s character and gave her a great character arc – for me, at least.

We begin with Jyn as a child, with two parents who seem to love her very much. This doesn’t last, obviously, because Krennic arrives. Jyn has known something like this might happen for some time – we see this when she busts into the house and says “They’re coming!” Yet Jyn arrives before the shuttle, and is ready to grab her “bug out bag” and run. This shows us Jyn is already a level-headed person, even as a child.

deathtroopers

[Don’t run. We just want to borrow some milk.]

While Galen goes to try to trick Krennic into leaving, Jyn flees with her mother. Yet the scenes with Jyn’s parents aren’t really about Galen and Lyra, but clues as to what they were like as parents. We start developing Jyn’s character by seeing who raised her.

As Galen confronts Krennic, we learn Galen was once a scientist working on an Imperial project who later left because he opposed the project on moral grounds. Galen is so brilliant that the work can’t be continued without him. So, now I know Jyn was raised by a father who was a brilliant scientist, but who also has a strong moral compass.

This tells me a lot about her character, even in this first scene. I imagine Jyn has been exposed to logic, critical thinking, and pragmatism, as well as being taught a strong sense of right and wrong. So Jyn is already pragmatic, smart, and moral.

We then cut to Jyn with her mother, a scene that couldn’t be more different from Krennic and Galen. Lyra seems to be a very spiritual woman, as demonstrated by her talk to Jyn about trusting the Force and by gifting her the Force crystal. So now I know Jyn’s other parent was a very spiritual woman with a strong belief in justice, goodness, and the Force.

So five minutes into the movie, I already know Jyn was raised by a critically thinking, moral scientist and a spiritual and free-thinking mother. That’s a great contrast, meaning she’s been exposed to many perspectives. So Jyn probably has a strong pragmatic side but is also open to the more touchy-feely spiritual side as well. Neat!

youngjyn

[Unfortunately for Jyn’s mother, she’s in a Disney movie.]

Now, what happens next? Jyn sees her mother killed, then gets chased by Death Troopers. She manages to hide and waits. There’s a storytelling cue Jyn was hiding for a *long* time … her light is almost dead. For all that time (Hours? Days?) Jyn was stuck in the dark, alone, having just seen her mother murdered, waiting for a father who doesn’t come.

Now consider what we’ve just learned about Jyn. As a child, after she witnessed her mother’s murder, she locked herself in a dark hole for an eternity while guys literally called DEATH TROOPERS hunted for her. That’ll mess any kid up. Finally, Saw arrives, the man who we saw Galen call earlier. He opens the door and looks down at Jyn.

And then, the flashback ENDS.

If we weren’t using the iceberg method, we’d have a montage here. We’d see a succession of scenes where Jyn grows up. First, Jyn’s a child distracting Stormtroopers. Next she’s a young teen planting a thermal detonator. Next she’s an older teen, in a firefight besides Saw’s revolutionaries. It would be annoyingly obvious Saw raised her as a freedom fighter.

But we don’t see that montage, because that’s BORING. We don’t beat you over the head with “Hey, this is how Jyn becomes a rebel!” because that’s been done to death. Instead, Saw opens that door … and we quick cut to Jyn, now an adult, locked in an Imperial prison.

It’s at this moment I’m hooked. Instead of a montage, I got a mystery! There’s a story here, and I don’t know that story yet, but I want to know it. I am intrigued!

adultjyn

[That cute child is now this woman, and trust me, she’s seen some ****.]

Somehow, the events I just saw led to adult Jyn stuck in an Imperial prison. Her cellmate, the one person she might connect with given her situation, snorts obnoxiously, and Jyn wrinkles her nose – no sympathy or interest, just distaste. Jyn isn’t interested in making friends, but why? What made her this way? I’m trying to puzzle it out.

The next time we see Jyn, she’s in an Imperial prison transport. She doesn’t seem scared, just resigned. Maybe she’s been on the run so long that she has lost the will to fight. Or maybe she’s biding her time. I don’t know, but it is obvious she’s been knocked around and is world-weary. More character development.

The transport stops. Rebels bust in and blast the Stormtroopers. One rebel turns to Jyn and says “You want to be free?” Jyn nods eagerly, smiling.

“Oh!” I think. Her rebel alliance buddies came to save her! So Jyn must be a hardcore rebel (maybe recruited by Saw?) and this is her rescue by her buddies.

Actually no. The moment the rebel frees her, Jyn clocks her rebel “rescuer” in the face. I sit up and go “What?” Jyn decks the next guy too, taking both out with unarmed precision before K-2SO clotheslines her on the way out, WWF style.

k2so

[Reprogrammed Imperial droid / Pro-Wrestler.]

After that scene I’m thinking, damn, this woman can fight, but more importantly, she has zero love for the rebel alliance, even though they just rescued her from the Empire. But why would she hate the rebels? What turned the child I saw in the first scene into this embittered loner? I want to solve this mystery!

Cut to Yavin Four. Jyn is being escorted to meet with the rebel leaders. General Draven lists her crimes: stealing, resisting arrest, assaulting Imperials. He also says she is “currently” using a specific alias, implying Jyn has had more than one alias. Now I know why Jyn was in that Imperial prison. I can fill in what happened between the flashback and now, which is fun.

At some point, Jyn probably had to resort to stealing (for shelter or food) and eventually got caught by Imperials. She was probably in hiding for a long time, unable to use her real name, scraping by on nothing to stay hidden. So why? What’s she running from? Krennic?

Mon Mothma arrives and tries to appeal to Jyn’s sense of patriotism and morality. It’s obvious from Jyn’s expression that she’s having none of that, reinforcing her disillusionment with the rebels. She’s obviously just biding her time until she can escape. She only perks up when Cassian enters the conversation and mentions her father, Galen.

Suddenly, Jyn’s interested in the conversation, but not just that. She’s visibly thrown off balance. Is she scared? Worried? Whatever it is, it’s obvious that Jyn still has feelings for Galen Erso, good or bad, even after all this time. So how does she feel about the father who abandoned her? I want to know! And we continue to add new facets to her character.

We learn the rebels want Jyn to connect them to Saw Gerrera (the man who rescued her in the first scene). They need Jyn to get them an introduction so they can retrieve a defecting Imperial pilot with plans to something very big – and Jyn agrees to help! Why?

It’s obvious Jyn doesn’t care about the rebels, doesn’t care about the Empire, and certainly doesn’t care about the defector or these plans. But she *does* care about her father, and this may lead her to him. Jyn may be a loner who wants nothing to do with this war, but she’s still connected to her family. More character development!

jyn02blog

The next critical moment that defines Jyn for us happens on Jedha. As they’re exploring the market, Jyn has a moment where Chirrut calls to her, despite being blind. He mentions the hidden necklace she’s wearing (her mother’s, connected with the Force!) and Jyn, rather than dismissing him or continuing to snark, approaches him with what might be an almost reverent look.

She’s not dismissing this. She looks at Chirrut with wide eyes, almost as if she’s convinced there is something spiritual about this man. Is Jyn thinking about her mother?

We saw Lyra Erso tell Jyn to trust in the Force. In this scene, we see that Jyn hasn’t discounted the Force entirely – she has just buried it deep. More development. She’s not so closed off and hardened as we thought. She has a spiritual side as well, buried.

This is followed by another critical (to Jyn’s character) scene where Saw’s rebels attack the Imperial kyber crystal transport. We see more evidence that Jyn is a great fighter (reinforcing that *someone* trained her), but, more importantly, we see Jyn spot a screaming little girl, an innocent bystander caught up in the battle. And Jyn reacts.

Without hesitation, Jyn dives into the open, facing blaster fire and death, selflessly saving the little girl before someone can blow her up. Moments later Jyn hands the girl to her mother, and we’ve just learned something new. Jyn will still risk her life to help others.

This reinforces the fact that just because Jyn is guarded doesn’t mean she isn’t a moral person. Her father’s influence? Another puzzle piece. Perhaps she keeps to herself not because she doesn’t want to help people, but because she was hurt in the past.

Finally, we get the big reveal we’ve wanted since that first flashback. Jyn meets Saw. We knew Saw rescued Jyn after she lost her parents, but that’s it. We knew nothing else. And in a few lines of dialogue, we finally learn another huge piece of what made Jyn who she is.

saw

[I used to be CGI, but I got old.]

Jyn was Saw Gerrera’s best rebel fighter. She fought with him for almost a decade, likely treating him as a surrogate father. She probably idolized him, worshipped him, and then, at 16, Saw abandoned her.

We finally know why Jyn has so much distaste for the rebel alliance – the man who got her into the alliance, the man who taught her how to fight and survive, the man she trusted with her life — betrayed and abandoned her. Just like her father, or so Jyn must believe.

Jyn may have believed in the rebel cause, once. Saw did! But not anymore. Not after being abandoned twice. Now I know why Jyn keeps people at arm’s length. And the rebels? What must Jyn have thought about the people who used her and then abandoned her (as she saw it?) The rebel alliance betrayed her, and now all the pieces from before come together.

Yet finding Saw and learning why he left isn’t enough to draw Jyn back into the rebel alliance. She still resents them. Remember, when Saw asks her if she’s fine with the Imperial flag flying over the galaxy, Jyn tells him “It’s not a problem as long as you don’t look up”. This tells us Jyn’s still in it for herself … for now.

jynatsaws

[Seriously? That’s your excuse for abandoning me? Jerk.]

Yet shortly after, Saw shows Jyn the transmission from her father, and Jyn learns the truth. Galen Erso never came for her, because if he had, the Empire would have had abducted Jyn. Galen feared she was dead and hated himself for never finding her, but he stayed away to protect her, and thought about her every day. He loves her dearly.

Jyn must have questioned why Galen didn’t come back every day since he left her. Maybe he was a coward. Maybe he was dead. But now she learns far from being a coward, her father sacrificed everything to give the rebels a chance – just a chance! – of destroying the Empire’s super weapon. Galen knew the Empire would build the Death Star, with or without him, and gave up his whole life (and Jyn) to stop them and save others.

Now we must imagine everything Jyn learned from Galen flooding back. Galen demonstrating his altruism and love for her is the first crack in the “I’m out for myself” wall Jyn built to protect herself. Jyn is changing! This is character development!

Then Jedha blows up.

Obviously, Jyn doesn’t have a lot of time to process the death of her (other) father, Saw. Her real father is alive, and she knows where Galen is (on Edo). She also  knows he’s in danger. Finally, Jyn knows that her father has given up everything to give the rebels a way to defeat the Death Star. For better or worse, the events of Jedha have changed Jyn. She’s not in this for herself any longer. Now, she’s in it to save her father.

cassianandk2

[Yeah, trust us. We’re totally going to Edo to save your father.]

Onwards to Edo, where Jyn sees her father in the flesh, from a distance. She has to speak to Galen, and makes the decision to put herself at risk. The rebel attack happens before she can reach her father, and he dies in her arms – yet not before telling her how much he loves her, and how proud he is of her. And losing her father, at long last, breaks her.

Jyn, who has not cried the entire movie, suddenly sobs inconsolably. This strong woman who fought through a city being nuked has to be dragged away from her dead father, by Cassian. Jyn finally got her father back only to watch him die, and it has wounded her.

Finally, back on the shuttle, Jyn puts it all together and realizes the rebellion ordered Cassian to assassinate her father. She knows the rebel alliance dropped the bomb that killed him. Once again, the rebel alliance betrayed her.

Everything in the Jyn we met at the start of the movie tells us she should run again, yet Jyn doesn’t run. She doubles down, because she’s a different person now. Her arc has progressed. She doesn’t abandon the rebels. Instead, she swears she will convince the rebels of her father’s story and retrieve those Death Star plans.

Because it’s not just about Jyn Erso now. She has just seen Jedha obliterated by the Empire, and now knows her (murdered) father gave up everything to stop this massive superweapon that could literally murder billions. Jyn now sees it as her duty to stop the Empire, even if she despises the Rebellion.

This is character progression! Jyn has gone from looking out for herself, to looking out for her father, to fully embracing her role as the only person who could show the rebels how to defeat this evil (the Death Star). She has changed, and this is obvious from the speech she gives the hesitant rebel alliance leadership.

“Rebellions are built on hope!” Jyn says, parroting Cassian’s earlier line – not because she believes it, necessarily, but because she *does* believe she must convince these people to trust her father and retrieve the Death Star plans. The earlier Jyn would never have made such a speech. And despite her newfound belief in resistance, she fails utterly.

councilblog

[Rebellions. Built on hope. And really big belt buckles.]

The rebel alliance chooses not to attack Scarif, so Jyn makes the decision to go after the plans herself, a suicide mission. Yet she doesn’t have to go alone, because Cassian and a whole bunch of other rebels moved by Jyn’s speech do show up. Jyn’s words have made them willing to fight for her and, more importantly, to stop the Empire.

Once on the shuttle, Jyn changes a little more. She smiles at these men and says “May the Force be with us.” Is she sincere? Perhaps not. But she knows how to motivate them. She’s thinking like a leader, and now she’s changed again! She’s not just a rebel. She’s a rebel leader, truly committed, and a long way from the Jyn we met at the start of the story.

The third act is awesome and crazy and epic, and pretty much everyone dies. Jyn’s arc is almost finished, but not yet. Her last bit of character development is yet to come, a very small, very personal change. A quite denouement. After being betrayed so many times, after closing herself off from everyone, Jyn is finally going to learn to trust again.

jyn04blog

[BFFs]

At the end of everything, Jyn has transmitted the Death Star plans. She’s in the elevator with Cassian, a man who has been through hell with her, and he’s not just a soldier any longer. He’s someone Jyn trusts with her life, and for Jyn, trusting someone else with her life after being betrayed so many times a *huge* step. Her character arc concludes here.

On the beach, it is Jyn who throws her arms around Cassian. She isn’t the same person she was at the movie’s start. Jyn has changed from a loner, to a woman trying to save her father, to a committed rebel, to a committed rebel leader, to a committed rebel leader who can trust and love again … in the last moment before she’s incinerated.

Jyn dies making her parents proud. She helps save the galaxy, and dies knowing she completed both her father’s mission and her own. She dies a far different person than she was when the movie began, and that, I am happy to say, is a character arc I really enjoyed. The pieces are there for all to see.

jynfinal

[So long, Stardust.]

I knew everything I need to know about Jyn by the end of the movie. I was able to glean it from the events as shown to me and saw Jyn change for reasons that are clearly laid out in a way I enjoyed. So was this planned? (I think it was)  Or am I just adding my own story to what’s there? Either way, it’s okay. Good writing doesn’t always require that you explain everything. You just have to explain enough for the reader/viewer to fill in the blanks.

And Jyn’s arc and character development are one of many reasons I loved Rogue One.

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Dealing with a Bad Book Review

Background: This blog post was inspired when I learned that an indie author who received a “bad” review from a book reviewer actually attacked that reviewer, and encouraged their fans to do the same. Don’t ever do that. It’s petty, unprofessional, bad for your career, and honestly, bad for other indie authors’ careers as well. Do what’s suggested here instead.

Do you want to be an author? Are you an author already? If so, I have some shocking and terrible news for you. Someone, at some point, is going to dislike one of your books. And they’ll tell other people.

So how do you deal with this? Before we move further, we need to define some vocabulary words.

Subjective: existing in the mind (essentially, one’s personal opinion)

Objective: Unbiased and provable (based on facts, not opinion)

So, how do you make a bad review hurt less?

The biggest and most important way to lessen the sting is to remember that all reviews of your books are subjective (see definition above). Reviews of your books are people’s opinions, not indisputable facts. If someone says of your book “This book sucks!” that is an opinion, not a fact. It is not objective.

Everyone has opinions. Guess what? You also have opinions! And getting angry at someone for having an opinion is unprofessional, unfair to that person, and, frankly, a waste of your time.

Imagine if the author of a book you disliked came after you, and said you were a terrible person. How would you feel about that? Is it fair for the person who wrote the book you disliked to blame you for disliking it? Is it your fault for not recognizing their creative genius?

Now flip that around and tell me you can find any way to justify lashing out due to a poor review.

An opinion is one person communicating how they felt about something. You cannot control the opinions of others, and you should not stress over doing so. Learn what you can and move on.

This may be enough to let that bad review roll off your back. If it isn’t, try the steps below.

Step 1: Remember, you are not your book.

When someone dislikes your book, that’s all they are disliking … your book, not you. How can they dislike you? They don’t even know you, certainly not well enough to form an opinion about you. It’s highly doubtful that when they posted their review, they thought “This author is a terrible person and I hate them”. It’s far more likely they thought “Eh, I didn’t really enjoy this book.”

You remain an awesome person whether someone likes your book or not, and even the person who disliked your book would almost certainly agree! (And if they don’t, that’s their problem, not yours).

Step 2: Remember that everyone likes different things.

Think back on every book you’ve ever read. Can you think of a book you disliked? You can? Guess what that proves? You are not the only person who ever wrote a book someone disliked!

Remember, not even the most successful author in the entire world has ever achieved a 100% “I love this” score, for their entire body of work, from everyone in the world. Don’t despair because you didn’t achieve the impossible. No one ever has, even the most successful authors in the history of everything.

Whether or not a person likes your book is always going to be subjective, and we’ve already talked about what subjective means above. A book you love, another may hate, and a book you hate, another may love. Whether or not someone loves your book is entirely out of your control.

Accept that you can control only the objective quality of your book, not how people react to it. If you plan to continue to write books, someone will eventually dislike one. Accept this, and accept that opinions about your work are opinions, not facts, and it hurts less.

Step 3: Remember that you’re going to write more than one book.

This can be especially difficult when you’re just starting out. If you’ve only had one book published, ever, and someone dislikes that book … that’s rough. As authors grow more established, they have an increasing number of books for people to like and dislike, and an increasing number of good reviews to balance out the bad ones. The more reviews you have, and the more books you have, the easier it gets.

Think of it like completing a college class. If your entire grade is based on a single test, it feels like your whole world rests on that one test. Fail, and you fail forever. But if you recognize that you’re eventually going to take two tests, and three, and eight, and your “grade” as an author will become the average of all of those tests … well then it’s not so scary, is it? You can do poorly on a few tests out of many. Your success is not tied to a single book, and a person who disliked one book may love another of your books.

Celebrate because you actually finished a book. You actually created an entire world, its characters, and tumultuous events in their lives, from scratch. You, with almost godlike power, created this thing in the confines of your mind and made it possible for others to experience it. Congratulations!

Not everyone gets that far.

Step 4: Understand the Responsibilities of Authors, Reviewers, and Readers

So let’s say you’ve tried all this, and you still hurt. Even knowing that all book reviews (including bad ones) are subjective hasn’t erased the hurt. You still really want to contact the person who questioned your amazing creation and punish them for not liking it. Well, here’s what you should do.

Don’t.

By making your book available for sale to others, or asking a book reviewer to review your book, you have made a promise to be a professional. Professionals don’t respond to bad reviews by unfairly attacking the reviewer. A professional reads the reviewer’s feedback, considers what the reviewer didn’t like, looks for clues as to how they might improve their next book, and moves on to that next book.

Professionals are professionals because they can handle subjective criticism. If you can’t handle that, you are not a professional, and you should not be publishing books. Full stop.

The information below is fact, not opinion, and as a professional creative person, you are required to acknowledge these facts. If you can’t do this, you have no business ever selling your work to anyone.

An Author Is Responsible For:

  • Writing the best book they can, every time. Each book should be readable, immersive, and entertaining. Recognize that opinions regarding success will always be subjective.
  • Working with an editor to ensure their book is as polished as possible in its intended language. This includes clear language, no typos (or close), and proper formatting (for both print and e-books). This is actually objective feedback, but that’s good, because you control it!
  • Recognizing that feedback they receive is about their book, not about them, as a person.
  • Behaving and interacting professionally with others at all times, both in-person and online.

An Author is Not Responsible For:

  • Writing a book everyone in the history of everything loves.
  • Correcting the “incorrect” opinions of those who just “don’t get” their work.
  • Being infallible.

A Book Reviewer is Responsible For:

  • Reading an author’s book, then telling their readers what they thought about it.

A Book Reviewer is Not Responsible For:

  • Making the author of the book feel like the most amazing author in the world.
  • Refusing to mention things about the book they disliked because others might like those things.
  • Selling the book for the author.
  • Sparing the author’s “feelings”.
  • “Proving” their subjective opinion of the book is “correct” with “indisputable facts”.

A Reader is Responsible For:

  • Paying an author for their book.

A Reader is Not Responsible For:

  • Liking it.

These are objective facts you must accept if you wish to become a creative professional. And if you can’t accept these facts, actually, that’s perfectly okay! Just recognize that in that case, you shouldn’t be selling your work.

Find something else that fulfills you and makes you happy, because if you can’t accept that someone, somewhere, may eventually dislike your book, you will never be happy writing books. Ever.

Revel in the characters and world you’ve created, bask in the glory of the good reviews, and most importantly, improve, improve, improve. Keep writing, keep getting better at writing, and keep creating new worlds and new books because you love doing so … not because you need everyone to like them.

Why a Standalone Character Creator Would Be Awesome

When I first started working to promote my books, I focused on the things that made me, personally, more interested in a story. One of those things, as with all entertainment, is artwork of the characters. I could describe my characters with words, sure, but there’s something special about having a picture of them. Having visual representations of characters has always, for me, made them feel more real.

SeraPainting

[Sera Valence, as rendered in Black Desert]

I was fortunate that the Internet makes it easy to find talented creative folks, many of whom don’t live in the same state or even the same country I do. First, I found the talented Greg Taylor to do my book covers (his cover for Demonkin is particularly epic) and, for my author website, I found another talented artist in Jin Kim, who also, coincidentally, does contract work for the videogame industry (my day job).

I contracted Jin to create black and white images of my characters and loved the results, but professional art, as with the other costs of indie publishing (hiring an editor, buying advertising space, booking convention flights and stays, and so on) is expensive, and unless you have a day job to support your author aspirations, paying for art can be hard to justify. So what other options do authors have?

KaraSketchBW

[Kara Honuron, as sketched by Jin Kim]

Interestingly, the ability to create unique, visually striking characters has been around for decades now – in videogames. Games going back all the way to the original Everquest and forward to the latest Mass Effect have provided detailed customization options to allow you to create your unique avatar, which is then rendered using the game’s graphic engine. These days, such images have become truly striking.

JyllithPainting

[Jyllith Malconen, as rendered in Black Desert]

This image and all the other color images in this post were made in the character creator for Black Desert, a popular MMORPG coming soon to the US. I did absolutely nothing to this image in Photoshop or anywhere else. It’s a straight screenshot from the game, and it looks stunning. Better yet, creating this required nothing more (from me) than selecting some options and tweaking some sliders.

Naturally, with a snow day on the horizon, the first thing I did with Black Desert’s character creation tool was to try to recreate, as closely as possible, the characters from my books in glorious CGI. Even in cases where I didn’t recreate Jin’s sketches precisely, I still feel like I was able to get the “feel” about right.

CrossReference

[Sketches of my characters, with similar shots of them in Black Desert]

Better yet, the CGI artwork makes so many of the more subtle details clear. Kara’s orange eyes. The fact that Tania is blind. Jyllith’s striking red hair. All of these graphical details come out far more vividly in color artwork, and this artwork is completely computer generated. Each unique avatar took maybe 20 minutes to create.

TrellPainting

[Trell, as rendered in Black Desert]

While Black Desert includes one of the most flexible and gorgeous character creators I’ve ever seen (you can currently download it here and create your own characters, absolutely free!) the concept of creating customized characters using a toolset created by programmers and artists is nothing new. With the increase in the popularity of indie publishing and the number of people publishing their own work, there’s now increased demand for quality artwork for book covers and promotion. It makes me wonder if a properly robust character creation system, generating copyright free images, could provide those.

KaraPainting

[Kara Tanner, as rendered in Black Desert]

Many computer-generated image (CGI) tools already exist, of course (3DS Max, Maya, and Poser are examples) but the barrier to entry is steep, with some (such as 3D Studio Max) costing thousands of dollars, and requiring a significant amount of artistic training before you can generate anything remotely professional looking. Worse yet, these tools require quality 3D models and textures to generate anything approaching professional looking artwork. Hopefully, this won’t offend any independent authors out there, but I can spot a “Poser cover” a mile away. These covers don’t look professional at all.

TaniaPainting

[Tania, as rendered in Black Desert]

So why haven’t character creators like this become more freely available independent of the games for which they’re designed? It seems like a no brainer – if you charged people a small fee to buy a toolset that allowed them to create character images this striking on their home computer, simply by tweaking sliders and selecting options, why aren’t there already a number of toolsets out here? It seems ideal for traditional and independent authors, roleplayers, tabletop gamers, and a huge market of nerds.

BynPainting

[Byn Meris, as rendered in Black Desert]

Better yet, since Black Desert’s character creator was released, even those who might not be dedicated gamers or roleplayers have found the fun, by recreating celebrities in the engine (as seen here) or creating truly monstrous, nightmare inducing abominations by tweaking the sliders WRONG (as seen here). People did the same with Fallout 4’s character creator and many other character tools. So why aren’t there already a dozen reasonably priced character creation tools out there for use by anyone?

ArynPainting

[Aryn Locke, as rendered in Black Desert]

The simplest answer is that, like all game design these days, creating the artwork available in these tools and the tool itself is expensive – and in fact, far more expensive than even something like 3D Studio Max, when you add up all the developer salaries. The reason these character creators are so easy to use (for us) is because dozens of artists toiled away for weeks or months to create a huge library of high quality art that’s also used in the game. Talented programmers and UI designers then created an interface that allows us to “mix and match” this art into gorgeous images, dynamically rescaling models in real time.

JairPainting

[Jair Deymartin, as rendered in Black Desert]

Sadly, as much as I would love to see a character creation suite as powerful as Black Desert’s released for general use, I just don’t think there’s enough demand for it. Traditional publishers already have the money to contract professional artists to create their book covers, and indie publishers (and others who might be interested in quality CGI artwork, like roleplayers and tabletop gamers) aren’t a big enough market to justify the development cost of such a tool, at least as a standalone software package.

As striking as these images are, using them to create book covers would almost certainly run afoul of a significant number of copyright laws, and so for the moment, as great as they might look, they’re stuck in the same realm as fan art of copyrighted stories – fine, so long as you don’t try and sell it.

Despite this, I hold out hope that one day some enterprising company or Kickstarter will take a route similar to Heroforge or other 3D printed miniature makers, creating a toolset to create truly high-quality CGI artwork to the masses. For the time being, however, we can at least continue to play in Black Desert.

And, at least unofficially, bring the characters from our heads to gorgeous CGI life.

Someone Else Got There First – Now What?

As authors, all of us draw our inspiration from somewhere. Whether it’s movies we’ve seen, books we’ve read, games we’ve played, or all three, the new stories we tell are unavoidably inspired by the stories we’ve consumed and enjoyed. Just as new artists look to established artists to hone their techniques, and musicians listen to bands they love to guide their own development, storytellers incorporate the stories they’ve consumed into new forms that draw upon and pay tribute to the originals.

Most of the time, this works just fine. Even though we might love the original Star Wars, we don’t rewrite it with the names changed. Instead, we take elements we enjoyed from Star Wars, and elements we enjoyed from Babylon 5, and elements we enjoyed from Battlestar Galactica or Robotech, and combine them with our own ideas into a new space opera of our own making. We throw the stories we’ve enjoyed into a blender and create a new story we love, with the hope others will enjoy it as well.

The author’s dilemma, of course, comes with another storyteller publishes “your” idea first.

Most books, shows, or movies are developed over a period of months or, often, years. Even finished books may languish for years unpublished, especially if the author is attempting the traditional publishing route. No matter how original an author’s idea might be, there is always the chance someone else might have the same idea or get the same inspiration … and they might publish their story first.

This has happened to me multiple times, as I’m sure it has to all of my fellow authors. Clever lines, cool ideas, or even complete scenes from something we’ve written appear in a movie, or a TV show, or another book. These fellow storytellers didn’t copy us … how could they, since our work wasn’t published at the time? … but they had the same idea, and their idea was revealed to the public first. And even though we came up with “our” idea independently, we now wonder if we should toss it aside.

For the most part, I accepted the occasional “lost” idea as the cost of being unpublished, until the day one of my friends introduced me to one of my favorite shows ever – Avatar: The Last Airbender. I loved the show at once, but as much as I enjoyed it, it also left a sinking feeling in my stomach. Why? Because it took the core elements of the magic system from my finished book (which I’d started all the way back in 1998) and half of that book’s sequel, and it made those elements even cooler than my existing idea!

At the time I first watched Avatar, my first book was in the process of being edited by a small press. I’d finally gotten a publication offer, 13 years after I started writing my book. I was stoked! Yet here, taunting me, was Avatar: The Last Airbender. Not only did it use “my” idea, but it took my idea and made it better. It took the elements of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air and, instead of making them spells, had characters summon them using martial arts. Seriously! What’s cooler than elemental martial arts?

Granted, the magic system in my first book was far from original. It was inspired by JRPGs like Final Fantasy IV (the first JRPG I ever played) which introduced the spells Fire, Ice, Tornado, and Quake. I loved the themes of elemental magic introduced in Final Fantasy and ended up building my elemental magic around a similar idea: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. I had built the magic of my world and even its deities around the elemental theme and now, after seeing Avatar, I was depressed. Every time my characters scribed elemental glyphs, they’d be compared to Firebenders, Waterbenders, Earthbenders and Airbenders. So what now? What do I do with my completed, soon to be published book?

I eventually settled on a rather mundane fix. I’d simply change the names of my deities! Rather than Fire, Water, Earth, and Air, my deities would become Heat, Life, Land, and Breath. Yes, my characters still scribed blood glyphs to summon elemental power when they fought, but at least the names of the elements were different. Problem solved, right? Sure it was … until Avatar introduced me to Toph.

By the time I was introduced by Avatar, I had written about 60% of Glyphbinder’s sequel, Demonkin, and was in the home stretch of finishing up its first draft. I was expanding my ensemble with new characters, and one of the first new characters I created was Tania, introduced for a very specific purpose.

Over the course of Glyphbinder (warning: spoilers ahead!) one of my characters, Aryn, is tortured and left blind. As a student of magic, Aryn can summon the dream world (a mental view of the world similar to vector graphics) but that’s an imperfect solution. In the sequel, I wanted to pair Aryn up with a new character who could help him overcome his blindness, and so created Tania. Another student of magic, Tania went blind naturally at a young age, and thus had plenty of time to learn how to use the dream world to replace her imperfect eyes. During the book, she would teach Aryn to “see” again. A perfect companion character!

In addition, my original cast had covered most of my existing magic disciplines. I had shown off the powers of a Lifewarden (Kara), a Bloodmender (Sera), a Beastruler (Byn), an Aerial (Jyllith), a Firebrand (Aryn) and a Soulcaller (Jair). But an Earther? I didn’t have an Earther, and, just like when my favorite comics introduced a new mutant to the X-Men, I wanted the new addition to my ensemble to have a power that was unique on the team. If you’re an Avatar fan, you know where this is going.

To fill the hole in my ensemble, I made Tania an Earther – a blind woman who uses earth-based glyphs for attack and defense – and, because my other two female characters were heroic (Kara) and shy (Sera) I decided Tania should be snarky and humorous. And then, of course, with Tania well-established as my favorite new character and my second book over 60% done, I watched Avatar … and met Toph.

Toph and Tania remained different characters – Tania is much older than Toph (24), secretly a member of an order of assassins charged with hunting Demonkin (more spoilers!), and has far different motivations than Toph does in Avatar. I wrote Tania as a combination of Aeris (from Final Fantasy VII) and Stick (from Daredevil). Yet here Tania was – my blind, confident earth-wielding mage – and I was seriously considering altering her magic discipline, even changing her entire personality, because my favorite new show, Avatar, had introduced a confident, blind character who was an Earthbender.

Fortunately, this is where I caught myself. I considered the pros and cons of rewriting or removing Tania, and the cons outweighed the pros. Tania is central to Aryn’s character arc and the window into how my magic schools, monarchy, and world at large treat Demonkin. Removing her or changing her would require significant rewriting. After a week of handwringing, I kept Tania as she was, and even though people may inevitably consider her a “copy” of Toph, I haven’t regretted it.

Looking back at what I know now, I don’t think I would have even changed the names of my deities in Glyphbinder, if I had it to do again. Plenty of stories have centered around the elements of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air before Avatar, and plenty of stories will do so after. I got worried about being labeled “derivative” rather than telling the story I wanted to tell with ideas that interested me. Yet scrapping a fully developed character, because I’d just met one very similar, was where I drew the line.

Now, had I seen Avatar before starting Demonkin, would I have built Tania’s character the way she is? Probably not. Yet I created Tania before I met Toph, and decided I shouldn’t toss her on the junk pile just because someone else had independently developed a similar character (and I ❤ Toph). Rewriting Tania didn’t feel fair to her, my story, or myself. Avatar might have gotten published first, but Tania remained my character.

As I’ve been exposed to more and more media, I’ve grown increasingly cognizant that there are no truly original ideas out there. Every story, character, and idea we might have has, in some form or another, been created somewhere by someone, even if we haven’t encountered it yet. All we can do, as authors, is tell the best stories we can while using the ideas and themes that pop into our heads. We should obsess less about whether someone uses one of “our” ideas first, and instead focus on how we, as authors, can create an original story with the ideas that excite us.

Star Wars exists. Does that mean we can never write a story with laser swords? Harry Potter exists. Does that mean we can never write a story where students learn magic at a school? Walking Dead exists. Does that mean we can never write a story where heroes fight zombies?

As an author, forcing yourself to scrap one of your cool new ideas, just because someone has the same idea and publishes it first, is silly. We all draw from the same pool of inspiration, and it’s inevitable more than one of us will sometimes end up at the same place. Storytellers tell stories, and those stories are influenced by stories that came before. We should spend less time worrying about “has someone else done this?” and instead focus on “how can I make this element unique in my story?”

So authors, keep your laser swords and your zombies and your magic schools. Keep them and write the coolest story you can with them. You don’t own that idea, but neither does anyone else. Yes, people may sometimes assume you’re copying others and call you “derivative”, but that’s not a reason to junk your best ideas. Worry less about being labeled derivative and more about telling the story you love.

The Translator (Short Story)

This was another story I first posted over at the excellent Fantasy-Faction forums, submitted for their September writing contest. The theme this time was “politics”. As always, I encourage folks to check out the site and, if my fellow authors feel like joining in, all the more fun for everyone!

In this case, I wanted to play with dialogue tags in a different way. As might be evident from the story, I’m using two “types” of dialogue tags here for a very specific purpose. I have no idea if it works as I’d hoped, but it was a fun experiment.

 

The Translator (1,500 words)

Hana Varstow steeled herself as the doors to Prelate Garil’s council hall rolled open and a stench poured out: recent slaughter mixed with too much disinfectant. Hana’s gorge hopped but she dared not show weakness, not to the Confederate Elites who flanked her, not to the exhausted Kavil militiaman barely keeping his feet, and not, above all else, to Prelate Garil herself.

The unarmed soldier accompanying Garil was a concession to the Prelate’s station. Hana had suggested it. Their war was over – for now – but a treaty had yet to be signed. This meeting would finalize that surrender or the Confederacy would resume its orbital bombardment. Many more would die.

*Please, Prelate, be seated at the head of the negotiating table,* Hana said. *It befits your station.*

The Confederacy had already taken Garil’s husband, her son, and her army, and then slaughtered her council in this very room. Executed for refusing to surrender. Hana wouldn’t take Garil’s dignity, too.

Prelate Garil sat, soldier at her side. The Elites flanking Hana shouldered their rifles and took up position by the door, sending a clear message. No one left this room without the Confederacy’s permission.

*Where is your High General?* Garil stared at the silent Elites. *Or was this simply a pretense to reunite me with my council?* There might still be blood on her chair.

*The High General has been delayed,* Hana responded in perfect kavish, skating along a lie. *He appreciates your cooperation in avoiding further bloodshed, and will arrive soon.*

*You speak our language well.* Prelate Garil’s own kavish had a lyrical lilt to it, despite the fact she’d been up for over a day, and it was obvious she was a talented speaker. *Did they enslave you, too?*

*I am a loyal citizen of the Confederacy,* Hana said, because she wouldn’t put it pass the Confederacy’s infamous ISec squads to have installed archiving devices. *We better mankind.*

*Of course you do. You were courteous enough to shoot my husband in the head.*

Hana said nothing else. The Confederacy wanted loyal city states, not bombed worlds, and both Prelate Garil and High General Tourmaline would agree to that. So long as she reminded them, often.

The militia soldier standing by Garil, a towheaded man young enough to be Hana’s son, looked dead on his feet, but pride and rage kept him standing. Last night, the Confederacy had killed all his friends.

Finally, the room rumbled as Tourmaline’s shuttle landed – twenty minutes late. Shortly afterward the High General strode into the conference room, flanked by Golden Elites, and wrinkled his nose.

“What,” Tourmaline asked, in confederese, “is that godawful smell?”

*Took your time, didn’t you?* Garil said. *Massacres to conclude?*

“High General,” Hana said in confederese, “Prelate Garil of Kavil bids you welcome. She looks forward to negotiating Kavil’s surrender and incorporation into the Confederacy.”

“Tired of getting her ass kicked, is she?”

*Prelate Garil,* Hana said, *the High General apologizes for the delay. He wanted to personally assure our ceasefire agreement carried across our fleet.*

Garil scowled. *What are a few more bombs between friends? I think we still have a few hospitals.*

“The prelate only wishes to avoid further bloodshed,” Hana translated.

“Fine,” Tourmaline said. “Tell her to get out of my seat.”

“High General,” Hana said, “I should first clarify kavish customs. In kavish society, it is the supplicant who sits, to show humility. The victor stands in judgment.”

Tourmaline glowered. “You should have mentioned that earlier.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “Fine. The bitch can sit.”

*Wants me to move, does he?* Garil asked.

*In respect for the brave kavish who fell defending your planet,* Hana said, *our High General refuses to sit in judgment upon you. He will stand for these negotiations.*

Garil raised one elegant eyebrow. *A … surprising concession.*

“What did she say?” Tourmaline demanded.

“She looks forward to your terms.”

“Good.” Tourmaline crossed his arms and leaned forward. “Concession one. She disarms her people.”

*In the interest of avoiding any further bloodshed on both sides,* Hana said, “the High General asks that all private citizens turn over their guns.*

*So you can slaughter us face to face?* Garil scowled. *This is a rough planet. My people need guns to defend themselves.*

“High General,” Hana said, “the prelate does not refuse, but she does ask that Confederacy soldiers take over the defense of the kavish wheat farms. There are hundreds outside the walls.”

“Why do I give a shit about their wheat farms?”

“Local predators may otherwise devour their wheat, leading to famine,” Hana said. “The kavish shoot those that come near, but cannot protect their farms without their weapons.”

“I’m not tasking my Elites to guard a bunch of dirt-mucking farmers!”

“Then perhaps,” Hana said, “we could allow some kavish to keep their rifles? Outside the walls only, for protection from predators?”

“Fine.” Tourmaline waved her off. “Our new taxpayers can’t pay anything if they starve to death.”

*Prelate Garil, the High General understands your concern,* Hana said. *As a compromise, the Confederacy will allow your citizens to keep their rifles, so long as they carry them for defense and only outside city walls. You must not brandish them within the city.*

*He really agreed to that?* Garil narrowed her eyes.

*He understands your citizens must protect themselves.*

Garil considered, lips pursed. *Agreed.*

Hana nodded to Tourmaline. “The prelate appreciates your understanding of her people’s need to protect their farms, and offers thanks.”

“Concession two,” Tourmaline said. “She appoints an ambassador of my choosing as Protector of Kavil.”

*The High General asks you coordinate with our ambassador to ease your government’s transition into a partnership with ours,* Hana said. *So we can both benefit from your Confederacy membership.*

*So long as I pay my taxes?* Garil asked.

*Your taxes ensure the Confederacy protects your planet from pirates and skitterships, Prelate,* Hana reminded her, *and also grants you access to medical advances and gene therapy.*

Garil rolled her eyes. *I don’t think that’s what your High General said.*

“She’s refusing?” Tourmaline asked. “Remind her I have an orbital cannon pointed at her capital.”

“High General, she only worries for the ambassador. The kavish have a complex system of government, with ancient relationships and customs that can be difficult for outsiders to grasp.”

“I don’t care what the locals get up to,” Tourmaline said. “She can handle city law. Just make sure she recognizes my ambassador runs Kavil in all global matters, including Confederacy law.”

*Our new ambassador will facilitate communication within the Confederacy*, Hana told Garil, *while you continue to handle local matters of state. Is this acceptable?*

*Another concession I hadn’t expected,* Garil almost smiled. *Very well.*

“The prelate agrees to defer to the ambassador in all matters of Confederacy law, High General, and looks forward to educating him on the more delicate matters of kavish internal affairs.”

“Poor bastard.” Tourmaline chuckled. “That’s all I have, other than the boilerplate. You have the treaties?”

“Two copies,” Hana produced them, “in confederese and kavish.”

These treaties were nearly identical to those Hana had brokered – on High General Tourmaline’s orders, of course – with the last three planets the Confederacy had conquered. The people on those planets, unlike Hana’s now dead world, remained alive and fed, if not entirely happy.

“You verified she understands it?” Tourmaline demanded.

“Yes, High General.” Hana bowed. “The Prelate understands perfectly.”

“Then tell the bitch to sign away her planet.”

*Prelate Garil,* Hana said, *the High General appreciates your cooperation. Again, he honors the sacrifice of your soldiers. If you have no further concerns, he asks that you sign the treaties now.*

*So he does.* Garil stood, eyes hard, and for a moment Hana was terrified that she had failed. Garil would die rather than surrender and, with her death, doom Kavil’s people.

*Tell your general he is a skilled negotiator.* Garil walked over and signed one treaty, then the other.

“High General,” Hana said, “the prelate thanks you for your gracious invitation to the Confederacy.”

“Whatever.” Tourmaline signed both treaties. “Get these ratified, Hana. I’m heading back up.”

Hana bowed deep. “I will see it done.”

Tourmaline left and his Elites did too. The room emptied. Hana rolled and pocketed the treaties and then bowed to Garil. *The High General wishes you long life, and hopes you will soon come to understand the benefit of living under the Confederacy’s protective wing. You are free to leave.*

“it seems I’m having dinner after all,” Garil agreed, in perfect confederese. “Care to join me?”

Hana barely hid her shock. “I’m … not sure that would be wise, Prelate. Appearances-”

“Are important,” Garil agreed. “In fact, they’re everything.” She offered a slight nod, a gesture of sincere respect from one of her station, and headed out. *Thank you. For saving my people from my rage.*

Hana looked after her and swallowed, picturing her own dead world. *It was the least I could do.*

THE END

On the Use of Dialogue Tags in Fiction

Many fiction writers, especially when they start out, soon develop a love/hate relationship with dialog tags (Bob said, Joe replied). We need them, but we worry they’re repetitive or worse, we use them in the wrong places. It’s hard to trust ourselves when writing dialogue. Will our reader know who’s speaking?

While critiquing the work of newer authors in writer’s groups, I often see authors who aren’t sure when or where to use dialog tags. Below are some common practices that often aren’t necessary.

  • The author uses dialog tags when we already know who is speaking (conversation rhythm).
  • The author uses synonyms for “said” (replied, argued, hissed) to avoid perceived repetition.
  • The author falls victim to “the burly detective” syndrome, redescribing characters to avoid repeating a character’s name, because they’re concerned about perceived repetition.
  • The author doesn’t trust the reader to understand the speaker’s emotion.

Ultimately, while these don’t necessarily make people put down a book, they do slow down how the reader experiences the book. Tags, used too often, make even good writing denser than it needs to be.

My own use (or non-use) of dialog tags evolved dramatically as I grew as an author. If you pay attention to how established authors write, you’ll notice common patterns which weren’t apparent at first glance. This is because these patterns are invisible to readers, as the foundations of clean writing should be.

Character dialogue doesn’t need dialog tags as often as we think it does. Readers and authors alike understand a few clear rules, and authors who internalize these rules can make their dialogue crisp and efficient by trusting their readers. Once you understand these rules, your dialog will improve.

Rule 1: In a two character conversation, you only need dialog tags once.

The most basic rule of dialog. Even if this is the only rule you absorb, using it dramatically streamlines your writing. When two characters begin a conversation, readers will naturally read their lines as:

Speaker A (established by “A said”)

Speaker B (established by “B said”)

Speaker A

Speaker B

After those first two lines, readers know who is speaking without dialog tags. After you establish the conversation rhythm (who speaks first, and who speaks second) they’ve got it. No repetition needed.

Below are examples of two characters (Diego and Carter) conversing over a dinner of military rations. The first example is too dense and has unneeded tags, unneeded synonyms, and falls victim to “the burly detective” syndrome. It also doesn’t trust the reader to understand the emotions of the characters. The second example removes these issues, presenting the same scene efficiently.

Example 1 (Dense)

1              “We need more mass,” Carter said. He chewed. They both knew what that meant.

2              Diego saw no other options. “I’ll tell the crew.”

3              Diego’s executive offer shook his head. “They’ll mutiny, cap.”

4              “They won’t,” Diego assured him. “We owe them the truth.”

5              Carter scoffed. “At the cost of Ariadne?”

6              “I’m not feeding anyone to this ship without explaining why,” Diego said. “I’ll lead by example.”

Example 2 (Crisp)

1              “We need more mass.” Carter chewed. They both knew what that meant.

2              Diego saw no other options. “I’ll tell the crew.”

3              “They’ll mutiny, cap.”

4              “They won’t. We owe them the truth.”

5              “At the cost of Ariadne?”

6              “I’m not feeding anyone to this ship without explaining why. I’ll lead by example.”

Now, let’s highlight what improved the second version, line by line.

Line 1 – Removed “Carter said”. We see Carter chewing right after that, so we know he’s Speaker A.

Line 2 – No changes. This line establishes Speaker B is Diego, and provides an important plot detail.

Line 3 – Removed “Diego’s executive officer” (an attempt to avoid repeating “Carter” by redescribing him, ala “the burly detective”). We also removed “shook his head”. It is clear Carter is disagreeing with Diego from the context of the dialogue. No need to repeat, and it slows down the conversation.

Line 4 – Removed “Diego assured him”. Carter started the Convo on Line 1 (Speaker A) and Diego answered on Line 2 (Speaker B). This is Line 4, so we know this is Speaker B, Diego, because we’re following the conversation rhythm. We also know Diego is assuring Carter there won’t be a mutiny simply from the context provided by the dialog. No need to spell that out for the reader.

Line 5 – Removed “Carter scoffed”. Line 5 must be a Carter line. Also, it’s clear that Carter is questioning Diego’s statement from the context. His scoff is implied and slows down the conversation.

Line 6 – Removed “Diego said”. We know Line 6 is Diego due to conversation rhythm.

Rule 2: Use a new dialogue tag when a new character enters a conversation, or when one of the two people conversing is replaced by another character, so who is speaking remains clear.

This is a bit more complicated, but it boils down to ensuring your reader knows when a new character chimes in, and doing it as quickly as possible. “He said” is invisible. You notice it, but your readers won’t – except when they aren’t sure who is speaking. Below, examples of a multi-person conversation.

Dense
1              Woo had already figured it out. Mainard looked like he was going to blow chunks, but he didn’t. Laster was oddly introspective about the whole thing.

2              “But, a human … a body, I mean.” Laster blinked. “How many burns do we even get?”

3              “Eight to ten,” Woo said.

4              “You said we needed thirty,” Laster protested.

5              “Learn to multiply,” Woo replied.

6              “Enough,” Diego interrupted, ending their argument. He held out the straws.

Crisp

1              Woo had already figured it out. Mainard looked like he was going to blow chunks, but he didn’t. Laster was oddly introspective about the whole thing.

2              “But, a human … a body, I mean. How many burns do we even get?”

3              “Eight to ten,” Woo said.

4              “You said we needed thirty.”

5              “Learn to multiply.”

6              “Enough.” Diego held out the straws.

Now, let’s highlight what improved the second version, line by line.

Line 1 – No change. We’re establishing that this is a scene with multiple characters: Laster, Woo, Mainard, and Diego (mentioned earlier in the story, in a line I haven’t included for brevity).

Line 2 – Removed “Laster blinked”. Laster is the last person we described in Line 1, where we said “Laster was oddly introspective about the whole thing”. Readers automatically assume Line 2 is Laster speaking, because Line 1 talked about Laster being introspective. An easy way to remove a dialog tag!

Line 3 – No change. This is Woo’s first line in the conversation, so we have to use a dialog tag to keep things clear. But we use “said” which is invisible. Woo is established as Speaker B clean and quick.

Line 4 – Removed “Laster protested”. Conversation rhythm at Line 2 established Laster as Speaker A, and Line 3 established Woo as Speaker B. This is line 4, Laster, and we know he’s protesting from context.

Line 5 – Removed “Woo replied”. Conversation rhythm establishes this as Woo, and we already know he’s replying.

Line 6 – We need a Diego tag here, since he’s a new speaker. But we don’t need “Diego interrupted, ending their argument”. That’s all clear from context. All we need is “Diego” (to name the new speaker entering the conversation) and what he does afterward… “held out the straws”.

Rule 3: Anytime you use an exclamation mark, a character is either talking very loud or shouting.

This is a fun one, because it’s such an easy way to remove dialog tags. Basically, you almost never need the words “she shouted” or “he exclaimed”. It’s clear to readers simply from the “!”. Below, an example.

We’ve established three characters, Kara, Byn, and Sera. Byn just picked Sera up, surprising Kara.

Dense

1          “I caught a mermaid!” Byn exclaimed. He laughed as he fixed Kara with playful brown eyes. “Can we keep her?”

2          “Drown me, Byn!” Kara shouted. She shoved him and he stumbled back, Sera eeping as he nearly dropped her. “You put that poor girl down.”

Crisp

1          “I caught a mermaid!” Byn laughed as he fixed Kara with playful brown eyes. “Can we keep her?”

2          “Drown me, Byn!” Kara shoved him and he stumbled back, Sera eeping as he nearly dropped her. “You put that poor girl down.”

Now, let’s highlight what improved the second version, line by line.

Line 1 – We removed “Byn exclaimed”. We know Byn’s talking loudly from the “!”.

Line 2 – We removed “Kara shouted”. We know Kara is shouting from the “!”, and it actually slows down the scene to put an unnecessary “Kara shouted” before she shoves Byn. The reader “sees” the shove happen more immediately if we get “Kara shouted” out of their way.

Wrapping Up

These rules are not absolutes. There are great reasons to not do the things these rules suggest – word rhythm, injecting humor or visuals, if the character’s emotion actually isn’t clear from the context – but if you internalize these rules, you’ll have a better understanding of when to break them.

Writing credits: For this article, I used samples from my own writing because I knew I wouldn’t sue myself over copyright. The first two examples are from “Hitting the Arch”, my submission to Fantasy-Faction’s August writing contest for “space opera”. The second is from my first book, Glyphbinder.

Utimately, everyone has their own writing style. Your writing ultimately has to “feel right” to you. But internalizing these rules is a great way to streamline your dialogue.

Thoughts on Self-Publishing: Videogames vs Books (Part 3)

Why the Self-Publishing Stigma Needs to Go Away

In my first post on this subject, I laid out how professionals in the videogame industry and those in the book industry perceive self-publishing very differently. In my second post, I offered my theories as to why this is the case. In my final post on this topic, I’ll talk about why this stigma needs to end.

Based on my experience, I don’t think the stigma attached to self-publishing serves authors of any group, traditionally published or independent. The most unfortunate thing about the way many veterans of the book industry perceive self-publishing (as opposed to those in the game industry) is how this stigma artificially divides authors who are traditionally published from those who self-publish. Instead of curating and molding future talent, as we do in the game industry, those who look down on self-published books are discouraging and deriding their next batch of great authors. Their new blood.

Even worse, some in traditional publishing still view self-publishing as a black mark on an author’s career. Why? The author completed a manuscript, which many writers will tell you is an accomplishment all on its own. They worked with an editor and incorporated feedback. They solicited advance readers and incorporated even more feedback. They polished their book until it was ready and released it, gaining valuable experience that will make their next book even better.

After an indie game developer successfully releases a game, traditional publishers in the game industry are more likely to hire them, not less. The developer has proven they can develop a game from scratch, complete it (no easy feat), and release a quality product. They’ve proved they can do the job.

How the Self-Publishing Stigma Unnecessarily Divides Authors

For the most part, authors support each other. I’ve met a number of authors from both camps, and we all get along great. In private, however, I’ve had authors who were traditionally published warn me in no uncertain terms to stay away from self-publishing (because it’s “vanity press”), and had self-published authors tell me repeatedly that it’s foolish to give away money and creative freedom to a traditional publisher when you don’t need them to sell a book. Both of these statements are incorrect.

Publishing a book with a traditional press will always have advantages over publishing it yourself, just as publishing a videogame through a big publisher will always have advantages over putting it out yourself. Traditional presses have marketing budgets, teams of people to promote your book, and the apparatus to get your book widely read, reviewed, and talked about. You don’t have to hire an editor, pay a cover artist, or do your layout yourself – they do all that for you, and they pay you while they do it! If you can publish through a traditional press, you’re (almost always) better off doing so.

Yet this doesn’t mean authors should consider self-publishing forbidden. Perhaps their book tackles a subject a big press refuses to touch, or presents its narrative in an experimental way a big press doesn’t deem safe. Perhaps they are already a great marketer and promoter, or know people who are, and are confident they can sell their own book. Perhaps their book is a reprint and they’ve regained the rights, yet no big press wants to republish it. There’s any number of reasons self-publishing might be the perfect distribution route for them. Saying they should never do it and deriding those who do is wrong.

Ultimately, both the author who advised me never to self-publish and the author who advised me to always go it alone are great folks – personable, approachable, and generous enough to spend their time offering a new author career advice. They meant well. Even so, knowing what I’ve learned about both publishing routes in the past few years, I think I would have been better served had both of them explained the benefits and drawbacks of all publishing options. Educating me so I could decide which publishing method would work best for me and my book. Just like we do in game development.

Final Thoughts

A game developer is a game developer – a person who makes games. An author is an author – a person who writes books. How those games or books are published should not matter and no longer does, in today’s market with today’s technology. Only the quality of the final product should have any bearing on its reception. If an author has the experience, is willing to do the work, and knows how to wisely invest limited capital, their self-published book can equal any traditionally published book out there.

A strong bias toward traditional publishing made sense twenty years ago, when it was literally the only way to print, distribute, and market a quality book. Yet those old barriers are gone now, blown away by print-on-demand services and e-readers. Only one thing remains the same. Readers want quality books. But they no longer care who publishes their books – only that the quality is there.

Just like in the game industry, if an author creates a quality book on their own, we should congratulate them on their accomplishment, not deride them as “vanity press”. This is how the videogame industry has always worked, and we’re much better for it. The traditional publishing industry could learn from our example. By embracing self-publishing instead of deriding it, and educating authors on how to do it right, they can create a wider market with even more great books and talented authors than now exist.

Self-publishing isn’t going to destroy traditional publishing any more than indie game publishing has destroyed big game publishers. These publishing routes complement each other, with self-publishing providing a route for books that big publishers otherwise wouldn’t have space to publish, and a way for new authors to learn, grow, and gain experience. The more great books and unique voices releasing quality books, the more readers we’ll attract. The more readers we attract, the more people buying and enjoying books – which is great for every author out there.

The book industry needs to move into the present and view self-publishing as the game industry views it – as one of several equally valid paths a creator can take their quality product to publication. No stigma attached. Experienced authors should ensure that new authors know all their options and choose the option that works best for them and their book. All publishing professionals, traditional or independent, should focus on ensuring every new author has the knowledge to produce their best work and chooses the best method to distribute that work. How they publish it shouldn’t matter.