The Gunslinger and Character Backstory

The Gunslinger

When writing characters, where do you start? Maybe a name, or a physical description, or some basic personality traits. Before long you’ll probably wonder how your character got the way he or she is now. Which is why it’s important for the story to start before it actually starts, if you get my meaning. That means character backstory.

Take, for example, Roland Deschain from Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. He’s a sombre, soft-spoken, mysterious type, and you probably would be too if you had a childhood like his—Roland’s mom was sleeping with his dad’s top advisor, for god’s sake. In fact, Roland’s past is so important to his present that we need to see it up close and personal. That means backstory.

But offering details on a character’s background is tricky. Constant flashbacks interrupt the flow of a progressing story, and dropping little details into the narrative can sometimes come across as expository. For example, Character A says, “Remember when you had more fingers?” Character B frowns and says, “Sure. I’ll never look at blenders the same way again.”

Of course these characters remember that moment. In fact, the only thing a writer does by including this exchange is tell reader exactly what’s going on. Which is about as subtle as a slap to the face.

King, however, handles the backstory of The Gunslinger perfectly. It’s a novel that’s very much about the past, a novel where each character is shaped and motivated by events which happened long before. These events are so important, in fact, that it won’t suffice to reference them through dialogue or brief description. So here’s what King does, and does very well: He references characters we’ve never met before, then explains who those characters are in subsequent flashbacks.

For example, a boy from New York City named Jake Chambers suddenly appears in the Roland’s world without explanation. Jake tells Roland that he can’t remember anything about how he got there, so we’re left to wonder. That, however, would be quite the fraying loose end. So King gives us a brief flashback.

Fortunately, it’s not just a flashback for the sake of a flashback. We learn two very important details from it: One, that Jake died before coming to the gunslinger’s world, and that is perhaps why he’s there. And two, that Jake was somehow sent there by the man in black, who is the gunslinger’s arch nemesis (excuse the lack of actual names—it’s all about the mystery, baby).

I’m drawn to this aspect of King’s novel because I struggle a lot with character backstory in my writing. It’s hard to know what to give and when to give it, but it’s a skill that can be developed through practice and careful study of the pros.


Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York with his fiancee and their two cats. His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. To stay current with Kyle’s work, subscribe to his email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.

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The Question of Simplistic Morals in Epic Fantasy

What’s one of the key differences between J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire?

Nope, I don’t mean the treatment of dragons. I’m not thinking of dwarves. And no, I’m not referring to uses of the word “fucking.” I think the key difference between these two giants of the genre is their treatment of morals.

The Lord of the Rings has clearly defined sides: The Fellowship is good. Sauron is evil. Though some characters switch sides (most notably Saruman), it’s mostly obvious who you should root for and against. A Song of Ice and Fire is far less clear. The series was more or less written in response to LOTR, and one can see how: The characters in this series are morally dynamic, all of them ending up somewhere in the middle.

I’ve heard a lot of readers suggest George R.R. Martin’s approach is the better one. ASOIAF is more realistic, making Tolkien’s LOTR simplistic by comparison.

Yes, I agree. Lord of the Rings’s morals are simplistic. But I don’t think simplistic morals make for a worse story. Quite the opposite, actually.

Listen, I love both of these series. I ranked them in the top two of my fantasy power rankings. But I think there’s something to be said for Tolkien’s clearly-defined good and evil.

First of all, fiction is often about wish fulfillment. One of the most satisfying elements of a story is seeing an event reconcile itself within a truncated timeframe. Oftentimes, these are huge problems which realistically can’t be solved, at least not in the way presented. For example: a character reconciles the death of a loved one. Though this process would likely take years, fiction allows us to view this process within a few hundred pages. Wish granted.

Let’s bring this conversation back to Lord of the Rings. The wish fulfilled by the end of the novel is that all evil is vanquished. The One Ring melts into the lava, and boom. World saved. That’s a wish everyone can get behind.

Of course, we’ll likely never see a reality without evil. But fiction need not reflect the possible. Rather, it’s satisfying because it shows the impossible coming to life.

While I love A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s all too often a reminder of the world’s nastiness. If that’s what you’re into, I can see why you love it. I love it, too. But since the world is already a place filled with atrocities and death and violence, sometimes it’s nice to get away from all that in a book, rather than be reminded of it.

Sometimes the very best fiction is transportive rather than reflective. When we step into Middle-Earth, we can’t help but feel that we are elsewhere. We’re in a world where there are good people who fight for justice, where the seemingly insignificant become heroes. We get a little bit of that in Westeros, but mostly we get Red Weddings. Listen, I’m getting married soon. I don’t want to read about Red Weddings right now.

So yes, The Lord of the Rings is kind of simplistic. But sometimes, that’s what we need most.


Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York with his fiancee and their two cats. His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. To stay current with Kyle’s work, subscribe to his email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.

Why You Should Be Reading Flash Fiction

Ernest Hemingway

Just like the name implies, flash fiction is short enough to read in an instant. But if you’re not reading it, here’s why you should be.

Opinions vary on how long flash fiction should be. Some markets say 300 words max, some say 500, others say 1,000. Whatever the case may be, flash fiction has to be really short—which is not to say incomplete. Rather, many flash pieces still have the elements of traditional literature (character, plot, conflict, setting), only they’re condensed. Think of them like shorter short stories.

The form has existed for quite a while, though it wasn’t known as “flash fiction” until 1992, when James Thomas, Denise Thomas, and Tom Hazuka published their anthology Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short StoriesDespite the its relative mainstream obscurity, many high-profile authors have written flash fiction, including Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Joyce Carol Oats, Ernest Hemingway, and H.P. Lovecraft.

In many ways, flash fiction bears a strong resemblance to poetry. Some of my favorite flash pieces create a mood or feeling instead of focusing on narrative, just as some poems do. Others feature complete stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. It’s a flexible form.

Thanks to the internet, flash fiction’s popularity has only grown. There are numerous online magazines devoted solely to flash fiction, and quite a few popular markets that publish flash from time to time. Just to name a few: Apex MagazineBeneath Ceaseless Skies, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Onlineand NANO Fiction.

If you’d like to challenge yourself as a writer, flash is a great way to do it. It might sound easy to write 500 words, but when you sit down and think about all the components of a good story, it can be difficult to cram everything in.

Furthermore, with such limited space to work with, your language must be razor sharp. In general, readers are far more forgiving of bland language in long-form narratives. It’s easy to skip a poorly-written section of a novel. But when a piece only lasts about a page or two, that poor writing sticks out like a fly in your drink.

Flash fiction is a unique form which will, in my opinion, only grow in popularity in the future. Word counts are shrinking, attention spans are decreasing, and concision is becoming more and more essential. Try some flash fiction and see if you agree!


Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York with his fiancee and their two cats. His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. To stay current with Kyle’s work, subscribe to his email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.

5 Best Fantasy Book Series

I love fantasy books. I read them, I write them, and on days like today, I blog about them. I think the title of this post says all it needs to, so let’s get into it.

5. The First Law by Joe Abercrombie

Image from Wikipedia

Of all the series on this list, The First Law might be the one you’re least familiar with. A brief synopsis: Logen Ninefingers, a barbarian of the frozen North, teams up with cheery torturer Sand dan Glokta and arrogant nobleman Jazal dan Luthar to serve the great wizard Bayaz. Thing is, Bayaz might not be exactly what any of them are expecting.

This series intentionally subverts about as many common fantasy tropes as possible. Abercrombie especially enjoys drawing murky lines between the good guys and the bad. What results is a series populated with oodles of complex, compelling characters.

Also, this series is actually pretty darn funny (in a Fargo sort of way). For example, in Glokta’s first chapter, he’s constantly interrupted by various parties while trying to torture a dude. He’s even scolded by the head of his department for recklessness, which might remind folks of classic bureaucratic nonsense that accompanies many jobs. This dark humor is a refreshing addition to a genre that can at times take itself too seriously.

4. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Image from Book Haven

There’s a reason everyone loves this series, and it’s not just because of Alan Rickman. Harry Potter has an astounding cast of interesting characters, sharp plotting, and a satisfying series arc.

One of the series’s greatest strengths is its academic setting. Since many readers are currently or have been enrolled in school themselves, it’s easy to relate to Harry. Sure, maybe you haven’t competed in a life-threatening Triwizard Tournament. But you’ve likely gotten pretty stressed about an upcoming test (even if it wasn’t to become an Auror).

3. The Dark Tower by Stephen King

Image from Amazon

Some might debate whether or not The Dark Tower is fantasy, but this is my list and you can’t stop me.

(Full disclosure: I haven’t actually finished this series; I’m currently on book four. But see above note about this being my list and all.)

Set in a desolate desert landscape, The Dark Tower chronicles the adventures of Roland Deschain, the last living gunslinger from an extinct line. He’s the archetypical man with no name who wanders the land in search of the Dark Tower, the point at which all worlds converge.

This multi-world theme is the coolest aspect of the series. From page one, you’ll notice  many elements of Roland’s world correspond with our own. For example, a saloon piano player plays a song you might know: “Let It Be.” And yet in Roland’s world, it’s just a folk standard—no one’s ever heard of The Beatles.

Another thing: alternate realities. When a particular character dies (no spoilers) the series timeline splits. This creates a paradox in which two realities exist simultaneously. Which kind of drives people nuts. So cool.

For fans of Stephen King, there’s even more to love. That’s because this series is packed with easter eggs from all his other novels. You’ll notice little references to many of his other famous novels, including ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and It.

2. A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin

Image from winteriscoming.net

Expecting this at number one? Listen, this ranking thing is tough. Don’t be too hard on me!

I’m sure you’ve seen HBO’s wildly popular adaptation, but I’ll give you a synopsis anyway: The kingdom of Westeros is in turmoil. Royal families all vie for control of the Iron Throne. Lots of sex and bad language.

This series is sick. Martin writes some of the all-time most memorable characters in fantasy, and dare I say, even literature itself. The plot is entirely character driven, and each event is propelled forth with excitement and intrigue. Plus, anyone can die at any moment, which gives the series a very real sense of menace.

Martin’s series has redefined modern fantasy. He’s been hugely successful at eschewing the clear morals and idyllic landscapes of The Lord of the Rings in favor of grittiness and brutality. It can be exceedingly grim at times, but it also leads to some really compelling reading.

It’s amazing how Martin seeds events in early volumes which don’t come to fruition until two or even three volumes later. There are literally entire message boards composed of fan theories about what’s happening and what’s going to happen. Amazing stuff. And people wonder why it takes him so long to write these things.

1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Image from Adazing

Yup, it’s still the GOAT. The Lord of the Rings is the foundational text of modern epic fantasy literature.

As with these other series, The Lord of the Rings features a huge cast of endearing characters. Though they’re not as diverse or distinct as those in say, Song of Ice and Fire, Tolkien’s creations still stand the test of time. Each has interesting dramatic conflict and each plays an important role in the story. Plus, I’d argue that some of Tolkien’s greatest characters, such as Gandalf, Gollum, and Samwise Gamgee, have entered into literature’s all time greatest.

The setting is also magnificent. Middle-Earth is perhaps one of the most well-realized worlds ever put onto paper. Each structure has history; every location has a story; every other page has a song. Okay, I might be exaggerating with that last one, but still. Whether or not you love the pages and pages of wandering through the setting, it’s difficult to deny the depth of imagination here.

And how about the languages? Countless post-Tolkien fantasy authors have created alternate languages, yet it’s obvious that theirs have little basis in linguistics. Remember, Tolkien himself was a professor of language. In fact, some have speculated that he wrote LOTR more or less as an excuse to create his own languages. Therefore, the words in his works have real depth. There’s a functioning system behind these names—not just someone making up words that sound exotic.

No, The Lord of the Rings is not a perfect series. There’s a glaring shortage of female characters. The treatment of ethnicity and race can be troubling at times. We’re not talking about H.P. Lovecraft here, though I do feel that some elements of the book have not aged well into our modern world.

No, it isn’t perfect. But I still believe this trilogy is the foundational text for epic fantasy literature. There’s tons to enjoy and tons to love.

Okay, that’s my list. What do you think? What did I get wrong? What did I forget? What would you leave off entirely? Usually I hate ending blog posts with a call to comment, but really. Comment on this one. I want to hear from you!


Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York with his fiancee and their two cats. His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. To stay current with Kyle’s work, subscribe to his email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.

Working With Beta Readers

You’ve finished your manuscript. You’ve read it over countless times. You’re ready to share it. Time to sound the Horn of Gondor and call to the world, “Beta readers, assemble!”

…Or not. This isn’t Lord of the Rings or anything. Getting beta readers is a challenge, yes, but it’s one you can achieve (and you don’t have to be a Gondorian ruler to do it). Here are some steps you might want to try.

1. Find Your Readers

This step is simpler than some might think. Just gather a mix of viewpoints: writers and non-writers, readers and non-readers, genre fans and non-genre fans. Gathering a variety of opinions helps you cast a wide net over any potential issues. And that, of course, is the whole point of the exercise.

For my recently completed novella manuscript (which I hope to have published soon, so stay tuned), I asked pretty much everyone I know. That included my fiancee, my parents, and most of my writer’s group. Don’t stress out over who you ask and don’t ask. Just get as many people as you can.

2. Ask Specific Questions

Offering actionable feedback is already tricky. Offering actionable feedback on an entire manuscript? Now that’s a tall order. So do your beta readers a solid and include guiding questions.

Some examples: Does the protagonist have a satisfying character arc? Does the setting feel authentic? What do you think of the dialogue between characters A and B in chapter four? I find it works best to include these at the end of the manuscript rather than upfront, just so I don’t shape readers’ opinions too much. However, where you place your questions is completely up to you.

Likewise, it’s helpful to mention what you’re not looking for as well. For example, one member of my writer’s group sometimes mentions when he’s not going to make huge structural changes. Feel free to do the same. If you love your story the way it is and aren’t going to change that shocking plot twist, let folks know ahead of time. It’ll save them (and you) the added effort.

3. Collect Your Comments

This one takes a while. I’ve done it on a smaller scale for short stories, though not yet for my novella, since I’m still waiting to hear back from everyone. That said, you don’t necessarily need complete feedback before starting this step. For example, one of my beta readers mentioned that Cadillacs don’t have hubcaps. In my novella, I make specific mention to a Cadillac with a hubcap. I don’t need further input on that one.

Important: You don’t need to make every change your beta readers suggest. Ponder their comments. If you agree with them, then make the changes. If you like things the way they are, kindly ignore those suggestions. Be careful, though. If you love your character’s elongated opening monologue yet every single beta reader hates it, you might have a legitimate problem.

Ultimately, this is your story and you’re putting in the work. Do what you think is best.

4. Make the Changes!

Once you know what changes you’re going to make, make them! This part can take a long time, but it’s certainly worth it. Also, remember that this is one of the last steps before sending your story to editors, agents, or what have you. How cool is that?

5. Pat Yourself (and Your Beta Readers) on the Back

Make sure to thank everyone who offered feedback. Enjoy your sweet new draft!

Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York. His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. To stay current with Kyle’s work, subscribe to his email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.

Raising the Stakes

There’s a reason preseason football games are dull, and it’s not just because we’re compelled to watch backups play for an entire half (sorry backups). It’s because they have no stakes.

Now consider the Super Bowl, a game which has the highest stakes in American professional sports. Winning that game means everything. Losing it could be the biggest disappointment in an otherwise outstanding career. (The Super Bowl is also made greater by the weird Doritos commercials, but that’s neither here nor there.)

As writers, we should write stories about the Super Bowl, not the preseason. That’s because stories are often at their best when everything’s on the line. The question is, how do we do it?

Let’s start with The Fellowship of the Ring. The story begins without any stakes (unless you’re particularly concerned about the success of Bilbo’s birthday party). However, we soon discover that Bilbo’s magic ring is actually the One Ring, the most evil artifact in Middle-Earth. Now we understand the stakes: If Sauron gets his Ring back, Middle-Earth is screwed. And when Frodo volunteers to take the Ring, he raises the stakes even further. That’s because at this point, we like Frodo. If he fails, he dies, and then we’re very sad.

Takeaway: Raise the stakes incrementally. Each successive event should provide more to lose and more to gain.

The trick is learning to raise the stakes by showing rather than telling. For example, imagine a character in a book says, “Dude. The stakes have never been greater.” No no no. Too heavy handed.

What’s a good way to suggest stakes rather than outright say them? Kill some characters. The great J.K. Rowling did so zealously in Harry Potterstarting with The Goblet of Fire. When Cedric Diggory died in this book, the stakes were clear: If you mess with Voldemort, you die. Such stakes had never before existed in the series.

It’s difficult, but raising the stakes can breathe new life into our stories. I’m still working on it. I think it helps to ask yourself some questions before sitting down to write. For example: What does my character’s quest mean to him or her? What happens if my character fails? What’s motivating my character to succeed?

We want to show the answers to these questions without telling. If readers have a clear picture of the stakes in their minds, they’ll better understand the gravity of every situation.

So let’s skip the preseason and play for the Super Bowl. Raise those stakes!

Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living in New York (upstate, not the city). His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. To stay current with Kyle’s work, subscribe to his monthly email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.

Writers, Don’t Defend Your Characters

Defense

Get it?

“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready.’” – David Mitchell

I’ve begun to notice that I’m doing something I really shouldn’t be doing. When people tell me they don’t like my characters, I get defensive.

I’m going to give myself a bit of a pass on this one, because it’s an instinct a lot of writers share. Despite the fact that they’re fictional, we can’t help but grow to like our characters. We spend a lot of time making them who they are, making them feel organic, and getting to know them.

So if someone says something like, “I think this character’s a jerk,” of course you’re going to defend your character! But if you’re looking for honest feedback, this isn’t the way to get it.

Cue the long-winded personal anecdote. Ahem.

Last week, I presented a flash fiction piece to my writers’ group. It was a story about a guy named Bartrum who starts undergoing some pretty radical changes, but would rather not think about it. Here’s a snippet:

“…Bartrum’s face seemed to be drooping. Which, in and of itself, wasn’t all that surprising; his face had been drooping for the past five years or so, as faces invariably do when they grow older. But this was a little more dramatic—in fact, when he’d gone into town to buy some eggs that morning, people stopped and stared at him. When he glanced in the mirror in the bathroom in the grocery store he understood why: his chin now ended in a flabby disc somewhere near his belly button. It looked like someone had grabbed hold of the skin and given it a good yank.

Hmm. Now when had that happened?”

And then, the next sentence:

“Bartrum thought he should probably be concerned, but mostly he chalked it up to old age and went on with his day.”

When it came time to critique, my fellow group members were pretty much unanimous: They didn’t see how they were supposed to identify with a guy who’s pretty much melting, yet does nothing about it.

My first instinct was to disagree, because I happen to find Bartrum hilarious. After all, I’ve known a lot of people (myself included) who would rather walk around with prolapsed chin flab than pay a hospital bill. At that moment, I really wanted to defend Bartrum.

I’m glad I didn’t. Because when you start arguing with those who are trying to help you improve your work, it kills conversation. When you act like your characters are real people, the actual real people around you are less inclined to be honest with you. That doesn’t help you improve your characters. And isn’t that why you’re there in the first place?

So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to accept that not everyone likes the same things we like. We’re going to understand that just because someone doesn’t like our character, that doesn’t mean the character is poorly written. And we’re also going to consider the fact that our character, in all likelihood, needs some work.

Sounds good? I’m ready when you are.

Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living in New York (upstate, not the city). His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Five on the Fifth, and Dark Fire Fiction. To read more of Kyle’s work, subscribe to his monthly email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.

Setting Writing Resolutions for 2018

Writing

It’s tough getting anywhere without first setting a destination. And with 2018 on the horizon, now’s a great time for us writers to think about where we want to go in the new year. Here are some goal-setting tips that have worked for me. Hope they do the same for you!

Identify the Steps to Your Destination

Define everything between your current location and your ultimate destination. For example, my goal for this year is to publish my first novel. I’ve outlined my steps as follows:

  1. Complete a first draft.
  2. Delude myself into thinking I got everything right on the first try.
  3. Get realistic and re-read the draft. Make tons of edits.
  4. Share the draft with beta readers.
  5. Make more edits.
  6. Repeat step five.
  7. Repeat step five again.
  8. Publish.

I’m on step four with my current manuscript, which is farther than I’ve got with anything. There’s still lots to go, but I’m more confident in my process now that I’ve broken things down.

Try doing the same. No one jumps from step one to step eight without accomplishing everything in between.

Be Realistic With Your Goals

To paraphrase Freddie Mercury, sometimes we want it all, and we want it now. This mentality tends to produce unrealistic goals, which can be damaging to our fragile egos.

For example, let’s say my goal for 2018 is to publish not one novel, but three. I haven’t published any, so what makes me think I can do three in twelve months? Seems unrealistic.

Bottom line: Don’t set goals for yourself that you can’t achieve. This leads to frustration and a false notion that you aren’t doing enough. Set your goals high, but don’t commit to the impossible.

Don’t Get Competitive

Confession: Magic: The Gathering has made me competitive. So when the talented people in my writer’s group do something awesome, I secretly want to do the same.

When setting your writing goals for 2018, be introspective. Commit to your goals based on what you can do, not what others around you are doing. Just because Stephen King publishes two novels a year doesn’t mean you need to do the same. Your writing is about you, and no one else.

I hope these thoughts will help develop your writing goals for 2018. Enjoy your year!

Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living in New York (upstate, not the city). His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Five on the Fifth, and Dark Fire Fiction. To read more of Kyle’s work, subscribe to his monthly email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.

My Favorite Books of 2017

With 2017 in the rear-view and 2018 on the horizon, I figure now’s as good a time as any to share with you my favorite books I read this past year. Hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

From Amazon

David Foster Wallace was an excellent writer and a really brilliant guy. Though his life was cut tragically short, we’re fortunate enough to still have his writing. If you’d like to get acquainted with that writing, consider Consider the Lobster.

This collection includes essays and articles on a variety of subjects, including the Maine Lobster Festival, crappy sports biographies, pornography, and why John Updike was a bonafide narcissist. Plus, Wallace writes about 40 pages on English language style guides, which is itself an impressive feat.

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

From Amazon

This book is almost sixty years old, so I’m not exactly telling anyone anything new by saying that it’s good. But The Sirens of Titan represents Vonnegut at the top of his game, as far as I’m concerned. He blends social commentary, religion, war, and politics all into one, with his trademark humor and wit to match. My favorite line from this book: “Theology: Someone created the universe for some reason.”

The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King

From Amazon

I don’t read a lot of series these days, but I’ll make an exception for The Dark Tower. As the second entry in the series, this is a really beautiful continuation of an outstanding start. The originality and sheer weirdness of the book are excellent, as are the plot and characters. Though it’s a somewhat lengthy book at 400 pages, it goes fast.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

From Amazon

Prior to this novel, the only other Margaret Atwood I’d read was Negotiating with the Dead. I didn’t particularly care for that one, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Oryx and Crake. I loved it.

This is a book about a guy named Snowman, who lives in a withered version of the world without many humans or resources. The narrative shifts back and forth between Snowman’s present and past, showing how he and the world became what they are now.

A word of warning: once you read this book and find out what “ChickieNobs” are, you’re unlikely to ever eat at KFC again.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

From Amazon

Another book about a post-civilization future, though it’s more likely you’ve heard of this one before. Station Eleven has gotten a lot of national attention, and for good reason.

After disease tears through the human population, an acting troupe travels the world performing Shakespeare’s plays. That’s just the main plot, though. In a wider sense, this book is about legacy, religion, art, and survival.

The author, Emily St. John Mandel, does some fancy footwork with the narrative by flipping back and forth in time. While it takes a while to get used to, I loved this style because one sees how the characters connect, how certain artifacts got into the hands of others, and more. Very neat story.

If you’re looking for books to read in the new year, I recommend these. Have a wonderful 2018!

Praise or Honest Feedback: Which Are You Asking For?

I’ve got a story for you. It goes like this:

The other day, I asked my fiancee for feedback on my writing. This is not unusual; she always offers great thoughts on how to improve my work. This time, I gave her a piece about a creepy painting (the final version of which you can read here).

My fiancee had a lot of thoughts on the piece. After a while I found myself disputing them. When she said the characters felt flat, I said that was intentional. When she said she wanted something creepier, I argued it was creepy enough.

I stepped away from this experience wondering why I did what I did. If I wanted honest feedback, why then did I disagree with it when I got it?

Here’s my theory: though I asked for it, honest feedback wasn’t what I was looking for. I actually wanted praise. I wanted someone to tell me my story was good.

The more I think about it, the more I realize this is not all that uncommon. Take members of my writer’s group, for example. Some members have received honest feedback at meetings, then haven’t come back again. These folks also didn’t note any of the feedback they got. Which makes me think they weren’t actually looking for constructive criticism. They wanted someone to tell them their writing was good.

I think we all do this to some extent, whether or not we realize it. When we share our work, it’s because we hope others will derive some enjoyment from it. (Otherwise, why share it?) Some part of us wants to hear that our readers like our writing.

So then, is it wrong to seek praise? I don’t think so. For writers, praise is essential. Praise validates what we’re doing. In my aforementioned writer’s group, for example, we always start critiques by stating everything we like about the piece under review. It’s arguably the most important part of the whole process.

If you feel upset when you receive people’s honest feedback, it might be because you’re unconsciously hoping for praise. So when you solicit feedback, be upfront about what you’re looking for, both with the reviewer and yourself. If you want to know what people like about a story, ask them. Don’t ask for honest, constructive criticism unless you really mean it.

And remember: Everyone needs praise, but praise on its own won’t make your writing better. Criticism will. When you’re ready, make sure to ask specifically for both praise and criticism. “What did you like about this piece?” “How do you think I can improve it?”

Whether it’s praise or honest feedback, communicate exactly what you’re looking for. And either way, don’t forget to have fun!