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Amazon Giveaway

For a chance to win a free copy of my book – Help! My Story Has the Mary-Sue Disease – follow this link. https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/00ff2ced28414970

It’s only available to people in the US (Amazon’s shipping rules for giveaways, not my fault) but hey: it only takes a few seconds to click and enter the running and it’s potentially a free book. Why not give it a go?

marysuediseasefinal-fjm_high_res_1800x2700

Mary-Sue Disease is like Chicken Pox: Every author’s work comes down with it at least once and it’s not hard to cure …if you know how. 

Have you been told that your character is a “Mary Sue” because they have cool traits? RUBBISH.

Or that “Mary-Sue” means any awesome female character? NONSENSE.

Or that admitting Mary-Sues are badly written and need improvement is anti-feminist? BULLSHIT.

This book has real advice about how to make your awesome character with all those cool traits actually work. And you know what?

With a little chicken soup and love, any story can overcome Mary-Sue Disease and star a well-rounded, awesome protagonist.

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Posted by on January 21, 2018 in On L.C. Morgenstern's Work

 

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Creativity, Writer’s Block, and the power of “Yes, And?”

Creativity comes from the ability to accept multiple correct options. It’s the ability to look at a thing and ask what else it could be. It’s saying “That works” or “That’s true” to one option and then finding more options which are also functional and true. Also known as the “Yes, and?” game.

The what now you lunatic? I’m sure I hear some of you saying, to which I say “this has its origins in theatre sports” and you probably find that to be all the explanation you needed for the apparent madness. Not that such a thing will prevent me from explaining further anyway.

In improvisational comedy, the “Yes, and…” principle is to agree with whatever idea your fellow improvisor has put forward (to continue the scene they have begun) and add to it, as opposed to blocking them – which would be to break the potential suspension of disbelief by contradicting what has already been created. This non-judgemental approach of accepting ideas and continuing is also the basis behind the concept of brainstorming – the process of throwing out idea after idea without rejecting any of them.

Asking “Yes, and?” instead of making an immediate judgement call is very important to creative thinking – not only does it allow you to keep coming up with new ideas (which, even if all the earlier ideas were good themselves, may yet be better) but it also keeps you from getting locked in to one line (trench, really) of thinking.

If you examine ideas one by one and dismiss them as they come, you begin to convince yourself that something must happen a certain way, that there are no other options, and/or that something cannot be done. This thought process reduces creativity in general, prevents new ideas from being tested and new inventions from making the world a better place (“it’s never been done, so it’s a bad idea” and such thoughts tend to be attached to this) and – most importantly for this blog – is the core of many cases of writer’s block. It’s what happens when a writer is so convinced they must take their character from A to B – because B was the first place they thought of – that they become bogged down trying to figure out how instead of asking why A doesn’t just go to C, D, X, Y, Z, or Albuquerque instead.

Obviously, not ever answer a brainstorming session – or a game of Yes, and? – produces will be viable. But the point of both is not to find The Right Answer, but rather there is no one right answer. There are many right answers and you limit and inhibit yourself if you dismiss them in search of one shining beacon of perfect truth and correctness.

Playing Yes, and? is fairly simple – you simply pose a problem as a question and then provide an answer. Then you say (or, if you have trouble breaking out of the judgmental mindset of automatically analysing each option and dismissing it instead of continuing, you get someone else to say) “Yes, and?” and provide another answer. This pattern continues until you genuinely cannot think of anymore – something which will occur far later than you expect to be unable to think of any more, as your mind (thanks to the right/wrong approach to tests in most educational systems) has been trained to find no more than two options at a time, under normal circumstances (the “right answer” and the “wrong answer”). The point of the Yes, and? game, however, is to remove those normal circumstances. It’s not unlike having a physical trainer tell you to do push ups until you can’t do it anymore and then do ten more.

Here’s an example more suited to fiction:

Your hero is racing toward the tower where his princess is trapped. He comes to the stairway only to find that it was destroyed earlier when he was being chase by the dragon. Alas, you think, now how are you supposed to get the prince up those stairs? He cannot jump it and he cannot fly! And, thus, writer’s block sets in. You find you cannot take your prince up the expected path, but that is the right answer, so you cannot move forward at all. You have become convinced that is the route he must take, so all your efforts come back to finding a way for him to do something he cannot do. You’ve dug yourself into a trench of thought. This is the only way you have considered for him to go, and it is not working, so there is no way to move on. But, of course, he must run up the stairs that’s what princes do. Its “the right answer”. It’s the wrong question.

In this scenario, the true question is: How do you remove a princess from a tower?

Climb the stairs, you answer, but that’s not working. Yes, says the game, and? What else?

…Climb to her window. Yes, and? Build a ramp. Yes, and? Knock the tower down. Yes, and? Ask her to come down. Yes, and? Give her what she needs to remove herself. Yes, and? Lift her out through the roof. Yes, and? Ask a friendly dragon to fly her out! Yes, AND? Disinherit her. YES! AND?

Climb to her window and climb the stairs are the obvious answers, here, given that they are the known, safe, traditional answers tried and tested by most fairy tales. When you think about heroes rescuing princesses from towers, you probably either imagine Rapunzel and her hair, or Prince-What’s-His-Name-Again-I’m-Sure-He-Had-One, from Sleeping Beauty, charging up the stairs after defeating Maleficent as a dragon. But if you stop there your hero will be stuck forever at the base of the tower and your story will be stuck forever in the dark and dusty drawer realms of half-finished manuscripts instead of marching through adversity to publication.

Are all of the options the game created viable for your hero? Probably not. But they are options. It might not suit your story to have the hero solve the problem of the trapped princess preventing anyone from ruling the land by having her disinherited. Maybe he actually cares about her as a person and wants to get her to safety. But maybe it is – to your surprise – the kind of story where the political situation can be resolved by simply disinheriting the troublesome party so that their hostage-taker cannot rule through them. Maybe you can’t convince the dragon to be helpful and rescue the princess – or it’s all too Shrek for you – but you think about the options build a ramp and give her what she needs to remove herself and realise that what the hero needs to do is call up to her and have them together find a way to use her bedsheets to get her down across the vast un-jumpable hole in the stairs. She can slide down part way and he can catch her. And suddenly, right there, you have a solution. The writer’s block in the road has been defeated.

 

Obviously, it doesn’t work for all kinds of writers’ block, but if you’re stuck on finding a way to make something happen in your story, a round of Yes, and? might just clear it up for you.

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2017 in On Writing

 

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The Internal Conflict Games

No person is truly static. No matter how much we try, we still change. The person you were yesterday is different from the person you are today. The person of tomorrow may become someone yesterday’s self would never approve of. That which mattered more than anything a year ago may be utterly pointless next Tuesday.

Time, however, is not our only form of movement. We care – in an abstract sort of way – about the state of the world and what is best for everyone. We care – in a far more definite way – about the state of our loved ones and what is best for us. We do these things simultaneously. We expect the heroic character to, of course, sacrifice their comforts or take a third option for the sake of “the people” – that is; for US. It could be argued that human virtue – in the form of the desire to help others – is an entirely selfish construct.

This is supposed to be a post on writing. Somehow, it has become philosophy. Perhaps, that is, because philosophy (of ethics, of politics, even of metaphysics) is the nebulous ghost of theory, which is then put to the test in the thought experiment we call fiction. After all, “right” and “wrong” sounds all well and good in theory, but the entire concept tends to crash and burn when we attempt to put it into practise.

If there was a true answer out there, we wouldn’t have spent the entire history of the human species fighting over it.

Justice, right, wrong, good, evil, duty, worth, bacon, necktie, these are all social constructs. They are not universal truths. The general agreement in society is that good people try to help as many other people as possible – that the Good Guys are there to help the masses – and the general population will always support stories of this fashion, because it encourages others to protect them in times of crisis. In other words: the common view of right and wrong is inherently biased in favour of personal gain.

Apart from not upsetting your readers, there is no reason you have to hold to this point of view in your writing. If you write a protagonist who believes that people aren’t worth saving, but who saves them anyway, you are complying with this social construct. If you do not comply with this heavily enforced and entirely arbitrary ruling on what “Right” is, your character will be labelled as a villain and you yourself may gain a similar label.

So, what do you do? Do you do what is easy or do you do what is … well, it isn’t “right” is it? It’s just what you believe is right. Do you take the path of least resistance or do you do what you believe in?

Here’s the funny thing about that: it doesn’t matter.

Oh, it’ll certainly matter to you – if you even view the above dilemma as a dilemma at all. What matters in reality is: what you can live with (most people wouldn’t call it a dilemma because they stand to gain from the status quo of what “heroic” means, while I don’t view it as a dilemma because I’m fed up with the status quo telling me to sacrifice myself for others who will never return the favour – and often view it as something I owe them, not that I’ve ever done any hero-ing, but from the philosophical standpoint).

What matters in fiction is the existence of the dilemma itself.

We call this internal conflict. The backbone of character-focused works. The bloody, beating heart of a deep and rounded character. The thing that inevitably spawns dozens of alternative character interpretations and fan arguments about who was “right” – even if the work explicitly says that no such thing as “right” exists.

Internal conflict can be very subtle. What we believe about one thing may clash with what we believe about another – and we may go on believing both until something, from outside or inside, puts them visibly at loggerheads.

It does not have to be as showy as “who do I save” (maybe quit and go have pizza, instead? They’ll both be goners by the time you’ve decided anyway) or “who do I side with?” (again, maybe just go have pizza). It does not exist when a Hero is clearly The Good Guy and the Temptation by The Bad Guy is painfully obvious and the Hero would never do that anyway because he’s on the side of Good.

Internal conflict is subtle. It is murky. It is that grey area where right and wrong are entirely arbitrary ideals which the protagonist is creating, altering, and eventually judging all on their own. If which choice is “the right thing to do” is obvious, there can be no conflict because the answer is, again, OBVIOUS.

What is right? What is wrong? Is there right? Is there wrong? What do I want to do? What do I think I should do? Is what society thinks I should do right? What the heck would society know about it anyway?

Internal conflict – or, as Martin paraphrasing Faulkner put it “the human heart in conflict with itself” – is philosophy. Specifically, it is all those bright, clear theories mercilessly taken away from their loving academics and dropped into a giant, gruesome test simulator by the world’s authors. Because academic philosophy is all nice in theory, but it really doesn’t understand or know how to cope with humanity and reality.

Or, if you want to think of it that way, internal conflict is The Hunger Games for ideologies. Which, let’s be honest, makes it pretty bloody interesting.

 
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Posted by on October 18, 2017 in On Writing

 

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Naming Villains

If you didn’t grow up reading the Harry Potter books, you probably find the name (Lord) Voldemort to be less ominous and more laughable. It kind of is. It’s also the brain-child of a deranged teenager with ego issues, but that’s an in-universe explanation and this post is about how authors best choose names for their characters which induce dread, rather than why characters give themselves names which are dreadful.

A well chosen villain name can be the difference between the reader shivering every time they are mentioned and a reader coming up with cutesy pet names (like Voldie, Moldyshorts, and many others) …which generally means they aren’t taking your villain all that seriously. Personally, I was always more invested in what would happen when the prose – or characters – of Rowling’s books described the Big Bad as Riddle or Tom, because if nothing else his berserk button would be triggered and shit would get real. (The fact that he was a more effective villain – in carrying out plans – when he was still a somewhat saner child/teen also helped with that, but the point stands.)

 

So, what do you have to consider if you want to save your villain from being laughed out of the room the moment they introduce themselves? Well, that can be genre dependent. I might do a part two later about realistic genre villains (you know, people who should have normal human names for their culture), but for now this is geared to the various forms of Speculative Fiction, because that’s where most of this nonsense happens. But within that sphere, the best way to save your villain from being a laughingstock is to answer five simple questions.

 

1) What Does It Mean?

Between Lovecraft’s penchant for the unpronounceable and Tolkien’s fondness for invented language and names, there has been a long trend in speculative fiction genres of simply smashing a bunch of random letters or sounds together and calling it a suitably intimidating villain name. After all, if Cthulhu and Sauron sound terrifying, surely the heroic Eldric’s same-species nemesis Xecodontalzivrek is too, right?

What most rip-offs of Tolkien don’t realise is that his names actually had meanings. They weren’t made up mishmashes. Tolkien created complete languages for his world and every name had a meaning. So names like Sauron (“the Abhorred”, real name: Mairon “the admirable”) and Morgoth (“dark dread” or “black enemy”, real name Melkor “mighty one”) make sense. They have meaning in that world and they fit alongside names like Feänor (“spirit of fire”), Manwë (“Blessed One”), and Curumo (“Cunning”, also called Saruman). Those names sound like they belong together because linguistically they do. And readers will notice if the big bad has a name that not only sounds like it doesn’t belong in that culture but also doesn’t belong in that universe. That being said: most authors aren’t writing complete languages and do not have the time or energy to develop root words and variants and grammar rules. Nor do most readers count such things in when they are emotionally affected by a story. Which means that even though Tolkien’s characters’ names made sense, there was nothing truly dread inducing about them. Likewise, “Voldemort” is made of root words which, together, roughly mean “Flight of/from death” but the name itself sounds like nonsense.

Then there’s Lovecraft. There’s nothing wrong with making an unpronounceable mess of a name if the creature who plays the big bad is a Lovecraftian eldritch abomination – something which would not be obliged to have a comprehensible name because it is not comprehensible to humans. But there is a VERY big difference between naming an eldritch abomination Cthulhu and naming a human or similar species character Cthulhu. If the name supposedly came from a being whose species uses a language humans or human-like species can understand, the names have to follow from that: have to be sounds those species not only could but would make. And, again, no one is scared of Cthulhu for being named Cthulhu. If we didn’t have pop-culture to warn us that he’s an eldritch abomination, we would not be automatically disturbed by the name (bemused and curious if the author suffered a coughing fit while typing, but not disturbed).

And here’s the funny thing, the name doesn’t have to mean anything inherently scary itself. It just has to mean something. Take two classic villain/monster names, which is scarier? Voldemort? Or It? It is scarier, not only because your reader isn’t distracted trying to pronounce it. A creature or person merely known as “It” is disturbing because it implicitly tells the reader that no one is quite sure what It is and humans don’t like things that they can’t define.

If you want a name to be ominous it needs to be an omen of something. Think about it, if you had to choose on name alone and could only flee one, would you flee the one called Asenath or the one called Soulcatcher?

 

2) How Did They Get That Name?

“From this day forth, I shall be known as LORD VOLDEMORT!” 

“…Tom, you’re drunk, go home.

The failure of the above to happen is quite possibly the least realistic thing in the entire Potterverse.

Unless you’re dealing with a second-generation evil, the big bad’s parents probably did not hold their newborn babe in their arms and think “aww, so cute, this one’s going to grow up to be a genocidal maniac, we need a name that says that”. Sure, you might have a world where everyone has a meaningful name, but in that case you can’t use an overtly evil name – else your back at the “why the heck did their parents call them that?!?” problem. It would have to be something which could, and would, also have less ominous meanings and could be equally likely to be found on a hero, else it wouldn’t be a name in that culture. (Note: some cultures have commonly used names with unpleasant meanings, but in those cases the names are chosen to confuse and ward off evil spirits and the names are as every day and usual as Anne and John are in the Anglosphere, meaning that they don’t actually count as ominous or even unusual.) People name dogs Ripper and ships Dreadnought, but they don’t name their children that.

So when it comes to birth names, the long and the short of it is: villains should still have names you could believably find on regular people.

Now, for the fun bit: epithets, pseudonyms, sobriquets, and nicknames. This is the fun stuff. It’s also the stuff where a lot of people go painfully overboard *cough*Lord-Voldemort-He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named-You-Know-Who*cough*.

Epithets can accompany or replace a name, but have entered into common usage – like a nickname which has become as common, if not more common, than the real name – which a Sobriquet has all but replaced the original name, and a Pseudonym is a disguise. But all of these beg the question: how did they get that name? Generally, if they just started calling themselves something wild other people aren’t going to start doing that and even if they can bully their minions into doing it, they aren’t going to be a very competent player if they spend all their energy trying to make people call them something specific.

If you want your villains to sound intimidating epithets and sobriquets which occurred naturally are probably the best way to go – that means that other people started calling them that and it took off. Like how the monster in IT is just called It. Why? Because no one knows what It is. Likewise, someone called The Impaler probably didn’t start out calling themselves that. They just impaled a lot of people and people came to associate that with them.

Now, you can get away with just using a sobriquet for a villainous character – provided you aren’t giving their detailed backstory or telling an origin story. It also helps to have a social norm relating to this. In real history kings often got epithets so that they could be recognised because the same family names were often used. In fantasy an excellent example of both sobriquet use and social norms is Glen Cook’s Black Company series. In that world true names have power, so wizards adopt pseudonyms which they come to be known by, while most members of the Black Company itself are given a nickname when they join and never after bother with their real names. That being said, the top tier bad guys in that series tend to have names which are more sobriquet than pseudonym – The Limper probably did not call himself that, but he was the one who limps (and Cook thus managed to associate his name with terror when members of the company hear the sound of someone walking with a limp). Likewise Soulcatcher and The Lady have real names and may – although we are never told if it is so – have started out with different pseudonyms, but they came to be known by those sobriquets because The Lady was the evil overlord’s wife (his Lady, the only Lady who needed no introduction) and Soulcatcher …catches souls. By the time the reader meets them these names are long established, but they probably came from frightened enemies trying to identify which of the major villains they were talking about. “Which of the Ten Who Were Taken?” “The limper”, fast forward a few years and that’s “The Limper” as a name.

 

3) Why So Complicated?

The most common pratfall in naming villains is that authors tend to pile epithets and sobriquets, etc, on top of each other (Voldy again) instead of picking one really good one. What they don’t realise is that epithets and sobriquets are there to make people distinctive, not impressive. If you’re one of many King Peters and you happen to be very short, well guess what you’re going down in history as?

And if you’re thinking, “Well wait a second, if those terms are used to identify that one thing about a person which is most recognisable how is that scary?” You might want to reconsider what about your villain is so uniquely terrifying. Because that’s the point. Vlad the Impaler did a lot of other things in his life, but he’s remembered for impaling people. Lots of people. Soulcatcher is a cunning, manipulative, out of control, utterly mad, super-powerful, nigh-unkillable sorceress. What is Soulcatcher known for? Catching souls. Which becomes creepier when you realise that all the different voices Soulcatcher talks with are those captured souls (and some of them are children). The Joker is a killer and a lunatic, but he’s known for the form in which his kills come (jokes, as he views them). Slapping a dozen or so extra names onto a character (Fanged Deathstar The Magnificient Dark Lord of The Land Of Evil) takes away from the punch and the terror. They aren’t known for one specific stand out screamer, they have a whole list and so are less impressive. Why? Because if no one thing haunts people’s memories, which leads to the epithet or sorbriquet, then none of those things could have left much of an impression. None of them were scary enough to become what they were known for. Less, in this case, is very much more.

 

4) Why Is It ALWAYS Dark Lord?

Speaking of superfluous terms. Dark Lord (or Dark One, etc) is not just overused, it’s meaningless. Dark Lord – and, for that matter, The/Other/s – worked when Tolkien used it. The only person who is Tolkien was Tolkien. Yes, humans naturally fear the night – and the dark – because we are diurnal. We also are naturally terrified of spiders and disease, but we don’t automatically name our villains Web Lord or The Rot. Using Dark Lord is inherently problematic for a lot of reasons beyond how cliché the Dark Vs Light motif is. For one thing, Lord is a title belonging to a hierarchical system based in feudalism. Is Dark a place? Does this lord have administrative duties? If you’re dealing with a setting where such hierarchical systems are not part of the society (whether they are mere remnants or never existed) or where they are part of the society and in fact are very important, your villain can’t just go around calling themselves lord of something – in one case it is a meaningless addition that doesn’t even impress people around them (and wouldn’t mean enough to them for them to add it) and in the other it has a strictly defined meaning which their more decorative use would make into a point of ridicule (“he’s not a real lord”).

So what about Dark? Well what do you mean by Dark anyway? Please tell me it’s not their skin colour. Is there some metaphysical divide between good and evil that happens to have chosen to define itself by how much light things emit? If there is some knowable inherent difference between good and evil in your world, you’d better have an explanation for how any sane person would choose evil – and don’t just say “they’re mad”. Real mad people are more often victims of cruelty than themselves cruel and the insanity defence is “not guilty on grounds of insanity” specifically because being mad in that sense means being unable to understand what you are doing and why it is wrong.

…Dark Lord. Cliché term for “Wannabe noble who can’t afford a candle”.

 

5) What Else Can It Mean?

The thing about words is that sometimes they not only mean what you think they mean, they also mean something else. Something you really didn’t mean, but which people will notice. For example, there is only one reason fans of Tolkien remember the orc Shagrat.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2017 in On Writing

 

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Help! My Story Has the Mary-Sue Disease (Print)

I forgot to do this: Yay – the book is now available in print!

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Help! My Story Has the Mary-Sue Disease (Kindle)

I was going to wait with posting this until the Print and Epub versions were also available, but I’m still waiting on Ingramspark for something and it’s already been two days since this was published. So you’ll get more posts like this in a few days (hopefully) when the other forms of the book become available.

It’s available on Amazon Kinlde here. It’s also available on other versions of Amazon (UK, AU, etc) if you search for it in the Kindle store.

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…I’m not going to be done stressing until all of the formats are published, at which point I will make a Books page for my blog with easy links to them all.

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2017 in On L.C. Morgenstern's Work

 

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Project Status 7 – A Hint

Coming Soon?

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2017 in On L.C. Morgenstern's Work

 

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