Why You Should Ditch the Computer And Go Back to Pen-And-Paper Writing

Perhaps my only highlight of middle school was the free time I had to write the dozens of stories that swam through my head.

I had been inspired by a close friend who had been penning a dystopian sci-fi. I’d see him labor over his notebook in study halls, in our writing for publication course, in between classes, even at lunch. Our teachers must have thought him to be a diligent student as his 3-subject binder was quite worn and full, though when I saw him in class writing feverishly only I understood where his attention was.

I remember recycling an unused notebook (for computer science, I believe), labeled as such which served as ample camouflaged while I snuck in time to pen my first novel into it. Back then I had been writing my first superhero novel, and though it had the plot, themes, and rough edges of a teenage novelist I found the project to be an edifying exercise. In total, it took 6 months to pen and another 3-4 to transcribe. Truthfully, transcribing was the hard part as back then my penmanship was so abysmal–and remains so to this day–though I felt confident that I captured most of its original meaning if not improved upon it when typing it out on our home desktop computer.

Years later, my family bought a new computer, computer lab time at school became more available, and best of all I was gifted my very own 3.5 inch floppy disc dedicated to all my creative pursuits. I still had a notebook to jot down ideas, though I no longer saw the purpose of keeping a running story in a notebook. It seemed a waste of time to have to re-write the entire handwritten story to digital form, especially with the more opportunities I had to be on a keyboard and save my work as I went. Admittedly, some of that rang only partially true as over the years I’ve found that floppies could go missing and computers could crash. But as I grew so did my tactics. I got my own laptop and memory stick (one that I could hang around my neck and keep on my person wherever I went easily). But again, laptops sometimes go into critical failure and at times I felt it tedious to have to always save my work onto a moving memory. But that’s why we have cloud storage now, right?

I think there was one final component that led me to forgo completely the pen-to-paper process for typing out stories on a computer, and that is my word per minute count. My classmates and I were thankfully trained from an early age in elementary school to practice our skills with a keyboard. This started in 5th grade I believe, and by 7th grade, in middle school, I believe I had the highest word per minute count in my grade (somewhere from 120-150 if I remember correctly, though truthfully I think I’m being modest). Yes, I had the notebook in 7th grade and penned three different stories in this format, but pragmatically I knew the keyboard could keep up better with my thoughts than my own hand could (again, I still could be a doctor today with my penmanship). 

All that to say, in this year of 2022, decades later, I’ve reconnected with pen-to-paper writing. We welcomed home our son this year, our second addition to the family, and immediately my early morning writing time became compromised with our son’s fluctuating sleep schedule and my own personal fatigue from the adjustment. While the newborn and infant stages come with so many joys and rich opportunities to grow as a father and husband it still has thrown my creative schedule into a funk. Somewhere around when our son turned two, I plucked an unused notebook from our office, opened up a fresh page, and started a brand-new project.

This new project is something I’ve had years of desiring to write which has meant years of plotting and world-building. The process began with no longer trusting this background process with ideas stored in a clumsy cloud or in a laptop that took effort to open and focus to operate. It began with flipping open the new page, jotting those ideas down, and resolving to just start writing. It’s helped that the new story is a simple one with few characters and a kid-friendly plot. It’s been remarkably easy to pick up where I leave off, take 5-15 minutes to myself here and there when our daughter is playing with our son or when he is napping and my daughter is pursuing her own creative ventures. That being said, decades later, my penmanship has not improved, and the few times that I’ve had to go back and read for continuity it has sometimes provided to be a challenge to read my own handwriting.

That being said, returning to pen and paper writing has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. Doing so has fulfilled some nostalgia of my earliest days of penning novels and reminded me of the ease and opportunity to retreat and create. While I’m typing this blog without having to yet visit the transcription process, I can still say confidently that no matter the time or painstaking labor it will take to move my written piece into digital format, it has proven to still be an edifying exercise. Better for us writers to flex our creative muscles of plot, design, and character development in a medium that we may one day discard rather than to merely wait for the next opportunity to have time and space for ourselves to write. 

Lastly, what I have found about this process–which is at least true for me–is that the process affords writing to not be bogged down so easily with complicated sentence structure or overstressed synonyms. What’s been true to my time in front of a screen has been sometimes overthinking a sentence, a paragraph, or even a plot point. No doubt my pen-to-paper novel has many flaws and even one large plot point I’ll have to go back and totally rewrite, but getting the content on paper ironically seems easier and more expedient than typing as the editor takes a far back seat in this process while the artist is free to make a mess of the space.

So for those of you who find yourselves without the time or space to write, or who have merely trouble sitting down in front of a dedicated computer or laptop to pen something out, go to your local store, pick up a notebook of any size, and keep it around. Even if it’s in the other room, it takes no time to boot up and is far more durable than any piece of technology. Again, perhaps you’re like me and will find this medium to provide you with a richer writing experience, one that isn’t bogged down by internet tabs that distract us and get us to overthink our idea. 

Buy a notebook regardless. Life affords us so many times craft, but we find excuses for ourselves not to seize the opportunity.

Plotting Versus Pantsing

It’s interesting to see in the writing world how there this kind of philosophical divide when it comes to how to write a book (or even how to write in general). The two camps are “plotting” and “pantsing.”

Plotting is pretty self explanatory. This is the pre-meditated endeavor to structure one’s story, to plan out one’s story arch. Plotting has its spectrum, going from a broad map of where the story is supposed to go, to a chapter-to-chapter or even scene-by-scene breakdown of one’s story. This philosophy can also extend out into character concepting with detailed descriptions, backstories, and archs of development.

Pantsing is the opposite, and has nothing to do with public humiliation. The pantsing approach comes from the image of “writing by the seat of your pants.” This is a rather extemporaneous process with very little to no pre-meditated script, arch, or design. The plot, the world, and even the characters unfold either on their own or by the circumstantial inspiration the author is struck with. While future ideas and structure might unfold during the process, it is done in the process of writing rather than being done before one stares at the blank screen/paper.

The debate of plotting versus pantsing had intrigued me as I reflected my own writing craft while juggling a few stories not too long ago. At the time, my first story “Masks: The Unmercenaries” was being edited and its sequel was being explored (and is currently being drafted).

Masks, The Unmercenaries, had largely been written through a process of Pantsing. This novel began as an exploration of “what happens when Halloween carries on a little too long, when people keep their masks on for good and for evil” after a rather thought-provoking Halloween celebration. The story began as sample chapters, vignettes of random characters celebrating Halloween as vigilantes and villains in a city of masks. There were a dozen or so “character chapters” that I wrote rather aimlessly, and when I decided I wanted it to become a novel instead of a series of short stories, I narrowed down my character list with a primary cast and began writing chapters. Still, the process felt very exploratory, as though I were freely allowing the villains and vigilantes to show me their wishes, their wills, their purpose in the story. Halfway through writing it, my friend made an observation that it was perhaps wise for me to take back the wheel on the story, to not let the characters guide it so much, but to use what they had already paved for me. So halfway through writing the first draft I came up with a list of chapters, many of which still ended up being cut, and years of editing that piece followed.

This first project did eventually take on some planning, some “Plotting,” but I would say it leaned closer to the philosophy of Pantsing, of stepping into a world and into the shoes of characters within my imagination and seeing where they would take me in a narrative. Although there were lots of life events happening that slowed my writing/editing process with this first piece, a part of me suspects the long period of writing and editing did come out from this pantsing approach.

Fast forward to the submission of Masks: The Unmercenaries being published, I began writing its sequel, but I began this process specifically through an outline. I already had in my mind some iconic scenes I wanted depicted in the sequel of the Masks series, but there was no string of events to tie all those scenes together. So I sat in front of an outline for chapters instead of just plopping myself into chapter 1 and seeing where it would take me. I divided this plot outline into a 4-part arch (much like the first book) and inserted the iconic scenes into each part. Then I began wondering what needed to happen to get between those points, what exposition was necessary, etc. One might argue that starting with those scenes and then branching out is a kind of “pantsing process” though I was very intentional about not beginning to write a single word into a chapter until I felt I had a rather developed outline of chapters that could string together. A few months later I’m still using that outline, am half done with the first draft of my book, and have even inserted chapters into the outline as a result of the writing process showing me needs for transition, exposition, etc.

I confess I’ve actually found that writing the sequel to be more enjoyable than the first book. It could just be that the sequel requires far less exposition and that what is fun is building off of the characters that have already been established. However, I do suspect that this process has come a little easier in the sequel as I’ve taken out the guesswork of what’s coming after the chapter I’m writing. I won’t finish a chapter and wonder what questions still need to be answered or task myself with where things need to leave off because the master plan exists. That being said, the master plan has changed, with chapters being divided into two parts, new chapters being inserted as need dictates, things being combined, etc.

An example of the flexibility with this plotting style I have approached is seeing chapters that seemingly have no conflict end up with unforeseen outcomes. For example, I had chosen to have a character shot at the end of one chapter instead of coming out unscathed, and another character (intended to be captured in a later chapter) caught instead of making a clean escape. The alternative outcomes that I ended up writing were contrary to what I had plotted, but both conclusions didn’t totally dislodge my overall arch and map of the story. What it did do was afford me some more intrigue and excitement, afforded me some character development that might not have happened unless I let some inspiration throw a wrench in the narrative.

As I compare book one to book two, it may seem as though I’m choosing favorites. Plotting has made book two much easier to write and perhaps even more enjoyable. That being said, there was a kind of exploratory magic in book one that can’t be discredited, and I think a lot of growth for myself as a writer by allowing that curiosity to blossom and being at the mercy of inspiration.

The way I see these two approaches is how I largely believe our “minds” work. Our actual minds are more of receptive organs and processing units than they are producers. I don’t believe thoughts and inspiration are truly our own, for it seems no plot is truly new under the sun, that the common threads we see in stories are indicative of the existence of archetypes, muses, or how I prefer to call it “heavenly intelligences.” We are struck by these ideas and inspirations rather than producing them from raw contemplation. That being said, an idea or image (whether that image be in our heads, in memory, or even in front of us) can be processed by us, can be elaborated on, digested, restructured, combined with other images, etc; perhaps that is raw creativity.

That is what I think writing is: the receptivity of inspiration mingled in with raw creativity. I believe the pantsing approach leans more on the inspiration whereas the raw creativity is the plotter who restructures things until they seem to fit or create something harmonious.

Where I rest on this topic is with the belief that Pantsing and Plotting should go hand in hand in our process, that we should not give ourselves to one extreme or the other. Plotting can become far too extreme to the point that the plot is predictable, contrived, or dogmatically allegorious. Pantsing can become too flimsy when the artist takes no agency over the ideas or works, creating a substanceless stream of consciousness of ideas that can lead to no conclusion at best or poor ones at worst.

My two cents is to experiment with both, and be aware of the creative process of plotting that attempts to reorganize things until harmony is realized, all the while being receptive to inspiration that a story and its characters may unfold on its own.

The Utility of Humanoids: What’s the Purpose of Sci-Fi & Fantasy Races?

One of my earliest memories of crafting alien species was when I helped design a homebrew tabletop roleplay game with a group of friends. The five of us were co-collaborating our own galaxy “long ago” with sentient races, each possessing unique feats. I was particularly enamored with the saurian race we came up with for their reptillian appearances, their rigid cultural code of honor, and ability to shoot out unarmed spikes at opponents. They were just one among the handful of playable races amid a universe of warring sentients.

I made my own homebrew universes and systems after this with creative zeal. I’d craft my own sci-fi universe filled with my own sentient species or reimagine fantasy races of my own design. In both scenarios, each race had their own unique ability and strengths. The more I reflect on this, the careful design I employed in terms of anatomical advantages always came down to gamers playing in my imagined universe, adopting one of these races, and falling in love with the uniqueness of each sentient being.

There’s a handful of story ideas sitting on the “shelves” of my computer archive that still benches these old ideas of games intended to become novels.

I mention all this because I recently began looking at other writers’ designs of humanoids, of investigating what makes authors design as they do and become curious if such designs can/will hold the attention of their audience.

As mentioned, my own designs of sentient humanoids in both the sci-fi and fantasy genre came from a function point of view, of carving something aesthetically unique that bared a nuance to how a player interacted with the world or played a theoretical game. Admittedly, culture and thematic elements usually came later. This isn’t wholly unuseful. Halo is a series that has seemingly borrowed from this design–think of the function of the alien and an aesthetic that can match it, and develop a backstory later–and seems to have been relatively successful with a compelling narrative (barring anything Halo 4 and on).

That being said, I think its useful for us authors to do some deep digging of our intention of writing these humanoid aberrations. I mention this because two different series that have a “cat race” can bear different fruit in terms of how compelling the narrative is: for example, if one writes up said cat race because the author simply likes cats and thinks it would be a neat hybrid, versus another author who sees specific utility and ramifications to the narrative and world for having a feline sentient humanoid.

Therefore, I’d like to explore some examples of usage of races solely in terms of the Sci-Fi genre (though I believe each example has a fantasy counterpart). To this end, I hope we can do some deep exploration of why we write the species we do instead of default to a reason that may not be so compelling: “well I thought it was cool.”

Star Trek: Your Utopian Telos

Though I’m far from being a Trekkie, I’ve had a history growing up around them.

What I’ve been educated about Star Trek is that the races of the show all are meant to represent some historic or proposed culture, and to contrast said races against the human spirit.

The Vulcans, from what I can see, are meant to contrast a passionate and human side of humanity from a proposed passionless, and dogmatically thought-based species. The Vulcans show us positive traits of this kind of emotional neutrality while also showing set-backs of being so cold and detached. The Borg bear warning to dangers of assimilation for the sake of continuity and peace, while the Ferengi propose the warped pursuit of imperial greed.

Though I was never particularly invested in learning deeply about the overall plot of the series or become emotionally invested to the story and characters, I recognize the following that Star Trek has and its success in terms of utilizing sci-fi races to illustrate the dark sides of humanity in their extreme. Each of these races are abberations of humanity and show grossly disproportionate maxims or principles in a cautionary manner. While it’s hard to keep track of the running list of planets and races that the mostly human pioneers encounter, the usage of this model of designing sci-fi races lends itself to a powerful utility of storytelling: speak about the human condition, and warn about the tragedies that are close to our nature, behavior, and machinations.

Star Wars: Paint Me A Feeling

It’s only natural now to go to Star Wars, the favorite rival of Star Trek. Star Wars I see doing much less of Star Trek’s moralizing of human nature. When I think of races in Star Wars, I think of some really sensory-filled and impresionistic races that through their design convey a raw feeling to the audience.

Ewoks are perhaps the low-hanging fruit in this variety. Ewoks were admittedly a race created in order to undermine the hubris of the Empire and all their tyrannical force of technology and governance. These child like teddy bears humiliate the Empire through their incredibly ramshackle inventions, traps, and weaponry, and their dwarfed size and cute appearance is starkly opposed to the very stoic and angry-faced empire uniform. The audience is more often than not endeared with these true underdogs and might even rally a little harder seeing the machinations of the Empire put to shame through Ewok creativity.

That being said, they are by far my least favorite species. I’m tempted to take a shot at the Ewoks as being more of merchandise than true creativity, but I know my own fondness for Baby Yoda makes such an accusation rather limp (I really do commend Mandalorian for giving us such an endearing character).

While I attempt to convey my true frustrations for the existence of Ewoks, I do have to give Lucas credit for what he was attempting to do in creating this race. Ewoks are these forest dwelling dwarfs that represent the good-hearted altruism of simplicity and autonomy against a threat of “progress” and enforced unity. The Ewoks are easy to root for due to their humble nature and might even be a statement illustrating adults need to return to child like innocense.

Again, Ewoks are but the lowest hanging fruit in this very illustrious universe. The Hutts, by contrast, are easily vilified, disgusting for their wild tongues and wet bodies, easy to dehumanize and loath for their invertebrate like bodies. The Wookies, like the Ewoks, are affable for their furry and bear-like bodies, resembling something of a hugable teddy bear, the only difference being that the height and roar of their voice convey the danger and double-sidedness of their bear like qualities (in short, bears are regarded as loveable but also dangerous, just as Wookies are). Perhaps the last and most impressionistic race are the Twi’leks, the females always depicted in revealing clothing, the tentacles on their head suspiciously looking like a naked pair of legs; this race has been labeled as categorically sexualized, making them both pitied for being targetted as sex slaves and coveted for their overly sexualized features.

Save for the Twi’leks, it should be noted that just about every Star Wars race has a key character that sets the tone for the entire race. The Wookie race is second in importance to Chewbacca, such as the Hutt race is second to Jabba. The same goes for Zabraks and Darth Maul, or Kaleesh and General Grievous. All these races develop backstories as an after thought, and only so many of them get recycled in mainstream continuiations of the series.

Star Wars isn’t looking to convince you so much of human nature or socio-political slippery slopes through their races. Instead, they are looking to portray to you a very raw and earthy picture. The races either exist to paint the atmosphere (Twi’leks to paint a harem, Ewoks to paint innocence and humility) or exist typically in the form of a sole character to illicit a feeling in the audience using imagery instead of a lengthy backstory (Jabba obviously vile without knowing his origins, Chewbacca formidable but still likeable without even being ble to understand him).

Star Wars is a fantastic example of a sci-fi world that requires little backstory or “telling” (though it certainly has plenty of non-canonical extended universe materials) because it gets so right the showing. That is smart characterization that saves the author time so they don’t have to dive into long prologues, but can cut to the action with the impressions we are immediately given through the races and characters.

Avatar: The Ideal Man & World

While I personally feel some of the themes of Avatar are heavy-handed and even trite, I truly do appreciate what was accomplished in the design of the Na’vi race and world of Pandora.

My own dissection of the story of Avatar is the telling of mankind’s feelings of discontent for the raw pursuit of exploration and progress, for the shallow satisfaction that can come from technological advancement and materialism.

Pandora illicited a very raw feeling of what the Germans call “Sehnsucht,” a kind of longing for a place that seemingly can’t exist or can’t be visited. We ached because the 3-dimensional and beautiful world of Pandora isn’t able to be visited. People literally felt depressed walking out of this film.

Pandora is mirror to how we also feel about the Na’vi. We see a pure sentient species that enjoys the beauty of this magical land. While the Na’vi “tail” is on its face an interesting world building concept, it also illicits a real desire in us to have communion and peace with nature, to possess this role of pure-hearted stewardship over such a magical land. The priorities of Pandora are not for expanse or development, but to see one conquering death through their “uplink” to the neurel network of trees and nature.

I argue that Avatar gets at a real angst in us all for the materialism we have been fed for the last few centuries, that the scientific method and pursuit of discovery and innovation are the end all be all of human perfection. Avatar flips that on its head, conceiving of a world that requires little innovation, a world that has relative harmony and is saturated with beauty.

Pandora is an allegorical type of paradise or heaven, and the story of Avatar gives the audience hope that one not only can step outside of the grungy and base world of materialism, but become eternal and part of a reality based on communion.

Whereas Star Trek warns of human falleness, Avatar gives hope of transcendence and magic returning to our lives and world.

Alien & Predator: Face Your Fear

Predator, I admit, is only slightly harder to justify into this category. That being said, the Predator series has been treated as a kind of thriller/horror that I think affords it this category (besides, the two races seem hard to divorce from one another).

The creators of alien were pretty explicit in their intentions of creating this alien race. Here we have an alien designed to be the most perturbing machination that human thought could conceive. Alien is sleak and fast, easily missed and hard to squash, much like our innate disgust for roaches, snakes, and mice. It’s also been mentioned that the design of the creature (phallic head) in tandem with its means of reproduction (suffocation, chest bursting, in short he involuntary carrying of another being’s spawn) were meant to illicit a vile response from the audience. This was a race meant to scare men and women alike, to illicit a feeling of powerlessness and penetrability.

Predator didn’t tap into as much of a raw human disgust, but rather seems to be designed as a kind of horrific reaper, an alien icon of the angel of death. Predator is pseudo-invisible, it has perfect awareness of its prey, and its patient and adaptable in its form of harvesting trophies/taking life.

Predator speaks to the human fear of death, while Alien perturbs us with an image of violation and being forced upon. A case could be made that the two represent the monstrous capacity of mankind to be predatorial in terms of violence and sex, but I think what’s more true in their inceptions is looking to frighten the audience using basic and common fears in an illustrative manner.

It should be noted that using sci-fi races to explore the emotion of fear and sense of human powerlessness is a fairly common trope in the larger sci-fi and “weird fiction” genres. Lovecraft markets on both as he explores cosmic creatures either too unworldly to fathom or too collasal to fight, and even the rehashed “greys” of so many books and movies continue to haunt us with their expressionless faces and typically cold, morbid, and scientific curiosity of humanity.

Possible Pitfalls of Race Creation

We’ve mentioned some of the highlights of the sci-fi genre and what they do well, but it’s prudent I believe to also explore not bad examples persay, but what I find to be typical pitfalls in writing up new fantasy and sci-fi races. The following list is also not exhaustive and is also not meant to label any of the following tactics as inherently “bad” or poor, but rather to call to attention temptations in writing that can lead to a flat or unremarkable universe.

The first pitfall I’ve already made mention of is the “oh this would be cool” philosophy. The problem with this route is not that the creator isn’t inherently creative and able to innovate something remarkable, but to caution the author against their own bias and possibility for subjectivity as they craft their humanoids and the universe that they inhabit. We’ve mentioned quite a few “oh that’s cool / neat looking” examples above of skilled killers (Alien/Predator) and beautiful aliens dwelling in a remarkable world (Avatar). That being said, each of those examples had some substance behind their creations, had a purpose behind the innovative idea. It’s hard to find a sci-fi race that is just merely “recycled,” implying that all new ideas possess some novelty to them, but what the successful series’ seem to do is to go deeper than just the aesthetics and special effects and get at a deeper “why” behind the races. It’s fair to then ask if some of these series developed their cool idea BEFORE OR AFTER the thematic/narrative consideration, though I think this chicken and egg debate is less important than how the themes relate to the ideas.

It pains me to also say this, but leaning too greatly on allegory can also provide challenges in your writing. I’m a fan of world building with allegory when it can point out some much needed warnings to society and human behavior, but like the above mentioned issue of a homogenous race, this too can make your humanoids feel flat. Even worse, feeling compelled to find the most perfect appearance or pattern of thinking/feeling for your new race can limit your own exercising of creativity–though I caution against going the “oh that’s cool route” keep in mind that the above mentioned examples still use awe while crafting well-written aliens.

Related to all of that is a temptation to merely write a species that suits a clear stereotype or role for the purpose of your world so your reader knows “oh they’re the_____.” The exception to this is that there is more leniency here given to the video game market which lends itself to already dehumanizing the enemy and therefore can profit off of a stereotype. That being said, the Mass Effect series has taken flak for constructing an overly sexualized fantasy race (worse than the Twi’leks in my opinion) that seem more of a marketing ploy to appeal to male appetite rather than provide any substance in world building or plot.

So Why Make Up a Race/Humanoid?

The above mentioned is by no means an exhaustive list of compelling reasons to write a fantasy or sci-fi race, but they do happen to be so popular because these humanoid races do one of the following:

  • Serve as a cautionary example of human nature or misplaced ideology
  • Illustrate a character or univrese without via showing versus telling
  • Propose an ideal or longed for existance for mankind (a world or human that may be hard or impossible to acheive)
  • Evoke a raw human emotion (ie fear) or capture the demonization of humanity

No doubt other examples exist of well done and purposeful world-building via race concepting. The utility of pointinging out these successful instances is for us to see the intentionality of their craft and creativity, to see the inventions of these races not as merely cool designs but purposeful machinations. We need not fit into one of the aforementioned categories, but I think borrowing something there or doing some deep exploration as to what purpose writing up a new species has will help us craft stories that compete with an already very large and continually growing market of fantasy and sci-fi books and universes.

This isn’t to put down some of the less substantiated sci fi narratives out there. Don’t get me wrong, I loved how immersive Mass Effect 1 and 2 were as games, but the series itself oscillates between their races being helpfully characterizing like Star Wars and flat/easy to digest tropes.

Again, if you’re like me, it’s easy to see your fantasy and sci-fi races with more curiosity of the aesthetics and utility than what the species itself contributes to the narrative. If it’s a cat species that has unarmed bleeding damage for your homebrew tabletop, go for it. If it’s merely your own badass take on a new saurian race because you’re like me and you like dinosaurs, you might want to consider why writing it at all and how it’ll stand above the rest of the already existing literature.

I invite you all to at least do some wrestling as to what your audience will find compelling about your sentient addition to your already sprawling and ever-growing universe. Your pet alien or beloved mythic elf can still be a fresh and incredible addition to the world of sci-fi and fantasy. It’s only to your gain if you can critically think why others should care about them.

Happy writing! Live long and prosper, and may the force be with Toruk Maktow.

Writing Setting, World Building, & Sehnsucht

The villain teased above is the mad philosopher, Overman, an embodiment of Nietzsche’s tightrope walker who ironically dwells in the abandoned, dilapidated subway of the city of Nymphis. The old rail and bunker, called “The Rabbit Hole,” is key to the story “Masks: The Unmercenaries,” though it took some time to conceive of this dark hutch of villainy.

The inspiration came originally from a search of “abandoned locations” which yielded a list of beautiful derelict monuments and establishments that had become works of art and even tourism. The throne room of the Rabbit Hole was conceived after watching a documentary on an underground, nuclear-grade estate of vice.

This was just one facet of Nymphis, one facet of imagining and illustrating the world of my book. This process of world-building is enjoyable but is as well laborious in order to paint an immersive world that exists not only in our minds, but in the minds of our readers.

For my fellow world-builders out there, I’d like to share some insight I’ve employed through my own journey of sculpting my book’s world:

Lore & Backstory

“Masks: The Unmercenaries” began as a series of featurette chapters of characters. Before it had a central plot, it was a compilation of vigilantes from different backgrounds, fighting and living in different parts of the cities. Some of the structure and elements of those chapters and characters survived, but many didn’t.

But the exercise helped me craft Nymphis, to explore parts of the city I might not otherwise explore without writing a bit of backstory & lore of characters that wouldn’t even show up.

I think of Skyrim and Ark in this regard, of sprawling worlds that have an impressive collection of literature that lay out backstory of such a fun worlds. The books of Skyrim reference the pantheon of the NPCs, the history of Skyrim’s locations, allude to the dealings of the characters you meet. Ark accomplishes this too, laying out random logs of survivors for the player to collect, each entry expounding on how various perspectives see the island and the dinosaurs upon it.

When one is world building, I think it important to test the boundaries of the world, even if those parts are never directly used or referenced. Unconsciously, as a writer, you’ll be aware of how far your world goes, and invariably parts of that unused expanse will bleed into your novel or serve to be used as material for a later chapter or book.

Good Illustration Can Be Brief

I think of the Harry Potter series when I think of incredible illustration. While we all had the movies to help us in visualizing what J.K. Rowling was putting to paper, the author’s description of Hogwarts incredibly describes what the films set out to do.

For example, see our first view of Hogwarts in the following description provided by owlcation.com:

The narrow path had opened suddenly onto the edge of a great black lake. Perched atop a high mountain on the other side, its windows sparkling in the starry sky, was a vast castle with many turrets and towers.

“No more ‘n four to a boat!” Hagrid called, pointing to a fleet of little boats sitting in the water by the shore. Harry and Ron were followed into their boat by Nevlille and Hermione.

“Everyone in?” shouted Hagrid, who had a boat to himself, “Right then— FORWARD!”

And the fleet of little boats moved off all at once, gliding across the lake, which was as smooth as glass. Everyone was silent, staring up at the great castle overhead. It towered over them as they sailed nearer and nearer to the cliff on which it stood.

“Heads down!” yelled Hagrid as the first boat reached the cliff; they all bent their heads and the little boats carried them through a curtain of ivy which hid a wide opening in the cliff face. They were carried along a dark tunnel, which seemed to be taking them right underneath the castle, until they reached a kind of underground harbour, where they clambered out on to the rocks and pebbles.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

J.K. Rowling doesn’t go overboard with her thesaurus or even set out to describe every inch of Hogwarts. There is instead details that either pair or juxtapose for a really powerful image. She uses the narrow path to blast out the expanse of the castle and it’s large lake, and then pairs the sparkling windows of the towers to the starry sky, as though making the castle heavenly.

In each paragraph, there are no more than two sentences that paint the image of Hogwarts, and most of the exterior castle’s description is accomplished in just a few paragraphs.

This is not to say that all descriptions in world building must be brief or simple, but it does free us from a load of expounding too much, leaving the audience little room to imagine for themselves. We have to realize that the world and characters we imagine in our heads and hearts don’t have to look, sound, or feel absolutely congruent to how our audience imagines them. We want the audience to feel drawn in by the choice details we use, giving them the freedom to almost create for themselves in the story rather than force them into tight parameters of description.

Know Your Tether

A temptation in world building is to blast out your world’s map as wide as you can and create a diverse looking world.

But great fantasy genres such as Lord of the Rings and Star Wars (yes, I did just call Star Wars fantasy) have a kind of tether or “home base” that are well developed, sometimes even more illustrated and detailed than the rest of the sprawling out universe. For Lord of the Rings, I argue this is the Shire whereas Star Wars is Tatooine. Both have a “homey” feel, especially given that these are the origins of our protagonist. They are the starting point of our adventures and provide us not entirely with a “neutral” palette, but one digestible enough to get us started before we hop into the wilder parts of the universe.

These tethers are either places our story and its characters return to over and over, or are given a special highlight with the amount of time we spend in them.

They function as reference points for the rest of the book, to show the diversity of our world with their simplicity and perhaps even modesty. They creep us into the universe, beginning to show us what the world we are entering into looks like so we’re not totally surprised when things get bizarre. They are places we may even become fond to, that we are excited to return to in the narrative because they fill us with a sense of nostalgia or “Sehnsucht”–a longing for a place we haven’t been.

Come to My City of Nymphis

And with that, I’d like to invite you all to my city of Nymphis!

My goal is to keep sprawling out this city through short story, and perhaps even one day plugging my audience into the city through photos of them wearing masks or their own contributions to the vigilante-plagued world.

You can dive into this world of masked crime fighters NOW and get yourself ready for a Halloween mood by picking up an Amazon Kindle copy today!

Click the cover below to dive in and become a hero (or villain)!

Become a Mask, buy your copy today!

Also, be sure to check out my new gallery page to see and share promotional art!

Make It Say Something – What Separates Good Stories from Great

Looking back on my years of writing, I’ve probably undertook half a dozen larger novels, have seen only three unto completion, and made a point to have one published.

So what seperates that one from the rest?

While some stories we write just don’t hold together so well because we’ve written them at a time of inexperience or immaturity, I would also venture a guess that sometimes we are more in love with the world we imagine or the idea (whether it be a character, plot, concept) than the utility of the story.

For years I fell into this trap of dreaming elaborate worlds that were honestly no more interesting than anyone else’s imagination. Though I naturally felt my characters, my world, my plot had an innate merit in it, I began considering how many of my novels never saw it to fruition because they lacked something deeper than imagination.

They lacked a statement.

I confess that the beginning of Masks was undeveloped during that early stage of writing my first “pilot” chapters of random characters. The world I was spinning had more to do with interesting character concepts instead of character depth or even thematic elements. It was going to be a flashy “what if Halloween never ended / what if ordinary people became vigilantes” sort of story.

Fortunately, early in the writing process, I made a distinct choice to go a different way with this story idea, to instead of write for the sake of exploring this imaginative rabbit hole of mine, that I’d make this story “say something” in order to give the writing process purpose. I wanted a story that wasn’t merely an escape from reality, but something that could fictionally parallel to my real life and to my real world around me.

This had a huge impact on my writing energy, fueling me to finish a project rather than to see how far the dream could self-perpetuate until it became dull. My story was no longer being written for the sake of being a cool idea, but rather the cool idea was the garment that the “say something” needed to wear, to “reveal” a message by putting on a colorful robe of imagination (if that makes any sense).

So, I made my writing say something.

What Does Your Story Say?

Baron & Sheepshead, Illustrated by Lexie Takis Arts

The image featured in this blog is the illustration from Part 3 of Masks, wherein we see Sheepshead–a former drug addict–attacking a drug dealer, Baron.

These two characters themselves put on new identities in order to say something of themselves. Sheepshead puts on the dead skull of a ram to remind himself of the “little goat” he still has inside of him from his past, to remind him of the stubborn impulse he fights against that could lead him to death. Baron puts on the façade of the Haitian Loa of death and debauchery as a commentary to the lifeless addictions of those whom he does business with, but in a way that celebrates the human weakness that he sees and exploits.

Masks could perhaps be broken down into two different messages…

The first theme is that of fatherhood. While every human being has a father, the roots and absence/involvement of fathers in each character’s life greatly impacts the direction that each character takes. More than that, the series hangs on the image of a father who will go to any means to find his lost child. This image was evoked to me in the music video “Everything” by Lifehouse, and the image today for me as a father has remained a particularly emotional one.

The second, and perhaps the more prominent message of the series, is that of deification. In this story, each primary character is moved towards putting on a mask in order to become something greater than their ordinary selves. This applies to both the heroes and villains of the story, and for good reason. While one typically sees deification as the process of becoming a saint, it is also true that the opposite direction of this path is an anti-deification, becoming an idol, a monster, a demon. The story speaks to how few steps it takes for one to cross the threshold between saint and monster, that sinner can become saint, and that hero can transform into the monster it fights. More importantly, it communicates how this battle between the two deified forces occurs invisibly in the midst of ordinary and mundane individuals, who either abhor, adore, or are indifferent to this conflict.

One such character, Overman, finds the maskless mass abhorrent for their inactivity, and although Overman is a menace and a monster in his motives, he is true to pick out the unmotivated mass as not participating or at least acknowledging something greater taking place.

In one sense, the masks in this book are the vehicle of this divine agency, the veil that reveals humanity’s nature and potentiality. The story is a book about sainthood in the sense of a transfigurement of the human, while also being a thriller of a creature feature where the mundane becomes a monster at night. This book hopefully challenges the reader to not remain idle and without identity, but to “put something on” and allow that idea and future self contest against other great Masks.

What I challenge each of you is to wonder if your book has a universal call to action, a message it needs to say that can compel a noble initiative.

And if your story is perhaps all dream, all illustrious, and without this core message, I challenge you: make it say something!

How To Make/Use Effective Characters

When I started “Masks” I had somewhere around a dozen character ideas brewing in my first drafts. I began the book not by writing a book at all. I wrote a lot of short stories of normal human beings who decided to put on a mask and take to the streets, fighting crime through their own talents and new identity.

The problem I commonly face is that I have a ton of great character concepts floating around, and either there’s no room for them or there’s no clear way of how to use them effectively. The other issue that sometimes ends up happening is that the characters change on me half way through any version of my drafts–as if they have a mind of their own!

I’d like to offer some insight on character creation and development by taking from two characters from my upcoming book Masks: The Unmercenaries. Through this not only will you get a taste of what you’ll see in this book, but you may glean some useful insight in your own character creation.

In this post, I’m featuring two characters: Marionette & Red.

Illustration from Part 2, Illustrated by Lexi Takis Art


Marionette has a role of featuring the ugly face of human trafficking while also embodying a spirit of vanity and dishonesty. She is a literal “Mask” in terms of putting on a façade and fooling others through the superficial appearance she dons.

That being said, this character wasn’t made overnight, and actually wasn’t even in the first draft. Her character stemmed from quite a few concepts, borrowing from a gothic “wraith” and another character that possessed an alias impossible to track down due to their obsession with plastic surgery.

As an aside, in middle school, I found myself both haunted and fascinated with the “gothic” image. It was a bit of a taboo for me in my traditional upbringing, but nonetheless it was a stark image that stood prominently against the rest of the student body. Even gothic and metal rock music had a similar foreign/taboo appeal to me because it was on the fringes of what not just myself but many friends considered “normal”. I mention this not to comment on the “gothic” phenomena, but I think the impact and feeling I had of this morbid fascination provided me some good material as I was constructing a haunting seductress.

Before Marionette, I had tinkered with quite a few “pimp” characters to suit the needs of human trafficking for the criminal syndicate “the Den.” One of those concepts got archived when they just didn’t fit with the tone of the role, and the other limped along as a place holder who just didn’t possess a rich identity or image.

It took a long time for Marionette to enter the scene for the first book because of a reservation, almost a reverence for a few character ideas, as though I was too afraid to use them now that I’d be without them in the next story. What I think we ought to remind ourselves in these situations is that our preference and reservations can’t hold up the creative process. Invariably, the book will tell us who to write and when to write them in. It took some time to listen to my intuition as to the “mismatched” nature of Marionette’s predecessors, but we shall find that when we give into our writer’s gut and use those great ideas first that we will have fewer hang ups in writer’s block, and the story will essentially write itself.

Her character also blossomed when I thought a little more on the “role” that this slot played in the story. Marionette stood well ahead of her predecessors because she broke a mold of casting the “human trafficker” as a male. Employing some gothic elements also happened to match the tile set of the book’s “season” (Halloween), and the “puppeteer” worked nicely with the role she was to play as a manipulator.

If there’s three pieces of advice I can pass on from building up her character, it would be:

  • Draw from memories & impacts of your formation/development. There’s something rich about our emotions and impressions from childhood even up to and past our puberty. Those feelings are buried ore that can be tapped not just for great literature but for better understanding of ourselves.
  • Don’t “save” all your best ideas just because you don’t want to use them up before your next book
  • Strongly consider the “role” each of your characters serves. When a character’s features can echo their narrative purpose, that character will naturally blossom and even become more memorable to your reader


Red also took a bit of time to develop as a character.

The very earliest drafts of Red were far from her current appearance. Back when I had been writing character featurettes or short stories of vigilantes inhabiting this “city of sin,” I had wrote a featurette on a former sex worker who took up the mantle of crime fighting. While the original concept had intrigued me, the image and feel of the character came across as campy and shallow. This is a case where a character concept has been archived for better use in a future book, but the original short story helped me form Red’s backstory.

Without giving too much away, the short story featured a limo ride and a recruitment offer from a wealthy gentleman’s club owner. This piece was borrowed for Red as an inciting incident for her to take on a mask (to fight men like this).

But the ethos of Red’s personality of being sweet yet spunky came from my imaginings of some prominent figures from church history. There’s incredible stories of sharp, strong-willed, and even cheeky saints such as St. Katherine & St. Marina (even Joan of Arc). The icons and images of these saints are always sweet and beautiful, and yet the church describes them in a militant way, highlighting their courage and spunk. Red emerged from these very old stories of saints in her personality, something that for centuries has inspired millions which I believe could use reinvigoration today.

The image of Red’s mask, however, took a bit of time to entirely settle on. Her hoodie and gasmask was first adopted as a kind of simple yet iconic urban image of a scoundrel, kind of like a rioter or graffiti artist. The components of her mask were meant to be not at all flashy or expensive, but simple while also being stark. The gasmask has always been a kind of mask that I see as aggressive, even “predatorial” with its large goggle eyes and snout like nose. Choosing the color “red” for the hoodie felt like a natural choice which I could spend pages on expounding about its symbolism. That being said, the components of all this came nicely together with this ironic and fairy-tale-esque image: Red Riding Hood & the wolf.

If there’s three things I learned from constructing Red’s character, it would be these to pass along:

  • Write “character featurettes” or short stories before you spin your main plot. Not only is this great for world-building, but you’ll have lots of content to use for backstories and future character concepts
  • Allow characters to change cosmetically and deeply in all your drafts. They’ll grow and develop and show you who they were supposed to become
  • Borrow from stories of old. History is full of rich figures, and the ones that we have celebrated in children’s stories and in the lives of saints are worthy of being brought into our modern stories.

Wishing you all the best in your venture of making rich and effective characters!

Christian Fiction and Explicit Content-Swearing, Sex, and Violence

King David's Letter to Uriah

A personal struggle I have is enjoying a dark and edgy genre while staying true to the grit, all the while operating from a Christian background.

Is it ok to swear in your book?

Is it ok to talk about or depict sexual content in your book?

Is violence or gore appropriate for my book?

This is at least the tension I feel as a Christian writer who is struggling to find the middle ground between perverse R or M rated content while still wanting to be taken more serious than a PG read.

Not to be overly critical of my Protestant friends in storytelling, but sometimes I find movies and literature appearing noticeably tame and heavy-handed. This isn’t meant to be a scathing criticism, especially if your aim is to produce literature for a targeted Christian audience.

Though I do wonder who we might be missing if we shoe hole ourselves too tightly into a puritan mode of storytelling. I see literature as having a potentiality towards evangelism, but in order to have our art reach an audience outside of our own, I think it important to give some consideration to the zeitgeist, or at least to see how our art will compete with what is popular and celebrated.

That being said, forsaking all our integrity and prudence for the sake of being “in” or trendy isn’t the answer either. I’ve noticed media nowadays having a kind of “quota” of violence, obscenity, and nudity needed in order for it to compete with the market, and I think we don’t want to fall into that category of media that uses swears to show we are edgy or shows a nipple so that our male audience sees the whole piece through.

So where is the line?

The problem is that I think the line doesn’t exist, or at least this is the case for literature. I think most of us have a kind of moral compass to discern when a show depicts sex in such a way that it becomes borderline pornography and when a show uses gore to such an extent that it just seems flashy and grotesque without adding any substance. The “we know it when we see it” rule seems to apply here, and that then might just mean we need a second set of eyes and ears that we can trust to offer a Christian perspective to what we have written as far as it being too much or too tame.

That being said, I think a golden rule to this end is to see the explicit content as a necessary means rather than something off the spice rack that we use to sprinkle in to add some flavor. I don’t believe adding explicit content is absolutely necessary to reach an adult audience, and I’d like to site how wide an age range Tolkein and Rowling have reached without embellishing at all in this regard. That being said, the aforementioned authors protect themselves from this through operating in a fantasy genre that can contain its own culture and flare by merit of its genre, whereas a Christian crime novel might have some inescapable wrestlings with explicit material.

Again, I do think if we keep our attention mostly on the story and symbols within it rather than becoming far too wrapped up in imagery and realism that we will not only find ourselves staying true to our integrity, but also will not bring much attention to a writing that is tame on such content. A good story should be able to stand alone without a viscerally immersive story that puts you into the heat, the sweat, the messiness of this adult content.

The last piece of advice I can offer, is that if we are truly Christian authors, we might want to consider making God part of our writing. I admit, sometimes I felt strange about God blessing my writing knowing full well that the content was dark. But perhaps He will still grant us that blessing if our intention is to speak something true or good in the end. Perhaps He will steer us from the “too much” lane and be with us in the writing process even when it gets bumpy, not unlike our own real lives that tend to be imperfect but still lived with good intentions.

That all being said, I would like to offer some “guidelines” or considerations on the topic of explicit content.

Vulgarity-know your limits

What I’ve recently done in my work in progress is searched the document and kept tally of individual curses/swears I’ve used.

I do this, because not too long ago, I remember there was a “quota” in Hollywood that would deem a movie rated “R” based on its frequency of the usage of certain swears. Some swears, it seems, grant a movie an immediate “R” rating, whereas other films have a threshold of how many times more “tame” vulgarity can be used before it gets to that point.

The last I checked, it also seems Hollywood ranks vulgarity based on the swear word’s content. Words that have had a longer history in the English language in regards to referring to let’s say “common” things (hell being a place of perdition, bitch being a female dog) even if they are used in a diminutive manner don’t necessarily make a movie rated R. What words DO seem to take that effect is anything that is sexually explicit, inferring sexual acts or sexual body parts (your f bombs and so forth).

I think imagining your book in terms of rating is a helpful guideline. If anything else, it keeps a guard rail up from allowing your imagination from going wild. Besides, if you have any thoughts of your book becoming a film adaptation, it might be helpful to already start thinking about the boundaries you have with your language.

What I would also like to offer in this approach is by setting some personal boundaries for yourself in terms of frequency and for words themselves. If your novel is 300 pages, can you set a 3 word limit for each swear (not 3 total swears, but 3 damns, 3 hells, etc)? What about just saying no to certain words? Can you grow comfortable in putting a fence around some words you know are just a bit excessive when all you really need to convey is a crass character or a heated argument?

How many shades of anger will we really miss if our “what the f___” becomes a “what the hell?”

Sex-Consider the collateral

I specifically mention “collateral” because I think this is the real concern of adding sexual content in any form of literature, whether it is in book or video form.

Of all the explicit content in fiction that we see, the depiction of sex is the most harmful as it can actually stir up action. While listening to the Boondock Saints MIGHT instill in us a looseness about our tongues or scar us with their string of cusses, and while some gruesome horror films might scar and haunt us in their depiction through cruelty and visceral detail, sex and nudity can become a gateway for the viewer towards objectifying not merely the characters/actors, but those around them, and spiral into far more crippling habits.

A rule I try to imagine for myself–again imagining a literary piece ever picked up and then adapted later–is, “if this ever becomes a film/show, what risk do I have of nudity being portrayed” or “what if a loved one were to star in this role?”

How we can desire to protect our loved ones from exposing themselves through the appetitive/predatory clutches of Hollywood and not mind celebrities to engage in this practice is confounding…but it might do us all some good if we actually lamented for these famous figures when they have been demeaned to not merely share something intimate to the entire world, but to engage in something dehumanizing as filmed sex (fake or not).

It may not seem as though there’s much wiggle room on this particular one for the aforementioned reasons. That being said, if we look at Scripture, we know that the Bible is not without some uncomfortable stories of sex. That being said, I don’t personally read David watching Bathsheba and feel my passions stoked from this story. The contrary to this, however, might be the Song of Songs which does have a bit more colorful language regarding passionate love language.

To this end, I recommend reading some of these stories in the Bible and considering when detail is modestly left out, even though a very perverse thing is inferred. A great cinematic example of this is Casa Blanca, a film that infers a sexual relationship but to its time depicts such an altercation through two censored adults in bed smoking. Inference can be our best friend.

To close, as mentioned in vulgarity, I think intention is important to discern with this content as well. Does every romantic couple in our book require an erotic scene? Do we feel pressured to hit a quote for sexual content? Is our temptress character cleverly portrayed in their role or are we taking a more crass and easy option to depict them with such colorful and racy words?

Violence-let the reader fill in the color

This is perhaps the most difficult topic to write, namely because the piece I find myself working on seems to really teeter on the topic of “what’s too much violence”. The other issue to this is if you ar reading this blog, chances are your dark, Christian work could survive without any vulgarity, without any sexual content, but perhaps not so with violence.

Violence is conflict, and conflict is needed in our stories. Violence is our dial to intensify the conflict, to make our audience feel peril and worry for our characters, to give them the full scope of the intensity of the battle. Violence is perhaps the most tolerated of explicit content, perhaps because we are so familiar with it, or perhaps because there seems to be no fine line with “what’s too much”. As mentioned before, vulgarity seems easy enough to quantify and categorize, and so too with nudity (what parts are shown, how often, etc). But what’s “too much” violence? Blood? Decapitation? A gunshot wound? A knife wound? An autopsy? A car accident?

Scripture perhaps does not make this dilemma much simpler. The psalms speak often about festering flesh, shattered teeth, and broken bones. We read in the story of David how he cut off the foreskins of the Philistines and then one of the most popular figures of the New Testament, John the Baptist, is beheaded. The stories of the saints is even more problematic as we read about skin being flayed, bodies being twisted, flesh being burned, and the most horrible executions and tortures imagined…

Even if we were to say we ought to be careful to not put a microsope on the violence itself–to perhaps say the overarching even of violence rather than to get pixel-by-pixel on the blood and guts–we will find ourselves in a difficult circumstance as we find ourselves writing about torture not unlike the saints writings. Details–physical details especially–will evoke emotion from our readers, and so deferring to vagueness seems to not give enough room in this regard.

That being said, if our whole book is nothing but gore and guts, I think we ought to wonder what the impact of the 11th occurrence of it will be versus the 3rd. Scaling back the details at least so that only a few moments are really punctuated with detail might not only help us discern what is too much gore and violence, but also help us consider how to pull our punches so that we save our biggest knockouts for when they matter.

It’s not a perfect solution, but I find the topic of violence one that will require a great deal of more discernment rather than clear boundaries as this kind of content itself seems to be difficult to categorize and know exactly when it is too much.

in summary…

I empathize with the struggle between the integrity of faith and imagination, the slider scale of modesty and flare. Perhaps you have already made up your mind on the subject and have found peace on the particular rules you have set for yourself, but for those of you who are toting the line, I think the best thing you can do is to set up some rules, see how they work, and above all: pray.

Though I don’t want to speak theologically out of turn, I think our imagination does come from something invisible, something possibly invisible and hopefully good/holy. That may not always be the case. To this end, be discerning with your thoughts and pray for some clarity. I do think God puts good ideas into our head, but that doesn’t mean the enemy isn’t looking to corrupt our imagination as well.

Be watchful about these thoughts, set some rules, consecrate your work, as for God’s mercy and grace for your shortcomings and inspiration to keep writing.

Happy Writing!

The Unsatisfying End of Mandalorian – And What It Did Well Before

Spoiler Aelert


What Mandalorian Has done well

Before I point out the frustrating blunders that the last episode hit us with, let me begin with some praise.

Mandalorian is perhaps the best new thing that has happened for Star Wars and perhaps even Disney. I am not sure I am not the only individual who will claim that I became a subscriber to Disney+ solely for the Mandalorian–but having infinite access to Marvel and Star Wars in my free time certainly helps as well.

But why has this show been such a hit? I have some theories.

The Faceless hero

Mandalorian accepted an outright challenge writing in that our protagonist follows a creed that prohibits him from showing his face. This was not a rule that any of us were really expecting given our prior exposure to Mandalorians like Jango and Bo Katan who had no qualms of showing their face. This felt like a new but welcome piece of added universe building. Why was it welcome though?

Because the challenge merited it.

There’s no shortage of heroes and villains who have had to communicate their emotions through little medium, such as eyes or body language. I remember being quite impressed with Tom Hardy’s performance of Bane, who communicated a seething and pretentious villain with little more than his eyebrows and posture. This challenge is not a unique one, but it’s exciting to see how actors, directors, and writers seek to communicate character depth and emotion without usage of facial expressions.

Our protagonist, Mandalorian, is albeit a rather stoic character who would otherwise without a helmet still come across as rather cold–and I think that’s why we love him too. Still, I vividly remember the scene of him flying off from dropping off Grogu (Baby Yoda) and the feeling of hesitation that was communicated without any words and without any expression.

Lastly, the path taken in this show of having the anonymity of the Mandalorian being so sacred brings some big payoffs when our hero DOES show his face. We see vulnerability against his prejudice for droids, seeing the higher path of accepting help from our Good Samaritan Nurse Droid in order to fulfill his duty to protect others. Even more astounding was seeing him break his code in front of someone who mocks his code (Bill Burr’s character) when he lifts his helmet out of love and concern for rescuing Grogu.

All the characters

But all credit should not be given to just our protagonist. Each and every character feels…full. There’s no proper way to describe it, but with each character we have a succinct feeling for them, a sense of what they are about, what they are like, and what we can expect from them. While there might be a temptation to say such archetypal characters could present as predictable or one-dimensional, I’ll argue that the predictability makes their deviation from their predictability all the more rewarding and the succing nature of each character memorable.

Quil and Cara are examples of simple but fun additions. Both are salty veterans, both offering aid to the galaxy’s finest warrior: the Mandalorian. Yet their talents and view of the war are opposed and rather simple; Quil pragmatically served the Empire with his intellect for his freedom, Cara is a freedom fighter and a brawler who is motivated by hatred for what the Empire had done to her planet. When they meet, we are rewarded with incredible foils: two salty veterans, on different sides, with different talents, but with a similar cause.

To close on this note, we see the IG droid. A friend once told me IG droids were supposed to be formidable and intimidating death machines, yet what we see from Episode 5 is kind of a stock bounty hunter that cosmetically doesn’t even appear all that terrifying. But when the IG droid goes gunslinging, we are wowed and giddy with what he is capable of doing. What makes this character even more affable is his simplicity: he has simple programming, to kill, to get the job done, and to never be taken hostage. This cold killer is lacks a great deal of depth because it is so simple, and yet when we see it reprogrammed, retaught by Quil, and sacrifice itself roundabout to its programming, it feels absolutely complete, without having need for any deep backstory or deeper motives.

A Celebration of fatherhood

I recently became a father, so this one is a bit personal.

I know there’s been a bit of a complaint of our male figures not being sensitive enough, but I think Mandalorian does not roll over to this complaint. Instead, it addresses a deeper need we all have: to witness a loving father.

The Mandalorian throughout is stoic, laconic, and an archetypal male in his flat voice and cowboy demeanor, so the concern we have for the male figure keeps its form. While keeping its form, it slowly introduces the sensitive, but not by highlighting a feature, but by highlighting a role: father.

The Mandalorian changes his materialistic worldview of getting paid and having the best armor for the sake of rescuing and caring for this affable child who is fatherless. Instead of cloistering him in some compartment at the bottom of his ship and ignoring his peevish, childish quirks, he learns to embrace them, handing Grogu the metal ball from his ship, and letting him sit in his lap.

What’s interesting about the resurrection of this figure of the father is that it is hallmark to Star Wars. Fatherhood was a them in every trilogy of Star Wars. In the original series we see an estranged father through Vader and Luke. From the prequels we see an absent father in Anakin’s history supplanted by adopted fathers such as Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and even Sidious. In the most recent trilogy, we explore an adopted fatherhood with the fatherless Rey and a twisted fatherhood with Sidious and Rey. Mandalorian, as a kind of sci-fi western, didn’t need to explore this theme and could have perhaps been just as successful without the theme of fatherhood. And yet it boldly attempts to resurrect and harken back to this theme, and grants us our typical masculine figure who addresses our desire for seeing sensitivity through his role of father.

The Universe

It’s been said before, but it deserves repeating: Mandalorian deepens the sea of the Star Wars Universe rather than just branching off into a shallow stream loosely connected to the franchise. We see similar alien races, similar planets, technology, and hallmarks to each of the trilogies that grants us that blessed feeling of nostalgia; for me, it came in spades as it reintroduced Bobba Fett. Comparitively, the last trilogy of Star Wars movies felt like the latter, a kind of river flowing out from the great sea of Star Wars, going in whatever direction was the path of least resistance until it pooled and puddled into a dirty lake. Sure, the last trilogy tried to echo, like George Lucas’ “poem”, the original trilogy, but the execution of this still felt forced and alien (pardon the puns).

Further, the original Star Wars followed a format that knew worked: the Hero’s Journey. Star Wars, when it came out, felt like it belonged, like it was the natural sci-fi movie to the adventure stories we crave and for the heroes we so love. Mandalorian didn’t necessarily follow Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, but it borrows off of the hallmarks and motifs of a genre we already know and love: Spaghetti Western. Although many hardcore sci-fi fans might argue that Firefly carved out for itself the title as the first sci-fi western, Mandalorian does it in a way that doesn’t feel as though it copies from an already successful franchise, but seeks to be its own entity while still being unabashedly part of this genre.

These are just a shortlist of Mandalorian’s successes that I can personally see, and I’m sure there are many more talking points as to why this series has attracted such great attention. As much as I’d like to continue to highlight what is successful about this story, I feel as though the last episode of this show lends itself to some important pitfalls that we writers need to look out for.

Why Episode Chapter 16 of Mandalorian didn’t deliver

The First underlying problem – No New hope

I will begin my critique by confessing that I, and perhaps many others, are making some assumptions about the end of Mandalorian Season 2. It seems as though the chapter of Mando and Grogu is finished, and we have every reason to believe a new book unfolds as we literally see Bobba take Jabba’s throne with the cryptic “The Book of Bobba Fett” opening. This is problematic, but I should begin by praising one thing this series seems to intend to do well on: don’t milk a series.

We have every reason to believe that Mando and Grogu are going their seperate ways in such a heart-breaking finalle. Mando has taken his helmet off, and Grogu goes off with Luke as the completion of Mando’s quest to reunite him with his kind. We knew this was the goal from Season 1, and it is mission accomplished. As hard as it was to see that parting, it reassures me that Disney is not going to unabashedly limp a series along until it gets old or sickly, but will seek to constantly infuse new life with new creative material.

That being said, seeing Grogu leave with Luke is perhaps my first problem. There was nothing spectacular about Luke’s arrival in the last episode, as the first sign of the X-Wing and the green saber were clear tells of who our rescuer was…but I digress, and this is not my first complaint. My real complaint comes from foreknowledge of episode 8, knowing of Kylo Ren’s execution of Luke’s padawans. I confess I am inferring that all Luke’s disciples are killed by Kylo and that we could all just as easily assume Grogu makes it out alive just as miraculously as Bobba makes it out alive of the sarlac pit. That being said, it’s a grim foreshadowing, so that departure with Luke didn’t make that parting silver lined at all or brighter…it made it only more hollow and despondent. For such a bitter good-bye, please Disney, give us some hope.

Plot holes

This was perhaps the most problematic phenomena in the last episode of Season 2. As mentioned above, we don’t have a lot to go off of that Mando’s plot arch will go anywhere else. He has his armor, he delivered the child, and the very last scene features Bobba, not Mando; I’m not complaining about such a grim and delicious scene of Bobba reclaiming Jabba’s palace, but it gives absolutely no closure to the plot arch we had been following. I have every reason to believe that Mando will become a cameo to whatever spin offs we see come down the pipe, that the new “Mandalorian” will in fact be Bobba, and that everything we began with Mando will fall into the background.

And there’s a lot that has fallen into the background…

To begin, Mando’s history. We see flashes of his family being attacked by the seperatist droids–an incredibly well filmed flashback that makes the droids seem so much more haunting than their comical previous installments. These flashbacks made me want to know Mando more, to see his progression into the Mandalorian creed. So what promise do we have of going back into his past if he is not the center of attention? And if Grogu is not his infant side-kick who affords him moments of vulnerability, how will we access that rich past? Perhaps it is doable still if somehow Mando returns for a Season 3 without Grogu, but knowing this was dropped in Season 2 felt like a hollow tease.

Perhaps more important of a plot hole was the darksaber. There was a lot of hype for this since the end of season 1, and perhaps the height of Chapter 16 was that tension between Mando and Bo Katan. I was convinced to see a content between the two warriors right then and there, and instead we are given absolutely no closure as to the possession of the darksaber by the end of the episode. Perhaps it would have been too much to wrap all up in the last episode, but lets face it, season 2 had its share of “fill in” episodes such as frog lady which could have extended the finale instead of throwing in a wayword quest.

On top of the darksaber is the status of Gideon. Is it problematic to the Mandalorians that he is left alive as we are given the impression when he is taken in? Is he arrested by Cara or just executed? The final clash of Gideon and Mando was lackluster at best, and his futile stunt with the blaster in the end only made him seem even more feeble than the warlord we were delivered in season 1. So what of him? Not even a word from Cara of his arrest, or of execution orders from Bo Katan? Again, a dissonant thread left unwoven into the greater plot.

And then there’s the clones. Now, perhaps the clones that Gideon attempted to make via Grogu will show up in one of the new spin-offs, though I think I felt most excited by this plot arch in season 2 and hoped that our heroes’ journey would revolve around the investigation and destruction of this project. And yet all we hear are allusions to the project from Gideon, that he has Grogu’s blood and that the process has begun. But then the subject is dropped, and then we are left to consider the most frustrating question: what’s most important? Is it the clones? Is it the darkblade? Is it Grogu?

And then there’s the potential of the dark side within Grogu. Ahsoka opened up for us another possibility for an interesting plot arch, involving Grogu’s exploration of his powers and his potentiality of having the dark side within him. I believe the scene featuring Grogu tossing around the stormtroopers like rag dolls and then also seeing him force choke Cara from season 1 were teases of this possible plot arch. This tension easily could have made all of season 2, and would have had an incredible unfolding given Grogu follows a morally ambiguous character whose only moral compass is in an archaic creed that he finds himself wavering in. Again, great potential for plot wasted or left empty by the end, leaving us feeling unsatisfied and perhaps even fatigued to wait for whatever comes out by 2021.

The God machine

There’s a device in literature often used when the plot kind of backs itself into the corner: Deus ex machina.

I think the first time I was bothered by its occurrence was in the frog lady episode, wherein the Rebel fighters find Mando and help him kill the spiders attacking their ship. Now, the rebels in that particular episode weren’t as frustrating of a ploy of “the god machine” because at least we know the rebels exist in this galaxy and we were already introduced to them in the beginning of this episode. However, their opportune arrival and then casual leaving doesn’t leave us with a sense that Mando or the Rebels have grown in their relationship or learned anything, but rather feels like a kind of slight reminder that the Rebels are the good guys. Combine this frustration with their short appearance with Cara later on which, again, culminates into nothing.

But the “god machine” really felt as it took place in this episode in two different ways: the darktroopers, and Luke.

The darktroopers, albeit not too nuanced and actually appearing as quite sinister, lose their luster after they are expelled from the imperial cruiser and then come back when we all remember: they are droids, with jetbacks, and need not breathe. Their return to the cruiser to create some tension for our heroes feels like a vain ploy, a panicked invention of the writers saying, “oh wait, we need one more big setback, especially to reintroduce an old hero!” Perhaps instead Mando could have detonated said dark troopers and then we could give some space for Gideon to pull one more over all our heads through his tactical genius so that perhaps we could fear and despise him properly again. Instead, the darktroopers return for the sake of Luke’s arrival.

The clashing of these two “god machines” is self-defeating. Luke’s arrival needed to be grand, and so the dark troopers return to make us all feel that the battle isn’t really won, and then this problem we see is solved by this deified force that slaughters the droids without any issue. It’s a wholly unimpressive scene which I believe comes from one writing themselves into a corner. Despite not feeling any hope seeing Luke recruit Grogu, we needed Grogu to be reunited with his kind, and so Luke had to arrive. But his arrival needed to coincide with all the other plot points that have been ongoing throughout the series: the darksaber, the clones, Gideon, Bo Katan, etc.

Perhaps the intention was to evoke a kind of nostalgia of seeing our old hero return, after the galactic civil war had ended. Still, the feeling of nostalgia was not captured in this episode as I found Luke’s arrival as not only overly simplified, but also upstaging of our true heroes: Mando, Grogu, Cara, and even Bo Katan.

Give us the child

An unfortunate part of Season 2 was having Grogu absent for much of the second half. I realize that the plot perhaps had to go this route and that season 2 might have felt like “nothing can go wrong” without his capture, but there was a definite risk and loss in having his capture take place in Chapter 14. Just when we see Mando and Grogu’s relationship really blossom in Chapter 13, then we are given an episode of Grogu meditating for most of it–albeit, we are reintroduced to Bobba in a fantastic way–have almost no exposure to him in Chapter 15, and then really only a good heaping of it in Chapter 16.

First off, this is precious time to develop emotional build and pay-off for Mando and Grogu’s final parting. Keeping the two characters away and showing very little of Grogu in the process doesn’t reinforce the endearing feelings that we received in Chapter 13 when we see Mando inspire Grogu to use his powers. Instead, I felt atrophe for their connection, and then a kind of unfairness knowing the two would not see each other again–and not so much an emotional unfairness that serves to make the audience feel a certain way, but more so a literary mistake that didn’t follow through on what it attempted to deliver.

Lastly, Grogu is part of the reason why we love Mandolorian. Sure, the series is a fun spaghetti western in space with an awesome cast, but Grogu was the center of our memes for such a time. Season 1 did something incredible in not only being bold enough to return to an epoch of puppet use in cinema, but to perfect it, creating a character that feels so real and that could steal all our hearts so easily. It’s a mystery how Grogu became so beloved so quickly, so then when we see so little of him for the final episodes of Season 2 it feels like we’ve missed half the show, the other protagonist we know, love, and care about.

In conclusion

There are plenty of other series that deserve perhaps this amount of heat or more. But because Mandalorian has been such a genius, well-intentioned, and heart-capturing piece of art, I believe that the conclusion of this series/season deserves some criticism.

I am willing to accept that some of my critique is perhaps off-base or inaccurate, but what might be useful for every author reading is to consider the emotional reactions we seek from our audience.

Mandalorian created incredible characters that we cared about, rooted for, cried for. We ought to take a page from their book as we look to create/forge our own characters.

Mandalorian evokes feelings with subtle details, and we too should explore how some of these details and movements can be exploited in our own work.

And finally, we should keep a leery eye out for a quick and easy finish that is tempting to use for the sake of closing our own stories, and keep mining for avenues to take in our literature so that what we write/create feels whole, contained, and not empty or incomplete by the ending.

And with that…”I have spoken”.

NaNoWriMo – Topics Spring Board & Best Practices

I’m writing this post four days late, and perhaps you yourself are late in the race or are stuck in a ditch with your writing. Never fear, we are in good company, and November is far from being over.

NaNoWriMo is an incredible call to action for all writers out there, especially for those of us who are distracted from writing, stuck in a writer’s block, or simply lapsed from the practice. If you haven’t touched your pen & pad or keyboard in some time, join the fight and dedicate at least an hour every day to just writing!

Easier said than done, right?

Hopefully what this post offers is some means for you to get your muse and writing vigor off the ground as well as provides a spring board of ideas. I’ll do my best to keep this brief because I don’t want to take up too much of your writing time with reading!

Good strength and happy writing!

Best Practices-making the most of this month

  1. Take a shower or a walk: Staring in front of a computer screen or blank piece of paper is often paralyzing. Even worse if you have a half-finished sentence, paragraph, or chapter without knowing where to go with it. Brute force will only take you so far. There’s something liberating about the white noise of a shower or lawn mower I have found that can kick up a whole slew of ideas. When I’m stuck on a plot point or paragraph, I’ll often just hop in the shower for a bit and just kick around ideas. I also find that monotonous tasks like lawn mowing also helps giving me time and headspace to think up new ideas or chew out old ones.
  2. Get rid of your distractions: If you haven’t tried a social media fast, I highly recommend it. When we hit an obstacle in our writing often we turn to the scrolling through of our news feed, open up another tab, and go down an unnecessary rabbit hole. While sometimes youtube can provide some necessary research and ideas, be sure that all your time that is meant for writing isn’t spent on only watching/listening.
  3. Low-Stimulus Mood Music: That being said, youtube can be a helpful tool in providing some necessary background to your noisy environment. Also, if you have a live channel playing ambient music there’s less temptation to go down a rabbit hole of other videos with music playing. Personally, I enjoy lo-fi music without lyrics. This is my typical go to for ambient music.
  4. Set Goals: Daily quotas and schedules I find to be personally motivating in my writing trade. Devoting to X amount of words/pages per day is sometimes more profitable than just setting aside time for writing. Start off with a number you know is reasonable, based on something you’ve written in the past. If you can’t find a number yourself, dedicate today to writing 500 words. That’s it. But then increase that number each day, or up it by a couple hundred at the end of each week.
  5. Set Aside Time (Mornings): I used to enjoy writing at night because I’d find I had a lot less stimuli, fewer interruptions, and I could force myself in my youth to stay up late. But what I have found is that the real magic of writing happens in the morning. Think about it, your mind is totally refreshed, especially after having sorted your entire day out in dream format, and you probably have some great ideas from last night’s dream or nightmare! Painful as it may be if you aren’t a morning person, try waking up one hour early, and just try it once with a cup of coffee.

Topics Springboard-What should I write about

Maybe you feel you need to take a break from your novel and rejuvenate. Maybe you just want to start writing but aren’t sure where to begin.

Short stories may not be your thing for your ambitious novel-writing mind, but I promise you, they are fantastic spring boards for new ideas/books and are valuable exercises in honing your writing skill.

I promise you, you have a plethora of grand ideas that haven’t been penned out yet, locked somewhere in your head. My goal is that this unexhaustive list will pry some of those ideas out from your mind.

Because some do better with elaborate prompts and others do better with short springboards, I’ll offer first a list of larger prompts, and after that short bulleted ideas to spring off of…

7 Longer Prompts:

  • Your greatest fear: personify it, put a character that is you or someone totally different in that circumstance, slowly leading up to the exposure of that phobia of yours. Nightmares are great pieces of inspiration too, often revealing some insecurity or important theme in our own life. Mine that nightmare, and draw out its significance to create an insecure character in need of growth.
  • Personify a feeling: Are you suffering from grief or heartache? Do you often feel a sense of longing for someone or someplace? What is an indescribable emotion that you feel but have a hard time communicating. Personify it. Make it into an antagonist, a person, or even a beast or spectre for some mundane character. Emotions are hard to describe, so give it some flesh!
  • The Familiar Stranger’s Backstory: Take a look at that person on the bus you never talk to, that barista you don’t know a whole lot about, that neighbor that might say hello once in a while but that’s about it, or even a crush you have a hard time writing about. The truth is that stranger you know nothing about has a real story, a good one at that! Make one up for them. Why do they always seem downcast or always smiling? What are the tattoos on their skin about? Do they have a dark secret behind their mundane appearance? Are they secretly a monster or a superhero? Come up with something. Who knows maybe that’ll prompt you to actually interact with them!
  • Borrow from other fiction: I realize we are on the cusp of speaking about plagiarism, but many great pieces have come from a borrowing of old plot arches and themes. Take the recent Joker movie for example and how it drew inspiration from films like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and how the success of the film did not cheaply borrow but springboarded off such productions. Take a mythology, a book, a film, a game, and tweak some details. Change the time setting of the piece or the universe itself. Perhaps look into the villain and hero, swapping their roles.
  • Narrate a dystopia: Pick an ordinary character with an ordinary job. Who are the people he/she interacts with? What are the places he/she passes by on their way to and from work? Do a bit of universe building, but make sure to get into the details, of what shops exist, what people wear, what people are doing, and what’s on the media.
  • Build a Fantasy World: Do some vignettes of different characters in your own fantasy world. Don’t get too caught up on the fine details of the races or magic in this world of yours, but make a unique fantasy environment. Introduce the elements of this new world of yours through the limited lens of your different characters: peasant, royalty, squire, magician. Again, don’t get too caught up on making a fully spelled out magic system or an overly elaborate history of your kingdoms or races, but flesh out the details as your character comes to interact with those elements of the universe.
  • Give someone one power: Typical superhero stories have often deviated from the mundane world to tell of epic battles between superheroes and supervillains. Media like Hancock or The Boys have attempted to keep things a bit more real, underscoring ethical considerations of being gifted with power. Or consider the original idea behind Lord of the Rings, the Greek story of the ring of invisibility, and the moral questions that arise from this unique corruptive power. What if someone just came upon the ability of invisibility, or water manipulation, or flight (your choice)? Pick a simple power, and pick one character–even better, someone you know that isn’t you–and tell of the corruptive nature of this power and allow the tragedy of human hubris to unfold.

23 Short Prompts:

  1. A cherished memory of yours spoiled by unsuspected luck
  2. What the first day/week would really look like for a space explorer meeting alien life
  3. A historic figure suddenly time-traveled to a new place and point in history
  4. If your pet or an animal could suddenly talk for a day
  5. The journal entries of your/someone else’s personal guardian angel
  6. A full day baby-sitting your younger self
  7. The worst possible way December 31st 2020 could go
  8. The final moments shared of the crew/passengers on a sinking ship
  9. The first person on your news feed, the last person who texted you, and the first person you find on a random page on wikipedia are stuck on a desert island together
  10. Literally use the Wikipedia random article function three times and incorporate all elements into a short story between 1000-2000 words
  11. The ghost of a historical figure possesses your old childhood toy/doll
  12. You bump into an ancient deity disguised as someone ordinary, living the life of a mortal
  13. The first day/week of you and your coworkers/classmates surviving the end of the world
  14. The perspective of an inmate in a fantasy/sci-fi prison (even a prison break?)
  15. An overheard conversation/argument of two historical figures at a bar, cafe, or grocery store
  16. How your unborn child might grow up as a teenager and rebel against you
  17. A favorite character/historical figure of yours breaks the 4th wall or comes to knowledge of their own tragic fate
  18. Your favorite hero actually turns evil
  19. An iconic villain forced to work and adapt to a mundane job you worked
  20. Make up a dark past of your parents, grandparents, or great grandparents
  21. The untold story of a minor character or NPC
  22. Thanksgiving dinner with six different characters one actor/actress had to play
  23. Go out in public and write down three lines of dialog you hear out of context and build out form it or lead up to it or literally take one sentence/quote from a random novel on your bookshelf and start your short story using it out of context

Best wishes and write down in the comment section your favorite writing prompt!

9 Writing Mistakes to Avoid So Your Book Doesn’t Take 9 Years to Publish

I began writing my first book in October of 2011, and now my publishment goal is December of 2020 (as I revisit this post, I’m looking actually at my first book being published in October 2021 INSTEAD! 10 YEARS!).

Did you come here for encouragement that you can knock out your book in just a few years? Don’t get too discouraged by my example. I’d like to encourage that dream of yours, and I’d like to give you some insight of what were the hiccups in my writing process that took this a long 9 years to get to the finish line of publishment.

I’ll be real with you, there were some big life events that put hiccups in the writing process, and there’s no way to account for all these. Still, I feel that the factors that have pushed my first book back into nine years of labor fell more me as a writer rather than me having a life.

As I think of the factors that got in the way of my writing, I think I could perhaps break the nine reasons into 3 categories which might be helpful: Energy, Craft, and Momentum. Writing is something we should want to do, something we are passionate about, and all that comes from our creative energy or fuel. Craft is our practice of getting better at writing, and although the best way to get better is to practice, proper planning can help us so that our limitations in our writing craft doesn’t get in the way of our writing process. Lastly is momentum, because if writing takes a fuel to kick it into motion, than we better hope to have something that can keep the wheels turning lest we hit a pothole. Thinking in these categories might help you identify what’s getting in the way of your writing process, what’s slowing down your progress towards publication, and while I’m sure there are more than 9 factors that get in the way of our writing, consider these categories as you see your book taking some time to being put to the press.

So, without further ado, allow me to encourage you in your dream of publishment and take heed of these nine factors that got in the way of me finishing and publishing my first book.

1. Vision

Vision is what promotes a great work environment. Having worked for a board of taskmasters whose only mission/vision statement was “we’re in this, all-together” to a state-wide organization that promoted, “to improve the well-being of those we serve by providing highest quality care and service”, I can attest that any entity–whether an individual or a corporation–excels when they have “their eye on the prize”.

We want to make sure we know what our book is about, specifically what aim we are looking to accomplish. For some time I’ve been an action movie junkie, enjoying a good flick because it promises a thrilling plot and flashy action and beautiful cinematography or graphics, but provides little in substance when speaking about theme or motif. This reflected in some of my earliest books growing up, writing up action-packed plots and fantastical characters in a cookie-cutter “good conquers evil” motif without really having any central “why” to it.

I confess, my first book began as such. I’d seen one Halloween a preacher standing on a soap box, decrying a crowd of costumed celebrants for putting on a mask and celebrating Halloween. I thought to myself, “that’d make a good opening to a book” without really putting much thought into what my intention with such a plot would be.

What helped me with my first book was wondering what the impact I wanted on my readers, or more specifically how I wanted my audience to change in reading the book. The “change” I reference here is not so much a total shift in ideas or lifestyle, but rather a change in thinking about a certain subject, of breaking some assumptions, of spurring some self-reflection on the topic of identity.

Before sitting down and writing that juicy prologue, consider at least one intended impact your book will have on the audience. Other impacts may sprout up as you write and some unintended impacts may also happen. But having a central “why” to your work is profitable not only in the writing business, but in every business.

Take a page from Nietzsche, that he who has a proper why, can bear any how. Consider your Why, your Theme, Your Impact. This is the first bit of fuel of energy we can use in our writing.

2. Readers

It is in my nature to have very few but very intimate relationships as opposed to many relationships that don’t have quite as much depth. Such is the problem I face with my readers in the writing and editing process.

I have a very strong reader who has not only offered me tips on writing style, but also feedback on character dynamics, critique as to how the plot does and does not serve my theme, and overall someone who has been an invested critic in the best sense of the word “critic”. My book and writing has grown so much from this one loyal reader, editor, and friend who I speak to weekly.

But my regret is not seeking out more of them. It’s easy to get protective of one’s own writing, but having few readers/editors on this journey with you from the start gives you more to catch up on as you start putting plans in to publish. I’ve had to scurry around to find readers who can offer multiple perspectives on not only the plot of the book but also my writing style.

I highly recommend having that one close critic you can lean on from the start, but somewhere in this journey–preferably earlier rather than later–start looking for other readers and editors who are happy to join you on your book’s journey towards its final draft.

You’ll find that having someone who is eagerly looking forward to your next chapter spurs you to keep writing, continues to fuel that creative energy knowing that you already have a “fan base” and people who are invested in your story and its progression. Fuel that tank and find those connections. Of course, use discernment when picking your audience, making sure you are selecting an audience you can trust and an audience that will groove with your genre, and make sure you have a few in your circle who are writers themselves.

3. Boredom & Distractions

Over my lifetime, this has been the greatest killer of my creative energy and of my “works in progress” that have never seen their end. Some of you writers out there may be like me, plagued with the gift of having too many ideas. As you are writing, or editing, you may find yourself tinkering on the side, working on the skeleton or a teaser chapter for another project that you promise you’ll only start once your current piece is at its final draft.

Do not trust such thoughts unless you are sure you are ready to can your book.

I’ve lost months to working on unrelated projects, beginnings of new novels that now have been put on the shelf.

The attraction of this fleeting spirit is that it’s a promise we make to ourselves that we will return to our beloved project once we’ve rejuvenated from a break, like a misguided teenage couple that says, “lets see other people for a while”.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so harsh on this note as breaks sometimes do provide the much needed energy to return to one’s work with rejuvenation, new ideas, and a fresh perspective. Just be careful that it doesn’t become a repeating cycle of canning half-finished books.

I’ll close on that note that discipline is needed in the writing and editing process. Obviously writer’s fatigue sets in and stunts our ability to go back to the manuscript. In the same way that a new project might seem rejuvenating, we also might tell ourselves that taking a break to get caught up on our favorite Netflix series, to log some more hours into our favorite video game, or going down a YouTube rabbit hole might provide the necessary relief along with some new ideas. All things in moderation, but beware that this quickly becomes an excuse to leave a project when we feel the energy leaving from us in the writing process.

4. Plot

What honestly took up a lot of time in the beginning of my book was plotting, and I say this knowing that there are many schools of thought when it comes to plotting a book.

I’ll begin by saying the first rendition of my story was just a snapshot of character introductions, a haphazard montage of some eccentric heroes and villains, without any real direction as to how exactly they would all converge. Well, once I narrowed down from those characters a kind of plot forward, I came to find that I was spitting out chapters sequentially, writing in chapters for universe building, but not actually ever addressing the plot until far too late into the story.

My editor/friend one day on the phone said, “Don’t you think it’s about time we find out what the heroes are after and what this story is about?”

Now, I know that writing without a clear plot sometimes works for authors. I believe Steven King advocated for this route. If it works for you, you an probably skip this section.

Still, I caution anyone beginning a new project to at the very least to have a clear beginning, end, and idea of important “stops along the road”. For this process I highly recommend using either bullets in a word document or going free-hand with a plot arch. As you plot, keep in mind the “utility” of each chapter and what theme or emotion that will be at the spotlight, lest you find that some of your chapters are there to fill in space or to merely link up two points in your hero’s navigation of their quest.

If you really struggle with plotting out a story and feel that using a plot arch might help you provide a bit of a skeleton, I highly recommend looking into Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey”. It’s a 12-point skeleton that lots of ancient and modern stories follow. Some follow this arch tightly, others loosely, which I think is helpful if you know what kind of story and characters you want but aren’t quite sure about the progression of the trials they are to encounter.

As you perfect your writing craft you’ll find plotting theories that work best for you, but knowing that skeleton early on helps keep the finish line always in your sight, and helps you have a kind of measurement of how long your book might take to write.

5. Character Development

So many of my revisions came down to me being unhappy with my characters. Maybe I didn’t like how they looked. Maybe I though they were too dry. Maybe I just didn’t like their name. But I will freely admit that a big part of my problem in writing is that I enjoy working with many characters instead of being confined to few.

I highly recommend making character “profiles” somewhere, wherein you at least write down or think about a few key points: what’s their backstory, what are two or three defining features about them that you can especially use towards enriching the narrative, what they want, and what they offer to the story/plot. Even if you throw in a two-bit antagonist who literally just needs to stand in the way of the hero for one chapter, consider those points as it will have an impact on your narrative.

A problem I suffered in character creation/development was having “gimmicky” characters that felt like flashy fill ins to add to the universe, but didn’t actually contribute to the plot. I ended up going through so many revisions just to breathe a bit of life into these sorts of characters and to contemplate what real impact they would have on the story. It’s to be expected that characters will continue to grow as you continue to write and edit, but the more thought you can put into each character’s backstory and their impact on other characters the better position you’ll be in before doing dozens of rewrites.

Another problem some of you might share in with me is the temptation to write out a full rendering of your characters’ appearances. Save yourself the trouble. Despite how badly we want our readers to know EXACTLY what our favorite hero or villain looks like, adding too many details will only get in the way of discerning actual details that will be remembered or that will mean something throughout the story. Limit yourself to three key features, make sure to have one or two of them pop up in the narrative or the action to keep bringing that character to life, and let your readers fill in the rest.

6. Writing Style

One of my biggest regrets is not spending more time on my writing style before beginning my book. Going through old chapters to clean up to clean up run on sentences, passive voice, and a smattering of other syntax hiccups is not only time consuming, but also disheartening. In the editing process I’d often just highlight paragraphs and tell my future self “remove and rewrite all over again” because some sentences and paragraphs were just unsalvagable.

If you’re going through your manuscript for the first time and shaking your head and saying, “why on earth did I write that” or ” do I really write like that” don’t get too bent out of shape. When we start a project or are racing to get to the finish we will often ignore syntax for the sake of finishing the project.

To this end, I have two suggestions of how to improve your writing so as to reduce your time editing for syntax. The first suggestion is to make sure to be reading something as you are writing, specifically a book that fits the tone and audience that you are writing. Learning the narrative pattern of other published authors gives us a kind of alignment in our writing, because chances are that published author probably studied another successful author before they published their first work. The second piece of advice–which runs somewhat contrary to point #3 of getting distracted–is try writing small projects on the side that can sit on their own. Writing is an exercise and a skill that we need to grow in. We can use our novel to help hone that skill, though it may come at the cost of doing a lot more editing in the end. Work on a short story, nothing too ambitious, and have someone read it for readability instead of content.

I also encourage investing some time in listening/reading from other authors who offer advice–no this isn’t a self plug. I’ve spent hours watching youtube tutorials on the “dos and donts” of novel writing, dialog, plotting, publishing, etc. By listening to accomplished authors and editors on any myriad of writing topics will help you spot out your own blindspots in writing so that when you get to the finish line you don’t double your work after you find that one ill-attended blindspot.

And make sure to ask your readers what’s their opinion on your writing style. Do they find your sentences/paragraphs too lengthy or confusing? Is your vocab too lofty or misused? Do you write more thoughts and universe building instead of scenery or emotion? Do you write too much scenery or emotion? Get a second opinion, compare your style to your favorite authors that fit into your genre, and save yourself some time from doing serious facelifts at the very end.

7. Goal Setting

The last three topics are that of momentum, and setting goals is such a huge help in not just getting your book finished but also in keeping that writing discipline going strong. Not all of us can be career writers where deadlines are set for us, so being your own manager and staying self-motivated is important for us who are doing this on the side.

Setting goals such as “I’m going to finish this chapter in x days/weeks” or “I’m going to finish revising this buy the month of…” has helped me light a candle under my butt so that my writing time doesn’t suffer. When we’ve taken a break from our book or are finding it hard to open up the laptop and go back to the manuscript, having a looming deadline serves as a great motivator.

It goes without saying to make these goals reasonable and so that other parts of your life won’t suffer for your writing ambition. But also make sure that you have micro and macro goals, ideals of when large parts of your book might get finished, and small reasonable goals for the day or week of what you’d like to see accomplished.

8. Editing Fatigue

I swear it’s a real thing. We all have an inner critic that either kills our momentum as we are writing something new because we are afraid its not our best work, or that nagging compulsion to go back and totally revise an old chapter so that it fits with the new direction/character/whatever we have beset ourselves on.

I find that going back and editing chapters during the first draft process to rarely be of help. Still, I confess that I participate in this vice, that sometimes I can’t help but feel compelled to write an entirely new chapter so that I’m confident about my new direction for my book going forward.

Although I’ve mentioned above how not doing all you can in your writing craft of perfecting your plot, characters, and writing style at the start will cost time in the end, one must be careful that the constant editing doesn’t completely squash one’s motivation to write and to go forward with their first draft.

The truth is, when you get to your 2nd+ draft, you will be doing entire transplants of sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, so letting our anxiety of whether or not our chapter “was good enough” stop you in completing your first draft is really only to our detriment.

9. Writer’s Block

The best for last. Or rather the worst.

Much like true suffering, writer’s blocks are sometimes inexplicable. Sometimes we are merely at a loss for words. Sometimes we see the scene ahead of us and see it as an impossible thing to pen out. Sometimes our characters are just not working out the scene or dialog we intended and so we just leave the keyboard and chose not to return for some time.

Writer’s block is paralyzing, and it kills our momentum.

But what do we do about it?

A temporary break from the keyboard, I find, sometimes DOES alleviate the problem. Sometimes staring at the screen and knowing how much more I have to say is a crippling thing that requires a break. Sometimes I cannot write or finish a scene because I don’t know what’s supposed to happen next. Take a shower, take a walk, sit in silence, pray, mow the lawn, but do something to get away to do some thinking. I think subconsciously the bright screen of my computer is often pressuring me to write, and this is where the paralysis comes, and that somehow when I don’t have to focus on looking at something, when there isn’t that impatient screen looking back at me, I find my relief.

Or just write. And write it bad. Get the bad draft out of the way so that you can get to the good stuff. I say this as someone who has done entire rewrites of chapters and feels liberated after the 2nd and 3rd rewrite. Even if you are on your 3rd or 4th draft, if you can’t get over that writer’s block through a healthy break, then just plow right through and see what your reader might have to offer, or wait and see what might strike you for inspiration later.


This is by no means an exhaustive list of issues you may encounter in your writing, editing, and publishment of your magnum opus. But I write all this knowing the frustration of telling interested readers, “oh yeah, it’s been about 9 years of work I had to put into it…” I admit there’s some pride in knowing how much labor has gone into my first book, but I also look at that time as being years lost of working on something else as well.

Don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself in the same category as me or if you find yourself struggling in any of those 9 areas. You can get your book published. But it starts right now. So close this tab and get back to your manuscript!

And if you have any other obstacles that have gotten in the way of your book or would like to share how long its taken for you to get your book published, leave a comment below!