Featured From the Archives: How to Write Martial Art Fight Scenes — Boise Bookfest Edition

In just a few short weeks (three to be exact), I’ll be attending the Boise Book Fest in Boise, Idaho. It’s going to be a lot of fun, featuring panels and workshops from several big-name authors in the industry and filled with tons of new books to check out and have signed by their gifted creators. If you’re in the Boise region, or willing to travel for a fun day of bookish geekery, I highly recommend attending.

But that’s only partially what today’s post is about. See, I’ll be doing a presentation there as well — on how to write fight scenes. Some of you may recall the post below, which I wrote a couple years ago. It’s still continually among my top searched articles, so I know it’s still a topic of interest to many out there. Which is why I pitched doing the live version when author Clara Stone approached me about presenting in Boise. But in order to do so, I’m going to need some volunteers. The best way I can think to showcase how to write/improve a fight scene is by providing actual examples.

So here’s my proposition: I’m going to open up a new feature of this blog, similar to the critique based entries I’ve seen others do. Willing writers can submit their fight scene, and then I’ll provide a published critique with suggestions for how to improve it. For now, I’m thinking I’ll do this once a month, unless it garners enough interest to make it a regular, weekly posting. My hope is that there are those among you who are brave enough to take me up on this offer. I’ve seen other blogs do this with the first 250 words, queries, or even the first 5 pages of a manuscript, so why not do it with a fight scene? Yes?

If you’d like to throw your name in the hat for the first feature, which I’ll post on Oct. 7th, please contact me. Please note that by submitting your fight scene, you’ll be agreeing to allow me to post both the original excerpt and my suggestions on this blog, and subsequently, any presentations that are derived from the material here. I hope you’ll take advantage of this free opportunity to gain some valuable editorial feedback, but in the meantime, here’s a reprise of my original article on . . .

How to Write a Martial Arts Fight Scenes

by Kisa Whipkey

(Originally Posted 8/9/13)

Fight scenes. Whether live action or written, they can be such a pain to pull off, falling all too easily into the realm of cheesy. You know the ones I mean; we’ve all seen and read them — fight scenes where the creator was more focused on what looks cool and/or badass, and less so on believability.

Recently, I sent a frustrated plea to the Twitterverse, begging authors to do their research before including the martial arts in their fights. Believe it or not, it wasn’t until after I sent that plea that the light bulb appeared and I realized that I’m in a unique position to help my fellow authors. As a martial artist, a writer, and an editor, I have insight that could help authors overcome the hurdle of fight scenes. So today, I’m going to use that background to dissect a written fight scene and hopefully illustrate how to effectively incorporate martial arts techniques. About time, right?

First, let’s take a look at what you don’t want to do.

_________

Charlie grunted as his back slammed into the wall, his opponent’s hands wrapped thoroughly around his throat. He struggled, trying to kick his opponent in the groin but only managing to connect with the man’s shin. The attacker snarled, loosening his hold on Charlie’s neck. Without pausing, Charlie threw his left arm between them, turning to the side and trapping the attacker’s arm against his own chest before elbowing the man in the face.

The attacker stumbled backwards, grasping at his bleeding nose. Charlie didn’t wait. He had the upper-hand. He advanced toward his opponent, his hands raised to guard his face, his body relaxed into a sparring stance. The attacker glared up at him, straightening into a matching stance.

With a yell, Charlie threw a round-kick at the attacker’s head. His opponent ducked, sliding between Charlie’s legs on his knees and jumping to his feet with a swift kick to Charlie’s back. Charlie stumbled forward, turning to face his attacker before he was struck again and instantly ducked the knife hand strike aimed at his head. Charlie responded with a flurry of punches, varying his target from the man’s head to his torso and back again. The man blocked most, but a few landed, knocking the attacker from his feet.

Charlie stood over him for a split second before finishing him off with a well-placed axe kick to the sternum. As the attacker rolled on the ground, sputtering, Charlie ran for the safety of a nearby cafe.

_________

Now, that’s shockingly not as bad as some I’ve seen, although it’s sure not going to win me a Pulitzer either. Some of you may even think this is an all right fight scene, aside from the obvious grammatical flaws that could be fixed with a few more drafts. But this is the example of what not to do, remember? So let’s figure out why.

Did you notice that I gave you very little about why this fight is happening, or where? I didn’t even give you the attacker’s name! But I did tell you in agonizing detail the techniques they’re using and where the blows land, placing all the emphasis on the choreography, and none at all on the characters or motivation behind this moment. The result? A laundry list of steps you could re-enact, but that you feel not at all.

That’s because this approach is all telling. That’s right, the infamous telling vs. showing debate. I tell you exactly what’s happening, but I don’t show it at all. You don’t feel invested in Charlie’s situation. You don’t feel the emotions. You feel excited, sure, because it’s action, and even poorly written action is exciting. But it has no lasting impact on you, does it? This scene is about as forgettable as they come.

It’s also unrealistic. Who out there noticed the completely implausible choreography I threw in? I know the martial artists in the audience did, because it screams “cool factor,” its entire existence a nod to something awesome and badass, but that, in reality, is actually physically impossible.

If you guessed the knee slide under Charlie’s legs, you’d be correct. Bravo! You get a cookie.

This is why it’s important to understand the dynamics of a fight, the kinesiology behind the techniques, not just the choreography. Those who have done a round kick know that while performing it, you balance on one leg, your body positioned so that your center of gravity is entirely over that back leg. If someone were to try and go through your legs the way I described, they would take out your supporting leg and you’d both end up in a flailing pile of limbs.

And then there’s the knee slide itself. If you read it closely, you realized the attacker is standing still. Where’d he get the momentum for a knee slide? Unless they’re fighting on a slick, hardwood floor that’s just been mopped, he would need a running start. I don’t know about you, but if I tried to drop to my knees to slide anywhere, I’d be sitting on the floor looking like an idiot just asking to get kicked in the face. It’s just not believable.

So let’s try that scene again, this time, fixing all those things I called out.

_________

Charlie grunted as his back slammed into the wall, Eric’s hands wrapped around his throat. Hate emanated from his friend’s narrowed eyes, mixed with judgment and accusation. Charlie gasped, choking as Eric’s fingers cut off his air.

His mind screamed at him, desperate to know why it was being punished. His lungs burned, gasping, sucking in nothing but fear. The edges of his vision started to grow fuzzy as black dots appeared over Eric’s shoulder, distorting the red glow of the club’s EXIT sign like reverse chickenpox. Panic flooded his veins with adrenaline. He struggled, clawing at the fingers sealed around his throat. He tried to kick Eric in the groin, but only managed to connect with his shin, the impact ricocheting painfully through his foot.

Eric snarled, loosening his hold and giving Charlie the opening he needed. Charlie threw his left arm between them, turning to the side and trapping Eric’s arm against his chest before elbowing his best friend in the face.

Eric stumbled backward, grasping at his bleeding nose. Charlie didn’t wait. He advanced toward his opponent, his hands raised to guard his face, his body relaxing into the sparring stance he’d practiced for years — knees bent, weight forward on the balls of his feet, head lowered. Eric glared up at him, straightening into a matching stance. Their eyes locked. It was just like old times, only now, there was no one to referee the match, to stop it before it went too far.

All of this for a girl. Charlie knew it was ridiculous, that he should walk away, but fury mixed with adrenaline, coursing through him in a pulsing heat. If Eric wanted a fight, that’s what he’d get.

With a yell, Charlie threw a kick at Eric’s head. Eric ducked, sliding easily into a leg-sweep, knocking Charlie’s support from under him. The ground smashed into Charlie’s back, forcing the air from his lungs in a rushing wheeze. He rolled backward to his feet, still fighting against the tightness in his chest. Eric closed in on him, pushing his advantage, arms and legs flying. Charlie blocked as many of the blows as he could, his arms jarring in their sockets every time he did, his ribs and face blossoming with pain every time he didn’t. He stumbled back through the shadows of the alley until he was once again cornered.  Cringing, he held his hands up in surrender. Eric backed off, eyeing him warily as he spit blood onto the darkened pavement.

Charlie’s knuckles were bleeding, his ribs bruised, his lip split into an oozing gash. It was time to end this.

“All right, I give,” he said,  the words raspy and pained as he forced his battered throat to work. “I’ll never go near your sister again.”

_________

Still not the most epic writing sample, but you see the difference, I hope? Now, we not only know who Charlie’s fighting, but why. I’ve also fixed the choreography so that it’s believable, and added emotional content and description, putting the focus on the characters instead of the martial arts. No one cares about the techniques, but they care a lot about how those techniques feel, the emotion behind the action. Understanding that is the difference between creating a scene from a clinical distance and creating a deeper POV that will resonate with readers.

So, how can you take your fight scenes from flat to amazing? Easy, just remember these three things:

  1. Show, don’t tell. The techniques themselves are not important, the emotion is. Only use a technique name if there’s a reason we need to know the exact kick, etc.
  2. Believability is king. Never throw something in just because it sounds awesome. Make sure it’s actually physically possible and makes sense with the choreography and your world.
  3. When stumped, ask an expert. If you’re at a loss, find someone familiar with the martial arts and ask. Don’t just rely on Google and Youtube. They won’t give you the insight personal experience can.

That’s really all there is to it. But if you’d like to see if your fight scene hits these markers, feel free to take advantage of the offer I mentioned above. 😉

Edit Letters: What They Contain and How I Draft Them

Last week, we covered the basics of what an edit letter is and when it generally happens in the editorial process (along with a few key ways they differ from beta reader and CP feedback). This week, I want to quickly talk about the process an editor goes through to create one. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just a matter of simply reading a manuscript and regurgitating thoughts into semi-coherent notes. A large part of our job is actually to help prepare your work (and you) for exposure to the often unfiltered reader response. And trust me, unless your editor is a walking cliche of the editors-are-evil myth, reader reviews will hurt a hell of a lot more than anything your editor will say. Your editor should have your best interest in mind, and they realize that hearing that your manuscript needs even more work isn’t exactly a pleasant experience.

But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself. Believe it or not, the process of drafting an edit letter is actually quite nerve-racking for most editors. It’s often our first true interaction with an author, and so we’re never fully sure how they’re going to react to the things we have to say. No one likes being the bearer of bad news, after all. Just like no one likes receiving it. But such is the nature of the job. We’re not paid to sugar-coat and coddle. We root out and diagnose the cancers in your manuscript that you might not even realize are there, and then, most importantly, we tell you how to cure them. That’s a hefty responsibility, don’t you think? Which is why I never understand when authors assume this is a quick process.

Every editor does this phase of edits differently, but the intent is always the same, and the finished product will be very similar. So let’s talk about how I get to that final letter.

The first thing I do is download the file to my Kindle. That might sound obvious, but I have a very specific reason for doing this — it helps keep me from becoming mired in things which technically fall under line edits. For a dev edit, I have to mostly turn off “Editor Brain,” which is something you’ll hear editors joke about if you ever manage to find them chilling in their natural habitats. For those unfamiliar with the term, Editor Brain is the inability to look past or otherwise ignore grammar atrocities and other minutiae. When you spend most of your days mired in fixing those things, it can be really, really hard to turn that facet of your brain off. It becomes muscle memory, a reflex. But the point of a dev edit is to focus on the big picture, not the minutiae. That comes later. So I physically prevent myself from being able to comment on or address those line-edit type flaws by putting the manuscript in a venue where I’m more accustomed to simply being a reader.

If you noticed, though, I said I have to “mostly ” turn off Editor Brain, because really, editors never truly manage to turn that perspective off. Which is a curse they don’t tell you about when you’re a fledgling editor dreaming of all the awesomeness that being an editor kinda sorta (as in not at all) entails. I still notice the finer details as I read, the flaws that will need to be ironed out during the next round of edits, I just don’t do anything about them.

Instead, I carefully read the manuscript in its entirety, making notes about things that are murky, elements that aren’t explained or developed enough, sequence issues, or even just emotional responses, as needed. I use the notepad feature on my phone for this, because it’s conveniently mobile and doesn’t require me to infringe upon my “reading” space, thereby keeping my focus from slipping back to those aforementioned line edit problems.

Once I’m done reading, I set the project aside for at least twenty-four hours. And again, I have a very specific reason for this. See, ideally, your editor should be one of your biggest fans. Which means that there’s a period during the review process where the reader part of us takes over. And that means that, if you did your job well, we finish the book with a massive book hangover and a lot of “OH MY GOD I LOVED IT” clouding our judgment. There’s an emotional high that comes from reading a really satisfying work, even if that work might still be a tad rough around the edges. And emotions get in the way of logical analysis. So I give myself time to savor that book hangover and come down from the overwhelming number of reader feels I usually have after finishing a story.

Then, once I can don my editor hat again, I take my notes and compile them into the actual edit letter, carefully phrasing my feedback to toe the line between honest and supportive, compassionate and constructive. Or at least, I do my best to. I usually start by listing the good stuff: what I loved, what it reminded me of, what the author did really well. Then I segue into the standard categories I generally include: Concept, Voice & POV, Pace, World-Building, Character Development, Miscellaneous/Manuscript Specific Concerns, and  Overall Thoughts. I don’t always need all of these, but that’s the template I start with. I find it helps to take what can feel like a massive wall of text and break it into bite-sized portions, both because it’s a tad less daunting and because it’s easier to continue the discussion.

Once I identify the categories I need, I’ll draft my analysis of each, identifying both what’s working and what isn’t, and my suggestion for how to fix it. This takes anywhere from one to three days, factoring in both the time it takes to carefully draft a letter of that length and the mental gymnastics needed to not only identify the problems, but also the solutions that most feel like the author’s style and voice. It’s a lot like playing with puzzle pieces, rearranging and tuning and tweaking until everything snaps into place.

Then I proofread, take a deep breath, and hit send, crossing my fingers that it doesn’t unleash a storm of backlash. Not because I’m not confident in my analysis and suggestions, but because, until I hear back from the author, I’m as nervous and anxious as they were while waiting to hear from me.

And there you have it, my personal approach to creating the developmental edit letter. This concludes the portion of my presentation I did with C.M. Spivey. At the conferences, we then went on to showcase the edit letter I provided for From Under the Mountain, discussing the various aspects and how Spivey interpreted and implemented my suggestions. Since that material is copyrighted to the author, I’m not at liberty to post it online. But perhaps if you ask nicely enough, they will on their own website. 😉

Next week, I’ll have something new to talk about. I’m not sure what yet, but I’ll find something. If anyone has questions or comments regarding edit letters and the process of drafting or receiving/implementing one, feel free to post in the comments below. Otherwise, happy reading/writing!

Featured From the Archives: Elitism in the Arts

This week, I’m preparing for a presentation I’ll be giving with the brilliant Cait Spivey at the upcoming PNWA Writers’ conference in Seattle (and again at the Willamette Writers Conference two weeks later). I’ll post about it here after we’re done, as it covers a topic I think many of you will find useful, so if you can’t come see us do the talk in person, don’t worry. We’ll find a way to bring the talk to you. 😉

But as my non-fiction creative juices are currently tied up with those efforts, I unfortunately didn’t have time to create something new for the blog. Instead, I’ve opted to dredge something up from the archives that I believe still resonates (maybe even more fiercely) with today’s tumultuous world of publishing. And given that we’re heading into one of the heaviest periods of Twitter pitch parties and literary awards/contests, I thought it might be a good reminder to everyone preparing to brave those waters, as well as those of us bearing the responsibility of authority.

Elitism in the Arts

by Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 3/28/14

No-one-can-make-you-feel-inferior-without-your-consent-Eleanor-Roosevelt-1024x946

This is a post I’ve dreaded writing, because in order to do so, I have to relive some painful memories. But I feel like this is a message that needs to be said. And so, though it comes from a negative part of my life, I’ll try my best to keep it positive. First, some raw honesty:

Throughout my creative journey, I’ve tried many different branches. And I’ve felt like an outsider every time. The writing community has been welcoming, but recently, I realized that the literary one is a completely different beast, and that I will once again be facing down the enemy of being different. This isn’t a battle that’s new to me, though. In art, I was ostracized for being too commercial. In the Martial Arts, I wasn’t traditional enough. And in writing, I’m not literary, coming from a film background rather than one in English. But, you see, the problem isn’t me. Those are all things I’ve been told, things that have created scars I’ll never fully erase. They’re not the product of a lack of ability, or talent. No, they’re the product of a phenomenon that should never exist — elitism.

People hold the arts up as this ideal place for individuality, where you’ll be free to express yourself without fear of judgement and prejudice. But those people are wrong. Rooted in subjectivity, the arts are actually worse than other industries. Instead of embracing the different, the weird, the innovative, they shun it, viciously tearing down anyone who dares to try something new, or becomes too popular. And who can blame them? People who do things differently risk the status quo. And we can’t have that. (Even though that’s the motto flying on our brilliantly-colored flag of creativity.)

Humans are pack animals, no matter what we’re led to believe. And nowhere do you see that penchant for cliques more prominent than in the arts.

I came face to face with it for the first time in college. (Now, you should know that I went to college at the ripe age of 16, so I was still highly impressionable.) There I was, testing my wings for the first time in what I thought was a safe environment to do so. College is all about experimenting, right? Finding one’s self, and blah blah blah. Well, I had the good fortune to find a college professor whose close-minded bullying nearly had me hanging up my pencils for good.

I don’t know the story behind what was happening in that woman’s life, but that also shouldn’t matter. She was an educator, someone entrusted to help mold the minds of our youth. And she abused that power. I was stuck with her for three classes that semester — color theory, figure drawing, and beginning painting. Things started off great. I’d never been exposed to formal art classes, so I was a sponge, putting my best into every assignment. (I’m also a perfectionist with a compulsive need to get A’s, so you can connect the dots on my level of participation.) She seemed to like me, and I did well in all three classes. Until one day, about halfway through the semester, when she asked me the fated question I would learn never to answer honestly — what kind of artist do you want to be? Stupid me, I told her the truth:

“I want to be an animator,” I said, not realizing that word was akin to the most vulgar thing in the dictionary.

She looked like I’d spat in her drink. She backed away from me, a completely disgusted look on her face, mumbled something snide and walked away. After that, my grades plummeted, she wouldn’t call on me during class, and it was like I didn’t exist. But the kicker was the final project for the painting class. The assignment was to create an abstract painting that had no clear top or bottom. I’d never done abstract before, but I did my best, following the assignment to the letter.

Like all teenagers, I was battling some emotional instability, so I tried to capture that turmoil in paint. Doesn’t get more “tortured artist” than that, right? Well, when it came time for the final critique, this woman took my painting to the front of the class, turned it on its side and said, “Oh my God, where’s Bambi?” (Yes, that’s a direct quote.) I’ve never seen a room full of young people so silent. I swear, they all stopped breathing, staring at me with wide eyes as this teacher continued to ridicule me in front of them all, informing me I had failed because clearly, I had portrayed a forest fire.

I left that class in tears, dropped out of school and gave up on art for the next five years. All because I’d made the mistake of uttering the “A” word.

That’s not the only time I’ve run into that kind of elitist attitude either. Over the years, I’ve been accused of plagiarism (because I happened to write a sci-fi story that featured a weapon mildly resembling a light saber), told I wasn’t good enough to amount to anything, and been patronized because I don’t do things by the majority norm. And I know I’m not alone. These kinds of experiences are par for the course in the arts.

You want to be a singer? Too bad, you suck.

You want to paint? Well, you’re not Van Gogh, so you may as well give up.

You want to be published? Every door will be slammed in your face.

Overcoming adversity is the very definition of being an artist. But it doesn’t have to be that way. So what if someone wants to play the violin with their toes. Or paints murals on street signs. Or writes something a little rough around the edges. It doesn’t make them any less of an artist. The different creative communities claim to be so welcoming and open-minded, but instead, offer only elitism and rejection. If you’re not the alpha of the pack, then you’re the scapegoat. Or worse, lost somewhere in the middle, amongst a sea of sheep.

What’s the point to all this? Simple — don’t let yourself fall prey to elitism. Words have power, whether they be said in jest or seriousness. And that power lasts. To those of us in a position of authority (agents, editors, publishers, teachers, etc.) I implore you to think about what your rejections do to the people who receive them. So it wasn’t your cup of tea. That’s fine, but be nice about it. There must be something good you can give them, some piece of encouragement and/or advice. There’s no reason to get up on a high horse and strip them of their dignity. It’s our job to be the mentors, to help people achieve their creative dreams. Falling into the pack mentality is easy to do, but if we all try a little harder to remember our humanity, and not our need to feel important, we can eliminate experiences like those I went through.

And for those of you who have suffered, or are suffering, under the sword of elitism, keep your head up. Just because one person says you can’t, does not mean you can’t. It took me a long time to get over what that painting teacher said, and I would have destroyed the piece if my mom hadn’t saved it. But I’m glad she did, because I no longer see the emotional turmoil it represented. I see a fire-breathing dragon. It’s a reminder of what I’ve overcome, and that it’s okay to fight for your dreams. So remember, as the great Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” We all have a choice. We can become victims, or we can become dragons. I chose to be a dragon, to fight back against elitism and approach my creativity with strength and resolution. Which will you be?

 

Abstract Painting

Untitled

by Kisa Whipkey

Copyright: 2000
All Rights Reserved

 

Featured From the Archives: Which Comes First, Character or Plot?

Sadly, my good intentions for returning to my more prolific blogging days got derailed by what can only be described as a deluge of other obligations, both personal and work-related. But that’s not a trend I wish to continue, and I will be striving to find more time to create the snark-tinged articles you’ve all grown to know and (I hope) love. In the meantime, I present one of the last remaining archive-articles that hasn’t already resurfaced at least once. Enjoy!

Which Comes First, Character or Plot?

by Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 6/21/16

This is the literary equivalent of the chicken and egg scenario. Plot needs character in order for it to resonate emotionally with readers, and character without plot is really just someone standing around doing nothing. But which comes first?

There are writers in both camps who insist one or the other is the penultimate starting point for a story. But I disagree with all of them. I don’t think there is any one way to start. I firmly believe that every writer is different and will create in a way that’s unique to them. To try and constrain that creative process to a strict set of rules is futile, in my opinion. All it does is force writers who don’t naturally work that way to feel frustrated and inferior when their work fizzles and dies. Muses are fickle creatures, and prone to abandoning you when you try to force them into a rigid box. So instead of telling you that you absolutely must start with character, or plot, or even idea, I’m going to encourage you to experiment and find your own style.

But first, let’s take a look at the three different starting points, shall we? It’s hard to make an informed decision without all the facts, after all.

Character-Centric

Character-centric writers always start with a character. (You’ll see this approach a lot in fan fiction, where the only creative outlet left to the writer is character creation.) They create every last detail, from name all the way to their relationship with their great aunt Matilda’s cat who got ran over when they were four. These writers know their characters inside and out, to the point that you almost start to wonder if they’re creating a character for a novel or an imaginary best friend. Armed with pages and pages of character sheets, these writers have everything they need to get started — except a story.

Even though they’ve spent days, weeks, or months learning every minute detail of this fictitious person, they don’t have a story yet. No one wants to read those pages and pages of character notes, because they’re about as exciting as a clinical psych report to anyone but the author. You could have the coolest character in the world, but no one’s going to care unless you give them something to do. Which is why, oftentimes, you’ll notice character-centric authors struggle with plot. Since their focal point is the character, they simply don’t know how to create something interesting to fit them into, often resulting in a storyline that feels pointless, ambling around and around with no direction.

But, to their credit, character-centric authors school the rest of us when it comes to creating fully fleshed-out, believable characters. They just have to work a little harder in the plot department is all.

Plot-Centric

On the flip side of that coin is the plot-centric writer. These people start with a plot. They create every twist and turn, every multilayered goal and mini-quest in a road map of storytelling awesomeness. They know exactly how the story starts and ends, and everything in between, before they even put a word on paper. But the thing they don’t know? Their characters.

Characters are pawns to these writers, often showing up in outlines with nothing more than a placeholder name. The ins and outs of personality aren’t important unless they drive the plot. And often, that becomes a problematic downfall. Dull, cookie-cutter, two-dimensional characters are a hazard, a quagmire that too many plot-centric writers fall into. Just like the lack of plotting abilities in a character-centric story, the lack of rich characterization in a plot-centric work can destroy an otherwise amazing book.

Plot-centric writers have to pay extra attention to character development if they want any chance at resonating with readers emotionally. Plot only holds a reader’s interest so long; it’s the characters we really remember after we reach “The End.”

Idea-Centric

Outside of the character vs. plot debate is a third camp of writers — the idea-centric crowd. We (because this is the approach I use) are content to let the character and plot people duke it out over which element is more important because we go at it in a completely different way. The idea-centric writers don’t start with a character or a plot arc, they start with an idea, a concept. This can be a question — E. L. James has said she started with the question, “What would happen if you were attracted to somebody who was into the BDSM lifestyle, when you weren’t?” for her mega-hit 50 Shades of Grey. It can also be a point of inspiration — Marie Lu’s Legend series started with her curiosity over how the central relationship between Jean Valjean (a famous criminal) and Javier (a prodigious detective) in Les Miserable would translate into a more modern tale. It can even be a deeper message —The Hunger Games is actually a statement against the voyeuristic tendencies of American Television according to author Suzanne Collins.

When done well, the idea-centric approach combines the best of the other two, creating an extremely rich experience readers tend to remember long after they finish the book. But the key there is “when done well.” Idea-centric writers have to be careful that they don’t start to sound preachy, especially those with a message to impart. Character and plot can both suffer if the focus is too heavily placed on the root idea, resulting in an even bigger trainwreck than either of the two previous approaches. So while this is the method I use, I’m definitely not saying it’s perfect.

There are many people who will try to tell you their method is best. I’m not one of them. You find characters the most appealing part of a story? Go for it! Be character-centric. Just keep a watchful eye on your plot. You think plot is the all-important end-all? Great! Plot-centric it is. Have fun guiding us through your labyrinth of action. Just make sure you don’t forget about your characters along the way. And if, like me, you find plot bunnies lurking in the weirdest of places, go with it! Some of the strongest works on the market started that way. Just make sure you rein in your high horse before you reach preachy-ville.

Regardless which of the three starting points you choose, there will be things to watch out for. Each has its strength, and each has its weakness. But knowing the pitfalls ahead of time lets you avoid them before they ruin your masterpiece. The point is, there really is no right or wrong method, no matter what random people on the internet say. If it works for you, use it. If it doesn’t, look for something else that does. That’s really all there is to it.

As for our chicken and egg conundrum, you tell me — which comes first? Character, plot, or idea?

Creativity and the Fear of Offense

TRIGGER WARNING: THIS POST IS LIKELY TO OFFEND AND CONTAINS UNPOPULAR OPINIONS. READ AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION.

Social Media. Everyone knows it; everyone uses it. It’s a place to connect, to feel supported by like-minded individuals, to stand up for one’s beliefs. And lately, it has become toxic. Activism comes in many forms, and is a basic human right, but there comes a point when I feel it starts to do more harm than good.

Does the world need to change? Absolutely. Should people fight to be heard? Yes. But when that fight goes from being advocacy for a better world to mob mentality with a hair trigger, we’ve gone from progress to living in fear — the fear of offending.

This is exactly what’s happened to the online writing communities over the past few years. There’s a movement within publishing which advocates for more inclusive literature. And it’s a movement I actually agree with, before anyone tries to twist what I’m saying and claim otherwise. Everyone should have books, characters, stories they can see themselves in. But the problem is that the fight for that inclusive diversity has started to poison the very cause it seeks to spotlight.

Agents and editors are now looking for books which include diversity, yes, but in their attempt to listen to the calls of the community, we’ve turned diversity into a selling point, a box to be checked. The marginalized groups fighting to be heard are not token elements to be thrown into a story simply to increase its chances of acceptance. That’s not how this works. My personal belief is that diversity should just be, the way it is in real life (though I’m well aware that the fight for equality in real life is far from over, and yes, fiction should do better than reality in that regard). Those characters and elements should be treated first and foremost as people, not whatever race/religion/sexuality/disability they might possess. And — here comes a highly unpopular opinion; brace yourselves — I don’t believe that every story needs to feature these things. Forcing a story to be inclusive when, by its nature, it doesn’t want to be, is actually a disservice to the marginalized voices you’re trying to represent.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying that we should go back to the way publishing used to be. No, what I’m saying is that writers who are distinctly unqualified to write about something outside their own personal experience should STOP DOING SO. There’s an undercurrent in the queries I’m seeing, in the whispered opinions no one is brave enough to voice in public, that writers feel they must chase diversity in order to be published. No. That’s absolutely not true. And I’m sorry, but unless you have the personal life experience to pour into your work, you’ll never accurately portray the reality of whatever marginalized group you’re trying to represent. I don’t care how much research you do, or how many sensitivity readers you have, you cannot do them justice if you do not belong to said group. So move aside, let the writers who can tell those stories tell them and tell them well.

These are opinions I’ve held for awhile now, but have never really made public. Why? Well, did you notice what I did there? I put disclaimers and explanations and the equivalent of written cowering in those last few paragraphs. Because I’m a cis, heterosexual white woman, and therefore what right do I have to say any of this? And this, my friends, is exactly what I’m talking about. This is the subversive toxicity that’s permeating all forms of social media. I haven’t said these things because I’ve been afraid of the torches and pitchforks that will likely follow.

But writing is about expression. Creativity is supposed to be free, to represent a piece of the person’s soul. It’s not supposed to be muzzled with the fear of offending the mob, stifled by the terror of being torn to shreds if you make the wrong move. And yet, that’s exactly what’s happened to my own creativity. It’s the reason this blog has fallen semi-dormant; it’s the reason I’m not writing anymore. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. I am afraid. I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing, of unintentionally causing someone pain, of having my life torn apart by the bloodthirsty mob for a single misstep, even one I’d gladly apologize for and learn from. So instead, I hide. I let the fear stifle my creativity until it’s nearly gone completely. Because the toxic environment that has become the online writing community tells me my voice isn’t worthy. My opinions are wrong. I don’t matter.

Again, to be clear, I’m not saying that problematic opinions and stories should not be called out. What I’m saying is that we’ve gone past the point where we’re educating the ignorant, where we’re moving forward, where we’re making the world a better place. Instead, we’re inciting fear; we’re terrorizing those who make mistakes instead of helping them do better, be better. We’ve taken our supportive little community and turned it into a piranha-filled cesspool where only the arrogant, the prejudiced, the assholes feel safe, because they simply don’t care.

Is that really what we want, though? In fighting to be heard, do you, Activist Authors of the World, really want to push away the people who are willing to listen, to correct their ways and be respectful? Do you really want to make them feel so crippled with fear that they stop creating anything at all? To me, that seems like the exact opposite of the intent behind the fight for equality in literature. Perhaps, instead of a social media feed that’s constantly filled with anger, and hate, and vitriol, we should try not being dramatically offended by every little thing. We should try approaching the conversation civilly, without the shaming, the threats, the destruction. We should realize that, in a world where someone will always be offended by something, no writer can ever be 100% perfect; that no one can ever avoid all the possible land mines out there and still sound like a person. Maybe, just maybe, we cut each other some slack and punish only those who truly aren’t willing to grow. But then, what do I know? I’m not one of the marginalized, so I’m not important, right?