Benjamin Sperduto

Fantasy, Horror, & Science Fiction Author

Category: Writing Advice

Bits and pieces of lessons learned over the years on the subject of writing and editing.

You Know, For Kids…

Anyone who knows me even a little will tell you I have quite a stubborn streak.

Sometimes, this can be a good thing. It can make you persistent and committed to the things you believe in, helping you to overcome obstacles and make those ideas a reality. But it can be a problem as well, blinding you to unpleasant truths or preventing you from accepting ideas that you really should consider.

One of my stubborn writing hang-ups has been over the audience I’m writing for. It’s not something I gave much thought to early on because I was writing for myself. Even when I started getting stories published, I took the position that I would worry about my audience after I actually had one. However, this put me in a classic “chicken or egg” conundrum. You don’t want to write for an audience before you have one, but how are you supposed to gain an audience if you’re not targeting one?

To be perfectly honest, I hate questions like this. As a writer, I desperately want to believe that I can write absolutely whatever I want and the ideal audience will magically find it. But what if that audience is, well, not that big? There are some grim realities writers have to cope with in the novel writing business, the biggest of which being the fact that people just don’t read all that much. At the same time, more novels are being published today than ever before, so that small number of readers has an ever-expanding pool of choices. If you can’t find your niche in that market, anything you write is pretty much going to be dead on arrival, lost in a swirling sea of new releases that come and go every single day.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing exactly what you want to write and hoping your work finds an audience. Luck is a huge part of the publishing industry, so there’s always a chance that you’ll write the thing nobody knew they wanted and it becomes a hit. It happens. But I can tell you from experience that the opposite outcome, writing exactly what you want and having it land with a resounding thud, is painful as hell.

My wife has been telling me for years that I should stop trying to write books for people like me and start aiming for a younger audience. That makes sense for two reasons: first of all, I don’t actually read that much fiction these days, so it’s probably unwise to hope that people like me are more frequent readers than I am myself; and second, 10-16 year olds are absolutely voracious readers. My 12 year old daughter blasts through books and binge watches television shows on a regular basis. If there’s anybody a fantasy author should be aiming at, it’s readers like her.

But I didn’t want to write for preteens and teens. I had an arrogant, stubborn mentality of wanting to write for “adults.” Most of my characters are usually older, and I had problems with the idea of centering a story on 18-20 year old characters, much less adolescent aged characters. It wasn’t that I thought it was beneath me or anything like that; I was simply more interested in the conflicts and struggles of characters in later stages of their lives. I was also concerned that I wouldn’t be able to strike the right tone stylistically.

What  got me over my aversion was finally reading the first Harry Potter book (which, amazingly, I’d never done), and watching my daughter obsess over the show Stranger Things. Both instances reminded me of something Michael Moorcock once wrote about the Narnia books. Moorcock hated Narnia with a burning passion because he was offended by the way CS Lewis treated his audience. He thought Lewis wrote like someone who believed kids were stupid (to quote Moorcock from his infamous “Epic Pooh” essay: “As a child, I found that these books did not show me the respect I was used to from Nesbit or Richmal Crompton, who also gave me denser, better writing and a wider vocabulary.”). It occurred to me that the best way to write for a younger audience was to simply conceive a story based around younger characters and then, well, write the way I always write (and toning down the language and the violence just a tad, of course). You don’t have to “write down” to reach younger audiences. Most of these kids can handle whatever a genre writer like myself can throw at them.

So I gave it a shot. Having a typical representative of my prospective demographic living in the house has proved to be great advantage. I’ve been handing off completed chapters to my daughter for her assessment, which has mostly gone well. One moment where I realized just how different of an audience I was writing for came when she criticized a chapter for having very little character descriptions. “How,” she asked, “will people be able to draw fan art of the character?”

That’s certainly a question I never considered before. Still, that enthusiasm and the idea that you’re writing for an audience that wants to contribute to a fandom around the books they read was a pretty good indication that I’m on the right track. The final results are still a ways off, but I feel like I might be on the right track for the first time in quite a while.

Worldbuilding 101: Sleeping Through History Class

This Saturday (January 13th) I’ll be giving a panel presentation on worldbuilding for fiction and roleplaying games at SwampCon in Gainesville, FL. As a preview of the topics I intend to cover, I’m going to do a few posts here on the website. Today’s post has to do with presenting history in fictional worlds.

Look, I get it, I used to teach history. The sad truth is that no matter how interesting you think some historical event might be, it just can’t compete with a student’s latest Instagram notification. Sure, you can spruce things up a bit talking about incestuous royal marriages or get a little irreverent by joking how dumb George Washington must have felt at the Constitutional Convention listening to debates involving much smarter guys like James Madison and Gouverneur Morris (I know, sweet name, right?), but that’s a tactic with diminishing returns because once students figure out those amusing asides won’t be on the test, they start turning them out too. For most students, history is just another class they HAVE to take, and if they can space out for long portions of it and still get by on the accumulated knowledge they’ve gained after years of passive exposure to the subject, then that’s exactly what they’re going to do. It simply doesn’t matter to them for much of their everyday lives.

What does this have to do with worldbuilding? Fiction is all about the here and now. When you’re reading/watching a story, you’re interested in what’s happening and what’s going to happen next. What happened in the past might be important for the sake of context, but it’s not the story itself. Certainly the characters in the story aren’t going to be obsessing over it. Very often, aspiring worldbuilders populate their new creations with characters who aren’t really characters; they’re tour guides. They spout off encyclopedic knowledge about this family or that location or this battle or that empire. Sometimes that information might provide important context for the plot, sometimes it doesn’t.

Take The Lord of the Rings, for instance. The story itself is concerned with Frodo’s journey to Mordor to destroy the One Ring. Sure, there’s plenty of interesting historical detail that gives the world some color and makes it feel like it’s a real place, but do you really need to read The Silmarillion to get the most out of that history? Furthermore, the urgency of the narrative conflict falls flat on its face whenever Tolkien veers off course while the characters discuss the history of some watchtower or keep whilst sipping on afternoon tea. Actually, The Lord of the Rings is an example of another problem with putting too much emphasis on history. In many cases, the history of Middle Earth is far more interesting than the story Tolkien’s trying to tell in the present.

None of this means that history shouldn’t inform your worldbuilding. But you have to keep in mind that people aren’t looking for a textbook or a documentary; they came for a compelling story. History provides color and texture, but it should never be the star of the show. On a related note, it’s perfectly acceptable for the creator to not know things. I have a feeling that the idea of the Clone Wars sounded way cooler as a vague concept in George Lucas’s head in 1976 than when he ironed out the details of it twenty years later. However, not knowing anything about the Clone Wars didn’t diminish anyone’s enjoyment of the original Star Wars. Part of the reason the Star Wars prequels fall a bit flat is because they’re not movies you watch to find out “what’s happening,” but rather to find out “what happened” to produce an outcome you already know about.

History in fiction is like a seasoning. Some people like more of it than others, but nobody wants to eat it by itself. The Silmarillion is a difficult read because it’s like doing shots of paprika; sooner or later, you just can’t take anymore and you have to go rinse your mouth out. As a creator, you might be deeply invested in the history of your world, but you simply can’t assume that readers/viewers will care as much as you. Remember, most of them probably slept through history class when they HAD to take it. How much of a chance do you think they’ll give your world when they’re only there because they WANT to be there?

Their attention is a gift; don’t waste it trying to give them a lecture.

Worldbuilding 101: The Culture Conundrum

This Saturday (January 13th) I’ll be giving a panel presentation on worldbuilding for fiction and roleplaying games at SwampCon in Gainesville, FL. As a preview of the topics I intend to cover, I’m going to do a few posts here on the website. Today’s post focuses on the challenge of portraying fictional cultures.

Few things get creative types more excited than talking about culture in a fictional world. As writers, we like to think of our creations as living, breathing things that go right on existing after we’ve set them aside. As fans, we like to imagine we could actually go to these imagined places just as easily as boarding a plane for the other side of the world. In both cases, it’s usually the portrayal of culture that makes the fictional become real for us. We want rich details underpinning every aspect of life, details to explain how and why the society functions a certain way. We want to know how the culture informs the beliefs, motivations, and actions of the people within it and how it shapes the consequences of their decisions.

The irony, of course, is that actual culture is anything but an orderly construct. It’s complicated, messy, and often doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, even to people who spend their entire lives surrounded by it. Surprisingly, it’s also something we don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about. I mean, do you ever stop and think about, say, eating utensils? Take a fork. Everybody in western society knows how to use a fork (more or less). Why do we use forks? It’s not because they make eating easier, because they don’t. In almost every instance, your hands are much more effective tools for shoveling food into your primitive primate face. No, we use forks because they help us keep our hands clean, because at certain points in human history (around the 14th or 15th century in western Europe, but earlier in other places), keeping your hands clean became equated with socio-economic and political status. The aristocracy begins using utensils at meals and, since social mores are historically exerted downward, the rest of society eventually adopts the trend. Next thing you know, the wealthy nobility are using thirty-five different kinds of forks for a fancy dinner while the peasants down the road (on the other side of a wall by that point) are using the same crudely made fork for every meal. The difference of degree is vast, but everybody has tacitly agreed that forks are great, even though they’d all have a much easier time eating with their hands.

Wait, where was I going with this example? Oh, right…culture…

The point here is that the sociological development of eating utensils and table manners doesn’t make much sense, at least not in the way you’d expect. It’s not a simple case of people changing the way they do something because a new way proved to be better. Rather, it’s a case of deliberately doing something that doesn’t work as well because of some ancillary reason that might not be readily apparent. This is what makes human culture so fascinating. We do all kinds of things that don’t make a lot of sense, sometimes for really bizarre reasons. The worst case is when there’s literally no reason for why we do something a certain way: somebody made an arbitrary decision and we’ve been following that example ever since.

We can accept eccentricities like this in the real world. Life doesn’t always make sense. But we absolutely refuse to tolerate them in fiction. In a fictional world, we expect everything to make sense. In a lot of ways, this is similar to the problem of character motivation and narrative structure. We get angry when a character does something “out of character” or events “don’t make sense.” But this is pretty true of real life. We’ve all made plenty of decisions that an outside observer would be left scratching their head over. Random stuff happens in our lives all the time. But you can’t get away with that in fiction (at least not TOO much of it). Characters have to “stay true to their character” and events are expected to connect with one another enough to form a coherent, directional narrative.

This expectation bleeds into the fictional culture as well. There’s a temptation to provide a lot of cultural context to explain how a society functions. But the more you try to explain why people do what they do, the more you create a rigid and ultimately artificial view of that society. The next thing you know, you’re creating an elaborate calendar system that you think tells us so much about the world, but really doesn’t contribute anything beyond verisimilitude because you’re creating it out of whole cloth at one moment rather than looking at something that developed organically over time (and yes, I’ve done this before).

No amount of appendices and glossaries of slang will make your world’s culture come alive. That’s because the responsibility of conveying that culture belongs to the characters. There’s a great observation in one of the “making of” documentaries for The Fellowship of the Ring where screenwriter Phillipa Boyens said they decided the best way to explain to viewers what dwarves were like was to cast John Rhys-Davies as Gimli and let him show them.

When it comes to portraying culture, then, writers of all stripes should keep in mind the boring old advice to “show, don’t tell.” A reader can pick up more about the role of religion in the world from a character’s off-handed comment about priests than they will from page after page of exposition on the theological basis of the church. To bring the focus back to the earlier fork example, you won’t find many people interested in the lengthy description of the sociological development of eating utensils. Even if they did get through it, they wouldn’t know what to do with it or how to apply it to characters and situations. All the reader needs to know here is that people equate clean hands with high social status, which is easily established with a disparaging expression, a disapproving glance, or a smug comment from one character to another.

My point here is that culture is both impossibly difficult and incredibly easy to portray all at the same time. The conundrum is that it’s something so important that you want to explain it in exacting detail, but the more you do, the more artificial and detached it feels. Finding just the right balance is one of the ongoing challenges that make writing such a compelling and worthwhile endeavor.

Worldbuilding 101: The “Setting” Question

This Saturday (January 13th) I’ll be giving a panel presentation on worldbuilding for fiction and roleplaying games at SwampCon in Gainesville, FL. As a preview of the topics I intend to cover, I’m going to do a few posts here on the website. The first post has to do with the big picture concept of “setting.”

One of the first questions I often ask about a work of fiction (be it a movie, a book, a video game, or a roleplaying game) is deceptively simple: “What’s the setting like?”

Now, that seems like an easy question to answer at first, but it’s harder than you might think. In very broad terms, the question is trying to place the work somewhere in an elaborate taxonomy of genres. But that’s not really all that helpful in describing what makes the work unique. As an example of this, think about the differences between Star Trek and Star Wars. Sure, they’re both works of science fiction that take place in space and feature a wide range of (conveniently) humanoid alien species, faster than light travel, and exciting adventures on distant worlds, but they utilize these common traits in vastly different ways that make them totally unique.

The “setting” question gets not just at the features of the fictional world, but the tone in which those features are utilized. Keeping with the Star Trek/Star Wars example, I recently saw an argument on Twitter about whether or not a Star Wars roleplaying game needed to have a skill dedicated to, broadly speaking, “Computer Use.” At a glance, it might seem obvious that it would. There are computers in Star Wars, after all, so it stands to reason that people would have skills necessary to use them. However, if you really think about it, how much does the use of computers actually play a role in the world of Star Wars (as presented in the movies; let’s keep Expanded Universe/Legends/whatever it’s called these days out of this)? As a setting, Star Wars really doesn’t care about technology unless it involves an impossibly huge weapon system of some kind (Star Destroyers, AT-ATs, Death Stars, etc). Sure, it has tons of computers and advanced technology, but all of it pretty much operates on the principle of “press the button and it goes.” Star Trek, on the other hand, is almost comically preoccupied with the way its technology works. Fixing a malfunction in the ship’s computer or using computer simulations to figure out how to escape some temporal anomaly is a common challenge in the Star Trek universe.

The distinction is important. You’ll notice that Star Trek tends to be at its worst when it tries to emulate aspects of Star Wars and that Star Wars stops feeling like Star Wars when it tries to be more like Star Trek. Setting doesn’t just describe what the world looks like; it also establishes what it feels like to inhabit that world. It’s an aesthetic as much as a description. If you stray too much from that aesthetic, you start to lose the very things that make a setting distinctive.

Now this doesn’t mean that you can’t explore new territory within a setting and redefine what’s possible. For Star Wars, Rogue One pushed viewers beyond what we’d grown accustomed to seeing from the setting, but it remained in keeping with its core identity. Every new thing it gave us felt like something we’d come to expect from a Star Wars movie, even if it was different from what we’d seen before. At the same time, it hit many of the fundamentals we did expect from Star Wars, which made the newer aspects easier to incorporate. The best example on the Star Trek side is probably Deep Space Nine, which took an aspect of Star Trek we already knew and pushed it into a less familiar context. It felt very different from anything we’d seen from Star Trek before, but it still felt like Star Trek because the core elements of the setting remained constant.

When you go about building a fictional world, the “setting” question might be the most important decision you make. It establishes the ground rules not only of what is possible, but also of what is expected. Most of the time, those expectations have more of an impact on the world than any features you might build into it. Knowing what the world “looks like” is important, but you can’t effectively tell stories in that world until you know how it works and feels when all the elements you’ve built within it interact with one another.

Check back here over the next few days for more on the subject of worldbuilding.

Teaching an Old Night Owl New Tricks

I’ve never been much of a morning person. Even when I was younger, I always wanted to squeeze more time into the day by staying up as late as possible. I could get up when I needed to, of course, but I never went to bed thinking, “Man, I can’t wait for that alarm to go off at 6 AM.”

From a creative standpoint, I’ve always done most of my work late at night. When I worked a regular day job of some sort, I would squeeze my writing into the evening hours by necessity. Now that my schedule has flipped around to give me free time during the day, I’m having to adjust to being a morning writer. It’s been a big change, but I think I like it overall. There’s something to be said for being able to hit your writing target for the day before midday. Rather than stressing out later in the day and scrambling to make the most of rapidly dwindling time, I feel accomplished and able to focus on whatever else I need to get done for the day or plan for tomorrow.

The biggest challenge has been establishing discipline at the end of the day. Take last night for example. I should have gone to bed around 11:30 or midnight, but instead I was up until nearly 2 AM because I started working on a blog post that stretched on much longer than I originally intended. The lesson, I think, is to not start something I don’t think I can finish too close to bedtime. That might not have helped me last night, of course, because I totally thought I could finish yesterday’s post within an hour or so.

Waking up after four hours of sleep wasn’t a very fun exercise this morning, but I did at least manage to get my morning writing done, so I still feel ahead of things. I’m glad I’m not facing the stress of wondering if I’ll be able to fit the day’s writing into whatever time I end up having tonight.

I’m not sure if there’s a “writerly lesson” to be taken from this other than recognizing that sometimes it’s worth trying new approaches to your schedule (provided that’s possible given your work/personal life). You might find something that works better than you’d expect. I never would have expected that I’d find writing in the morning to be so productive. It may take me a few months of practice to eliminate my old night owl instincts, but I think I’m on a good path towards making that change.

Finding the (sort of) Right Emotion

As a fantasy author, I don’t often think about how my writing reflects my own experiences in life. Part of this is due to the fact that I don’t feel like I have a great deal of life experience to draw upon. As someone who married and had children at a relatively young age and has lived in the same place for the better part of fifteen years, my life doesn’t seem all that interesting or exciting. But that’s kind of a ridiculous position when you stop and think about it. No matter their age or circumstances, writers are always observing. Sometimes we’re taking stock of our own experiences, but just as often we’re evaluating other people’s lives. On some level, every writer is a bit of a voyeur.

In many instances, though, my personal experiences wind up being far more influential on the creative process than I realize. They also have a way of popping up in places you don’t expect. When I wrote The Walls of Dalgorod, for instance, I was a bit taken aback by how much the father-son relationship between the characters Kirill and Gregorii was informed by my relationship with my father and my own son. The connections aren’t obvious, but there were plenty of times where I found myself drawing upon moments and situations from those relationships that stood out in my mind. Recollections of bad day here, an argument there, or even an internalized sense of frustration or disappointment informed the conflict between those characters even though I’ve never gone through anything so negative or dysfunctional.

When writers talk about drawing upon your experience, we sometimes make it sound like only people who have gone through exactly what you’re writing about can possibly portray those situations on the page. But what we’re really trying to say is your experiences create a window you can see through and help you find your characters on the other side. I find it to be quite similar to acting. You have to pull from your own feelings to portray how someone else is feeling. Writing is just another form of performance in that respect. The emotion you’re using to connect with the characters doesn’t have to square up neatly with their story; you just have to feel something to help convince the reader that it’s real.

The characters in Blackspire go through some horrible situations I’ve never come close to experiencing. But I’ve felt a lot of those emotions in other areas of life, maybe not to the same extremes, but at least enough to help me take a step in a character’s shoes. Once I get that glimpse, my imagination can fill out the rest. I can extrapolate the emotions and have a sense for what it might feel like in another context. Whatever I end up creating from that is still anchored to a real emotion, a feeling I can understand and contextualize. From there, I just need to credibly convey it to the readers, but that’s more of a technical issue I can tinker with and refine over time. You can always find better words and phrases to use, but you can’t get new emotions to convey.

Why You Should Join a Writing Group

You can find plenty of advice on why joining a writing or critique group helps to improve your writing. Setting aside the rather obvious point that having more eyeballs reviewing your work provides more opportunities for feedback, it’s important to consider some of the benefits of these groups that have nothing to do with your own writing, at least not directly.

The novelist John Gardner once remarked that alcoholism was the primary occupational hazard of the author. As much as I love this comment, I think he mistook the symptom for the cause. The real occupational hazard of the author is isolation. Writing is a very isolating endeavor. You can be as outgoing and socially engaging as you want, but at some point, the only way writing is going to get done is when you sit down alone with the keyboard (or pen and paper if you’re self-consciously old fashioned). Once that process begins, it’s easy to become cut off from anything that’s not directly related to the work at hand.

In some respects, this kind of intense focus is a good thing because it allows you to tune out distractions and pour your creative energy into the writing. At some point, however, you need to come up for air and remember that your project doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Your book isn’t the “only book in the world” even though it often feels that way.

Before joining a newly formed writing group earlier this year, I’d never really associated with other writers. I showed material I was working on with a few close friends, but none of them were writers themselves. After a period of frustration over how to direct my writing energies, I joined the group in the hope it might provide me with new perspectives.

After a few weeks of reading various works in progress, I learned that my approach to writing fiction and the topics I choose to write about are merely a drop of water in a vast ocean. This is something I knew intellectually, of course, but it’s one thing to read completed works you might not normally be drawn to and quite another to engage with the authors of those works as they’re writing them. Discussing and critiquing someone else’s writing isn’t just about the writing itself; it helps you to imagine yourself behind another writer’s keyboard, to understand why and how they write. Learning different approaches and techniques to writing can help you to reevaluate your own creative process, which can be quite valuable if you feel yourself falling into unproductive habits or simply want to try something new.

I think it’s healthy for writers to get out of their own heads every so often, and a good writing/critique group can do a lot to bring their thoughts and assumptions about writing out into the open. If you’re stuck or frustrated with your work, exposing yourself to other writers going through the same struggles might just provide you the perspective you need to get moving forward again.

And yes, you’ll have plenty of knowledgeable people to help critique your works in progress, but you already knew that!

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