Archives for August 2016

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10 Ways to Complicate a Plot with Technology

If you go far enough back, a rock was advanced technology.

Whether the advanced technology in your story is a longbow, a microwave, or a nanobot, there are plenty of ways to take advantage of it. Plot complications are just the beginning (but we have to start somewhere). Here are some examples to look at when you’re trying to come up with ideas.

10 Ways to Use Technology to Complicate a Plot

 1. Conflicting Technology Levels & Politics

What? The enemy has more advanced technology than our side? But that means that our heroes are going to have to be creative and go to extreme lengths to win!

Sound familiar? What about the good guys squeaking by to victory thanks to their almost-magical innovation? From movie conflicts to real wars, advanced technology can make or break a country’s power. Your characters will be on one side of the balance (either superior or inferior technology), which changes the direction and flavor of the conflict.

Then, of course, there’s the Cold War and all the spy movies where gaining the most advanced technology was the main goal/cause of the conflict.

2. Conflicting Technology Levels & Culture Shock

When conflicting levels of technology aren’t part of the main conflict, they can also be great for character-style complications (and hilarity). For example, if a character from 1 state has to deal with the other.

Thor is introduced to things like cell phones which he’s never seen before, Stitch is forcibly downgraded from spaceships to children’s toys, and The Fall of Ile-Rien by Martha Wells features characters dealing with the transition in both direction.

None of these examples are the main focus of the plot, but when the characters have to deal with unfamiliar technology, it often causes minor plot complications or helps make existing ones more difficult. Plus, it’s great for characterization and comedy.

3. Mis-use / In the Wrong Hands

What happens if the bad guys get their hands on our super-cool farming technology that would make an amazing weapon? We can’t let that happen!

*cough*

Any sort of power can be misused, and like a kid playing with a new toy, mankind is fast to figure out how to make new technology into weapons. The traditional big plot complications are 1. keeping the technology out of evil hands and 2. saving the world after the bad guy gets his/her hands on the technology (usually by figuring out how to defeat it/destroy it).

Sometimes, writers bury the lead with this one by making the main character unaware that they have the amazing technology (it’s disguised as something else they picked up or inherited). Then, there’s the stories that start after the technology’s been misused. A lot of science fiction falls in that category.

4. Unexpected Consequences

Speaking of science fiction, unexpected consequences is an ongoing theme (A.K.A. a warning from authors who are afraid they’re prescient). It’s an idea that while not unjustified can also act as a shield/excuse for fear of change.

One interesting facet to remember (and use) is that not all unexpected consequences have to be negative. The internet is a perfect example: it has definite pros and cons that no one ever anticipated. That’s the one I’d think about if I was trying to create something an innovation with far-reaching effects.

5. Addiction / Obsession

Watch people walking down the sidewalk, and you’ll see plenty of them glued to their smartphones and other technology (distracted walking). Some science fiction stories have even proposed technology that would be able to take over minds in a very literal way.

Computer addiction is often used for humor, especially with background characters: going to extreme lengths to take technology with them, missing other events due to their focus on their computers, or even stampedes of people chasing a Squirtle.

6. Replacing Humanity

Will AI and robots someday be indistinguishable from real humans? Are they already indistinguishable? Are you a real person?!

Once the kernel of this idea is planted, it’s hard to get rid of – it invokes too much curiosity and fear to go away completely. There’s also the fear of losing jobs to technology, which can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution. If not farther.

With this idea, it’s important to remember to think about not only how the world would change if it were true but also what people would do to try to keep it from coming true. For many, that’s where the real meat of the story is.

7. Privacy

Big Brother is watching you. Between the NSA, movies about stalkers, and the fact that there’s now a video camera and GPS tracking in just about everything you own, it’s easy to see why people start to think they’re being watched.

And let’s not forget identity theft, corporate espionage, and other crimes that involve stealing secrets. After all, anything that connects you to something, connects it to you, too.

8. Social Interaction Evolution: the Anonymity Issue

One of the unexpected consequences of the internet (see number 4) has been the social atmosphere created. People do things online they would never do in real life or to an extent most people wouldn’t dare do in person: bullying, harassment, and pretending to be other people, for starters.

Communicating through technology makes it not only easier to lie but also easier to break the rules of society without facing consequences. That’s definitely something to think about when creating technology for a story.

9. Overload

Think of it as the needle in the haystack theory. The more information and technology that becomes available, the harder it will be to sort through it to find the one thing you want (as the NSA can attest). Until or unless someone comes up with yet another invention to make searches as nuanced as those in the human mind, there’s liable to be a lot of white noise involved in any search or project.

You could also take this the keeping-up-to-date route. A lot of people can’t keep up with social media now, but if the level of complication or integration increased, it’d get much more challenging.

10. Loss of Technology

Ever lost power for an extended period of time? It’s not until the power is out that you realize all the things you can’t access without it: cell phones (eventually), light, heat/cooling, water (in the country), gas stations, refrigerators, electric stoves, etc. Not to mention the internet. That’s the sort of thing that could complicate a story pretty quickly.

Even losing 1 gets complicated, and there are plenty of innocuous (and not) reasons for it to happen: The wireless goes down after a lightning strike, you can’t get a text out at a festival because the masses of people are overloading the tower, your phone got dropped/smashed, etc. It’s amazing how quickly and dramatically losing access to technology can isolate you.

It could be as simple as running out of gas or as complicated as an interstellar plot. Or the character could end up in the boonies where there’s no coverage. Or they could be Amish. The options are endless.

Mix ‘Em Up

You may have noticed that a lot of these complications are used together. Like most writing, mixing and matching often makes for stronger stories.

How have you used technology to complicate a plot? Got any tips for other writers? Feel free to share in the comments.

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5 Major Problems for Writers (or Any Artist)

Writers have a lot of problems (let’s face it). These are the most common – so common that they’re stumbling blocks for artists of any kind. Musicians, painters, sculptors, jewelry-makers, etc.. I have seen all of them struggle with these issues (Heck, I’ve fought them personally in different art forms!). That’s why I consider these 5 major problems for writers.

5 Major Problems for Writers:

 1. Accepting “Good Enough”

There are two ways this hits people: stalling out and not knowing when to stop.

Stalling Out

Some people stall out by telling themselves they’re not good enough. So they never start. Occasionally, they talk about trying to write a book or take up painting again, but they never do. If you really, honestly want to write the book or start painting, kick this idea out the door.

Start writing! Start painting! Start whatever – you’ll never actually become “good enough” until you do.

Here’s another example of stalling out, one that’s far too common with writers: the person who keeps working on the same project forever but never finishes.

At your 10-year high school reunion, Jim says he’s writing a novel. At your 20-year reunion, he’s still writing a novel – the same one. Same for your 30-year, your 40-year, and so on. He’s only a  few chapters in, but every time he reads them, he finds mistakes he has to fix. So he rewrites the same chapters. Over and over again. Because it has to be perfect!

Your first novel is not going to be perfect. Your 54th novel is not going to be perfect. Accept that now, and move on. Don’t rewrite the same few chapters for the rest of your life: move forward. Finish the novel.

Not Knowing When to Stop

Another perfection-driven problem. This is the writer who has a finished manuscript but keeps editing and editing. Re-writing and tweaking but never finishing.

I’ve seen artists with fabulous stuff keep picking and poking at it instead of stopping. Sometimes, they keep toying with it so long that they ruin the whole thing. Don’t do that. Learn when to stop.

 2. Taking Criticism Well

It’s not easy. Oh, no. Especially since some people don’t know how to critique constructively. Not that that stops people from tell you what they think. And in today’s society, neither does politeness.

Even with an editor or someone you’ve asked to look at the book, it can be hard not to be a diva. It’s your book. How could they possibly know better than you? (They can. Whether or not they always will, I don’t know, but they definitely can.)

Worst case scenario, try for a polite expression, say “I’ll think about that,” and then get out of the room before you explode. Rant for a while at home and then do what you said you would – think about it. It might be total crap or not. It’s hard to tell until you calm down.

Or you can forget that option and tell them exactly what you think in that moment. Not the best move career-wise, but you won’t be the first writer to do it.

 3. Responding to Compliments

For some people, this is harder than taking criticism well.

Audience: This is crap.

Artist: Yeah, I know. I messed this up, and I didn’t get to fix this. Oh, and this part is awful! I’m so sorry. Here. Have one for free!

*sigh*

Give those same people a compliment, and they’ll list the same flaws. Like you must’ve missed them, and they’re being dishonest with you if you let them think your work is actually good. If you’ve ever had someone react that way to you, you know exactly how awkward it is. Sometimes, you can even get drawn into an argument, trying to convince the artist that you really, honestly like the piece. Until, finally, you get PO’d and walk off (You callin’ me a liar?).

Humility is all well and good, but there are limits. When someone gives you a sincere compliment, smile and say, “Thank you.” Whether you believe them or not.

 4. Dealing with Society’s Attitude

No one likes dealing with a ‘tude. And society has a big, ever-changing one when it comes to art. Especially as a career. No. I take it back. Society has at least two big, not-changing-fast-enough attitudes when it comes to art as business: it’s not smart and that’s free, right?

It’s Not Smart

Smart – A.K.A. safe. This often falls under the ok-in-theory-but-not-for-my-child category. Lots of people claim to support art, but when they find out you’re trying to make it your career, they give you doubting looks.

Are you sure? That’s risky, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you rather be an accountant or something?

Yeah, no. You would think that with all the companies closing and letting people go (from “safe” jobs) a few years ago, people would’ve softened on this a bit. Not so you notice.

I don’t know about “smart” or “safe,” but I’ll grant that making a living in the arts isn’t easy. You can’t be lazy, and you have to really want it. On the other hand, if you really want it, holding yourself back from it to do that “smart” job can be even harder.

You can hold onto that when the doubters pester you.

That’s Free, Right?

Um… no.

If you want to be a professional writer (or other type of artist), you might want to practice that word. No. No no no no no no. No.

(You can ignore the “I’m Jane” part, but the rest is good.)

Repeat after me: No, it isn’t free. This is what I do for a living.

It’s ok to take it in trade (a few hours writing for an equal amount of accounting or lawyering or whatever), but, no, it is not free. It’s ok to give a family discount (if you want to, and you’re still breaking even). It’s even ok to give the occasional present.  But be really careful not to set a precedent of doing work for free. It’s really hard to change once you do.

As Captain Malcolm Reynolds would say, “I do the job. And then I get paid.”

 5. Putting a Price on Your Work

It’s hard to put a price on your work. It’s exceptionally hard to put a fair price on your work. Especially when society is constantly trying to get it for free, and you’re constantly telling yourself how bad it is. (See how the problems work together against you?)

Why are artists more worried about overpricing their work than they are about underpricing it? I don’t know! They don’t include their time. They don’t include overhead costs (websites, credit card rates, business cards, booth fees, etc.).

I know that just because you’re good at writing, that doesn’t mean you’re good at the business side of it (believe me, I get it). So. Find someone who is good at the business side of it. Get advice. Have them represent you. Take classes. Google it.

But if you want to make a living at your art, you’re going to have to get a handle on pricing. One way or another.

Watcha gonna do?

Well? Are you gonna let these problems kick your butt, or are you gonna tell them to kiss it?

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A Library-Inspired Writing Prompt

Shhhhh!

What’s so inspiring about a public library? I mean, besides all of the fabulous books, movies, and other awesome stuff available for free (That’s too obvious!). Well, public libraries also have a certain ambience. Namely, you have to be quiet and not disturb other library-goers. Picture a stern-looking lady with a bun and glasses shushing people. That’s the atmosphere, and that’s what we’ll be using for this library-inspired writing prompt.

  1. Think of the sorts of things that you are strongly discouraged from doing in a library: for example, anything loud or rambunctious.
  2. Pick one (the more improbable, the better) and set it in a library. Or have it pass through a library.
  3. Write the scene so that the action occurs without breaking the public library’s atmosphere. It’s going to be a challenge, and characters will have to go to extreme lengths to do it (except, perhaps, ninjas or mimes).

Does it have to be a public library? No, not really. The main point is that the atmosphere and the action do not normally go together, so you (and the characters) have to work harder to make them go together.

This one way to use Schrödinger’s setting to brainstorm and explore how character behavior changes when the setting does. I think there have even been movies or anime series that have done this exact exercise or at least had a fight scene shushed and have to be quiet (although I can’t for the life of me remember which one did).

Actually, it’s commonly used in the other direction, as well. Two characters calmly finishing their card game while surrounded by a violent brawl (and having to move around the fighters to lay down cards, etc.) is the same type of exercise. The technique is popular because it follows the old comedy rule of setting up expectations and breaking them.

So if you want to work on your comedy or characterization, this can be a fun exercise. I’m already snickering inside imagining the different situations. If you try it, share in the comments, won’t you? We could all use a good laugh!

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Does Using Good Grammar Screw Up Your SEO?

horrified emoticon for the kind of question that haunts you at night

That’s how I felt, too.

It’s the kind of question that haunts you at night: “Does using good grammar up your SEO?” (I’m hearing it now in a kind of Jacob Marley-esque of voice.) I want to say, “I certainly hope not.” Knowing how most people write, however, I have to say more honestly that there’s a pretty good chance the answer is, “Yes.” Although, like everything else, that may be changing.

Who Uses Good Grammar?

Writers Like To

It’s true. Almost all writers I know like to write at least somewhat correctly. It doesn’t have to be perfect (“How Good Does My Grammar Need to Be?“), but we tend to have grammar pet peeves that makes it hard to completely ignore all the rules.

Readers Don’t

This is the sad truth that we all have to live with. Many readers not only don’t use good grammar, they don’t know what good grammar is! I see pandemic homophone problems, comma errors galore, spelling catastrophes, and a general mutilation of syntax. Sometimes, people even ruin their grammar by trying to speak better.

  • Give it to Linda and I me. [People thinking using “I” is always more correct. Nope – not when the pronoun is acting as an object!]
  • IrRegardless, make sure that those papers get sent on time. [“Irregardless” is not a word!]

There are exceptions, of course (like you, lovely people). Unfortunately, you only have to do a simple search to see that there are fewer exceptions that we might like.

How Does Writing Correctly Screw Up Your SEO?

Stop Words

Stop words are basically the most common words in the English language. Words that you can skip over if you’re skimming a passage: words like”a,” “am,” and “and.” Google skips over those words the same way readers do when they’re in a hurry. But those same words are also necessary when using good grammar.

If you’re researching how to improve your SEO, you might see articles that recommend taking these words out – reword the phrase so that the stop words aren’t necessary or just skip them. Ouch! Writer’s perspective translates caveman.*

*From a writer’s perspective, that translates into caveman.

Targeting Correct Keyword Phrases

That’s what they tell us to do, right? If you want to get more traffic using SEO, target keyword phrases. But here’s the conundrum: what if most searchers aren’t using good grammar? What if the most popular searches are horribly, skin-crawling, eye-twitching, nails-on-a-chalkboard incorrect?

Are you willing to target that keyword phrase? Are you willing to use it (as-written) repeatedly in your blog article. And titles. And headers. Can you stand to?

Do you have to?

How Good Grammar Can Help You

Synonyms

It all depends on the keyword phrase and how it’s incorrect. Along with incorporating stop words, Google is also getting better at relating synonyms. They’re not on the same level as a human writer yet, but sometimes, Google might look at your keyword phrase and the incorrect keyword phrase and treat them as equal. Or at least related. It’s not guaranteed, but it’s worth checking out, right?

Writing Quality Counts

Ok, writers. Here is our hope for blog traffic without losing our grammar nazi status. Google cares about writing quality, correct spelling, and overall content value (See the Google Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide). That means that higher quality writing has more weight with Google and has a better chance of being considered a good site to recommend.

The quality of the content is also partly measured by how long people stay on the site. So having good writing that encourages people to read the whole article can help boost your ratings, too.

Am I an Expert?

Buahahahahaha! Sorry. I couldn’t keep a straight face with that one!

The answer is, “No.” What I am is a writer who’s been researching this stuff like crazy and who decided to share some of these tidbits with other writers such as yourself. I tried to link to sites that seemed like they know what they’re talking about.

Of course, if you are an SEO expert, and you’d like to share some information with me, I absolutely will not object! Anyone? Anyone at all?