Tag Archives: writing

Writing Exercise: Creating Believable Villains

In the Novel Writing Group in The Hague last month, writer Suzanna Tjoa led an impressively bilingual workshop on crafting believable villains.

There are many things you can do to make your villains more believable. There are countless articles on the web about those things which elevate a villain from a mere baddy to a complex antagonist worthy of fear, compassion, sorrow, pity, and terror.

Instead of going into all of them here, I wanted to share a 15 minute writing exercise you can do, right now, to help you get inside of your villain’s head and understand where they are coming from. For this exercise, it helps if you already have an antagonist in your story or novel. Whoever they are, it’s important for you to know them well if your readers are going to care whenever the antagonist brushes up against your main character.

Before this exercise, my villain was a little too villainous. Sure, they had a family (as most villains do) which made them more sympathetic, but I wasn’t fully clear on the events that had created this most villainous worldview. Once I finished this exercise, it dawned on me how my baddie grew up the way he did, and how he justifies his actions to himself. Since then, the scenes where he is present have become so much  more multidimensional and truly menacing. I’m more afraid of him (and for my main character) now than I was when he was 100% evil.

So trust me when I tell you you’re about to have a 15 minutes of your life well-spent.

To make your villain more believable, give yourself 15 uninterrupted  minutes with a pad of paper and pen, or a keyboard and word processor (or hell, the memo function on your mobile phone- whatever works for you). Next you’ll choose a controversial subject about which your villain believes differently from you. You can choose any controversial stance your villain has already taken in the past (“It’s alright to kill in order to get what I want,” or “It’s only wrong to swindle/steal if you get caught,” or “It’s ok to cheat on your spouse”), or you can go for a controversial stance applicable to your life now (“Euthanasia is never acceptable,” or “freedom of religion should extend to freedom from religion,” or “we have an obligation to protect ourselves from terrorism, even if it means infringing on the rights of suspects”). Be sure to choose a topic in which you are emotionally invested in some way, and one on which you and your antagonist would disagree.

Now set yourself a timer for 15 minutes, argue their POV as passionately as possible. Have your villain explain why they believe that way. What experiences shaped their worldview, and how would they defend their position? How does their worldview benefit them? What have they invested in believing the way they do?

Once your 15 minutes are up, take a look at what you’ve written. Now you know something very personal and important about your antagonist that will help you predict their thoughts and actions, and will help you write them in a way that calls to your reader to keep turning those pages long past their bedtime.



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I get interviewed for Upper Rubber Boot Books’ Intermittent Visitors Blog Tour!

My interview with Joanne Merriam for the Upper Rubber Boot Books Intermittent Visitors Blog Tour is now live! Joanne  asked some great questions about my writing process and the best writing advice I’ve ever received.

Fans of my short story “For the Love of Ciderpunk,” (finalist for the 2012 Eric Hoffer Award for Short Prose Prize and published in Best New Writing 2012) will be happy to know she got me to spill all about how I came up with the grotesque events and unforgetably colorful characters who really made that story. It has everything to do with  the things I learned and the people I met while communally squatting various places in the UK in my early 20s.  You can read all about it on her blog.


This interview was part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.

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Coming Soon: a Literary Fantasy Short Story “The Bridge of Organic Mortar” in Fantastique Unfettered

Fantastique Unfettered is a beautiful thing. They publish some of the best character-driven fantasy in all of its glorious sub-genres. They’ve got New Weird, Old Weird, Magic Realism, Slipstream, Alt Western, Planetary Romance, Surrealism, Mystery, Urban Fantasy, Literary Horror, Post Lovecraft, Aether Age, Interstitial, Steampunk and more. When I picked up my first issue from Barnes & Noble (Issue #2, bursting with short stories behind a cloud-shrouded Mayan temple on the cover), I knew I wanted more than anything for a story of mine to be good enough to be read alongside those the editors chose for FU.

Fantastique Unfettered Issue 2 (short stories, writing,readers)

Now that’s what I call a Mayan Temple! Fantastique Unfettered, Issue 2, bursting at the seams with fantastical short stories and other gems for writers and readers.

It took me a while before I had anything I could send off. I write all kinds of stories and can’t really choose what I write when. Like many writers, I sit down somewhere and I write, and what comes out is what comes out. I’m not sure it’s possible for me to determine something like “Today I am going to write a steampunk short story.” I’ve tried, and very rarely does the story come out steampunk, or whatever it was I intended to write. So with Fantastique Unfettered on the brain, I spent nearly a year writing very realistic short stories. Short stories about bad-ass protesters, train-pirates and West Africa  and murderous hobos, young tumultuous love, losing and re-gaining faith, eating disorders, and going through the fire, but realistic nonetheless.

Then when I finally wrote a bit of magical realism, I sent it off with fingers crossed. But it didn’t fit with what the editors of FU wanted to do with their next issue, and so it got rejected. (I won’t tell you which story it was, as it is now happily sitting in a journal collecting wonderful emails from fans who enjoyed it. It just goes to show that rejections are every bit as much about fit as they are about the quality of the story).

The second time was the charm, however, and my latest bit of fantasy, “The Bridge of Organic Mortar,” will make an appearance in Fantastique Unfettered, issue 5.

I’m not going to lie- I did a little dance. I may do a little  more dancing before this issue makes it to my hands. Making it into FU means that a few people who know a lot about writing think what I write is as good as what the people who get published in FU write. And these people who know a lot and who select some of the stories I love best think my short story is so good that I should be paid to put it there.  Anyone can tell you your story is good, but someone who gives you something valuable in exchange for your story really means it.

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Finding Titles: The Good, The Bad, and the Downright Ridiculous

Finding  titles for your fiction is hard, right?

I mean, finding crap titles isn’t hard. I have a huge long list of crap titles I once considered, and not all of them are jokes.

But finding the perfect one for my work is another matter entirely.

A.G. Pasquella's "The Strange Saga of Why Not A Spider Monkey Jesus?"

A.G. Pasquella's "The Strange Saga of Why Not A Spider Monkey Jesus?" where Pasquella illustrates, literally, the difficulties of finding the perfect title for his book. (Click on the pic to find out more about the talking chimpanzee with televangelist aspirations. You know you want to.)

Teresa Coltrin discusses the process of creating the perfect title. It’s a great post that links to the latest blog entries by writers and agents alike about what goes into a great title, and how you can find yours.

Before I clicked through all of the links, however, I tried to figure out why my titles can sometimes be downright ridiculous. After all, avoiding the downright ridiculous has to be one of the first steps towards finding the perfect title.

For me, a bad title occurs when I’m desperate to slap a name on my current WIP. I used to not even be able to contemplate a good title; I would just name my pieces “The Southern One,” or “The Moroccan One With The Whores.” It’s okay though. They were working titles that nobody had to ever see aside from close friends and my crit group.

While I am no expert in the good title, most of my best have come once I’ve spent a lot of time really getting to know my WIP. And I mean getting to know the work itself, and not what I thought the work was going to be when I started writing it. There’s a big difference there, and the two are never ever the same. Bad titles come from my wanting to name the works while I’m still thinking about how I want them to be, and the best titles come from naming the works once I’ve figured out (and accepted) how they turned out.

So I guess the moral is to trust yourself. I’ve found many times that my crit group and editors enjoy a piece much more the way it turns out in the end rather than the way I had planned for it to go. It’s more fulfilling for me when I allow my subconscious to take over and for my writing to deviate from the plan. Usually, as long as I can let go of what I wanted it to be and accept it as is, the result is a stronger piece. And with a stronger piece comes a stronger title.

And once I had several stronger titles, I went back to the links on Teresa’s page and used the tips she collated to really help them shine. In particular, I found Rachelle Gardner’s how-to a lifesaver.

What’s your relationship with your titles?


Filed under books, concise, fiction, marketing, On Writing, WIP

The Bell Witch: A Writer’s BFF

Have you ever heard of the Bell Witch? The Bell Witch Haunting came out in 2004, Bell Witch: The Movie came out in 2005, and An American Haunting was released in May of 2006.  It is  “based on the true events of the only case in US History where a spirit caused the death of a man.” All just an hour from my house!

Ghostliness @ The Bell Witch Cave? (Copyleft Avery Oslo 2010)

How could I *not* go and check it out for myself? A friend and I gabbed over her Beach Boys CD (Shut it. They’re good) on the ride out to the country, hoping that we’d take pictures and find scary two-headed snakes wrapped around our torsos when we later examined them on our computer screens.

For those that don’t know the story, here’s a brief recap:

In 1817, John Bell of Adams, TN, shot at a dog-like creature with a rabbit’s head sitting in his corn field. This marked the beginning of his family’s torment- they heard rats gnawing at their beds, had covers snatched off of them, and were disturbed by disembodied voices, among a load of other poltergeisty goodness. The draw of a story like this is irresistible to a writer, and apparently to a president, too.

Legend has it that the haunting persisted and news of it spread to then-General Andrew Jackson who went to visit the farm. On the way, the witch lashed out at General Jackson’s self-proclaimed “witch tamer.” It was his own fault for being all blustery, if you ask me. Who waves a gun with a silver bullet at a witch-like ghost and claims that all witches were scared of it? It’s like you are begging for a ghostly ass-kicking. So, an ass-kicking ensued.

Then of course the Bell witch kept plaguing the family. Betsy, the little Bell girl grew up and wanted to marry, but alas, the witch wasn’t supportive of her choice in men. The beatings, torment, etc. continued until Betsy Bell broke off the engagement, and the witch returned to haunting the young woman’s father full-force.

To make a long story short, everyone dies (especially Mr. Bell–his death was grisly), and the witch lives on. She even comes back every now and then to make predictions, and the cave and cabin are supposedly haunted to high heaven.

Troy Taylor, one of the Bell Witch historians said that he has “received a number of accounts from people who claim to have taken away stones from the Bell Witch Cave, only to then experience not only bad luck, but strange happenings in their previous un-haunted homes! Chris Kirby has assured me that she has received a number of packages in the mail over the years that have contained rocks and stones that were removed from the cave.”

The Bell Witch Pebble (Copyleft Avery Oslo 2010)

The Bell Witch Pebble (Copyleft Avery Oslo 2010)

So naturally I had to make myself a part of the story. The minute the tour guide told me that the witch can haunt many places at once and will haunt those that take away “souvenirs” from the cave, I had to take the first pebble I could reach. Had to. Heritage preservation be damned.

I didn’t take it because I don’t believe. I took it because I do, I truly do.

I figure that the witch is angry at having to haunt a place like Adams for so long. Don’t get me wrong—Adams is lovely—very green and peaceful with the smell of clover in the air—but for centuries? The poor witch is bound to be bored out of her ectoplasmic skull.

So I took the pebble in order to take the witch on my travels across the Atlantic. Currently, I’m still in Nashville, preparing to leave at the end of the month. She’s settling into my house nicely. It’s been two days, and so far, she has not seen fit to beat me, stick pins into me, rip my covers off, or sing horrible songs at me. I’ve introduced the pebble to the cat, and she sniffed it. I put it on her head and she balanced it for a second before shaking it off and darting after one of the hundreds of lizards in our backyard. No hissing, nothing.

Kitty's not impressed by the Bell Witch (Copyleft AveryOslo 2010)

Kitty's not impressed by the Bell Witch (Copyleft AveryOslo 2010)

I think the witch is excited. She wants to go to Scotland, to West Africa, to the Netherlands, and to Germany with me. She’ll have so many people and places to haunt that she may never want to come back to Adams! I love the idea of a portable witch-ghost and can’t wait to show her my own favorite haunts in Scotland.

Let’s hope the Bell Witch has a few hidden talents. I will certainly find out if she’s any good at inspiring the traveling writer to keep my ass firmly glued to the chair. Stay tuned for ghostly news!


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The Writing Genius and the Fool

The Fool, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

How can you be both a genius and a fool? How can your manuscript be both the best and the worst thing ever written? Ever?

All writers know exactly how.

Because we all have those days, don’t we? Those days where you are energized and excited about your writing. You are in love with both your characters (very good) as well as with your story (very bad). Words of inspired brilliance turn into paragraphs and then pages of pure awesomesauce that appear on the monitor in rapid fire. You hardly register that your fingers are making it happen.

This is the best thing you have ever written! You are a literary genius!

But then the next day… every word hurts. Every keyboard stroke is directly hooked into your pain receptors so you can not only know, but *feel* how each word you type is absolutely the most wrong word ever. Then you make the mistake of looking up at yesterday’s writing, and you notice that you used three adverbs in one sentence.


“Nooooooooooooooooooo,” you’ll scream, like Darth Vader when he discovered what happened to Padme. And you *will* scream it—your head will even tilt back as your hands claw in anguish at the air around you, grasping for answers. But epic fail is all you will touch.

This is the worst thing you have ever written! You are a literary fool!

(yes, yes, get to the point…)

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that as with my manuscript, the truth of your manuscript is somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Ride out the highs—really enjoy them for all you can. Hell, even picture the book signings and legions of adoring fans if you want. But know too on those dark and drably days that it’s okay. Everything will be okay. Keep writing or put it down, but do come back to it.

Because everything (umm, except killing Padme) can be fixed. Bad writing can be shorn of its devil-horns. The idea is salvageable, because the idea came from inside of you. And you are not a genius, but nor are you a fool.

This blog post was inspired by a writerly conversation with Kirsty Logan. She’s far closer to genius than fool.

Please share your genius/fool stories in the comments below!


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A Quick, Writerly Question

Scroll down for an explanation.

Barn near Travellers Rest Plantation, Nashville TN (Copyleft Avery Oslo, 2010)

Thanks for taking the poll! A lariat is a stiff type of rope with a loop at the end of it — a lasso, like the ones used by cowboys and grungy rodeo types to capture rogue horses and cattle (and women in order to tie them to railroad tracks). I’m trying to gauge how well-known this word is. I grew up thinking it was common knowledge, until a friend of mine from the UK pointed out that not everyone would know. If enough of you know, I’ll keep it in my latest novel (which is not about rogue horses or cattle or women. Well, maybe rogue women, but I promise none of them will be lassoed).


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