The One Rule for Writing

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There is a lot of writing advice out there on the web, in books and from various writing groups. I’ve been around for awhile and had literally hundreds of people tell me the “rules” for writing. I’ve finally distilled them down to one master rule.

Don’t argue with success.

Every writer has their own process of planning (or not planning) their writing. Everyone has tips on mastering writers block, low motivation, and all those things that make writing hard some days. There are millions of opinions about what you should write, how you should write it and what you should do with it when it’s done.

I am a firm believer that anyone can write. You can write short stories, novels and even series successfully. You just have to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. When writers tell me that they can’t finish their story, I think they just haven’t found their process.

If you are a seat of the pants writers, planning may well kill your creativity. But if you aren’t a seat of the pants writers, being told to “just write” will kill your creativity just as effectively. I love storyboarding, but then again I am a visual thinker. For others, a storyboard just makes their eyes cross. The Snowflake Method is great for some people, some stories. Many veteran writers have worked out a system that is a hodgepodge of theories and ideas, but it works for them.

And that is the gold standard; it works for them. If the words are getting down on paper at a satisfying rate and you are happy with those words, you are on the right track. This technique or that might help, and it’s worth keeping an open mind about new advice, but no one can tell you that you’re doing it wrong if you are getting the writing done.

I see this rule broken all the time. “But you can’t write that way,” a first time author will say to a veteran writer. Sorry, but obviously they can write that way, they’ve done it. I’ve seen planners slam seat of the pants writers in conferences and vice versus. And they’re both published authors.

It’s not just novel planning that gets treated to this sort of hubris. So many writers are certain that their personal opinion on writing, grammar, point of view or story structure are the last words on the subject. And yet for almost every piece of advice on what constitutes good writing, there is an example of best sellers or great literature that breaks said rules.

First person is “such a beginners mistake” I’ve been told. Guess what, Twilight, Hunger Games and many other best sellers are first person. Many examples of great literature are not only first person, they feature unreliable or even unlikable narrators.

Your story should be x number of words long. Even though most of the rules on length were based on publishers wanting to publish print books of a certain size, and never had anything to do with the stories writers wanted to write, or readers to read. Never use a prologue. Unless it’s a great prologue that makes the novel better. And so forth and so on.

My personal one is finish what you write. It’s great advice for most people. If you intend to be writer, you need to finish what you start. But it doesn’t work for me.

I have ADHD. I’ve struggled my whole life with starting but not finishing things. I’ve tried many approaches or organizing and dealing with my ADHD. The only thing that seems to work for me is to embrace my ADHD.

I jump around a lot. I write everyday, but I don’t write on the same thing every day. More organized writers are aghast when they see how I work. I write like mad on projects for days or weeks, only to abandon them, temporarily or permanently. I write more than one book at the same time.

I will write a scene for book A, take break. Then edit book B. Then write a couple scenes for book C. It’s a crazy way to write and I know it.

But you know what? I have nine full length novels on the market. A science fiction serial I release monthly. Four novels ready to be published this year. Several more in progress. So apparently even though it defies all common sense, this approach works for me. I’m not going to sabotage my own success because someone else is certain this is the wrong way to write.

I’m not saying you should throw every rule out the window or disregard all advice, especially if you are struggling. But filter it all through the first rule, don’t argue with success, yours or others. If another writer is getting words on paper and those words are good, don’t try to correct their technique just because. Will a change really make their writing better? Then it’s a good critique. But changing things to make them more “correct” according to some book, isn’t worth it.

By the same token, if you are getting your words on paper, don’t let someone tell you you are doing it wrong. If those words set you on fire, who cares if they could be more “correct.” Don’t kill your voice to make it sound like everyone else out there. Write your stuff, your way. Do you.

Creativity’s best fuel is Knowledge

I’ve been hanging out with writers a lot lately. Truthfully, I always hang out with writers as much as I can, but the last month is a lot even for me. First ICON 40. Great time guys! Then Nanowrimo’s kick off events. Also a great time! This weekend the Des Moines Writers Workshop had its first informal retreat. Seven of us stayed in a rented house on Lake Panora, talked about writing and wrote. It was a blast and I’m sure there will be other more official retreats in the future.

As I talk about writing with dozens of writers, patterns emerge. In particular I’ve noticed a huge pattern between wanna be writers (people who say they want to write but don’t actually write), struggling writers and those achieving success. The more concretely a writer can talk about their story, the better the chance they are actually getting words on paper.

By concrete I mean they are able to discuss their own story in a specific and tangible way. The more tangible their discussion, the more words they are writing, almost invariably.

For example when our critique groups first started we had a poet that when asked about her poetry, would start with a long winded personal story about her life, it would often trail off without coming to a point and with a barely whispered apology that she “hadn’t written much lately.” That is not concrete. She has since faded from the writing scene.

Another writer friend would start by talking about his setting, what kind of story he wanted to write, the music and the times that influenced his thinking. Again, it’s not a very concrete discussion. Unlike the poet, he has not faded from the scene. He’s been workshopping his early chapters and came to a class we offered on story planning.

The result is that his discussions of his story have evolved over time. It’s less about the setting (the setting is incredible, by the way, and I can’t wait to see the story completed) to talking about the characters, the events that occur and how they move the story along. Alongside this evolution is another one, he’s gone from talking about the story to writing it.

Another friend is working on a piece of historical fiction with a significant fantasy element, or possible a piece of fantasy with a historical element. We all how that goes. She’s stuck in what writers sometimes call the messy middle, where the main storylines are in motion, you know the ending, and you have no idea how to get there.

We were discussing our progress to the group over wine one night. Her discussion started with “There’s this guy who helps the main character.” As she talked about this guy (not a very concrete description) and we asked her questions, the details emerged. How he helps the protagonist. How he also helps the antagonist. His motivations for doing so. Slowly specific events emerge where these things happen. By the end of the discussion she’s looking for a name. He’s no longer “this guy.” And that’s where the writing magic happens, when you move past the generalities and discover the specifics.

I am by no means exempt from this. I am into the fourth Bear Naked book and I’ve been struggling with the series for some time. Part of it, a fairly big part, is Jay Toumi. I know where that character is going. I know Jay’s struggling with identity, particularly gender. But I didn’t know how that was going to be resolved. Until I started creating specific scenes and details. Now Jay has their own subplot in the upcoming books and some resolutions are looming on the horizon. And I’m fifteen thousand words into the novel. It’s a great feeling.

The TL;DR version (Too Long, Didn’t Read, for those not fluent in internet lingo) is this; if you can’t talk about the story, the settings and characters in a tangible, detailed sort of way, you don’t know your story well enough to write it.

Yoik and a very Cryptic Clue about Bear Naked Four

What is Yoik?

Yoik is Sami singing. Though maybe it’s easier to show than tell.

The Sami are an indigenous people from Northern Europe. The more familiar term Lapp, or Laplander is actually offensive. Lapp is Swedish for patch, a reference to the patched clothing of the poorer northern people. They are most commonly known for being the reindeer herders of the far north.

The Sami people have a long rich history and culture of their own. Their traditional homeland spans Norway, Sweden, Finland and parts of Russia. Some of these countries treat the Sami well, in other places they still struggle for their rights, particularly to maintain their traditional herding, hunting and fishing grounds.

Singing and drumming are vital parts of the Sami’s heritage and in recent years there has been a movement to revitalize the ancient tradition of yoik.

I’ve posted my soundtrack for previous Bear Naked books. As I start in on Bear Naked Four, yoik has joined the playlist, including Sofia Jannock’s White.

What does Sami singing have to do with the plot of Bear Naked? Remember from Bear Naked 2, Jay has agreed to train as a Noaidi, a pathfinder, which is a kind of Sami shaman or medicine man with Corey’s uncle. So while the wolves have their big council to deal with, Jay’s got a subplot of his own in this installment.

For now I will leave you with another example of yoik:

The Soundtrack for Bear Naked 3

A long time back now I posted about the music I was listening to while writing the first Bear Naked book. It proved a popular post so I repeated the post. For this weeks Bear Naked 3 teaser, I am reposting this, the soundtrack for Bear Naked 3: The Hunted.

I listen to music a lot when I write. Most of the time it’s simply to drown out distractions, what I am listening to isn’t that important. But music can also help set the mood, and I will find myself listening to the same albums and artist over and over through some novels, only to switch when I start a new project.

The entire Bear Naked series has a folksy feel to it for me. Not surprisingly, Turn of the Wheel by Tempest remains at the top of my play list as I wrote The Hunted. Tempest is a celtic rock band with a very unique sound. It fits the feel of the neo-pagans in Bear Naked, Uncle Darren and his whole family.

Bear Naked 3 finds Uncle Darren missing somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Amanda and her pack have to find him. It’s Skinwalker territory and these Native American cousins to the werewolves aren’t always on the best terms. The Skinwalker’s relation with other tribes is complicated by Native American history and they are suspicious of outsiders like the Leidulfs.

One of my favorite Native American artists, Robbie Robertson climbs to the number two spot on my playlist for Bear Naked 3. Music for the Native Americans by Robbie Robertson and the Red Road Ensemble is the album that plays the most while I write.

Coyote Grace has an incredibly folksy feel and they continue to be among my most listened to artists, especially Boxes and Bags. I can almost imagine my characters listening along as they hike through the mountains.

I used to refer to the Irish band Clannad as “the most famous band no one’s heard of.” Irish music buffs know the name, but outside that group you will mostly get blank stares. But their music is everywhere. From movies like Harry’s Game and Last of the Mohicans to TV shows and commercials, everyone has heard their music. Listening to their greatest hits you’ll see why. Their music is powerfully evocative.

I have an eclectic collection of music with over a hundred albums on my laptop and two or three times that on my CD shelf, slowly accumulated over the years. It ranges for Bjork to the Best of Bollywood, with a fair amount of classic rock, pop and folk music. My listening tastes change with my mood and I could list a lot more albums, but these are the ones that seem most connected to Bear Naked 3.

Fellow writers, do your listening habits change with your writing? Are their particular songs that seem to go with certain novels?

Readers, do you like hearing about the music I am listening to? Does it add to or take away from the reading experience?

5 Things only Writers Can Do

Being a writer is hard work at times, but it does have some perks. There are things you can do, if you are a writer, that non-writers can’t. Here is a short list.

  1. Kill someone.

So I was having a stressful day a while back and thought to myself, why not kill someone. It will help get my aggression out and under control. So I located this total loser who was harassing a gay kid down in some homeless camp in Columbus, Ohio and offed him, just like that. (p.s. Columbus P.D. – I didn’t really. Promise.)

Before you get up in my business about how unethical murder is, it actually was necessary. I had a demigod that needed to send a message to the Queen of the Dead without the other gods knowing. And he took the time to find a real scumbag, too, so he kind of did the world a favor.

Needless to say, if a non-writer attempts to murder someone, or talks too openly about the desire to murder someone, it tends to lead to awkward talks with local authorities and often some non paid vacation time at a spa not of your choosing. Best to suck it up and not murder people. Nuff said.

  1. I’ve been male, female and transgender.

I’ve also been an elf, a dwarf, old, young, tall, short, you name it. Writers get to live out multiple identities and lives. I’ve been a computer hacker, loved a trans man with all my heart and came into my power as a great mage.

Writers, if they want to do these things well, need to read a lot. They need to study other people’s lives and experience with an open mind, attempting to put themselves in the shoes of the people around them. It’s actually a really great exercise for anyone to do, and I think it’s one of the great perks of being a writer.

  1. They can save a life.

Yeah, I know, doctors and nurses get to do that, too. Sometimes EMTs and even random people get to be a hero and save a life. It’s an incredible feeling.

But those people spend years learning what they’re doing. They work in stressful jobs. And here’s a dirty secret from a nurse to you, you can’t save them all. And it really sucks.

So why get dirty and risk failure? Writers save lives all the time, without the years of training and risks associated with a medical career.

  1. They build entire worlds.

“What are you doing?”

“World building.”

God, it’s great to say that. For years I was told that I was daydreaming and I should stop and pay attention. I was taught to feel shame for having this beautiful creative mind.

I am glad I outgrew that. Now I love being a creative person. I love that I get to create complete worlds in my mind, and then share them with others. It’s my second favorite part of being a writer.

  1. Writers inspire others.

Are you feeling jealous? Want to know what it’s like to kill with impunity, or to hold a life in your hands and save it instead? Wondered what it would be like to live among the stars in some space station or in a world where magic exists?

Writers have a fifth super power and it’s my favorite thing about being a writer, by far.

We can take you with us.

Writers don’t just build world and explore new identities and experiences, we share them with our readers. To me, that’s the greatest thing about being a writer. I love seeing someone’s eyes light up when I tell them a story in person. I love it when beta-readers or reviewers are as invested in my characters as I am. That’s when I know that the world I’ve created in my mind has taken root elsewhere, in another’s mind.

Are Toilets Making Us Taller?

What is like to be a creative person? I get asked that a lot. Here is a small glimpse into what my mind does pretty much 24/7.

This crossed my social media stream:

I am sure a lot of people would see this and be like, Eww, TMI. Click on and forget it.

Others are a little more health conscious or open minded and might at least think it over. Maybe try squatting.

Here is where my mind goes:

So I am tall. At six foot, I already semi-squat on most western toilets. But I guess that’s healthy, so win for me.

But what if western toilets are making people taller? Bear with me here, sitting on a western toilet leads to a variety of health problems, from constipation to colon cancer. The shorter you are, presumably, the more at risk you are. Tall people who semi-squat have less trouble. The result in evolutionary pressure, short people dying off from constipation while taller people live longer.

So perhaps western people are growing taller, not because of nutrition or genetics, but because of the way we poop. It’s something to think about.

Every commercial, every news piece is subjected to this kind of thought process. 24/7. And that my friend is what it’s like to be a writer.

How Do You Write So Much?

How do you write so much and stay so thin?

That’s the question I wish people would ask me, but they never do. It might help if I was actually staying so thin, but writing is not exactly calorie burning and I am at the age where my natural metabolism is no longer fighting that particular battle on my behalf. But that is a completely different sort of blog post, so let’s just move on.

How do you write so much?

And also, an update on pulp speed writing.

I write a lot and I get a lot of writing done. Other writers often tell me that I am prolific and objectively I agree. Subjectively, I am a prolific storyteller. If I could make my fingers work as fast as my brain, or somehow abbreviate the planning, writing and editing to simply telling the story, I could be a lot more prolific. So I don’t always see myself as prolific.

Since I get asked it a lot, how do I write so much? How can you get your writing speed up? For me it’s a simple three step process.

  1. Build your creativity.
  2. Build your writing muscle.
  3. Write, a lot.

1. Building your creativity.

Creativity is often seen as one of those traits that you either have or don’t, but that is a half truth at best. Yes, I was always a creative even as a child. Or, that’s what the nicer teachers said. The others said things like a lazy day dreamer who would rather stare out the window than do work, but I guess everyone is entitled to an opinion.

Probably the best book on creativity is Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing. If you haven’t read it, I would strongly suggest it.

Bradbury compares creativity to the dust motes that float across your eye. We quickly learn to see through the motes, so much so that we are unaware that they are there. That is until someone mentions them. Even then, there is a trick to seeing them. You have to unfocus your eyes, become aware of them drifting across your vision.

Creativity is like that. It’s everywhere around us. But in order to focus on day to day life, we have to see through it. We have to shove inspiration into some back corner of our minds and focus on work, family, chores. Soon we can’t even see it.

To build our creativity, we simply have to unlearn. We have to stop shoving inspiration aside and unfocus our vision to see it again. We have to take the time to look for it. Ask ourselves questions, let our minds take us where they will.

Once you learn the trick, story ideas are everywhere. Every ‘what if’ question is a potential story. Every time you wonder what someone is thinking, or how they came to be caught up in some event, that’s a story idea.

You start to question everything. Why did that happen? What if it happened differently? Why did they make that choice. How would a different person have responded to that situation?

It is this tendency to question everything that makes writers and other artists so dangerous, so often censored in politically repressive regimes. But it’s also the root of a million new stories.

2. Build your writing muscle.

Writing is work. Non-writers and beginning writers share this myth that it’s easy to write. If you have inspiration, that is, you sit down and the words just flow out onto the page. In truth it takes a huge mental effort to put a story down on paper.

And that work is exhausting, at least at first. Slowly you get better at it, just like exercising a muscle.

Just like exercise, you will have good days and bad days. There will be days when you jump out of bed and say, “I want to go for a run today.” Other days you will have to drag your weary ass out, saying, “if I want to be a runner, I need to run today, no matter what.”

Writing is like that. If you only write when you have the inspiration, you will never be a real writer. Only the writers who learn to make a habit of it build the writing muscle.

Those days when you drag yourself to the keyboard, you might not get much done. You might wonder if it’s really worth it, or if you should just wait until you have the inspiration. Persist. You might not be achieving much in word counts, but you are achieving something more important, you are building your writing muscle. Eventually the day will come when you can sit down to your keyboard with a cup of coffee, put some music on and jam out the words for three straight hours. Which brings us to step three:

3. Write, A Lot.

Once you’ve discovered the secret to creativity and built up your writing muscle you are ready to become a prolific writer. There’s no great secret to putting these two thing together, it just takes time.

As Dean Wesley Smith states repeatedly in his blog, every writer writes at a certain pace. For some it’s faster or slower. But beyond that the only real secret to writing more is to write more often or longer. Many others writers have said this, Chuck Wendig says it a lot, with frequent profanity laced in for effect. Natalie Goldberg says it in Writing Down the Bones. Writers write. If you want to be a writer, sit your butt down and write.

There is only one point that I disagree with it all these people, I think sometimes we introduce the ‘write more’ rule too quickly. If you are still a beginner, getting stuck on story ideas, pick up Zen and the Art of Writing. Spend some time learning to unfocus the day to day mind and let the creativity in. If you’ve never written, focus on making it a regular practice before you attempt long sessions. Get up every morning, open your computer and write for five minutes, then ten minutes. Eventually it won’t seem like enough, not enough to get all the stories clamoring in your head to get out. Then start writing more and more.

Which brings us to an overdue update on my year of writing dangerously.

The short version is I gave up on it. The longer version is that I decided I didn’t need it right now.

I am not a professional writer, but I pretend to be one. I am a nurse, in my other life. I work night shifts and I’ve got an unusual schedule. I work more than part time, but less than full time. I work one week, more or less without any days off. Then I have close to a week off. It works for me. I have one week where I am a nurse and fit writing in when I can. And I have one week where I am a writer.

On those ‘writer’ days, I write. Three thousand words a day isn’t really that bad when all you have to do all day is write. I usually can jam that out in one mammoth session of three hours or so. On non writer days it’s another matter. Three thousand is tough to squeeze in around other stuff. I would fall behind on those days, so far that I wasn’t able to catch up easily on my days off.

There was more to it, though. I am producing new works, lots of them. I have a novel I am doing on Wattpad. It’s written at least in rough form and I am editing and posting as I go along. I have a multi-part science fiction serial that is in the editing stages.

I also have the four books I intend to publish this year finished. I have a couple of manuscripts in the queue for next year and one in the works. I have the remaining Bear Naked books in planning stages.

What am I going to do with all these manuscripts? Eventually I hope to publish them all. But I can only publish so many. It takes time to self edit things, money to have my editor go over them again, time and money to make covers. I am not ready to up my publishing schedule yet. So why I am in such a hurry to produce books?

My goal for this year is to publish four new books. In the future, I don’t know. If I am making enough to pay for production cost, I should increase that to five or six. If I am making enough from writing that I can cut back on work even more, I can devote that much more time to writing. Maybe I will approach Dean Wesley Smith’s pulp speed someday, or maybe I won’t. Right now though, it’s not important.

 

Hipster Potter

A short somewhat random parody.

  1. Hipster Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Editor’s note: Some readers might ask, “why the original U. K. title, the Philosopher’s Stone and not the American Sorcerer’s Stone?” [Hipster editor shakes his head and walks away.]

“Harry,” Hagrid said, “you’re a wizard.”

“Actually I prefer Thaumaturge.”

 

In Ollivander’s shop the pile of wands was growing and growing. Ollivander’s expression grew curious. None of the wands seemed to fit Hipster Potter’s personal style. He would snap his wrist to each one, but all he got were the occasional sparks.

“An interesting case,” Ollivander muttered. “Perhaps…yes, perhaps.”

He came back with a wand unlike any other. It was sleek, smooth, not a bump or imperfection in the wood finish.”

“what is it?” Hipster Potter whispered.

“It’s the latest thing,” Ollivander told him. “the iWand.”

Hipster Potter knew instantly he had found his wand.

Coming soon:

  1. Hipster Potter and the Obscure Chamber only He Knows About.

 

  1. Hipster Potter and the Prisoner of an unfair legal system that failed to do due diligence in investigating Peter Pettigrew’s death.

 

  1. Hipster Potter and the artisanal hand crafted goblet that, of course, doesn’t contain anything a goblet normally would.

 

  1. Hipster Potter and the Non-mainstream Order of the Benu Bird (which the later Phoenix legends were based on).

 

  1. Hipster Potter and the Half-Blood princesymbol(not that we buy the racist concept of blood anyway.)

7. Hipster Potter and the childhood legend you’ve probably never read. (I’ve got an original edition.)

10 signs you just binge read the Game of Thrones

I just finished reading the final book in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. It’s one of those highly immersive series, where you get sucked into the world. It affects how you see the world for weeks after. Here are my top ten signs that you’ve just binge read all five Game of Thrones books.

It’s Songs of Fire and Ice, you stupid TV watching cretins

Maybe it’s a stereotype, but we literary types can be snobs. Like insisting that the book series was really named Songs of Fire and Ice, not Game of Thrones.

Phrases like “mayhaps” and “ever so” have suddenly become part of your vocabulary.

Initially some of the archaic language and made up medieval language bothered me. You might even say I had my smallclothes in a bunch over it. But by book two it starts to roll off your tongue easily and by book five, you find yourself using it in daily life. As in “Mayhaps we will have pizza tonight. That would be ever so tasty.”

You are craving stew served in a trencher, even though you have no clue what a trencher is.

A trenchers were rounds of flat bread that were used as plates and then eaten afterwards, the medieval forerunner of the bread bowl. And yes, that does sound pretty tasty. The less tasty aspect? Trenchers were generally served with stews to soften stale, dried breads. Hardly the grossest thing in the Game of Thrones world, but I personally prefer my bread fresh.

 

Wait, pease porridge is a real thing?

They eat pease porridge frequently in the series. All most of us know about pease porridge is the old children’s rhyme;

pease porridge, hot,

pease porridge cold,

pease porridge in the pot, nine days old.

A common recipe in medieval Europe, pease porridge is a thick stew made from dried peas, not unlike split pea soup. It was often left to congeal overnight and then eaten cold in the morning. In some cases a large pot was left to warm by the edge of the fire as a quick any time meal. More was added to the stew as needed and it was quite possible that some of the ingredients had indeed been in the pot nine days by the time they got eaten.

When your spouse asks you to do a chore you reply, “Valar Dohaeris.”

Valar Morghulis, “All men die” and Valar Dohaeris, “All men must serve” are sayings from old Valyrian. Both are heavy with meaning both in the series and without. Valar Morghulis however is harder to work into everyday conversations.

You call poison control to ask if there is reliable antidote to Tears of Lys.

My day job is working as a nurse. The first indication I had that I had become too entrenched in the world of Game of Thrones came at work. There was a note on a patients chart about contacting poison control. It took several minutes trying to figure out who would try to poison them before I realized it was about an overdose attempt. Oh, right, people don’t generally poison each other in real life.

When you see an eleven year old girl walking down the street, you cross to the other side. (It might be Arya Stark.)

Arya Stark is a pretty bad ass character, until you stop to consider the fact that she’s an eleven year old girl. And she’s killed how many people? Yikes.

All your other fannish friends are saying things like: “I wish I could go to Hogwarts.” “I wish a blue telephone box would materialize right here.” You just look at them and think, “nope, I’m fine with this world, thank you very much.”

Most fans would love to live inside the world of their favorite series. I don’t blame them, but the world of Game of Thrones is way too bloody for that. Life is cheap and characters die unexpectedly throughout the books. If you are a noble, your life is in constant danger. If you are smallfolk it’s even worse. No thanks, I’ll pass.

Two missionaries knock on your door. You demand, “Can your god protect us when the cold winds blow and snows are ten feet deep, when the others come and the dead walk? I think not. Winter is coming.”

Just a few short weeks ago you thought all those fanboys and fangirls complaining about the slow progress on book six were being whiny brats. Now you feel their pain. Come on, George, hurry up already!

Most importantly though, if you binge read the saga you will have the satisfaction of knowing what a great bunch of books they are. Enjoy.

Smoking Man Syndrome: A Rant about Tropes

So, I was reading this action novel about zombies. I’m not going to say the name, even though over all I enjoyed it. There was one trope that really bugged me. In fact, it created an entire rant to which you are about to be treated. Since the goal of the rant is to rag on this one point, not bring that author down, I’m not going to name the book.

The trope, I am going to call the Smoking Man Syndrome, after the Smoking Man from the X-files TV show. The closest the Tvtropes.org website comes in the “No Name Given” trope, the character that has no real name or identity. It’s common in shows and books alike.

The way it works, and in this book it was almost word for word, is that a character is introduced at some point. When questioned about his identity, he says, “my name is not important.” Who does he work for? “That’s not important, either.” We are led to believe he’s the spokesperson for some shadowy government organization. He comes and goes as the story demands, imparting information or gathering information for his/her organization. Maybe we learn more about the organization in the future, or maybe we don’t.

Like all tropes, it exists for a reason. It is a great non-reveal for the audience/reader. It helps keeps us in suspense. It allows us to glimpse a deeper conspiracy without completely knowing about it.

The problem is that it’s completely unrealistic. If you think for one second that it could be realistic, that explains why you don’t work for the FBI, the CIA or some shadowy government organization. Because if you did work for one of these organizations it would already be drilled into your head, never give information to anyone unless you are positive of their identification and credentials.

Sorry Mr. Smoking Man, your name and who you work for is vital. Nobody in the FBI or the military is going to share one scrap of information with you until they know for sure who you are and where you fit in their chain of command. “Sorry, I am not at liberty to discuss that.”

And then there is the information he imparts. You can tell me whatever you want, but I am not going to trust it, let alone act on it, without some confirmation. On the X-files show we suspend disbelief and go with it, but can you imagine any real FBI agent trying to tell his boss he needs to fly to the Antarctic because some guy he met in a parking ramp told him that was where the aliens were?

And yet he keeps showing up, dropping his vague hints. “My name is not important.” Two lines later they are talking about some top secret zombie lab in the Congo. Or revealing where the hidden works of Leonardo Da Vinci might be hidden. Or whatever.

Just once I’d like to see the FBI agent have the smoking man locked up for impersonating a federal official in an attempt to force him to divulge something more substantial about his real identity. Or better still have a trap foiled because the main character refuses to rush in based on a vague hint from someone he doesn’t know. That would be awesome.

End of rant

Which tropes bother you? Check out the list over at tvtropes.org for inspiration.