All posts by Michael Schwarz

Q&A: Setting the Rules in Horror

One thing that always bugs me about ghost stories is how there doesn’t seem to be any consistency In how a Ghost operates. Theyre built up as scary only to have them be really incompetent. There’s this particular case in IT. Where one of the kids gets grabbed by Pennywise then just wrestles out and runs away. It makes Pennywise seem really incompetent. Other ghost stories do this. Where the ghost can hurt you. . . except when it cant. No logic behind it. How can a writer avoid this?

The short answer is: By making sure there are logical rules underpinning your setting. With horror this is a little harder than it seems, but I’ll get into that in a moment.

Start by writing up the rules for the monsters in your setting. How are they created? What are their powers and limitations? What do they want? How do they go about getting that?

To an extent, this is something you should probably do anyway, if you’re creating an elaborate setting. But, it can be especially helpful if you’re dealing with monsters, or other fantasy creatures.

Exactly how you format this is, obviously, up to you. There’s no strict list of things you need. If you’ve got multiple kinds of monsters, the document doesn’t even need to be uniform between them.

Also, if anyone’s wondering, there is no “One True Set of Rules for Ghosts,” or any other kind of monster. There’s a lot of variety in folklore, which gets even more diverse when you start taking other cultures into account. When you’re creating a monster, either from scratch or from some basic template, like a ghost, you have a lot of latitude to decide how they work in your story.

Once you have those rules, keep them with you when you write. Depending on how large it is, and how you work, you may want to physically tape it to your wall, or you might simply keep them open in another window while you’re typing on your computer. It doesn’t matter where the document is, just make sure you keep that stuff close and accessible.

So, I said this is a little harder with horror. Most horror, as a genre, thrives on fear of the unknown. Once you’ve taken the rules for a horror setting, dragged them out in the open, and poked them with a stick, the illusion collapses, and much of the fear escapes. If you want to scare someone, you need their imagination to do the work for you.

This means, you do not want to put those rules out in the open for your audience. Even in a normal setting, you’ll probably want to hold back a bit, and spool those out over time, as your characters learn, and discover new information. But, with horror, hiding those rules, while still clearly enforcing them is a difficult, but vital, skill to master.

There’s an important detail here. Even if you clearly infer a rule in your horror, so long as you don’t go out and explicitly define it, there’s going to be a degree of unease. Horror thrives on that space, where you should be safe, but you’re not completely sure.

The other set of rules you should keep in mind, are the ones your characters create for the monster. If it’s trying to kill them, they’re going to be trying to figure out how to avoid that. Looking for what the monster’s limits are, and trying to identify its methodology. After all, if they know that it can’t kill them under certain circumstances, then they’ll want to find a way to engineer that situation.

The thing about your characters is that they can be wrong. They can look at the information available, and make an entirely rational but incorrect assumption. This can create situations where the monster is suddenly able to “break the rules,” because the rules your characters worked out aren’t the real limitations you set at the beginning. This should send your characters back to the drawing board, looking for something they got wrong.

Now, obviously, if your character is a veteran monster hunter, then they’ll probably have a pretty good idea of what the rules are. Though, even with that, there’s a lot of room for a character to prepare for the wrong monster. To be fair, this kind of character doesn’t usually work well in horror. It’s not a hard, “no,” but it does make your life more difficult. This is because they’re likely to have a (mostly) accurate version of your rules internalized. Point of view characters like this can work, but it requires you to be a lot more creative. If you think you’re up to it, feel free to experiment. However, stories with characters like this will often trend more into supernatural action rather than horror.

One more vitally important thing: Don’t pull your punches. Not in horror. If there’s a monster out there in the forest trying to kill them, and it gets the opportunity to pick someone off, kill them. The only time I’d caution against this is if you’re late in the story and running out of characters to snuff. In those cases, I’d suggest stepping back a scene or two, and figuring out how to keep them alive by avoiding that situation entirely.

Even then, I’d still recommend you roll with a death, even if its your designated protagonist. As a genre, horror is an indiscriminate killer. The story will survive your favorites dying. Also, sometimes, the monster wins, and your story ends with the last survivor down. That’s okay. It’s far better than a situation where your monster loses credibility because it fumbles a kill. If you find the story really doesn’t work without them, then that’s what rewrites are for.

I should add, I’ve been approaching this from the perspective of a story where the monster is trying to kill the protagonists, but this isn’t a certainty. Sometimes in horror, the monster doesn’t want to kill your characters. If it wants something else from them, that can be even more horrifying. Another possibility worth mentioning is, sometimes you’ve got monsters that honestly do not care about your characters at all. They’re content to go about their business, oblivious to the damage they cause.


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Q&A: Assholes

I got a character who might be a “deadpan snarker”. She loves the have the last word, troll people with words, taunts those she dislike, makes snide and sarcastic remarks about flaws or situation, and can be very abrasive and rude when she is angry or demanding. Does this makes her an asshole? Do likeable assholes exist? She can and will be nice to the people she loves and conform them, but she still trolls them for fun occasionally. She is not a bully, nor has low self esteem, just a big ego.

Yeah, sounds like you might have an asshole there, not just someone with a dry sense of humor and a never ending store of sarcasm.

Can an asshole be likable? Yes… with some reservations.

It’s a lot easier to like an asshole, if you never have to interact with them. This might sound counter-intuitive: if you never interact with them, how would you know they’re an asshole, or why would you care? Thing is, the momentary actions from an asshole, the snide comments, the sarcasm, even the egregious behavior, can be pretty funny, if you’re never the target of it.

If you’re watching a show, where a character is tearing the guts out of everyone around them, and you’re not interacting, that can be funny. You can like that asshole, secure in the knowledge that they’ll never direct one of their rants at you in particular. The same thought process carries over into other forms of entertainment.

You can center a story on someone who is a horrible human being, and still entertain your audience. The inveterate asshole protagonist is a staple for sitcoms as a genre. They’re not mandatory, but they can be incredibly entertaining and cathartic. Even in a non-comedy setting, an asshole protagonist can (sometimes) be compelling in their human misery.

It’s easier to like an asshole if they’re selective. Alternately, you can call this filtering if you want. A selective asshole picks who they go after. It could be certain groups of individuals, like people who dress a certain way, fans of some pop group, people who own small dogs, or some wide reaching collection of groups. If you’re not one of the people they target, it’s a lot easier to laugh it off. It becomes harder to stomach when they’re going after you.

Depending on who an asshole targets, you might even empathize or agree with them. It’s entirely possible to have a character who goes off on some group you hold in singular contempt. It doesn’t make their behavior appropriate, but if it’s something you would do or wished you could do, then that can certainly be engaging to you.

Unfiltered assholes are very unpleasant people. They lash out at anyone who gets within easy reach. No one is safe; nothing is sacred. The only people who stay in their lives are ones who don’t have a choice, or refuse to give up on some idealized version of them. I could probably write an article on people having an image of someone else that has no relation to reality, but the short version is that this exists.

Again, if you’re outside of their life, looking in, an unfiltered asshole can be hilarious. You never know quite where they’re going to go next, or what will cause them to flip out. Note: I said, “can be hilarious.” It’s entirely possible for them to simply be temperamental human wreckage with no redeeming value. The fine line between these two states is if the writer (and or actor) can land the jokes.

Comedy is a defense mechanism. No, really. Humor doesn’t all come from the same place, but the kind of vicious comedy you’re describing is, very specifically, a defense mechanism. It’s your character either trying to drive everyone around them out of their life, and create a safe space to inhabit, and/or it’s an attempt to invalidate their own insecurity by taking the people around them down a notch.

You’ll run across a concept from time to time stating that: In order to be a good writer, you need to have had a messed up childhood. I don’t think this is really true. It is possible to become a good writer, through hard work, study and effort. The inverse is not true, having a messed up childhood does not automatically make you a good writer, as anyone who has taught creative writing can confirm.

A messed up childhood will make you hypersensitive to your environment. This doesn’t mean you’ll break down on a whim, but it does mean you are far more likely to pick up on small changes in your surroundings, or in someone’s behavior. With a background like that, you’re wired to pay far more attention to exactly how other people in your environment behave. For writing this is an important skill. For comedy, this is absolutely vital.

It doesn’t matter if you’re making benign jokes, or taking someone out at the knees, comedy requires you’ve gotten into a fairly messed up place, and hung out long enough to get familiar with the mindset. So, when I say, comedy is a defense mechanism, it really is. More accurately, it’s the third stage of a self-defense system for someone who’s been through some serious psychological trauma.

The first stage is that hypersensitivity. Now, this can be acquired through benign causes. It can also build up as an adult.

“What are you talking about? You haven’t been through anything fucked up, I’d know.”

“No, you don’t understand; I’ve worked retail.”

To be fair, if you start developing this awareness as a child, it will be far more refined by the time you’re old enough to drink.

The second stage is learning to operationalize what you see. It’s looking for irregularities, and then connecting the pieces. Usually, when something doesn’t fit, you’ll pick up on it much sooner than a happy, well adjusted, individual would.

Again, if you’re living in a situation where knowing things are about to go pear-shaped is critical to your safety, you’re going to cultivate that skill because your life depends on it. This is also where comedy starts.

A lot of humor begins when you start realizing that something doesn’t quite make sense, then finding a way to articulate that to people who haven’t quite gotten there. Stuff your brain picked out, you noticed it didn’t quite add up, now you’re looking for a way to put that out there.

The trick to being funny is getting there before anyone else did. Jokes don’t play as well on repeat because you’ve already pointed out the idiosyncrasy or weirdness. Your audience knows. Time to find something new. (In fairness, there are concepts about repetition to land a longer joke. Sometimes telling the same joke again so you can flip it around later is a thing. As with any other kind of writing, humor has a large collection of malleable rules.)

The third stage is affecting your environment. This is where you take a joke and actually use it. There’s a lot of ways these can play, and it’s entirely dependent on the jokes themselves, but let’s focus on two approaches for the moment.

You can tell jokes to get attention. Get people to look at you and say, “hey, I like that strange being.” If you’ve been neglected, or just isolated, this is probably your goal. The humor will take the tone of the group you’re trying to ingratiate yourself with. I actually typed, “inoffensive,” but these can actually get pretty messed up; the important part is that the humor helps you blend into the community you want to be a part of.

You can tell jokes to get people to go away. This is the, “fuck you,” of an asshole who has been the subject of direct abuse, and just wants to shove people in their environment out.

Depending on context, there’s a real possibility of the exact same joke switching between these states. (Also, as I said, there is a lot more you can do with humor, but, for the purposes of this specific example, I’m trying to keep things simple.)

Why your character cracks jokes will affect how they use their humor. Someone who’s using it as a weapon is more in the range of trying to push people out. Someone who’s attention seeking is going to try to find an in. Normally, the former would be an asshole, and the latter would not. This isn’t 100%, because context is king here, but the behavior you’re describing is solidly in the asshole camp.

Someone who’s dryly sarcastic can end up in either group. It’s a flavor of delivery, and somewhat agnostic for what you’re doing.

Similarly, deadpan is just a comedic delivery. Literally, the term simply means, “dead faced.” “Pan” was slang for one’s face in the 1920’s. For reference, that was also when the term was coined. You stand up, deliver your joke, but show no emotion or response. It’s almost entirely agnostic to the jokes.

So, this is a long road to get to saying, “yes, your character’s an asshole.” She might also be funny. I haven’t read what you’ve written with her. I’d also question the idea that she’s doesn’t have self-esteem issues, and isn’t a bully.

Now, I’m just going to step back and say, this isn’t automatically a bad thing. Like I’ve said before, your characters don’t need to be good people. They can be walking dumpster fires.

However, you need to be honest with yourself about your characters. They can lie to themselves about who they are. That’s fine, it’s a little messed up, but still it is fine. You can lie to your audience about who your character is. That’s also fine, a little tricky, but still fine. But, you need to remember who your characters really are, under the surface, flaws and all. Also, remember that your character is fictional. You do not need to advocate for them, that’s their problem, your job is to make their story interesting and compelling.

The behavior you’re describing sounds a lot like a bully. Not, the kind of schoolyard kid, who roughs up others. An adult with serious self-esteem issues who looks around, and seeks opportunities to bring others down a peg in order to feel better about themselves. The methods change, but the ultimate goal remains. Someone who looks at the world, and lashes out at the people in it in a desperate bid to feel better about themselves. Internally they may couch this as justified behavior, that their vindictive behavior is justified by prior actions. It’s not. But, they can tell themselves that if they want, and many real people do.

Normal assholes. The kinds who try to keep people out of their lives, can, and do, filter. Well, some of them can anyway. In those cases, it’s entirely possible for someone to have hard lines between people who they’ll go to bat for, and people they’ll take the tar out of.

This kind of approach is incredibly common among people who’ve had abusive childhoods, or engage with human misery on a regular basis, especially as part of their job. Cops, social workers, EMS, people who work retail on Black Friday. In each case, there are subtle differences to how they approach things. Occupational hazard. Because you really don’t want to talk about the drunk boating accident where the underside of the DUI’s hull was smeared into the faces of a dead family. It’s not funny. It’s just fucked up. “How was your day?”

The important thing to keep in mind, when you’re writing this kind of an asshole, is that their aggression needs to be laser focused. They have certain things that will set them off. Everything else can kinda slide. Someone who is this kind of a selective asshole may be an otherwise normal-ish person. It’s not the character you’re describing, but people like this do exist. Some of them will be reading this post.

Someone who started with a finely filtered flavor of asshole who’s letting their focus slip will likely see their life fall apart. People who used to be safe will be getting driven away. Their behavior may become erratic. And, yes, this can happen. Sometimes the strain of the job can lead someone to deteriorate.

At that point, the smart choice is to cut them loose before they snap and make the evening news. Of course, if this was your friend, or someone who’s turned out decent results for years, you might be inclined to turn a blind eye, or try to get them to come back. This can lead to an entirely realistic situation where someone has deteriorated into a complete asshole, but has yet to drive everyone out of their life.

Again, having a character who’s going through this kind of a breakdown, can be an element of a good story. So long as you remember that’s what’s happening, and are keeping track of the bridges your character burns. Having a character who’s at risk of alienating the people they need to do their job, is one way to create tension. Particularly if they started the fires before they realized they’d need them.


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Q&A: Mafia Training

Do you know anything about how the Mafia trains their members?

They don’t, really. At least not in any formalized way. The same is, generally true of most professional criminals. The mafia relied more on able bodies who they could trust, than looking for very specialized skillsets. When you look at the bread and butter operations in organized crime, this starts to make sense. Sending a couple guys into a business to rough up the staff, or engaging in vandalism isn’t going to require specialists. Whatever mooks are lounging around should be able to get those jobs done.

In Mafia families, you’d start seeing people with formal educations higher up the ladder. Again, this wouldn’t be training per say. You might have members who’d been sent to law school and passed the bar, who could operate as lawyers for the family when needed. In at least a few cases, lawyers like this would invoke privileged to impede criminal investigations. Another common profession that you’d see wrapped up in family businesses were accountants. Again, actual accountants who’d been educated, gotten a degree, and then worked for the family.

A third group that would get formalized training were police infiltrators or double agents. These were rarer, but did exist. These were cops. They’d gone through academy training. They may have had a military background. On paper they looked clean and had never been directly associated with the family. The biggest red flag would usually be that they’d grown up in a neighborhood that was mobbed up, though this was not a prerequisite. The most famous example is Special Agent John Connolly who was involved with Boston’s Irish Mob in the 70s, while working in the FBI.

Street level enforcers, or even hitmen couldn’t expect to receive any significant training. At various times, there were Mafia members with military backgrounds. They’d served in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, came back, and went back to working for the family, but with far more extensive combat training. In some cases, they’d impart some of their learned lessons to the mobsters they worked with, but this was not the norm.

There is one other exception, but it doesn’t exclusively involve organized crime. Prison functions kind of like graduate school for career criminals. The perk of getting locked up with lots of other felons is that you now have the opportunity to network with and learn from one another in an environment where you can be pretty sure no one’s a cop. Networking was less important for a Mafioso, but access to criminals who had learned specialized trades, and the potential to learn from them, even if that required some form of payment, could be a major silver lining.

Now, I’ve been focusing primarily on the Italian and Irish mobs. East Coast, American, and basically defunct, so let’s grab a couple more off the pile.

As far as I know, the Yakuza doesn’t have any real formalized training either. Their cultural norms are different, so their social role isn’t exactly the same. To be fair, most of my research on the Yakuza has been economic, rather than street level operations. They’re extremely unusual, as organized crime goes, because during the 80s, they started pumping cash into businesses you wouldn’t normally associate with organized crime. This means, in Japan, you can find things like Hospitals or Software companies which are mobbed up. A lot of this folded when their economic bubble popped in the 90s, but some still persist.

The Russian Mob isn’t, really, a thing. Okay, let me back this up and explain. Frequently, it’s convenient to talk about Russian organized crime as a unified entity. Russian criminals willing to work together to achieve their goals are a thing. Large coherent organizations, not so much. These are, ultimately, more like freelance criminals, who came up during the Soviet system, and have that shared experience. This causes them to behave in ways that mimic organized crime elsewhere in the world, but it is ultimately a collection of freelance criminals who are willing to put their differences aside for a paycheck. As with any other group of criminals, you’re looking at a large range of potential backgrounds, which could range from uneducated street kids to ex-special forces, who went freelance when the Soviet Union stopped paying them in the ’90s. On unusual feature of Russian criminals is, they’re unusually well equipped. This dates back to the fall of the Soviet Union. The government stopped paying employees, and if you were overseeing a state run armory, you had a huge stockpile of weapons, but no food. So, they started selling arms, and bigger things. There’s actually a story floating around from the mid-90s where the Cartels were looking to take possession of a nuclear submarine from the Russian black market, though that deal fell through.

As far as I know, the Triads do not have much in the way of formalized training either. Though, I’ll admit, I’m not particularly well versed on them. Though it is worth noting, these are the largest criminal enterprises on the planet, by a significant margin. The Triads are massive.

Like the Triads, I’m not particularly well versed in The Cartels. As far as I know, there’s not much in the way of formalized training there, and it really is a distinct flavor of organized crime. It’s just one that I’ve never done a lot of reading on.

Finally, North American street gangs are an unusual situation. On the surface it’s similar to the other examples given, no formal training programs. However, in the 90s and 2000s a number of judges revived the old conscription punishment. Sending gang members into the US military. In theory this was supposed to, “set them on the right path,” but, what it actually did was introduce elements of those gangs into the armed services, and gave gang members training and experience on military hardware. When they mustered out, they now had connections that could get them military hardware, and the knowledge to use them, which were also shared with fellow gang members. I’m not sure on the full current status of this situation, but it is an unusual circumstance worth examining.


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Q&A: Improvised Weapon: Pickaxe

This is a rather crazy question, but how would a pickaxe fair as a weapon?

If it’s a weapon of opportunity, then fairly well. For example, if you have a character in a struggle against someone else, they’ve lost their weapon, and the only thing they can reach is a mining or climbing pick, that is going to mess someone up.

There’s a bit of a bonus here, the pick’s beak is an excellent armor penetration tool. So, in that very narrow tailored situation, it’s a good option for a single surprise attack. A lot of real weapons, including pole-arms and warhammers used similar pick designs for this purpose.

Depending on your setting, your character might carry a pair of ice axes. These are, basically, single beaked climbing pickaxes, designed for digging into and scaling ice walls. Again, not a weapon, but if it’s all your character can reach, they can still probably put one into the skull of an unsuspecting enemy.

A pickaxe isn’t a great weapon for a straight up fight. Limited strike options are the big issue here. You need to swing it in a fixed, linear, path, and against an armed opponent who can defend themselves, that just wouldn’t work.

The main difference between a war hammer, and a normal pickaxe is the weight and reach. These were (usually) longer weapons, with a single beak, a blunt face, and a head that could be used in linear thrusts (sometimes with an additional spike on the end).  This meant there were far more options to attack with one.

For whatever it’s worth, an ice axe is much closer to a warhammer in overall design. It still has an adz opposite the beak, but the overall design is much lighter, and probably more versatile than an actual warhammer. Ice axes have a spiked haft allowing you to (potentially) use it as a thrusting tool. To be fair, I am speculating a bit, and it would depend on the materials and design of the specific ice axe.

If the idea is, “my character has a pickaxe as their favored weapon,” then no. That wouldn’t work out. However, if the idea is, “my character is desperate, and the only thing they can get their hands on is a pickaxe,” then, yeah, there is some utility there. Especially against a foe who doesn’t see it coming.


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Q&A: (Not) Using Antique Firearms

So I have a character who collects antique firearms. Would a gun from the 1800’s , say American civil war era, still function enough to make it an effective weapon, provided it was well taken care of?

Yes, with some critical caveats.

Mechanically, firearms are destructive. I don’t mean the bullet is harmful; that’s also true. You have a piece of equipment designed to contain violently expanding, burning gasses. Powder is, often, corrosive, and of course, you’re setting it on fire, and sending that stuff everywhere. You’re also grinding pieces of metal against one another.

Guns have an operational life, (usually) measured in rounds fired. As you use them, components will wear out or break. In some rare cases, this can turn into a Ship of Theseus scenario, where you’re replacing the entire gun a piece at a time. (Unlike Theseus’s Pardox, this one has a concrete answer: It legally becomes a new gun when you replace the receiver.)

The important thing to remember is: Every single time you use a firearm, you’re dealing a little bit of irrevocable damage to your gun.

In most cases, you wouldn’t want to actually fire a civil war era antique firearm. Mechanically, they may still be sound, but that’s something you don’t really want to test on a firearm from the 1860s. This is especially true when dealing with some of the more mechanically complex weapons of the era, like the Colt Walker revolver.

I’m going to use the Walker as an example for a moment. There were roughly 1,100 of these guns produced in the late 1840s. 1000 of those were intended for a military contract, and the remaining 100 went up for sale to civilians. The original revolvers suffered a high rate of failure, somewhere around 300 of these were returned to Colt for repairs during the original operational life of the guns. Frequent issues involved soldiers overloading the cylinders, exceeding the intended pressure tolerances, and causing the cylinder to rupture when fired. (Fun fact: Exceeding the intended pressure tolerances in a firearm is a fantastic way to destroy it. Don’t do this.) There were also a number of semi-fragile components which would wear out or break after extensive use.

Walkers saw use during the Mexican – American War, during the Civil War, and in the hands of Texas Rangers after that. In short, there aren’t a lot of these guns left. They are also phenomenally expensive today. At auction, a Colt Walker in functional condition, with original parts can easily fetch $100k, with pistols sometimes selling for between $300k-$600k.

Your character, who is a collector, wants to put rounds down range through something that expensive? Especially given their history for mechanical failures?

Also, for reference, a Walker with a ruptured cylinder will usually sell for somewhere around $1k.

Now, in fairness, this is an outlier. Most guns aren’t going to be that valuable, nor that fragile. But, even if you’re talking about something relatively common, much cheaper, and hopefully more durable, like a Sharps Rifle, it’s still a valuable antique. (Rarer Sharps variants can auction for $10k-$20k.)

Another factor is that these don’t use modern ammunition. The Walkers were chambered to a .44 bullet, but these were muzzle loading black powder firearms. (In fact, most of the Walker’s cylinder failures were due to soldiers loading too much powder, and then loading the gun’s conical shaped bullets in backwards, resulting in substantially higher pressures than the cylinder was designed for.)

The mid-19th century did see the introduction of the first metallic cartridges. The Sharps Rifle fired a .52 caliber, black powder cartridge. There might be some place you can buy these prepackaged, but, I suspect, if you want to shoot a Sharps, you’re going to be hand loading your cartridges.

So, if you want to fire something like a Walker or Lamat, you can, theoretically do so. But, you’ll need a lot of associated equipment and preparation time. Loading either is a time consuming process. You need black powder, percussion caps, and the bullets themselves. So, it’s possible, but not a great option.

All of this said, there is another very simple reason to say yes, which bypasses all of these considerations. Modern replicas of weapons like the Walker, or Single Action Army (the Colt Peacemaker, which is not a Civil War era pistol, as it dates to 1873) are fairly common, durable, and functional. In the case of the Walker, there are some significant mechanical changes to allow the  revolver to accept modern cartridges, including the addition of a loading gate. Conversion Walker reproductions are something of a novelty.

In general, reproductions of historical firearms, particularly 19th century ones have a serious enthusiast community. It would be entirely unsurprising for a collector of rare and antique firearms to also keep a selection of replicas for recreational use. In fact, modern Colt Peacemaker reproductions are a semi-common sport revolver, because of the handling characteristics.

Replicas and reproductions also offer an entry point to the hobby, for a lot of enthusiasts. Very few potential collectors can shell out half a million dollars for a revolver, but modern replicas will only set you back around $300 – $400. Given it may also take modern ammunition, that’s a much easier price point for a potential collector.

Personally, I wouldn’t fire a gun that’s over a century old, if I had another option. This isn’t a hard number, but that’s a long time for factors like corrosion, to become a serious consideration. Like I said, I have no issue with modern reproductions of those designs, I’m honestly rather fond of Colt Peacemakers chambered in .357, and slightly less fond of 1911s, but I wouldn’t want to fire an original production version of either, simply because of concerns over damaging it.

A somewhat common problem for gun collectors is, having weapons which are historically or mechanically interesting and significant, but are too valuable to shoot. This is also true of elaborately engraved firearms. The simple answer is, you don’t do it. If you enjoy shooting, and also enjoy collecting antique firearms, those are going to be two separate collections. There may be thematic overlap, via reproductions, or they may also collect modern firearms for shooting, but they’re not going to be shooting their antiques.

There’s also a separate issue that I haven’t really addressed yet. With some exceptions, you wouldn’t be getting a particularly effective weapon. At least, not if you’re facing opponents armed with modern hardware.

The early cartridge rifles were game changing, because you could start producing weapons that could fire 8-10 rounds per minute. Early Revolvers were similarly amazing.

If your opponent has a pistol that needs to be reloaded after each shot, and you can put six rounds down range before having to reload, that’s a significant advantage, even if reloading will take far more time.

Today, most modern assault rifles have cyclic fire rates between 600 and 900 rounds per minute. That, 8 to 10 range doesn’t sound nearly as impressive in context. (Granted, the actual rounds fired per minute would be much lower for an automatic weapon.) Someone armed with an AR15 pattern varmint rifle can be much sloppier with their shots and still get the job done in less time.

Shot placement is critical. If you can get the job done with one bullet, then having extras is just gravy. But, semi-automatic weapons allow you to quickly correct and compensate for errors faster than a single shot weapon will allow. If you try to make a shot with a single shot rifle, you will spend more time, preparing for your next shot, than you will with a semi-auto rifle.

Reloading modern firearms is much faster than with a civil war era weapon. Compounded by the fact that they will need to reload after every shot. Even if your modern firearm has a small 5 or 10 round detachable box magazine, that’s a lot more firepower on a much faster reload.

I’ve said before, the 19th and 20th century saw an explosion in firearms technology. In less than 200 years, we’ve gone from firearms that needed to be manually reloaded, by pouring powder down the barrel, to weapons that can deliver 30 rounds, down range, in under five seconds. Modern guns are more accurate, easier to operate, more reliable, and in general, much more lethal. Now, someone who knows what they’re doing with a Peacemaker, or a Sharps could still come out on top, if they really know what they’re doing, but working with weapons like those, in a live combat situation, is a serious handicap.

It’s also worth noting that there are some, very old, firearm designs that do hold up, in their intended roles. The Peacemaker is one excellent example. It’s not a good carry pistol, but these are still remarkably accurate revolvers chambered in a powerful cartridge. There are better options for a revolver, but these will deliver.

Another pair of examples are the M1903, which is a very accurate bolt-action rifle, and the M1911, which has become an iconic handgun design. (Though, modern 1911s do have some significant design changes, to make the weapons more reliable, and user friendly.)

So, you have a gun collector, who has a lot of civil war antiques. They need to pull something from their collection to shoot someone. The best option would be if they have guns the use recreationally or for other purposes. These may be reproductions, or they could be more modern firearms. Your collector wouldn’t reach for one of their antiques, even if the gun was technically operable.


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Q&A: Lightweight Firearms

I have some characters that need to have lightweight firearms. Research is telling me that while aluminum guns HAVE been made, they require special ammunition to avoid misfiring. What other material options do I have? Carbon fiber?

There are a lot of firearms that incorporate aluminum alloy components to reduce weight. This is fairly common, though not as popular today as it was twenty to thirty years ago. There are still a lot of popular, well respected, aluminum frame pistols and rifles on the market, including the Baretta 92s (including the M9), and the SIG P226 (though there was a heavier stainless steel variant sold in small quantities). With rifles in the AR15 family, there’s a lot of aluminum lower receivers in circulation.

So, if you’re wondering how that works out, there’s a critical piece of information to remember: The Barrel, bolt, and battery will be steel. In most handguns, that means the entire receiver will be, though with rifles that’s less certain.

Weight is, already, a huge consideration for firearms. This is why a lot of pistols used aluminum frames, and their manufacturers have since moved on to polymer frames. Similarly, a lot of rifles have moved over to polymer furniture to reduce weight. Carbon fiber is an option for some common firearms, for example, you can replace the walnut stock of your Remington 700 with a carbon fiber variant. This will set you back around $600 dollars, though the actual weight reduction is debatable.

Off hand, I’m not aware of any pistols with carbon fiber frames standard. (Only a few high-end “designer Glocks.”) Though, that’s probably a matter of time as well.

There’s also some oddities like the Professional Ordinance Carbon-15. This was an AR-15 pattern rifle that had a bunch of its components replaced with plastics, including the lower receiver. The early examples were rather fragile, but it did deliver a 5.56mm rifle at around four pounds.

Beyond swapping out the materials, there are a couple things someone can do to reduce the weight of a firearm.

Porting is the practice of cutting out unneeded material. This may range from simply cutting into a slab of metal or plastic, or it may involve cutting full slots through it.

On rifles, one option is to remove or redesign the stock. At the extreme end, this can involve replacing the stock with a simple wire structure, or a sling system. Worth noting: this is not an option with AR15 pattern weapons, including the M4 and M16. These rifles incorporate their gas return system into the stock.

In contrast, the AK family of rifles have gas return systems that run over the barrel. This means you can completely remove the stock from AK pattern rifles without ill effect. To be fair, the AK takes this design decision from the StG44, and any other rifle that patterned off that design, like the FN FAL, or H&K G3 will (usually) have a similar gas system.

One quick way to do some of your work for you would be to look for paratrooper variants of existing rifles. These are designed to cut as much weight from the weapon as possible, without sacrificing structural integrity. These often feature shortened barrels and collapsible stocks to reduce the weight.

Another option, depending on your characters’ objectives, would be to use SMGs instead. These are (usually) going to be considerably lighter than full rifles, though you’re losing the power, and range of a rifle, in exchange for a lighter, more compact weapon. For example, an H&K UMP45 is a little over half the weight of a full sized assault rifle, and is already firing a subsonic round. You can’t use it at long ranges, but if your characters are slipping in undetected, it will be far easier to conceal and much lighter.

There are, also, already a wide range of weapons intended for clandestine use. It’s easy enough to come up with a scenario and say, “well, this is unusual, I don’t know how I can equip my characters for this.” But, when it comes to military hardware, it’s often helpful to remember that weird scenarios with strict equipment requirements are something special forces groups plan for. Beyond that, it’s often easy enough to find out that, “oh, this rifle variant was designed specifically for situations like the one I’m looking at.”

Hell, if your special forces operator needs a completely silent tool for picking off sentries they can request a crossbow or mechanical compound bow from the armory. These same guys are going to know not to use it in a firefight, but the tool is available to them.

Lightweight firearms are a real thing. In part because no one wants to be carrying around a 30 lb rifle, unless that puppy can put a round through the engine block of a ’57 Buick.

I mean, if it’s me, and I was looking at this, I’d check what their nation of origin actually uses for hardware, and then pick something like a SIG553, H&K G36C, or an AKS-74U. For reference, my laptop weighs more than any of those three rifles.

There’s an, unusual, example that fits your suggestion at the top, and it might be what you’re thinking of, even though it’s not exactly relevant to the discussion. In the mid-60s a company called MB Associates designed and sold a 13mm pistol and carbine using a self-propelled cartridge called a Gyrojet. These are fascinating historical footnotes. The weapons had a minimum kill range of around 10 meters. (This number is a bit fuzzy. The rounds might get to a lethal velocity before this, but getting reliable ballistic data for these pistols is a pain.)

The pistols themselves were made from a zinc alloy, and were incredibly light weight. This was partially because the pistol didn’t need to deal with the explosive forces a conventional firearm.

To the best of my knowledge a little over one thousand of these were produced. There’s at least four variants, two pistols (chambered in 13mm and 12mm) and a few rifle and carbine variants. I know of a few other prototypes, though I have no idea how many of those existed.

These days, unspent cartridges are exceedingly expensive ($100-$200 a round), and the extremely light weight can leave you feeling like you’re holding a toy, rather than a real, functional, firearm.

MB Associates was hoping to land a military contract, and some of the pistols did see use in Vietnam. Unfortunately, the minimum lethal range was a serious flaw. Beyond that, the rounds themselves suffered from production issues, resulting in wildly inaccurate shots. The bullets had four angled ports, which, once the propellant was ignited, would keep the round moving, and would cause the round to spin, stabilizing it. Unfortunately, on some production cartridges, one of those ports would be partially obstructed, meaning the round would corkscrew unpredictably in flight. I’m honestly unsure if this is more horrifying or hilarious.

I don’t have hard data on exactly when MBA went under. I want to say it was in the early 70s. Either way, this remains a weird historical footnote. It might be what you’d heard about, even though it’s not exactly relevant to your question.


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Q&A: Detachment

A different sort of writing question. How to detach yourself from a character so you don’t feel awful you put them through the worst things a human being can go through? In one of my fics, I’m writing a person going through a lot of psychological torment. And it makes me feel bad, but I know I have to keep pushing it in order for the story to have the meat it needs. But it also means I can only write for so long before I break down. Help?

There’s a couple things to remember.

First: Your characters aren’t real people. Depending on where you are as a writer, this may sound glibly obvious, or disrespectful to your work, so let’s unpack this a little bit.

Your characters are simulacra. They experience their existence from their perspective. They do not exist with full knowledge of their nature as fictional constructs.

Somewhat obviously, you can’t always say how a real person would react to a scenario, so you’re left to make your best guess. Usually, the best advice here is to study up on who your character would be, and work to understand how someone with their background would approach their situation.

At this point it’s very important to remember that characters are (usually) not omnipotent. They only have access to the information they can get legitimately. Either from talking to each other, or from examining and studying their environment. Characters should never have a full picture of the world they live in, only the pieces they’ve worked out for themselves. You don’t, always, need to show characters passing information back and forth, but this can be a very important tool to keep track of what they know.

Within all of this there should be a spark of a person floating around. An individual with needs, goals, dreams, convictions, experiences, fears, and flaws. (Or, really, any other itemized list of how you want to define a person.) That person lives in the world you created. They don’t have access to you, nor what you know.

How much autonomy you give them is up to you. Same with how strict you are about regulating their world. These are stylistic choices that will affect the tone of your work. But, ultimately, it’s very important to remember your characters are artificial constructs designed to present a convincing illusion of a person, rather than the genuine article.

How do you keep enough detachment? By remembering this is an illusion you’ve created. As with all illusions, it’s far more important that this plays properly for the audience, even if it’s held together with duct tape and rage on your side from your position.

Let your characters take care of themselves, with the information they have, and the situations they’re in. They don’t need you to pull your punches. To an extent, they depend on that to sell the illusion you’re creating. Put another way, it’s okay to be cruel if the situation warrants it; you can trust your character to pull through. They’re probably a hell of a lot tougher than you’re giving them credit for.

Second: Your job is not to advocate for your character. I’ll go out on a limb and say this one’s not quite as obvious; you’re here to tell a story. Your character’s dreams are relevant to them. They can work towards their goals, and a general desire not to die horrifically. But, that is their problem, not yours.

Stories about conflict work off a simple concept: two or more sides come together, they challenge each other in some way, and whoever manages to achieve their goals, comes out on top.

I’m being very abstract here. This description could cover anything from a story about a parent dealing with their child coming out, to a thriller with a rogue nuclear device in a major metropolitan area. But, managing the conflicts is your job. You may be hoping a specific character wins, but you want everyone participating as appropriate.

Within this context, it’s important that your antagonists have a reasonable, plausible, path to victory. They need to have objectives, and a way to actually achieve them. They are just as much your responsibility as your protagonist(s).

Either group may lack information about what their path to victory is, and/or how to achieve it. In situations like this, their first goal needs to be obtaining that information, which can be a major portion of the story.

Remember what I said about your characters on the last point? Yeah, this applies to everyone in your story. How do you avoid playing a favorite? One way is to have lots of favorites working against one another. This is your job as a writer: playing all of your creations against each other in order to tell a compelling story.

This isn’t always true, but if your antagonist is uninteresting to you, chances are your audience will feel the same. You want a foe that excites and entertains you. Tinker with them or rework them until they really engage you. Then you will have two favorites, and it will help you avoid simply rooting for the hero.

Third: You don’t measure a hero by their merits; you measure them by the adversity they overcome. The more you beat them down, the stronger they come out the other side.

Remember that line from Nietzsche that I slapped around last week? “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” It’s not entirely true. Severe injuries can result in permanent impairment. Blows which shatter your psyche or your will to go on are not empowering. But, a character who has been abused and battered can come back more forcefully, with stronger convictions, and sometimes, a little smarter for what they’ve been through.

Slapping your characters around can be a sign to them that, maybe, it’s time for them to take a different approach. Every defeat and mistake can serve as a learning experience, if you’ll let it. Ironically, once you’re in the right mindset, it can be far more difficult to avoid being too destructive. Hurt them, let them learn, don’t kill them (even if that death is in their psyche.)

At this point, we’re back to the previous point; your job, is to orchestrate the story as a whole, not simply cheer for one character.

Never be afraid of being a bit too rough. If they break, curl up in a corner, and die, then you know you’ve gone too far, and it might be time to go back and tone it down a bit. This is one of the virtues of drafting, you can go back and fix your mistakes later. If you’re willing, you can let it ride. What happens when you kill the hero? The story isn’t over, and the supporting cast is still there, doing their part. What kind of a course to you chart through that aftermath?

Finally: Remember it’s okay for a character to leave empty handed. Just because they have dreams doesn’t mean they need to realize them. Granted, this will depend heavily on the kind of story you’re trying to tell, but there is nothing inherently wrong with a character who’s holding on to a false or dying hope, because it’s the only thing keeping them together. Victories can be Pyrrhic. Endings can be bittersweet. Just because your character wants something, doesn’t mean you need to give it to them.

Sometimes, by their natures, characters cannot get what they want. It’s baked into their very nature. Sometimes people look for goals they think will make them happy but it’s not what they’re actually missing, so even if they do get that think, the result will be hollow. Yes, people, not just characters. Depending on who your characters are, there may not be any possible happy ending. Knowing this in advance can go a long way towards having an idea of where your they will end up.

No matter how you twist it, at least one of your characters will come out on top. It might not be who you expected, but so long as someone wins, it’ll be one of yours. Remember, your characters only exist for the story. You might revive and use them in the future, but their only life is within the confines you create. Within that context, it’s okay to run them over the coals with a clear conscience. Handling that is, quite literally, their problem, not yours.

You’re the writer, not a participant in the narrative. Your job is to make sure all the pieces interact, adjudicate your characters bouncing off one another, and to keep track of the wreckage they leave behind. Your job is to tell their stories, not to make friends with them.


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Q&A: Spartan Military

So how would a “spartan-esqe” military work? If you’ve already answered all of this, can you just link me to the article(s)? Thanks!

The very short answer is, it wouldn’t. Which may sound somewhat strange given the Spartans certainly enjoyed some success with their methods, so why am I saying it doesn’t work?

It’s more accurate to say the Spartans tried a lot of different things, some intentionally, and others accidentally. Some of those factors made them more effective, while others actually undermined their ability to operate and (to varying degrees) lead to their destruction.

The stuff that worked, has been adapted and, in many cases, become the norm. The stuff that doesn’t work gets picked up by people who don’t know what they’re doing and emulated, often with disastrous results.

It’s also worth remembering that it is impossible to separate the Spartan military from their society as a whole. In most societies, you can segregate their military out and examine it as a distinct entity. This isn’t possible with the Spartans.

The biggest advantage the Spartans enjoyed game from the concept of a professional soldier. This is something that should be familiar to any modern reader. You have soldiers who are, primarily, soldiers. You’re not fielding a military of craftsmen and other professions who you pressed into service, or who volunteered to form a militia when called for.

This is true of every modern military. However, for the Greeks it was unusual. The norm was for someone to have a domestic profession, but when called they would set their daily life aside and go to war.

Spartans would train for combat, and their entire culture revolved around preparing for war. When the time came, they were far better prepared to deal with the challenges and foes they faced.

On the whole, their abusive training methods, particularly against their children, were a net negative. They couched it as removing the weak, and strengthening their survivors, but that’s not really true. It did impair their ability to replace lost soldiers.

There’s a kind of sick irony here. Malnourishing kids (which the Spartans did) will permanently impair them. They’ll miss growth milestones, which you never really get back. So, the result will be smaller, weaker adults with cognitive impairment, and diminished immune systems. (This is a partial list, if you want to look it up, childhood malnutrition can result in a horrific list of symptoms.)

Starting at age 7, Spartans would take male children from their mothers and send them to be trained in Agelai (“herds,”) at the Agoge. The individuals in a herd would be overseen by older boys in their mid-teens, who would be responsible for their discipline and training. In turn those older boys would be disciplined by adults. The important takeaway is that there was brutality all around.

Children in the Agoge weren’t provisioned food. They were expected to forage for food from the surrounding farms, stealing what they needed. There were harsh penalties for getting caught, so the goal was to become an effective thief. This is where that malnutrition thing comes in, because no matter how skilled they became, it’s a safe bet these kids weren’t getting enough food.

The intent was to build up toughness. There’s a certain logic there, not logic that applies to reality, but it should be familiar to anyone who’s read a tryhard YA novel which takes Nietzsche’s, “that which does not kill me,” line a little too literally.

Take a similarly aggressive approach to training, but make sure your recruits (or kids) are well fed, and aren’t freezing to death in the night, and you’d see dramatically better results. (This also involves incentivizing the recruits, to get them actually committed to the training, but that’s another issue.)

Training is also one of the easiest, and most useful components to emulate. Ironically, looking at something like the Boy Scouts you get a similar result without damaging the participants. Scouts (who reach Star rank or higher) have a solid background in wilderness survival, orientation, and other skills with direct paramilitary application. I’d say, you don’t teach them combat skills, but then again the Marksmanship and Archery badges exist. It’s also where I got my medical training, some of my hand to hand training, and where I first learned to shoot. It’s also where I first learned the basics of Criminal Investigation. So, kids who come out of the BSA with an upper rank do end up with a surprising skill set, even if I tend to think of it as normal.

I’m singling out their training methods, perhaps unfairly, because it’s not the major reason their forces became irreplaceable.

The military forces we think of as Spartan, were the full citizens, called Homoioi (I’m told this roughly translates to “Equals,” or “Similars.”) A male Spartan Homoioi would be put through the training I’m mentioning above.

Spartans who failed in a wide varieties of ways were permanently removed from the Homoioi, and became Hypomieones (Inferiors). A Hypomieones, and their descendants, could not reascend to the Homoioi. Someone could be demoted for a wide range of transgressions, including insubordination, cowardice, showing fear in combat,  failing to be recruited by a communal mess hall at the conclusion of their training, or failure to pay dues to their mess. (These last two may sound trivial, but the Syssitias were a significant component of the way Spartan society was organized. It was, however, still a very easy way for a prospective Homoioi to be removed from their culture’s elite over a relatively minor social infraction.)

The Spartans also maintained a very strict victory or death outlook. According to Plutarch, their soldiers were told to “come back with your shield; or on it,” when leaving for war. (Worth noting that Plutarch lived four centuries after the Spartan collapse. So the exact phrasing may be apocryphal, though the philosophy was accurate to Spartan philosophy. By Plutarch’s time, Sparta had been reduced to what Josiah Ober has called, “an antiquarian theme-park,” where tourists from the Greek world would come to see recreations of classic Spartan training turned spectacle.) Something really important to understand, if you’re going to learn from your mistakes, you need to actually survive those mistakes, and learn. The Spartans disagreed, if you survived a losing battle, and you could be blamed for cowardice, there was a pretty solid bet that anything you saw would be regarded as irrelevant. This kind of, “accept no failure” approach has a long term effect of crippling your ability to adapt to changing circumstances. It doesn’t matter if your character is soldier in 550BC, or 2017AD, they need to be able to learn from their mistakes, or the mistakes of others. Modern social behavior among cops, soldiers, and even martial arts predisposes you to tell stories about, how someone you knew screwed up and got severely injured or died. You may not think about why, or how, but this does serve a very real purpose. It’s normalized to the point where this is borderline instinctive behavior, but, this is one very solid way that modern combatants learn from mistakes. If your social structure penalizes this severely, that’s not going to happen, and your military force will become insular and inflexible.

By the fifth century BC, the Spartan military did employ auxiliary units that were pulled from the Hypomieones, and other lower castes (including the Helots (serfs/slaves. Worth remembering that the Hypomieones who saw combat may not have undergone Spartan training, as it was entirely possible that their ancestor had been demoted.) This was more an act of necessity, as their military was getting into a place where there were no longer enough Homoioi to reliably field them exclusively.

Because of the way demotion worked, and the artificial attrition the Spartans applied to the children of citizens, battlefield losses were irreplaceable. Specifically, the infants of citizens would be examined at birth for any defect or weakness, and if they failed this they would be left to die of exposure.

There’s an application here that’s a little abstract. Having elite forces can be a major advantage in warfare. However, when the entirety of your forces are, “elite,” you’re going to have a hard time fielding enough people to actually fight. A modern comparison would be trying build an entire fighting force off of Special Forces and eliminating everyone else from the system. You would get some very effective combatants, but you wouldn’t be able to replace standing forces lost to attrition. Which was exactly one of the problems that late Sparta faced. Where battlefield victories with hundreds of Spartan casualties, set the stage for later conflicts where they couldn’t field enough soldiers to fight.

The other major advantage the Spartans had was an illusion. In the Hellenistic world, Spartan soldiers were seen as virtually invincible. Particularly during their early campaigns, the rigorous training applied against inexperienced combatants lead to the belief that Spartan warriors were an indomitable force. There’s plenty of surviving records of enemies routing at the sight of a Spartan advance.

To be clear, this reputation was earned. However, as the other Greek city-states became more familiar with Spartan tactics, they began to learn how to exploit them. In part, Spartan tactics were predictable, but deviated from normal Greek military doctrine, resulting in a decisive advantage against foes who were unfamiliar with their methods, but could be countered by an opponent who’d seen their approach to combat before. The end of the illusion was The Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, when the Spartans were dealt a crushing defeat by Theban forces lead by Epaminondas.

This particular illusion can be very potent psychological advantage for a military force. Particularly when you’re dealing with a small elite cadre that can be selectively deployed. Your foes never know where they may pop up, and will be on edge facing your conventional forces.

It’s also, somewhat apparent (from surviving reports), that the Spartans actually believed this illusion as well. From a military standpoint this is borderline suicidal. You want your enemy to fear your forces and think you’re invincible. You don’t want your own troops, or especially your leaders, to believe the same thing.

Sparta wanted soldiers who were absolutely loyal, with unlimited conviction. In the long run, they created an inflexible, unrelenting system that ultimately cannibalized themselves. There are a lot of lessons that can (and have) been taken from the Spartans, but those are peppered with cautionary examples of what not to do.


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Q&A: Critique Partners and the Dangers of Posting Online

Do you know anyone who could read my story and tell me what should change? Like a website or an app or something?

If you’re just asking for a grammar checker, those are fairly common features on word processors. Off hand, Word and Scrivener have built in grammar checkers. They won’t tell you how to fix an error, but it will tell you when the algorithm thinks something’s messed up. There’s also a couple with aggressive advertising campaigns on YouTube.

Basic grammar errors are something you can farm out to an algorithm fairly safely. It’s one step above running a spellchecker (which you should be doing as well.)

You’ll also, occasionally, see style checkers, which attempt to assess the overall tone of a piece, and tell you if it fits the format you’re writing to. (Creative, Academic, Technical, ect.) I’ve never looked at these closely, so, I have no idea how well they work, or if it’s just secondary functionality for a grammar checker.

The problem with all of these systems is that they’re band-aids. If you’ve mangled the English language, they’ll stick a judgemental green line under it, and wait for you to fix your error. (Strictly speaking, the green line is Word. Most software will run the grammar check in a separate dialog box, when you request it.)

I realize, I may sound a little dismissive here, but these are useful tools. Checking the available menu options in your document, or a quick Google search should tell you if your software has a native grammar checker, or suggest some free options, if that’s all you need.

If you’re looking for advice on the substance of your work, that’s not something you can safely farm out to an algorithm. You’re looking for an editor (or at the very least, peer critique.)

There are a lot of forums and sites where you can get access to other aspiring writers, and get some feedback. Off-hand, DeviantArt comes to mind.

Now, before you scamper off to DA, and sign up, there are a couple things you’ll want to keep in mind.

First, think about what you’re posting. If you’re simply posting a short story or novella that you have no intention of ever professionally publishing, and you’re simply interested in getting better as a writer, then these kinds of communities can be very helpful.

If you want to take what you’ve written, and market it professionally, then you don’t want to post it on DA (or a similar site).

This gets into a concept called, “first publishing rights.” These revolve around being the first venue to publish that specific work. While it’s not a death knell for a piece, it does make it a lot less appealing to a prospective agent or publisher. (And it will be for some agents and editors, the same as if you publish it as an e-book.)

There are some counterexamples, but if you want to sell a story, don’t post it online. You can decide to do that later, if you want.

It’s important to understand, often in publishing, you’re not selling your work, you’re selling the rights to be the first publisher to distribute your work. If you’ve posted it publicly, that right has already been exercised. You may still sell the rights to distribute your work to another publisher down the line (depending on the contracts involved), but that first publishing right is something you want to hold onto.

The second thing to remember is, the people you’re interacting with on DA aren’t, necessarily, any better versed in writing than you are. That said, it can be a good site to start networking on, and it can eventually help you, down the line. (It can also function as a portfolio, so that may also be very useful to you.)

Put these two pieces together, and you should see where this can help you. You can meet other writers, and ask them to critique work you haven’t published. This can be a valuable resource, when you’re trying to improve material you do want to publish, before putting it in front of an editor.

Now, in general, your best option would be to find a local writer’s group. Your library or a local bookstore may host one, or events that will introduce you to other writers in your community. Interacting with other writers. I realize this is less convenient, and may feel more threatening, but being able to directly interact, and evaluate feedback does make this a lot more immediately valuable.

There’s also an element of risk with any online collaboration that doesn’t exist if someone else is reading a physical copy of your story while sitting across from you, or responding to you reading your work aloud.

So, here’s a fun little story: Back when I was a teenager, living at home, and writing on a laptop, my father would occasionally snoop through it. I’d been working on a novel. He found it at some point, and thought so much of it (and so little of me), that he chose to email the original document to a few family friends. One of those friends, CCed the thing to everyone in her contact list, because she was the, “oh, something bright and shiny is in my inbox, I need to inflict it on the entire human race,” kind of vapid.

I found out about this a couple months later, when I found the draft, published in its entirety on a website that will remain nameless by some random little shit, who was passing it off as their own.

Moral of the story: be careful who you show your work to online, if you intend to publish it. If your goal is to simply get it out there as an act of artistic expression, then posting on something like DA is a safe way to do so, and can be a good source for critique. It exercises your first publishing rights, but that only matters if you’re planning to sell it, and if someone steals it, you can point back and say, “hey, here, look at this,” then rake them over the coals.

One very reasonable approach would be to start with a community, post the stuff you’re not trying to get published, solicit feedback, learn from your mistakes, make friends, then when you start getting to the point where you feel like making the jump to professional publishing, you should already have a few people you can bounce ideas and material off of.

The safest approach is probably through a local writing group, though that is dependent on finding a group that meshes with your genre and overall tone. When working with other creatives its important to find those whose opinions you value, whom you trust, and who provide critiques you can use rather than deflating your spirit.

With that in mind, here’s a quote from Neil Gaiman to remember when taking criticism:

When people tell you there’s something wrong with a story, they’re almost always right. When they tell you what’s wrong, and how it can be fixed, they’re almost always wrong.

You will learn through experience how to tell the difference between good critique, helpful critique, and bad critique. Some of which you may not be ready to hear until several years down the line, when your confidence has grown to a level where you can look at it. Remember, critique is not someone saying something’s wrong with you. Even with an editor, you don’t want someone who will tell you how to fix a problem, just someone that will point out that an issue exists. You are still the author of your stories, and ultimately, you’re the only one who can fix them. All you need is someone who can point them out to you.

Remember, there are different levels in regards to critique partners and it is important to find those who are at your level, or at a similar place in their writing journey. This will change as you grow and improve, but jumping into the deep end with a professional writer when you’re just beginning without any warning to them is a terrible idea. They will eviscerate your confidence, completely by accident because what they’re looking for and what you’re looking for are entirely different. The same is true for a high school student sitting in on a Master’s program or even just a Creative Writing seminar at college. The priorities, understanding, and expectations during workshop will be wildly different. They might be valuable, but only if you’re ready to hear them. Critiquing requires people you sync with, whom you trust, and  whose opinions you value. However, they are also those you’ve confidence enough to listen to and disregard when their advice doesn’t help. No one but you can figure out what’s best for your work. Everyone else just aids in the journey.

These are the people who will sit down, evaluate the work on the basis of its merits rather than what they’d do with the story in your place. Someone who points out the feelings they had when reading, what worked for them and what didn’t.

Identify, for yourself, your ego boosting readers from your critique partners and keep them separate. The friend or family member who reads your work with enthusiasm and those other writers who are looking for weaknesses to help you improve are in separate categories. Both are helpful, but they are rarely a single individual. More than that, you want a group of other writers to work with so you can help them the way they help you.

Finally: if you’ve got a beta, especially one who is not a professional, it can help to give them specific guidelines to look for.


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Q&A: Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Hi there, I’m trying to write a comic set in a dystopia, and your “feel good violence” post has really helped. BUT!! is there a way around the “killing your way to the top” trope? I can’t think of any other way for my heroes to complete the main story arc. the thing about dystopias is that they don’t change for anything less than a total kill-out, right? Thank you!

This somewhat depends on what you want to achieve.

There’s a real attraction to, “killing the bad guy,” to make the world a better place, it doesn’t really work. That doesn’t mean no one tries. It’s still perceived as a legitimate approach to getting rid of problematic organizations. The issue is, it doesn’t usually get rid of them.

So, let’s work with this in a few less abstract scenarios.

You’re a special forces operator from a first world nation with (nearly) unlimited resources and have been tasked with eliminating the a criminal organization that has overrun a nearby country.

Anyone you kill will be quickly replaced. If you wax someone, everyone below them gets an instant promotion. So simply assassinating the head of the organization would just mean his (or her) lieutenant takes their place. This may result in subtle policy shifts with the organization, but it’s still going to be there, doing whatever it was doing before. You haven’t removed the criminal syndicate. They’ll still be operating unaffected.

Ironically, the best you can hope for in this scenario is to weaken the syndicate. If you were able to sufficiently reduce their capacity (their ability to actually affect change) to the point where they’re no longer functional, you would actually kick off a power struggle with nearby syndicates moving in and trying to pick up their territory. If the leader you picked off was sufficiently prominent, you might be able to provoke this with one bullet. Unfortunately, you’d end up with a gang war in the streets and countryside of this hypothetical nation.

If you wanted to destroy this syndicate, the best route would be to cut off their financial support. That may mean destroying their supply lines, or production supplies. It may mean picking off their logistical experts, to reduce their efficiency. That said, even this approach isn’t 100%, and some of the most crippling blows you could inflict would be at a policy level, legalizing and regulating the behavior they’re exploiting to make money.

If the goal is to “send a message,” and your nation is seeking retribution for some previous harm, then the goal of assassinating the person who issued the order is… I don’t want to say, “legitimate,” but, killing them will achieve your goals. Unfortunately, it won’t discourage future violence. The people you’re killing are already under threat from their competitors, by joining the fray, you’re not doing something they weren’t prepared to deal with.

So, new scenario: same background, but you’re dealing with a warlord in a failed state or feral city. Ironically, a lot of the same issues apply. If you assassinate them, you’re not going to bring order back to the place. That would involve a full occupation, and a prolonged campaign to rebuild the local government.

Again, simply killing a warlord would mean their lieutenant would take control, or if they had multiple lieutenants and no clear line of succession, it may result in further violence as they fight with one another in an attempt to assume control. Again, if there are competing warlords, they’d be inclined to move in and try to expand their territory.

Now, it’s worth noting that not every nearby warlord would look at this situation and say, “yeah, don’t I want a piece of that,” however anyone who did would simply ramp up the bloodbath.

Again, this is a situation that can be handled with force, but it’s going to involve years of concentrated work, and a lot of troops operating as domestic police, while you rebuild the civil government. There’s some debate if this is even a possible solution.

Okay, new scenario: You’re tasked with suppressing a political movement. It has a clear, prominent, figurehead. Killing them is probably the worst possible solution to the problem. For one thing, it won’t remove the organization. The actual followers will still be out there, believing what they did (more or less), before the bullets started flying. So the organization will go on. At best nothing has changed, except the person rallying the people. You created a martyr who is now immune to character assassination. Good job.

However, it’s far more likely that the actual organization will radicalize. You’ll have members from that organization operating covertly against your interests. This could range from their own assassinations to bombings targeting civilians.

Using violence to suppress politics only leads to stronger, more aggressive, and often violent opposition.

If you’re wondering how that makes sense, when I just said engaging in violence will empower your foes, but lead your own faction to violence, it’s worth remembering that this is behavior that can easily consume both participants in a conflict. Once either one abandons discourse and turns to force in order to push their ideals, they encourage reciprocation.

To quote Babylon 5:

“You don’t have to respond in kind.”

“Of course we do. There’s a natural law. Physics tells us that for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction. They hate us, we hate them, they hate us back. And so, here we are: victims of mathematics.”

This is a pattern you’ll see frequently in sectarian violence and civil wars. There may have been political disagreements or grievances, but once the knives come out, the violence become cyclical. There is also a constant, direct, risk of escalation, and it’s often the civilian population that bears the greatest costs in these conflicts.

New scenario: You’re dealing with the CEO of a megacorporation that has marked your characters for death because of an off hand comment in a chatroom six years ago.

Yeah, killing him will remove him from the planet. You’re also now going to be going up on murder charges in a highly corrupt system, assuming corporate security doesn’t simply execute you on the spot. So, good job hero.

Killing him won’t take down the company. It probably won’t even change the company’s policies. You may have even done the board of directors a favor, allowing them to use the corpse as a scapegoat for any politically questionable choices they may have engaged in, while still keeping their hand firmly in the cookie jar. Not that said favor will buy your characters any clemency. They’re still looking at 25-life for murder.

Does any of this matter?

Yeah, kinda. If you’re going to use those characters or that setting again. Even if you’re just wrapping up the story, it’s probably worth remembering that surgically removing people from an organization doesn’t mystically cleanse it of all evil.

That said, people do look at this as a solution, and it makes perfect sense for someone to think, “yeah, that’s all we need to do.” It also creates a rich tapestry of interconnected consequences, which can really help if you’re setting stories further down the line in that setting, (regardless of if you intend to use your original characters or not.)

I mean, did they turn around and try to take the place of the crime lord, or warlord they waxed? It’s certainly possible, and they may well have become as bad or worse in their goal of doing something noble.  Did they turn a politically unstable metropolis into a feral city? Is that someplace you want to go back to, with new characters, because they need to get something, or rescue and extract someone?

There are a lot of potential ways to play it, and many of those could prove very interesting.

It’s also worth remembering your characters may not care what comes afterwards. If this is a personal vendetta, then the goal is to kill the guy. God, bad, doesn’t matter, they need to die. Everything that comes afterwards is unimportant to that motivation.

Also worth remembering: A lot of people genuinely believe this approach works. “Just go in and kill the dude, how hard can it be?” Only to be confused when the resulting consequences start kicking in. This applies to people who are relatively well educated, and know what they’re doing, so it’s not just some trap for the uneducated getting out of their depth.

If that’s the end of your story, so be it, but, I’d honestly recommend you keep pushing past that, and play with the aftermath. Probably with a new cast of characters, and after a few months or years, to let the new mess fully ferment.


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