Friday, July 3, 2009

Michael A. Stackpole’s “The Rules of Writing” Seminar

Michael Salsbury
Michael A. Stackpole is a fairly prolific author, having penned a large number of fantasy-themed books, Star Wars novels, Battletech novels, and other works of fiction. He's had a long and successful career. In other words, the man knows a bit about writing. He runs a web site,, where he shares (and sells) what he knows and writes. He hosted a seminar at Origins 2009 entitled "The Rules of Writing", in which he shared his top 5 tips to help aspiring fiction writers improve their craft.

I signed up for one of his sessions. After attending, I wished I had signed up for the others. Stackpole not only understands what beginning fiction writers (and experienced ones) struggle with, he also knows how to communicate solutions to those problems effectively. I think I learned more in the 1-hour session with him than I've learned in all the other creative writing education I've had. To give you an idea what to expect, I'm going to share some of what I learned from Stackpole during his Origins 2009 session. Out of respect for the author and a desire not to infringe on his copyrights (he sells a document with his 20 rules of writing) or affect his attendance at seminars, I'm only sharing part of the information here. If you want to learn more, and get more detail, I would encourage you to visit his site or attend one of his seminars.

Stackpole's first "Rule of Writing" is "Show, Don't Tell". This is something you hear in many creative writing classes, but Stackpole did a great job of illustrating the impact of doing it right. For example, a beginning writer will "tell" you what is going on, such as "Tom was mad." That definitely tells you what's going on, but you don't have to actually think about the words. It's better to "show" your audience how mad Tom is, by saying something like "Tom's face turned red. He gritted his teeth and slammed his fist on the counter." In the second example, you have to visualize what's going on. Not only do you get the point ("Tom is mad"), you can also picture just how mad Tom is.

Stackpole also tells writers to use "Continuity Bolts" in their work to hold the story together and make it seem real. For example, if the main character in your story visits a local bar and has a conversation with the bartender while waiting on a friend to show up, use that conversation and the bartender character elsewhere in the story. Perhaps your main character needs to go to the post office to pick up a package. While he's waiting in line, he might see the bartender buying stamps. This makes your fictional world seem more real. Similarly, if a television in the bar talks about some news story, the main character might hear people talking about that same story in line at the post office. These elements of continuity make your fictional world seem more complete and consistent, and reward readers for paying attention.

The rule that stuck with me the most was "He said, she said". This refers to something I've always struggled with when I write fiction. I knew it sounded horribly awkward, but I just couldn't see a way around it. In about two minutes, Stackpole pushed me right past that block and helped me understand what I should do instead. Lots of beginning writers construct dialogue in their stories like this:
"I don't like it," Tom said. "You spend too much time at that night club."

"Don't be jealous," Jane told him. "I'm only dancing and hanging out with my girlfriends."

Tom asked, "Then why did Fred tell me he saw you sitting with that guy from Accounting?"

All that "said", "told", and "asked" stuff gets repetitive and irritating after a while. But how do you make it obvious who's doing the talking? Stackpole explained that one way you can do that effectively is to give your characters a unique style of speaking. Perhaps one character never uses contractions. Maybe one uses a lot of big words, while another chooses smaller, one-syllable ones. The above example might be rewritten as:
"Ticks me off, you goin' clubbin' like that every night."

"That's silly! I only go to dance and hang out with the girls."

"Fred saw you sittin' with a jerk from Accountin'. Why?"

In that example, Tom tends not to say the "g" at the end of words. He also likes to use shorter, more gutteral sounding sentences. Jane uses more complete sentences and a more formal speech pattern.

Another way to identify speakers is to have them name one another, as in "Oh Tom, you're always saying things like that."

You can also illustrate who is speaking indirectly, by showing actions they take while they're speaking, such as "Tom picked at his fingernails." right before he says something.

You can also hide clues in the context of the characters' speech, such as "Being the chief of police has its advantages, eh?" If three characters are speaking and only one is the chief of police, you know who they're talking to. It's also likely that the next person to speak will be that "chief of police" character. These little clues help the reader figure out who is talking, who's listening, etc., without having to explicitly use the words "he said", "she uttered", "she asked", etc.

For example, another way you might rewrite the original scene:
He gritted his teeth. "Ticks me off, you goin' clubbin' every night, Jane."

"Oh, Tommy! I only go to dance and hang out with my girlfriends."

"Fred saw you sittin' with a jerk from Accountin'. Why?"

In the first line, we know the speaker is male, and he is talking to Jane, even if we don't know who that speaker is. In the next line, Jane tells us it's Tom. Now that we've established that Tom and Jane are talking, the third and subsequent lines can just deliver dialog until someone new enters the conversation or an existing speaker leaves.

(My examples above aren't intended to be great writing, just quick illustrations to get the point across.)

Stackpole also shared suggestions for making scenes and dialog do "double duty" and explained the importance of researching the topics you write about. During the seminar, he recommended authors whose work provides good examples of different areas of fiction writing, such as dialogue, plotting, characterization, and

At his seminars, Stackpole sells CD-ROMs which contain PDF (Adobe Reader) files. I purchased the disc for this particular seminar. The PDF contains the 5 rules Stackpole discussed in the seminar, along with another 15. The disc also contains a copy of a back issue of his "The Secrets" newsletter that covers "timely and classic" writing issues. For example, his June 19, 2009, issue (122) discussed how to prepare documents for the Amazon Kindle device

I'm looking forward to attending Stackpole's seminars at Gen Con Indy 2009 in August and wish him continued success in his career.

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


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