Author Archives: Brandon M Lindsay


I remember from a non-fiction writing class I took in college that the three most important things to consider when writing any non-fiction piece are: clarity, clarity, and clarity. While the purposes of non-fiction and fiction are different-non-fiction is primarily informative, and fiction is primarily artistic-I think we as fiction writers can take a note from our non-fiction comrades.

I recently read a fantasy novel from a few decades ago-a classic by many standards-and although I enjoyed it, I found that the author’s use of metaphor and simile to be ridiculous. His books are almost universally lauded, and whenever anyone finds fault with his books, they don’t mention this aspect of them.

He isn’t the only author like this that I’ve read. There have been a few. Not a lot, but what disturbs me is how writing like this is oftentimes (most often by the literary fiction crowd; sorry, literary fiction crowd) considered to be profound. Worse is when a new author sees it and wants to emulate it with no idea what it is or what effect it will have. Perhaps in capable hands this profundity is achieved sometimes, but I think that more often it achieves the opposite of what a metaphor is designed to do, which is to clarify a concept.

A demonstration is in order. Instead of using an example from the book I read and risking the alienation of this author’s legion of fans, I’m going to create a somewhat hyperbolic example of what I mean: Tears scrambled down his face like alligators. There is very little in common with the concept of tears and those of scrambling and alligators. The image that comes to my mind when I read this is not that of someone crying, but someone whose face is being ravaged by tiny reptiles. Perhaps there is some very distant parallel that can be drawn between these two images, but more likely is that in the mind of the reader they are going to exist in conflict.

Hopefully your experience was different, but all the formal writing education I had encouraged this sort of free-association tomfoolery. I think the reason for this is that the denotative (cognitive) aspects of metaphor and simile are often actively ignored while the connotative (aesthetic) aspects are given full sovereignty. Which is fine if you only plan on writing the literary equivalent of inkblots, but for those of us writing about characters taking actions in places, such a limited approach will not suffice.

Consider another example, that of a bloody sunset. Although maybe a bit trite, it can be effective from both a denotative and a connotative perspective, depending, of course, on the context in which it’s used. Sunsets can be red like blood, and the colors seem to ooze as if bleeding from a wound, so it paints a mental picture that actually describes this particular sunset as against other sunsets. By calling it bloody, the concept of this sunset is concretized and thus clarified, as opposed to a vague abstraction, or, as in the case above, a mishmash of conflicting concretes that no rational mind can grasp.

Also, it did so without sacrificing the connotative aspect of the metaphor; indeed, the metaphor imbued the image of the sunset with a sense of violent finality, and would serve well as a setting element for, say, the aftermath of a battle. I think the reason this particular metaphor is so commonly used is because it is effective at capturing both the connotative and denotative elements of an image that resonates with so many of us.

Yes, we fiction writers are artists. But we are also communicators. Even if all we are communicating is the products of our imagination, I think it is important that we never lose sight of that.

Honoring the Giants

A while ago, I was at a book reading by an intriguing new fantasy author at one of my local bookstores. I’m naturally curious about how ideas originate and evolve, so during the Q & A period I asked him what other authors in the genre influenced him. I had expected a laundry list of the classics of old-Tolkien, LeGuin, Eddison-or at least some mention of today’s bestsellers. But the stammered and confused response I received was along the lines of, “I don’t have any influences, I don’t want to talk about it.” I left the reading feeling a little perplexed and disappointed, yet not fully understanding why.

This wasn’t the first time that I had this kind of response. I’ve heard similar questions fielded at conventions with similar answers given. It’s not something that’s made sense to me-I’m always quick to spout off my favorite authors and the things they do that I think are amazing-and given my inclination for seeking the origins of ideas, I wanted to know why people were refusing to admit that they have been influenced.

Of course, there is the fear that of being called derivative. Many, if not most, authors fear this, myself included. In any genre, but especially in speculative fiction, originality is of paramount importance. After all, isn’t that what writing is? The creation of something new? This is a real, and I think legitimate, fear, but I don’t think it adequately described what I had been seeing with these authors’ reactions, since many authors who fear being labeled as derivative have no problem discussing their influences. Deeper digging was required.

I believe the answer lies with how many people view creativity.

On a superficial level, creativity is the process by which something new comes about. That’s not controversial, but there is dispute about where this new thing comes from.

The common view of creativity is that it is intuitive, that an idea is not truly new unless it plucked from the ether, and not at all associated with anything else in existence. This follows suit with how many of us actually experience a new idea: sometimes it just pops into your head, and you don’t know where it came from.

But if that were true, every new idea would be completely incomprehensible since it would be divorced from any context we could comprehend (which is much the state of nonrepresentational modern visual art, and why it turns so many people off). In order for this new creation to be meaningful to us, it has to have some place in the world as we understand it, and thus it has to relate in some way to the things we have experienced before.

I think that creativity works the same way, but in reverse: the creator takes elements of their experiences and combines them in new ways.

Einstein’s development of the theory of relativity is often considered to be a work of staggering genius and the pinnacle of scientific creativity, and rightly so. Most people have difficulty understanding relativity, and can’t imagine how anyone else could conceive of it. But Einstein certainly didn’t pluck it out of the ether (especially since relativity helped destroy the very concept of the ether); he developed it as an answer to the problems that had been found in Newtonian physics. He combined his knowledge of physics with observed measurements in a way that resulted in a completely new theory. Far from being divorced from reality, his achievement attempted to describe it totally.

Other forms of creativity are no different. The unicorn, for example, is a mythical creature that has permeated cultures throughout the world for hundreds if not thousands of years, and is often a symbol of the fantastic. Yet ultimately, the unicorn is just a horse with a horn on its head and magical powers. It is nothing more than the combination of these attributes, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a completely original creation.

Imagine asking the creator of the unicorn to describe it. “Well,” he would say, “it has a horn, and magical powers, four legs, hooves, a mane and a tail… but it is definitely not a horse or related to horses in any fashion.”

This is akin to what many of these authors are saying about their own works in their frantic scramble to distance them from those of their influences.

Some of the greatest works of literature have clear influences. Tolkien was influenced by mythology (no, he didn’t invent the idea of Elves, though his Elves were nonetheless a remarkable creation), The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan can in many ways be seen as a fusion of Dune and Arthurian legend (the Aviendha/Chani connection), and Steven Erikson proudly declares that he was shaped by Glen Cook’s writing, and a side-by-side read of Gardens of the Moon and The Black Company supports this (can you tell I’m biased toward fantasy?). Despite the fact that their works were influenced by many things, they still stand at the high-water mark of creativity in fantasy fiction.

Now, I’m not at all suggesting that you should become a complete hack. Tolkien already wrote The Lord of the Rings; we don’t need you to write it again. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t let him or anyone else inform your own stories, so long as your stories and the elements that comprise them are your own.

Nor am I trying to diminish your creativity as being unoriginal. Utilizing what exists in the world and combining it in new and fresh ways is really hard work. Just ask Einstein.

So if you find yourself famous someday and asked who influenced you, feel no guilt as you give us your laundry list, and honor those giants upon whose shoulders you stand.


If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton

P.S. My epic fantasy novelette, Dark Tree: A Tale of the Fourth World, is now available for free on Smashwords! I hope you’ll check it out!

Never Surrender!

With so many people officially on the self-publishing bandwagon, there have been a lot of proclamations going around to the effect that grand success as a self-published author is no longer possible. Even our own guest, David Dalglish, a paragon of self-pubbing success if ever there was one, has admitted that a significant factor of his triumph was timing. And now, it seems, the moment has passed.

The secret is out. The vast sales a few authors achieved in the early days of ebook self-pubbing led to an avalanche of me-too-ers. The market is flooded, and now the chance to have your book become a blockbuster requires you to compete with horde upon horde of writers who had the same idea as you. The picture painted by the self-publishing statistics floating around on the interwebs seems a bleak one indeed. Having seen it, some people may even decide that it is not worth the struggle.

But when taken in context, nothing has really changed on that front, at least not in a negative way. According to a recent survey, the average yearly take of a self-published author was $10,000, with a majority making less than $500 a year. How is that a bad thing? Before self-publishing was a viable option, failure was much harsher. Failure meant no money and no readers. I would gladly take $500 a year and a paltry following over nothing at all.

I should also point out that I hate statistics as a guide to personal action. The reason is that it’s easy to look at a given pie chart and think, “Oh, I have a 78% chance of failing to achieve my goals, so I’m not going to bother.” But no graph can ever tell you who you are. You are you, and there is a 0% chance that you are anyone else. Always keep that in mind when looking at statistics that attempt to tell you what kind of life you will have and thus how to live it.

Besides, there are exceptional writers out there. Imagine if your favorite author had looked at the odds of getting published and said, “Meh. Not worth the risk.” They would have never taken the plunge; they would have filed their TPS reports, always wondering, “Could I have been a success?” And the world, deprived of their creations, would have been a dimmer place. Perhaps you are one of those outliers. Perhaps you are really as good as your mom says you are.

And if you are that good, if you are the next Patrick Rothfuss, Stephen King, or [insert favorite author here], and you quit now, I am going to be very, very pissed off at you.

Hopefully, none of this means anything to you, because deep down, you are a writer. And writers write, no matter what anybody else says.

Never surrender.

Plumbing the Depths of Emotion

No matter if you write political thrillers, historical dramas, or speculative fiction, a certain amount of research is required for the reader to buy into your creation. Oftentimes we focus on researching hard facts, bits of information to inform the details that lend an air of credibility to our stories. There is one area of study I think is critical for anyone who writes fiction, but it isn’t something that you can read about in a textbook (at least not in any meaningful way), and that is emotion. More specifically, our own emotions.

Recently I canceled my cable TV subscription and opted to use just Netflix instead. One of the shows it recommended was an anime show called Elfen Lied. It was pretty highly rated and I was in the mood for something different, so I gave it a shot.

I was not prepared. Few artistic works have affected me as much as that show. It’s an uncompromisingly brutal and oftentimes disturbing story of a girl on a quest for redemption and the reclamation of childhood’s lost innocence (warning: I said brutal and I meant it. It’s not for the squeamish or faint of heart). But more important than the darkness of the story is its contrast to the moment it all leads up to, when redemption and forgiveness are achieved, when the veil of suffering is lifted to reveal love and hope. Never was such a destination so hard won, by the main character or by myself. It was devastating yet beautiful. It broke my heart.

Would that my own writing had that effect on people, which got me thinking: how was this able to affect me so? I realized that by introspecting my own emotional reaction to the show, I would able to determine what about it caused that reaction, and thus be able to use what I learned about myself as a tool in my own writing. I’ve done similar things in the past, but that’s been more looking at things that I thought could affect people emotionally, rather than looking at the raw emotions as they occur in myself. It’s always been a roundabout or subconscious approach, never direct.

In a book on fiction writing, I remember the author at multiple points recounting how he couldn’t finish watching a movie or reading a book (or some such) because it was too emotionally intense. I have never understood that. One thing art does well is convey emotion-so wouldn’t we, as writers, want to learn what we can of it? Experience and know the full spectrum of emotion, so that we can then imbue our works with emotional impact? After all, shouldn’t we be willing to suffer for our art?

Emotions are incredibly powerful, perhaps one of the more powerful forces in our lives; they can make our writing powerful, too. Being intimately familiar with them can allow us to implement them. From now on, I’m going to make an effort to embrace each emotional experience as it comes my way so as to better understand it. Hopefully I won’t become a neurotic in the process.

I’m always on the lookout for things that stir the emotions, so if you’ve got something that has done so for you, let us know in the comments! (And don’t mention Disney/Pixar’s Up. I’m already aware of its soul-crushing sadness-making ability)