The Irony Games

If you’re not already using IRONY to transform your story from familiar to irresistible, let me tell you why you should be.

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Irony is “an action which has the opposite, or different effect to the one initially desired.” Let's use THE HUNGER GAMES as an example. Katniss did everything to ensure she'd be picked ahead of her sister. And yet Prim is chosen, so Katniss must volunteer as tribute.

On the surface, that might seem silly. Maybe it's ironic, but isn't it also kind of redundant for her to end up in the same place as if she'd been picked?

Well, no, because irony is at play. Katniss only volunteered because her sister was selected, and that grabs the attention of the public. Who else would volunteer for this horror show?!

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It's also, as Plutarch notes later on, why people are inspired by her. When given an out, she didn't take it. She sacrificed everything to save Prim.

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Suzanne Collins creates an even deeper irony later when Katniss sacrificing herself makes her the perfect person to lead the rebellion. More on that later. First, let’s contrast Katniss with Gale.

Gale would arguably be a better hero to inspire everyone. He's young, handsome, driven by rage against the Capitol, and has already sacrificed so much to protect his family.

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He's certainly more willing to fight than Katniss, but notice what’s missing from his arc. There’s no irony. Everything about his arc is straightforward and thus by its nature far less interesting.

Who would he volunteer as tribute to save? He can’t volunteer to save Katniss (conveniently against the rules, though that could have made a fantastic alternate story). Who else would he volunteer to save? Peeta?!

So already, Katniss is in a unique position to volunteer as tribute, and it’s the weight (and irony) of her sacrifice that inspires people and ultimately saves her.

If she’d simply been selected in the Reaping, no one would have cared. She’d have been one more sad face from District 12 destined to die.

And yet it’s the irony of her sacrifice that makes the public love her. This is a most unexpected plot twist, and they’re eager to see how it plays out. This is horrific, and yet as the actual audience, some would say we're oddly (ironically?) just as complicit.

The irony not only saves her life in her first Hunger Game, it also makes her perfect as the face of the rebellion.

It’s her very reluctance to be the symbol of the rebellion that inspires people. Gale is certainly more ready to fight (and die) than she is, but that's in part why he doesn't inspire people to the same degree as Katniss.

NOW ABOUT YOU

Now let's turn to YOU. It’s this kind of irony that will make your character and your story stand out. It’s what hooks your readers.

Think of straightforward premises that are fine but aren’t interesting. Look at all of the romance BCCs that end with something like, “But before the story is over, their love will be tested.” That hooks no one. We’ve seen that a million times.

The hook comes from irony like what we discussed above in The Hunger Games. The one person who’s ready to die is the one person we need to survive. The girl who just wants to live in peace must decide whether to be the face of a rebellion.

I want you to go back to your story and take a look at what separates (or could separate) your story from anything similar. Just a normal day in the life of your protagonist, until... *insert ironic inciting incident*

There’s a lesson there, too, about embracing what makes YOU different. Those very things you’re terrified make you unlovable might, ironically, be what make you irresistible.


If you want to discuss more storytelling tips from THE HUNGER GAMES, click or tap here for a previous article on building anticipation.

If you like THE HUNGER GAMES in general, you 100% need to check out the new audiobook special edition narrated by Tatiana Maslany, the insanely talented actress who played the lead in ORPHAN BLACK.


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The Problem with DIE HARD

Why does DIE HARD get worse with each sequel? One word: fear. With every movie, John has a little less of it.

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The new Die Hards keep making the same mistake. They raise the stakes by giving John ever-increasingly dangerous external obstacles. This really misses the point of what makes those obstacles meaningful.

John McClain used to be scared. THAT is what made him an everyman. He worried he was making the wrong choice. He worried one mistake could get someone killed. And that person was sometimes himself.

The obstacles John faces don't in themselves make him an everyman. The thing that makes John relatable is his FEAR.

In DH1, he's TERRIFIED for his life. But more than that, he's terrified that if he dies, so will the wife and the marriage he's desperate to save.

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So it's not enough to pit John McClain against one difficult obstacle after another. Hey, it's cool that he can ramp a car into a helicopter, but where is John's fear?

Where's the fear we saw from John in DH1 when he looked at the tunnel he'd have to hang down to escape?

Where's the horrified curse we heard when dropped into the tunnel knowing he might plummet to his death?

Compare these two scenes, one from DIE HARD, the other from A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD. In DIE HARD, John hides under the table while Gruber threatens to kill the Nakatomi executive Joseph Takagi unless he gives Gruber the access code into the vault.

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The whole time, John McClain is RIGHT THERE, gun already drawn. And then he does nothing. Gruber shoots Takagi in the head, and our great big hero RUNS.

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That scene and what follows are exactly what make John McClain so relatable. He berates himself for not saving Takagi. "Why didn't you stop'em, John?!" But then he reminds himself why. "'Cause then you'd be dead too, asshole."

John McClain knows he's only human, and he's so afraid that even the filmmakers let him show it. That's bold. Compare this to A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD. John is...different.

Whereas once McClain worried about people getting hurt, now he's angry because these silly civilians keep getting in his way. Don’t they know he’s been in how many Die Hards?!

Now how do you fix this? Aside from not watching any of the Die Hards beyond part 3? Well first of all, make the stakes relatable. What even are the stakes in Die Hard 4?

I realize there were larger implications in LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD, but for a general audience, the premise of DH4 was essentially: Watch John McClain risk his life again to save...the internet? I'm going out on a limb to say they weren't trying for dramatic irony.

Now I get it, with each successive movie, John overcomes so much that it only makes sense that he gains confidence. By movie five, obviously he should laugh at the obstacles he faced in movie one.

But if you have McClain now full of confidence, the problem needs to be what new obstacles he faces precisely because of who he is now. That's the nature of a character arc. Something about who you are is causing the problem in your life today.

If he's so confident? Make him overconfident. He takes on something he never should have accepted, and it puts him and the people he loves in danger he hasn't known since DH1.

Or go the other direction. Who can go through this many unpredictable catastrophes and not have PTSD? I'd absolutely buy everyone around McClain thinking how awesome and badass he must be by now, but he's more scared than ever.

Or go the TAKEN route so that McClain doesn't care about his own life, it’s his kid who’s in danger because they’ve rejected everything about McClain. Their only hope is for them to save themselves.

In essence, make McClain as afraid as he was in DH1 because his child is in a similarly vulnerable position that he can't save them from simply by being badass. If you said I'm basically suggesting they write John McClain as C3PO, that's a good point.

If you said maybe Liam Neeson should play John McClain in the prequel, I would say that is the first Die Hard I will be seeing on opening day.

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Also, let's all remember that time the bad guy tried to karate chop John McClain.

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Anyway, I'm off now to watch DIE HARD: DIE HARDER. Those first three are still classics. Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk.


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Logline Basics

Working on a query letter? Pitching in an event like Pitch Wars? Struggling to identify the core hook for your story? You might need a good logline.

I want you to imagine you’re in an elevator. In walks the agent of your dreams. And guess what? They will listen to ANYTHING you want to pitch. The catch? You only get one sentence.

This is where a logline will help you. It's a single-sentence pitch that tells you not just what your story is about but why someone will read it.

Now I know we’re in the elevator with the agent, but let’s take a step back to the development process. A logline will help you here, too, because it's a quick and easy way to experiment with different versions of your story.

TEMPLATE

Someone (the protagonist) wants something (the story goal) and goes after it against great odds and/or obstacles (the antagonist and the conflict).

The key here is to make the odds/obstacles BIG enough that they will take an entire story to resolve. Big doesn't necessarily mean complex, just that the stakes are large enough that no single decision will fix anything.

Side note: That is often why romantic conflicts are weak if everything would be solved by the characters just having an honest conversation. "You mean to tell me you had a rational explanation that I refused to listen to?!" *screams*

Think of your logline as more than the Setup. You need to encapsulate in a single sentence what the story is ABOUT. What are we going to experience in the meat of the story? Here are some examples.

EXAMPLES

In a world inspired by ancient Arabia, WE HUNT THE FLAME follows a girl named Zafira, who must disguise herself as a man to seek a lost artifact that could return magic to her cursed world.

In a world inspired by ancient Arabia, WE HUNT THE FLAME follows a girl named Zafira, who must disguise herself as a man to seek a lost artifact that could return magic to her cursed world.

PRETTY WOMAN: A man in a legal but hurtful business needs an escort for some social events, and hires a beautiful prostitute he meets...only to fall in love.

PRETTY WOMAN: A man in a legal but hurtful business needs an escort for some social events, and hires a beautiful prostitute he meets...only to fall in love.

YOU’VE GOT MAIL: Two business rivals who despise each other in real life unwittingly fall in love over the Internet.

YOU’VE GOT MAIL: Two business rivals who despise each other in real life unwittingly fall in love over the Internet.

CITY OF ANGELS: Seth, an angel who wanders the Los Angeles area invisible to humans, falls in love with a distraught heart surgeon Maggie, who inspires him to forego his immortality and exist on earth with her as a feeling and mortal entity.

CITY OF ANGELS: Seth, an angel who wanders the Los Angeles area invisible to humans, falls in love with a distraught heart surgeon Maggie, who inspires him to forego his immortality and exist on earth with her as a feeling and mortal entity.

THE PROPOSAL: The only person who can save a publisher’s editor in chief from being deported is the executive assistant who hates her.

THE PROPOSAL: The only person who can save a publisher’s editor in chief from being deported is the executive assistant who hates her.

Again, the key here is NOT to stop at the setup. If you make the hook about a decision, a choice, a secret, a revelation, what are you really promising to the reader?

The conflict you present needs to be something that takes the ENTIRE book to resolve. It takes a second to make a decision. It takes a second to discover something. And similarly, if that's where your pitch ends, readers have to ask okay, but what's the story???

Look again at PRETTY WOMAN. The hook isn’t whether Edward will ask Vivian to be his date. It’s the promise of what will happen WHILE she is his date.

Look again at CITY OF ANGELS. The hook isn’t whether Seth will choose to reveal himself to Maggie. It’s what happens AFTER he reveals himself.

Whether you're still writing or you're cooking up the perfect pitch for your finished book, I hope this lesson on loglines helps you get to the next stage of your publishing career.


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Justice vs Revenge: Making Unlikable Characters Likable

REVENGE is one of the hardest storytelling tropes to get right, and yet it’s one of the most fun…if you remember this one thing.

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Revenge is hard to pull off because your protagonist’s goal is literally to destroy another person. Here, it’s vital for you to separate the goal from the motivation. The GOAL is revenge, but the MOTIVATION is something else.

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From page one, the anti-hero needs a motivation that the reader connects with and supports. Think of the classic THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO.

In TCoMC, Edmond Dantes doesn’t simply want revenge. The people who destroyed his life will continue to wreak havoc unless they’re stopped.

But go deeper, and we see that even if Edmond’s primary motivation was revenge (and I’ll be honest, it mostly is), these people truly wronged him.

He was betrayed and sent to life in prison by those closest to him. His lover (seemingly) abandoned him and married the best friend who betrayed him.

If that happened to you, would you want a little revenge? It’s vital to the Revenge trope that your readers answer YES.

Answering yes shows that the Revenge trope isn’t really about revenge. It’s about JUSTICE. It’s about balancing the scales and righting an awful wrong.

Keep that part in mind. Your readers are seeking balance, which is often why fiction functions in a way real life doesn’t. In the real world, sometimes the bad guys get away with it. But in fiction, if your character truly seeks revenge rather than justice, the reader is waiting to see what awful cost someone will pay.

This is where you need to decide the tone of the story and the arc for your character. Is this a happy ending or a HOLY SHIT THE WORLD IS AWFUL ending?

Maybe your story is light and fun, like the delightful OCEAN’S 8. Revenge there against a jilted lover is a small part of the story, but it’s a huge part of why we empathize with Debbie Ocean.

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Maybe it’s action-packed fun with an emotional core fueled by the protagonist’s grief over the villains killing his one last link to his dead wife, like in JOHN WICK. (poster from My Hot Posters)

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Maybe it’s actually about revenge, not justice, such as in Gillian Flynn’s exquisite GONE GIRL, where the reader’s delight in part comes from determining who is really getting revenge in the end.

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Maybe, in another story that’s also actually about revenge, it’s about exposing the awful costs of jealousy and vengeance, such as in the classic WUTHERING HEIGHTS.

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Or how about the out-of-this-world fantastic BURN FOR BURN by Jenny Han & Siobhan Vivian, in which three friends band together to finally bring justice against those who have wronged them.

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Even in our original example of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, Edmond ultimately must choose between sacrificing everything he loves for revenge...or sacrificing revenge to hold on to everything he loves.

Revenge or Justice are both fun tropes if you'll remember that your protagonist's goal isn't the same as their motivation. Revenge can be as evil as you please...so long as you give the protagonist a compelling motivation.


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The midpoint high is a plot beat that’s easy to miss and even easier to get wrong.

WHAT IS THE MIDPOINT HIGH?

The midpoint high happens literally at the middle of the story. It’s an excellent tool to let the reader know where they are.

Just before the middle of the story, the characters encounter a big conflict and overcome it, creating a huge sense of victory. They did it! This is all going to work out!

This is your midpoint high.

DEFINING THE MIDPOINT HIGH

On the first side of the midpoint is the Fun & Games. No matter what crushing defeat the protagonist faces, each struggle brings them closer to achieving their goal.

On the other side of the midpoint is the Bad Guys Closing In, No matter what elated victory the protagonist faces, each victory brings them further away from achieving their goal.

And in the middle of that is the midpoint high itself.

The midpoint FALSE high

Look again at how the first half of Act II functions leading into the midpoint. The protagonist faces immense challenges. Sometimes, it feels like no matter what they do, every new obstacle is harder than the last. THIS IS A GOOD THING. It’s essential to making the reader feel the HIGH of the midpoint high.

Except the midpoint high is a FALSE high. The characters overcome this obstacle, but because they achieved that victory without facing their greatest fear, it’s a FALSE victory that quickly causes everything to spiral out of control.

Think of this like those movies that have DARK twist endings. You think everything’s fine, but then…

TWIST ENDING EXAMPLES

(BEWARE!!! SPOILERS ABOUND)

SEVEN

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After a grueling pursuit of a serial killer, Detectives Somerset and Mills finally catch John Doe. John agrees to reveal the location of his final two victims as long as Somerset and Mills will accompany him. Seems fishy (as a false high should!), but it really feels like they might have solved this.

MEAN GIRLS

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Cady successfully remakes herself in Regina’s image and takes over as the coolest, most popular girl in school...until she realizes that being the biggest B isn’t the prize she dreamed of.

UNBREAKABLE

SEVEN

David Dunn claims his true self as a superhero, a silent guardian for his city and the people he loves. He achieves this in large part due to the aid of his new friend, the comic historian Elijah Price. Except in the final moments, David discovers a dark secret about Elijah.

MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

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Garrett writes a “message in a bottle” to his deceased wife to let her know he’s found a new love. He’s ready to move on. HOORAY!!!! But then he goes sailing one last time solo…

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

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Hazel and Augustus face their fears to discover their true selves and claim all of the best things in life, including the love they’ve found with each other. Except Augustus has a dark secret to share with Hazel that could cost them everything.

MEMENTO

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Leonard doesn’t remember much, but he does remember that he won’t rest until he finds his wife’s killer. In the film’s final moments, he does just that, but the killer’s true identity will upend everything he thought he knew.

UPGRADE

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A tragic accident leaves Grey Trace as a quadriplegic, but a benefactor implants a chip in his spine that gifts him not just with mobility but seeming superhuman abilities. Even after Grey discovers and defeats the hidden enemy behind it all, a darker truth awaits him in the film’s final moments.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Now here’s what you can learn about how to make an excellent MIDPOINT FALSE HIGH as well as an excellent transition into the BAD GUYS CLOSING IN.

The same way one of these twist endings feels like a true victory but then quickly transitions into a dark revelation is exactly how I want you to approach that middle part of your story. Make your reader jump for joy, even though they can tell this seems way too good to be true.

And you know what? They’re right.

WRITING EXERCISE

Now I want you to go back to your own story.

What is your midpoint high?

Does your protagonist face a huge obstacle before the midpoint high?

What flaw has your protagonist refused to face in themselves that fundamentally taints the midpoint high as a FALSE victory?

Answer these questions and you’ll be on your way to creating one of the most important plot beats of your story.


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Photo by @clever_visuals

Photo by @clever_visuals

You probably know what genre you intend to write in. You love contemporary. Or sci-fi. Or fantasy. Thrillers. YA. NA. Historical. But the genre that best fits your story may not be what you think.

It’s unfortunately VERY easy to get confused about this in an early draft. There are some notable (and hilarious) examples throughout pop culture.

My favorite? GOOD WILL HUNTING originally started out as a Coming of Age drama…and then bizarrely switched into an action/adventure set piece with Will narrowly avoiding capture by government agents. We can thank Rob Reiner for getting them back on track.

It’s easy to see where the boys went wrong once we stop to look at the story’s goal, obstacles, and stakes.

So your first task to reevaluate what genre you’re writing in is to answer this:

What GOAL is your character pursuing?

Of course, a goal doesn’t mean anything unless you also put your character against GREAT ODDS. Ideally, these odds are so big that they will take the entire story to overcome. So your next task is to answer this:

What OBSTACLES does your character face?

And finally, a goal and obstacles won’t matter to the reader unless you define why the goal matters to the protagonist. In order words, you need to answer this:

What are the STAKES if your character fails?

These answers don’t need to be (and often shouldn’t be) clear at the start of the story, but at the Break into Act II, readers need you to make these things clear.

Defining your genre

Say you’re writing an edge-of-your-seat story. You want the reader in constant tension. If at the Break into Act II, your protagonist’s goal is to evade capture by the bad guy, that implies there’s going to be a lot of SHUT UP JUST RUN!!! scenes. Welcome to the essence of a thriller.

But if at the Break into Two, the protagonist’s goal is “find out who’s responsible for this,” then there’s going to be a lot of INVESTIGATION scenes. The story is a mystery, a slow burn reveal, which is in part why mysteries can be so satisfying but sometimes struggle to find a larger audience.

Of course, there are all sorts of goals your protagonist can have that form the basis for Act II/the promise of the premise. Let’s look at a few popular stories to see what I mean.

EXAMPLES

Aladdin

After using his first wish to create a false persona, Aladdin must overcome his lies in order to convince the Princess that he’s worthy of her love.

Back to the Future

A well-meaning teenager who accidentally went back in time must now save his own existence by getting his teenage parents to fall in love.

Captain America: The First Avenger

After being transformed into a super soldier, Steve Rogers discovers the true meaning of being a hero by fighting fascism wherever he finds it.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

On the verge of defeating Hydra once and for all, Steve Rogers discovers that the true enemy might be among his closest allies.

Note that while CA1 was a straightforward action/adventure movie, CA2 turns into a political mystery/thriller. The story is as much about finding out who is behind this as evading capture.

Pretty Woman

A wealthy but emotionally isolated businessman struggles to close a deal without falling for the woman he hired to pose as his date.

(Equally illuminating if you write that from Vivian’s POV.)

Toy Story 3

After discovering that their owner Andy may have already moved on without them, the toys must overcome new adversaries in order to define their place in the world.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Now that we’ve gone over how the protagonist’s goal against great odds defines your genre, it’s easy to see how any of these story examples could (and probably did) get lost in the drafting stage.

Imagine Pretty Woman as an action/adventure story with Edward narrowly outwitting enemies trying to sabotage his business deal.

Or Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a romance, with Steve mostly focused on whether to date his neighbor or Black Widow.

These may sound absurd, but they’re no more absurd than Good Will Hunting’s early drafts. And the thing is that any of these altered versions could still be good, even great stories, but they’d be vastly different than the classics we know them as.

The point is less about what would make a great story and more about helping you define what story you’re writing. Once you realize your story is actually a romance, or a thriller, or a satire, or any other genre, your decisions get a lot easier.

closing thoughts

So…do you know what your character wants?

Do you know what great odds they need to overcome?

Do you know what’s at stake if they fail?

Answer these questions and you’ll not only know how to tell your story, you’ll have a clear vision to offer agents and editors. They’re already asking where the story will fit into the market, and you’ll quickly become their favorite writer by showing that you’ve already answered that question.


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WHY GENRE FICTION IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER

It was a time when a growing number of people found themselves robbed of their dreams. It was a time when we saw literal fascism on the rise. It was a time when oppression turned to totalitarianism.

I’m not talking about 2018. I’m talking about early 1900 America, when genre fiction—particularly noir—came to great prominence. The people of the 1930s survived the Great Depression and World War I, their spirits already broken, only to then see the rise of literal fascists, totalitarians, and bigots who wore their symbols proudly.

And in the midst of this were genre fiction writers. Fantasy, science fiction, mystery/thriller, romance, even the inklings of what would become the modern YA genre. They told stories that asked the questions few were willing or able to ask.

These writers compelled readers to think CRITICALLY and take action, to recognize and integrate the marginalized, to offer safety and security and above all a RECKONING for those whose only choices were to be abused, forgotten, or erased.

Whereas fantasy and science fiction writers presented their social criticism indirectly, writing about the future or other worlds to represent political and cultural voices that had been removed from public debate, suspense writers discussed “the devastating effects of American capitalism on society's marginal people” through crime thrillers.

Even genre fiction containing more obvious, explicit social and political commentary escaped condemnation because critics dismissed them as vacuous forms of entertainment.

That’s right. According to critics, genre fiction couldn’t inspire dissent because genre fiction had nothing substantial to say.

Sound familiar, writers?

It was here that genre fiction took an extremely dark turn.

***

Mystery/thriller evolved into NOIR. Noir writers didn’t want to offer a single hint of escapism. They subverted reader expectations simply by showing the world at its worst. Hard work and good intentions for damn sure didn’t guarantee success in the real world. Where did that leave us?

What did that mean for main characters? Well, there might be another parallel here. If they saw that being heroic didn’t earn justice, why should they give a damn? If playing by the rules didn’t help, why not play dirty? If being polite meant indulging the worst impulses of their oppressors, why not embrace being rude as hell?

These questions drove noir storytellers to invent the anti-hero, a character who might have noble ambitions but didn’t require noble methods. In a world where value was defined within civility, noir heroes decided that sometimes, the kind thing to do was to fight. To shout. To play dirty. To be rude as hell if that was what was needed.

Evil, you see, can afford to be polite because it assumes full knowledge of the ways it is cruel and how to justify it.

It’s goodness that values kindness, and kindness means standing up for the downtrodden, marginalized, and abused, even when that means making enemies of those who don’t mind doing harm.

Suspense writers create situations where the audience must question the significance of choices reduced to what Kenneth Lincoln describes as “brute survival or massive robbery or corporate slaughter.” James Cain’s classic noir stories, for example, show a world where there is no law but chance. And yet as hopeless as that sounds, it’s in this desperation that genre fiction writers subvert convention and return the possibility of dignity to characters, no matter their end.

Genre fiction doesn’t so much repudiate the ideas of justice, love, and truth, so much as expands them to integrate diverse forms of self-creation. The world will go on its way without regard for human desires and concerns, but an unshakable fate doesn’t deprive our characters from contributing to their destinies with every decision they make.

The early 1900s wasn’t the first time writers weren’t taken seriously, and as we can see clearly today, it won’t be the last. This isn’t the last time that someone will tell you that what makes you different makes you weak. Or worse, that what makes you YOU somehow means you’re broken.

You already know this, but I still like saying it. You’re not broken. You’re not weak. The things that make you different make you YOU, and the things that make you YOU make you strong.

Genre fiction has never been more important, in part because it is still a vital mechanism for change. And most of all because the critics of that change still keep underestimating you.

They want you not just afraid but panicked and reactionary. Panicked people are easy to manipulate. But deliberate acts of bravery inspire others precisely because of the courage they require.

We can’t stop being afraid, and maybe we shouldn’t. But we can choose not to be panicked. We can choose to make choices in the face of terror. Terror, you see, is often the birthplace of true courage.

Now let’s be brave. Keep writing. Keep fighting. We’re in this together.