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What I’ve Learned About Writing From Roller Derby, Part Two: The Flashy Stuff is Generally Useless

A woman cruises along on her skates, leg extended back.  Another skater flies up and grabs the proffered ankle.  With a quick pull, the front skater propels the other forward, giving up her momentum to allow her teammate to fly around the track.  The crowd goes wild at the show just performed for them.  This maneuver is called a “leg whip.”

A blocker sees another blocker coming up.  She leaves her defensive wall and sweeps out like a wrecking ball, smashing the other player into the suicide seats.  The opponent sprawls onto the floor (and maybe a few laps), and the audience is beside itself with glee.

The problem with these techniques is–they’re generally useless.  If a skater is in a tight pack, then there’s probably no room to extend her leg fully.  Even if she does have the space to attempt such a move, she’s just asking to get knocked down.  An arm whip–less glamourous, maybe–will more than suffice.  As for our swooping, big hitter, odds are the opposing jammer has taken advantage of the defensive hole she has left in the pack and has zoomed on through.  Or, the other team has used the lack of walls to form one of their own, and have now possibly trapped the abandoned co-blocker, making her the “goat” they keep behind them (and thereby control the speed of the pack).  In any of these scenarios the result is the same, showboating gets you nowhere.

The same is true for writing.  You can plan in your head a heroine who does flying roundhouses, snaps necks with a flex of her well-toned (yet sensual) bicep, who dismantles nuclear weapons while speaking eighteen languages to six different covert agency operators.  You can implant her into every dangerous scenario known to man.  You can build up the action until it’s nearly boiling over.  But, if your character has no purpose, no meaning, no depth, then all you have is flash.  And while flash can be pretty and cool, it never entertains people for very long on its own.

For instance, have you ever stood in line to see the Hope Diamond?  Waited in that snaking, creeping line to get your turn at the glass?  If not, here’s how seeing it goes:

Seconds one through two:
“Oh, wow! Just…. Wow!”

Seconds two through eight:
“Man, that thing is big.  I’d risk a curse to have a diamond that size.”

Seconds eight through ten:
“How is it blue?  I like blue.  I’d rather have a blue one than a regular one.”

Seconds ten through twelve:
“I think that guy behind me is breathing directly onto my neck.”

Second thirteen:
“I wonder what the big elephant in the lobby is up to?”

And that’s it.  The flash has already waned.  And the more times you see it, the less special it is.  Soon, it’s just a rock in a case that thousands of people stand in line to see, while you walk by and think, “Suckers.”

Sure, that last part was a little jaded, but my every field trip from kindergarten to twelfth grade was to the National Mall and I’ve had more than my share of the Hope Diamond, so you’ll have to forgive me.  Still, I stand by my assertion; just like a leg whip, just like a swooping block, just like an over-hyped stone, writing with the sole purpose of blinding your audience with awesomeness is useless.  Without depth and meaning, those big moments will not be very big at all.  In fact, they’ll reek of the author’s hand in the story, and jade your readers faster than a twenty-minute line to see a rock.  Staging events just to have them will never ring true with fans, and–just like the blocker who swings out to make the grandiose hits–will most likely cause a giant hole to appear somewhere you don’t want.  

Instead, keep it tight.  Keep it effective and meaningful.  And if the opportunity for flashiness arises, be sure first and foremost you’re not doing your story any harm by taking it.


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What I’ve Learned About Writing From Roller Derby, Part One: It’s Okay to do This

In roller derby you have to pass a series of physical and written tests before you can scrimmage with the other players.  It’s a safety thing–making sure you’re not going to injure yourself or anyone else when skating in a tight pack.  At one point during the assessment test I fell.  As I regained my feet, my captain said, “It’s okay if you fall.  You have wheels on your feet.  You’re going to fall sometimes.”

I called the corner of the rink in which we fresh meat practiced, “The Guppy Pond.”  In the guppy pond I practiced crossovers, jumping, blocking, hitting, and I learned how to fall.  I learned how to fall correctly, and how to get up quickly.  I would steal envious glances at the ladies scrimmaging on the rink while I skated and dropped to one knee, stood up, dropped to the other, stood up, dropped to both, stood up.  Over and over I skidded across the floor, my legs aching for relief, my eyes darting along with the flashes of blue and red pinnies flying around the track.  I wanted to be out there so badly, to mix with the experienced girls, to play derby.  But, I wasn’t ready, yet.  I had more to learn before I could play the game.

So, I studied the rules and practiced the basics.  I took my test and passed.  And then I got onto the track.  My rabid enthusiasm quickly turned to apprehension as the realization sunk in that I was out of the guppy pond.  The hits would be real, and my newly acquired skills were nothing against the seasoned skaters surrounding me.  Suddenly, the guppy pond didn’t seem so bad.  But, it was too late.  I was in with the big kids and there was no going back.  So, I launched into the fray.  And fell.  And fell.  And fell.  Over and over I tried my best to get around the opposing blockers, eating floor more often than not.

But, there’s a trick to falling in derby.  It’s called falling small.

Falling small is falling in a calculated way.  It’s not flailing, clawing, sprawling onto the track in a miserable heap, railing against that which brought you down.  It’s tucking in your knees and elbows while still descending, hitting the ground in a smooth, protected curl and regaining your feet instantly.  It’s a thoughtful process, not distracted by what happened to make you fall–that doesn’t matter anymore–but rather knowing how to make that hitch in your progress cost you as little momentum as possible.

We’ve all struggled as writers.  Roadblocks–either of our own design or of those forged by the system into which we seek admission–are inevitable, just like falling when you have wheels on your feet.  But when those moments come, we can be ready for them.  As we topple, we can look up to see the track ahead.  We can see the holes in the defense, pleasant little spaces for us to try to squeeze through and attain our goals.  We can tuck in, preparing for that brief moment of impact, but already poised to spring forward with renewed vigor. Sometimes we hit the ground hard, but it doesn’t matter.  We’ve fallen small, and are up again and sprinting, a clearer plan in mind.

Yes, it is okay to fall.

Just make sure you do it right.


Five Years and One Month

That’s how long it’s been since my blog has been running.  To celebrate that milestone (I missed last month’s true anniversary, but I like the notion of thirteen months better than twelve, anyway) I am making some changes.

I’ve been skating for five months now, and I can honestly say the Derby Monster has grabbed me and will not let go.  Instead of fighting my loves and trying to compartmentalize them, I have decided to merge the two.  Derby has taught me quite a bit about being a writer, and vice versa.  I’ll tell you all about it, soon, right after I get this new layout squared away.  
There will still be fantastic stories–of mystical women, some who can control fire and minds, and others who will knock you onto your face with a twitch of the hip, or slide through a fingerbreadth of space as if it were a chasm.  
So, welcome to Hell and Wheels, the next transformation of the dark fantasy writer Avery DeBow’s blog.  I’ll be back soon with my first post about what derby has taught me about being a writer and how “It’s Okay to Do This”
It’s Okay to Do This

Your Only Friend, The End.


What makes a good ending? What makes a great ending? What is that one thing that takes a breathless reader through those last twenty pages before he puts the book down with a sigh, feeling like the journey was well worth it? What are the keys to forging a solid, leave-em-happy ending? Or, more specifically, what are the issues that make the actuality of that ending a pipe dream? I think I’ve come up with a few:

1) Predictability. No one wants to finish a book when its apparent by mid-point exactly where events are leading.

2) Impossibility. There can’t be some Deus ex Machina ending where the hero not only produces a hat out of thin air, but also waves it with a flourish and yanks out one, two, three little bunnies. The feeling of betrayal or of being had is not a good one with which to leave the readers.

3) Unsatisfactory. Here’s where the waters gray. Some may say a book is unsatisfactory unless everyone lives happily ever after. I think a book is unsatisfactory if everyone lives. Stephen King obviously thinks a story is unsatisfactory unless there’s nary a person left standing (or, if there is, that person is covered in blood, missing a limb or two, and is mentally scarred forevermore). In this arena, research has to be a key element — truly knowing one’s audience and understanding what they feel to be a fitting conclusion.

4) The bane of my new writing existence (and probably the most culpable of the offenders out there) — Flatness. There’s nothing really wrong with an ending of this type; it builds to a climax, resolves the conflict and then ties up all the loose ends. It’s technically on the mark, but somehow doesn’t deliver the grand finale readers crave. There’s no gritting of teeth or twitching of anxious fingers as eyes sweep the last few paragraphs of the page in the hurry to get to the next. There’s no racing of minds to figure out just how all will be resolved. The book simply ends. What remains is a feeling of lacking, that we’ve been cheated of that ending — The ending.

Unfortunately, I could probably list more books that fall under the one of the above categories than those that don’t. Which brings me to the five hundred dollar question, Alex — What makes me any different? Is it the fact that I’ve already mapped the pitfalls? Or that I’m overly conscious of the issues that could send me into a downward spiral of blandness? I’m not so sure. Despite my awareness, I could very well find myself in the exact same position. In fact, I have. The whole reason for rewriting the final chapters of Resonance is because the first ending just… Ended. Even with my plot twist, there was little need to break out the pins and needles.

I’d like to hear from you seasoned writers out there; you who have tread the uncomfortable path of “wrapping up.” How have you managed your endings? And, did they ever shine as brightly as your mind pictured them? And, for the newbies like me, how are you managing? Is the resolution as torturous for you as it has become for me? Let me know. I’m curious to find out.