Thursday, August 29, 2019

Software Update

Just a quick post this week. Sorry. I’m juggling final edits on one book and really picking up momentum on another

I got a random question on Twitter the other day, and while I answered it there I thought it was worth bringing it up here, too. Somebody wanted to know what writing software I use, and also (question part B) did I think it was possible to write a book using Microsoft Word.

The answer to this is... well, sure. Of course it is. I write in Word. I’m writing this in Word right now before I transfer it onto the ranty blog. I think everything of mine you’ve ever read was written in Word.

But...

The real issue here is this is like asking if I like ball point pens or rollerball or quills. Everybody has their own preference, for their own reasons, but it doesn’t really matter because we all understand the pen is just a tool. What matters is the manuscript at the end of the process. And seriously—are you going to try to write a novel with a goose quill? Really? Of course you’re not. Everybody knows peacock feathers hold a point better. Plus, you look much more authorly with that big plume waving back and forth while you write.

Yeah, I use Word.  But you know what? I actualy wrote a lot of Paradox Bound on yellow pads in longhand. With a pen. In a coffeeshop. Because at the time, that’s what was working for me. It felt good. It let me hit my word count every day.

I know a lot of other authors who use Word. And there’s the free knockoff version, Open Office.  But I also know some who use a program called Scrivener that you may have heard of. It’s got a lot more bells and whistles than I like, but that’s just me--I know a bunch of folks who swear by it. Weird as it may sound, I know a couple screenwriters who actually wrote books in Final Draft, just because it was familiar to them and comfortable to work in. Heck, I know one writer who actually wrote her first few books on her Blackberry during her downtime at work.

Because that’s what all of this comes down to in the end. What I’m comfortable with. What’s going to let me write with the least amount of distractions. Whatever it is... that’s the correct writing program for me to use. Maybe it’s something with dozens and dozens of features. Maybe it’s something very stripped down and basic. Hell... maybe it’s something so ancient you have to keep an old computer just so you can run it.

Or maybe it’s just a pen and legal pad.

Oh, and hey, speaking of writing, did you know that my book Dead Moon is now available as an ebook for your reading pleasure. It's been an Audible exclusive for the past six months, but that time has passed and now those of you who prefer reading to listening can enjoy the full horror of being hunted by zombies on the Moon. So... go enjoy it.

Next time, I want to get real for a few minutes.

Until than, go write.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Trilogy vs Series vs Universe

I got an interesting comment on the FAQ the other day. Well, on one of the social media sites where it’s pinned. Someone announced they were going to quit reading the Ex-Heroes books because they just learned “there was never going to be an actual ending.”  Which is true, but... it’s always been true. It’s one of the reasons pretty much every book in the series has ended with a quiet moment that could be “the end.” This was never a trilogy or heptalogy or something where it’d come to a neat, tidy, planned-out-from-the-beginning end.—and I’ve said this at least a hundred times in interviews, at cons, and just to random folks who’ve asked.

I wonder if this person's gonna stop watching the MCU, too. Pretty sure there’s no “actual ending” planned for that. Or the James Bond franchise. I mean, how does somebody like that watch television? Did they wait seven years to make sure Elementary would get an “actual ending” and not be cancelled between seasons like so many programs?

It’s funny because we’d just been talking about this at the Writers Coffeehouse last week (or two weeks ago at this point, I guess). How do you approach writing multiple, connected books? And one thing we talked about a lot was how the books are connected. Because that’s going to have an effect on how I write them and the stories (or story) I end up telling..

...and then we spun off onto a bunch of usual segues.

Now, I’ll warn you right up front, there’s not going to be a lot of “how to” in this post. As I’ve said here a bunch of times, writing’s a very unique process.  You don’t write the way I do, I don’t write the way she does, she doesn’t write like you. So adding another layer on to that—find the best way to do this that works with the way you do that—is just going to be too much. It’s variables on top of variables.

What I’d like to do instead is throw some terminology at you and maybe some thoughts about how we can define some of those terms. Less instruction, a little more food for thought. Things I should keep in mind when I’m sitting down to smack my head against the keyboard.

All that said... let’s talk about stories and the different ways they can be connected. Because let's face it, this is a big dream for a lot of folks--to have a group of characters, or maybe a world, that's so cool people will pay us to write multiple books about them. For our purposes here, I want to break these multiple books down into three broad groups. I’m going to call them series, trilogies, and universes.

Also, let me be clear on something up front. I’m just saying “trilogy” for convenience. We could also say quadrilogy or hexalogy or any number of increasingly obscure words with that Greek-logos suffix. I’ll explain more when we get there.

Let’s start with a series. Simply put, this is an ongoing, open-ended collection of books or stories, almost always involving the same protagonists. If you think of a television series, that’s pretty much the same idea. I want every book to end with the potential of another book. It’s also not uncommon for these books to restore the status quo for our characters at the end, leaving them pretty close to where they began on a personal level. It's why a lot of series get scoffed at as "plot-driven"--because not a lot happens with the characters on a story level.

You may have heard me mention that term before—series potential. That’s what we’re talking about. Each book could have—but doesn’t need to have—another book after it. If you stopped reading with this one, you’d probably be fine and feel like you’d read a complete story. But if I told you there’s another one, your first reaction shouldn’t be “What? How?” Editors love books with series potential. Seriously.

The trick here, of course, is it means I have to wrap up this story while also leaving space for another story. There’s a reason we’ve never seen a Bond movie that ends with “and peace reigned forever after.” And why we always see Jack Reacher wandering out of town at the end of every book.

Next up would be the trilogy. This is when my story’s set across a very specific set of books, rarely hitting double digits. And it’s been planned this way, in the same way I plan where the beginning and end of a book may be. Yeah, I’m saying trilogy for convenience but it could be four books or five—but I know how many there’s going to be when I start and it rarely changes. The Harry Potter books were always meant to cover his seven years at school, one year per book. Chuck Wendig's Aftermath books are a trilogy (an actual one), as were both the Newsflesh and Parasitology books by Mira Grant a.k.a. Seanan McGuire.

One of the key things here is that even though this may be three or five or seven books, there’s only one main story running across them. It’s not uncommon for the books to have lots of dangling threads, or maybe even a full cliffhanger ending. And that’s okay in this case because we know there’s going to be another book. Again, cause this is all one story.

The other key thing, I think, is the story itself. I don’t want to plan out a trilogy when I really only have enough story for one book. Or plan on seven when I’ve only got enough for three. You get the idea. Despite the multiple books, we’re talking about a set, self-contained story, so I need to be honest with myself about how much story I’ve really got.

Again—sorry to be repetitive—I’m just using trilogy as an umbrella term for a single story told over a set number of books. I want to be clear because it’s a term that gets slapped on to a lot of different things and, to be honest, I don’t want to read someone’s six paragraph spiel in the comments about how valid duologies are or that, no, that ISN’T what a trilogy is because abcxyz.

Finally we have a universe. This is when a number of books have a shared background and common elements, but don’t necessarily connect in any way past that.  There are a lot of popular media-tie in ones, like Warhammer 40,000, Star Wars, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Heck, lots of comic publishers work with shared universes where their characters coexist, like Marvel, DC, or IDW’s Hasbroverse (where Rom the Spaceknight once bodyslammed Optimus Prime after killing some GI Joe team members who were secretly Dire Wraiths). You may have read a few books set in Paul F. Wilson’s Secret History of the World. All of these different universes include multiple plotlines and story arcs that stand completely independent of one another, even if we see some connective tissue here and there.

The important thing to remember here is that story universes rarely start out as such. They usually begin with a single series or trilogy, but then popularity demands a sequel or a prequel or a spin-off or what have you.

Another key thing in a universe is the world building. I just talked a few weeks ago about what’s possible within the reality of my story, and it’s important that the different stories within my universe don’t contradict each other. I can’t say magic doesn’t exist here, then have a sorcerer there. Aliens can’t attack the city but people one block over in another book are still insisting aliens aren’t real. When I get to the point of universe-building, consistency is key.

One last thing. Now that we’ve got these three broad definitions, let’s talk a little bit about exceptions. Well, about why I’m not really going to talk about them.

While there are times these three groups might overlap, the simple truth is it’s a much-later-in-my-career sort of thing. We have to acknowledge these exceptions happen after I’ve established my norm.  It’s just not something to be thinking about at an early stage of my career. Believe me, if I walk in to my first (or second, or third) meeting with a publisher saying “it’s a trilogy of trilogies set in a shared universe with...”

Well, honestly, I can probably say whatever I want at that point because the odds are pretty good everybody’s already tuned me out. I’d written ten fairly successful books before I got to say “I think this one’s going to be set in the same universe, but isn’t really going to be part of the same series.” And even then, it kinda made some people uneasy.

So if I want to start thinking those bigger, grander multiple-books thoughts... go for it. But I should try to keep a couple things in mind and be clear about what I’m really trying to write. Especially so I can be clear to interested parties.  

Speaking of writer-thoughts, if you missed it, earlier this week I did a mini interview with my friend Craig DiLouie where we talked about his new book Our War, his writing process, and stuff like that.

Next time, I want to address a software issue real quick.

Until then, go write.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Craig DiLouie's OUR WAR

So, hey, random bonus interview!

Well, not exactly random. Tuesday is the day new books come out and one of them’s from my good buddy Craig DiLouie, who I crawled up out of the zombie trenches with many years back. We ended up seated next to each other at our first convention as writers (well, it was mine—not sure it was Craig’s and now it’s too late to ask for this), and we sat next to each other many, many times after that. At one point we had a combined sales pitch where we could talk about each other’s books to people.

Anyway, he and I were shooting messages back and forth last week, talking about publicity and visibility and authors helping authors. At some point during the back and forth it struck me we could just do it ourselves. I mean, I used to interview complete strangers for a living... surely I could interview someone I know and help them get a tiny bit more exposure. And maybe talk a little bit about writing, too.

So welcome to what may be a new regular feature, based entirely around my schedule, my friends’ schedules, book release schedules, and okay maybe it won’t be that regular. Semi regular. And before we go, here’s all the usual explanations/ provisos that I put on every interview I post here. Bold is me asking questions, the rest is Craig answering. I’ve dropped in a couple links, but this isn’t meant to imply Craig’s endorsing my views. It’s just giving you a handy connection when he’s said something that might sound similar to something I’ve said.

Our War is out today everywhere. Go pick it up at your favorite local bookstore.

We've known each other for eight years now, right? I think we first met face to face in 2011 at a Seattle con, right?
It was around 2011, that’s right—Zombiecon. We were with Permuted Press in those years, churning out zombie fiction. It was an amazing time. At these cons, you meet all these great people, but sometimes, you run into a brother from another mother. You were one such guy for me and still are! We talked a lot of shop at that con, and I remembered thinking right off the bat that you were a writer who was going to go places. This was right about the time your novel -14- was in production. It’s incredible how much has
changed for both of us.

Right, We did Crypticon up there a bunch of times and I always forget we started with Zombiecon at the same hotel. And, yeah, I love that every time we get together we just instantly drop back into conversation mode and start talking.

Speaking of which (clever segue), let's talk about Our War  What's your two or three line elevator pitch?
Our War is a dystopian thriller about a brother and sister forced to fight on opposite sides of a second American civil war. Recruited and radicalized, they eventually realize they must fight for each other and themselves if they want to survive. The novel might be described as Omar El Akkad’s American War meets Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, both of which put a human face on the horrors of modern civil war.

I think I already know the answer to this, but other people might not-- when did you start writing this, or playing around with the idea, I guess? Was it something recent you based off current events or one of those cases where reality started leaning into your story over time?
Why would I write a dystopian novel? Because they always say, “Write what you know!” America is more divided than ever. The tribalization of American politics has always troubled me because there’s only one way it can go, which is worse. So I did what I often do when I start a novel, which is say, “Okay, let’s take this to its logical conclusion. What would it really look like?” No wish fulfillment, no straw man supervillains, no romanticism, no plucky patriots resisting tyranny. Just Americans living in different political narratives fighting over which narrative was true. While I was writing, real events started to feed me fresh ideas, making the story feel torn from current headlines.

Okay, you've actually given me lead ins for two things I wanted to ask you, because one thing I really liked about this was that you kept it grounded. This isn't some over-glamorized epic, it's very close and intimate. It's a national civil war, but I really like the idea that it's not a north and south thing, but individual cities that have split in half, more like gang turfs than enemy lines. Was that a key idea from the start or was it something you sort of found yourself working into to solve problems, this whole smaller-scale? I mean, for me there's almost always at least one point in the process where I realize "geeez, this will all be so much easier if I just do this..."
Early on I planned this book out, I came to the conclusion that a civil war in America would look far more like the Bosnian War in the 1990s than the last civil war in the 1860s. Triggered by a Constitutional crisis, an armed national protest by the Right snowballs into a revolution. The resulting war is rural versus urban, not states versus states, and in that type of conflict, how could the military respond? Look at an electoral map by county, and you can see the battle lines drawn along the red, blue, and purple. This is a war in which everybody fights, and nobody wins.

By making two of Our War’s protagonists child soldiers—who didn’t want the war and barely understand it—we see the real victims of civil war. In this type of conflict, the innocent always lose the most. All the things Americans shake their heads at happening in other countries like Syria could happen here. Early on, I wanted to focus on the child soldiers’ story and the people whose lives they touch—a UNICEF worker, a journalist, and a rebel militia sergeant—to show different perspectives but otherwise keep the war local. They all care about the big picture, who’s winning or losing, but they are far more concerned about what’s happening right in front of them. This makes the story feel both intimate and deep.

You actually write about kids and horror a lot. I mean, Suffer the Children had adult protagonists, but the story was all about their kids. One of Us. Now this. Do you always intend  to write about children? Or, I guess, a better way to put it, are you starting with the core idea that horror/suspense is always creepier with kids (which it is) and moving forward from there, or are you coming up with your plot, your world, and at some point going "y'know what would make this really intense..." ?
It's funny because it's not my intent, it just turns out that way. I think a big part of it is being a father who is deeply invested in his kids. They really are the world to me and never far from my thoughts. In fiction, children are also an excellent lens to examine big issues from a fresh angle. In Suffer the Children, we have a vampire novel where the world's children are infected by a parasite that requires them to drink blood in order to stay alive. The result is a horror story that is also an examination of how far parents will go for their children. In One of Us, the story is about teenagers who are part of a generation born with strange mutations, which became a way to examine prejudice. And with Our War, having two of the five protagonists being children, and joining the war by becoming child soldiers, shows the real cost of war and in particular civil war. The contrast of innocence with very real horrors I think punches the theme to a higher level.

It strikes me that you and I rarely talk about politics. We talk about story ideas and movies and publishing paths and a lot of stuff in our field, but I'm trying to think of any political discussion we've had that did more than skim issues. So, that said, there's no denying this is a really political novel. Probably the most starkly political one you've written, yes? Or, at least, that I've read (maybe your submarine novels are super-partisan--I have to be brutally honest, I haven't read them). I do remember us talking about Our War at one point while you were writing it and you laughing and saying "this is going to give everybody a reason to hate me," or words to that effect. Now that you've had time to get some distance, do you still feel that way? Are you still nervous about this part of it?
I'm not as nervous as I was because the early reviews are saying good things about the novel being ideologically fair, which was my intent. Look, typically, when you have a second civil war novel, the author has three choices. They can choose an ideology and offer a wish-fulfillment story, they can avoid politics entirely and set the war far in the future to make it fantastic, or they can tear it from today's headlines but try to be fair. I took the last path, which is the most challenging and risky. Challenging because I as the author I had to keep myself entirely out of the story, even though I have strong political convictions. And risky because when you strike the middle path in a polarized environment, you risk pleasing nobody.

With Our War, two of the principal protagonists are children indoctrinated into opposing militias, and while they grasp core ideas, the politics are gibberish to them. They are exposed to ideological viewpoints, and then the other protagonists have their own convictions the reader gets firsthand. So the reader is exposed to a palette of views from characters entirely convinced they are right, and I trust the reader to do their own thinking without me trying to force anything on them. The primary point of the book isn't the politics, however, but the polarization itself that leads to civil war. In that, Our War does its job as dystopia by issuing a warning, and it fights political narrative with a different story of what happens when tribalization goes too far. And despite dystopia being kind of dark, I think there's a lot of optimism in Our War, if readers come away with new energy to resist such a future.

It's funny, you mentioning the wish-fulfillment option. I think we both probably saw a lot of that when we were doing a lot more in zombie circles. Do you think--I'm gonna step away from your book for a sec to ask a general question--do you think those books come from a lack of empathy, or just a disregard for it? I mean, any sort of wish-fulfillment story is going to have kind of a narrow, focused audience. So do you think people tent to write them because they're choosing to aim at that niche, or because they honestly don't realize it's just a niche and not a widely held view?
I remember back when we were writing zombie fiction, I used to categorize zombie books as either wish-fulfillment to satisfy the Z Nation crowd or exploring all possible consequences of TEOTWAWKI to please The Walking Dead crowd. As for the authors of both, they were probably writing what they wanted to read, or they had a good sense of what some readers wanted, or both.

I get what you're saying about empathy and would say it's probably a disregard for it. Not a bad kind of disregard, though, it's more like setting it aside so the story can go where it needs to go. Personally--and this is just me without judgment on what other authors and readers like--I like consequences in my fiction and the fiction I read, and I want realism to make willing suspension of disbelief all the more satisfying. But that's me as I've gotten older; when I was a teenager, I read every Robert E. Howard story I could get my hands on, wishing I was Conan and loving getting to be him for a short period of time.

When dealing with a topic like a second American civil war, the wish-fulfillment aspect takes a different turn into politics, which is what I was referring to in my previous answers. This is where say a plucky band of patriots resists a tyrannical Marxist government putting all Americans into concentration camps, a storyline I'm not making up as I read one exactly like this. This type of novel provides a wish-fulfillment experience for a certain type of reader while reinforcing their ideological worldview. Which is fine for people who want that, but for me, telling the story of a second American civil war demanded gritty, unflinching realism and an impartial approach. A story not aimed solely at a certain reader but at everyone.

Yeah, I remember you and I were on a post apocalyptic panel years back and one of the of the panelists very much had that wish-fulfillment/ideological reinforcement view. I think we talked about it for a while as a business path.

Hey, it just struck me this is going to be on my ranty writing blog, so let me ask you a few writing-related questions, and you can talk about Our War as a reference. How do you generally plan out a book? Do you like outlining? Notecards? Are you a little more of a pantser? How much do you usually have by the time you start writing?

I'm an absolute plotter, though there's plenty of discovery and change as the novel progresses. In a given year, I produce a standalone novel for Orbit, several episodes in various self-published series, and a huge output from my technical freelance writing business. So for me, efficiency rules.

My main plotting tools are a four-act plot structure and character arcs. With a four-act plot structure, you have the inciting incident, which kicks off the central conflict; introduction to the normal; first plot point where something happens that changes everything; the protagonists react to that change; the midpoint; the protagonists are propelled to become more proactive toward the central conflict; second plot point; and then the protagonists go all in to win or lose. Character arcs can be fairly detailed, but in its most basic form, the protagonist has a need to change, a mis-belief preventing that change, an external goal with an opposing force, and personal transformation achieved through the resulting struggle.

For Our War, which is more of a character-driven work, I relied more on character arcs than major plot points to move the story forward. In this story, the first, mid, and second plot points marked major changes on the battlefield and resulting balance of power and stakes. These big changes in the protagonists' world affected the dynamics and choices in their individual character arcs, which I also mapped out until I really knew whose these people were from the inside out. While I was sketching out these goalposts, I was "dreaming" the book--doing tons of research, taking plenty of notes, and otherwise allowing the story to percolate in my subconscious until it all hit a critical mass and I could start writing it. And while I had the goalposts set up before I started writing, the actual writing involved a lot of discovery, where I allowed the characters to develop as they needed to. The result is a story that is both planned and organic. In the end, even when you plan it, the novel will tell you what and how it wants to be.

Okay, follow-up question, because I think we both know people worry about this a lot when they start out. You're a dad and you still have a full-time job. How much time do you actually get to write each day? Do you have set word counts you try to hit per day or per week?
I'm really lucky in that my full-time job as a journalist and educator in the lighting industry is at home. You know what they say about people who work for themselves: They can work anytime they want, but they're always working. So it was always super busy--which is a good thing--but there was just enough time to develop my own projects. Over time, as I gained some success, I was able to treat my fiction as a client and give it the time it was due during my day. Over the years, the amount of hours I put in tuned my brain for writing, and I now produce projects fairly quickly compared to that first novel back in my early twenties, which felt like mentally climbing Everest.

So how fast do you turn a draft around? I mean, you're writing a lot of stuff every year. Once you've got an outline, how long does it usually take you to get a completed first draft? Like, how long did Our War take, beginning to end, however many drafts you did?
These days, I can write a novel first draft in about six weeks. That's actual typing time, during which I'm living and breathing the novel. Before that, there is maybe one or two months of planning and dreaming,note-taking and research. The beauty of working with Orbit is Bradley Englert, my editor, is both talented and kind at his job, and the long stretches of being away from the manuscript during the production process gives my brain some objective breathing space so I return to it fresh. Bradley's edits always cut straight to the heart of what needs work, and then I spend another say four to six weeks on revising and editing. In all, the book is completed in two major drafts, with nothing rushed. By the time I hand in the final manuscript, I've read the book probably eight or nine times, endlessly polishing.

Three things have aided me in terms of speed. One is me constantly learning and internalizing craft, tuning my brain through practice, and having been at this long enough to discover my natural voice. The second is raw passion for the project, the joy of writing a novel I wanted to read myself and share with others; you have to love what you write, and if you do, that love will become infectious for the reader. The third boon to speed is the simple benefit of a contract, knowing at the end of all this hard work that a quality publisher was going to publish it if I gave them a good product on deadline. 

We should probably stop now--we've been batting this back and forth all weekend. Unless there's some last thing you want to get in.  Your secret pet peeve? The one question you always wish you were asked? New projects?
Right now, I'm wrapping up a new supernatural horror novel for Orbit titled Mysterion, which is about a group of people who grew up in an apocalyptic cult and survived its horrific last days. Years later, they reunite to confront their past and the entity that appeared on the final night. Think Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House meets the Jonestown massacre. Thematically, it touches on trauma, memory, faith, and belonging. Stay tuned--this one is coming in the fall of 2020. In the meantime, I'll also be launching a new self-published WW2 adventure series titled Armor, which follows the crew of a Sherman tank from North Africa to Berlin. Readers can stay tuned at my website/blog at www.CraigDiLouie.com.

Thanks for the opportunity to visit with you, brother! I'm looking forward to my next Peter Clines read!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Body on Page One

Welllllll... guess there’s no putting this off, is there? In the end, this is where every story leads in the long run. I’ve crafted a fantastic character with some wonderful nuances and habits, and a detailed backstory.  It’s a character every reader can picture in their minds and relate to on a personal level.

And it’s time to slit their throat. Or watch them die from an awful disease. Maybe even have a zombie horde devour them.

Killing characters in a story is a delicate thing.  I don’t mean this in some artsy, poetic way.  I mean it more in a “stitch up that major artery up before he bleeds out” way. It’s something that has to be done just right for it to work. And just like stitching up an artery, if I’m only going to do a quick, half-assed job with it... I mean, why even bother?

Here’s a couple of loose guidelines for killing someone...

First off, if I’m going to kill a character... well, I need a character, right?  A real character.  I can’t expect there to be a lot of emotional impact from the death of a paper-thin stereotype.  I mean, killing paper-thin stereotypes is cool if I just want to drive a body count, but it’s not going to drive a plot and it’s not going to motivate anyone on a personal level.  It’s not going to affect the reader, either.  I can’t create Phoebe on page fifty, kill her on page fifty-one, and think it’s going to have any emotional weight—with the other characters or my readers.

Second, this death needs to drive my  plot forward.  That’s what good story elements do, right?  They keep the narrative moving—not necessarily upward or into positive place, but forward.  Killing a character who’s well-developed but has no connection at all to the plot doesn’t really do anything.

We’ve probably all seen storytellers who create unconnected characters just to kill them off a few pages later.  The plot’s heading into act two and we pause to meet Phoebe.  She’s thirty-three, blond, likes to wear combat boots with everything from jeans to her little black dress to her bikini on the way to the beach.  She’s been seeing a great guy for a couple of months now and she really think there’s a good chance she’s going to get a promotion (and a raise) at her job with OH, she’s dead.  The zombies got her.  Now let’s go back to the plot for a few chapters before I take a moment to introduce you to Wakko.  He’s a college dropout who went to work for the park service.  He’s also been seeing a great guy for a couple of months now (not the same one as Phoebe) and he’s been thinking it may be time to give him a key so they OH, the zombies got Wakko, too.

This kind of thing works once.  Maybe twice.  But it gets old fast because we all understand these people, as columnist Rob Bricken once put it, are just collateral damage. The characters don't really do much and their deaths don’t actually accomplish anything in the story. They’re just narrative window dressing to make things look more serious instead of... y’know, actually making things more serious.

If I’m going to kill a character and have it mean something, it needs to have an actual affect on my story.  It should up the stakes, or be a new challenge for my characters as far as succeeding at one of their goals. If the big goal is to distribute the zombie cure that Dr. Carmichael designed, and we’re just waiting for her to arrive because she’s the only one who knows the formula, well suddenly it’s a big “oh CRAP” moment when we realize she’s Dr. Phoebe Carmichael who wears combat boots with everything. What are we going to do now??

Now, this leads into a Second-Point-One or maybe a little outline sub-A. It’s a very specific version of this we all want to watch out for. You may have heard of fridging. On the off chance you haven’t, it comes from an awful Green Lantern comic twenty-five years back where GL’s girlfriend was killed and stuffed in a refrigerator for him to find later. When we talk about someone getting fridged, it’s usually a woman, often a less-developed supporting character, who suffer a violent, horrific, and sometimes abusive end for no purpose except to be an inciting incident for the hero.  And maybe to let said hero get in some grief-filled, character-building monologues. Her death is all about him.

Don’t freak out. Not every female death is automatically a fridging. But it’s a good term to know and keep in mind if I’m going to fall back on the whole describe-and-die device, because it can slip into fridging very easily.

Third is that this death needs to fit in my story structurally.  I’ve mentioned before, the dramatic structure of a story needs to be a series of ups and downs.  There need to be slowly increasing challenges, which require greater efforts for my characters to overcome, and help build tension.  If I’m going to kill someone off, their death needs to fit within this general structure.

To go back to the example I just gave, if Phoebe’s the only one who knows the formula for the zombie cure, this could be horrible. In a good way. I’ve just dropped a huge, last-minute challenge between my characters and saving the day.

But if we got Phoebe to the bio-lab on page fifteen and the zombies pounced on page sixteen... that’s not going to come across as much of a challenge. We’ve got the whole book to figure it out, after all.  It’s definitely not going to have the same impact as her dying on page 300, because tension rises as my story progresses. I need to think about how much impact I want this death to have and where that means it needs to happen in my plot. Which is going to affect how I structure things. And why, yes, it is a juggling act, thanks for noticing.

Now, all of that being said...

Some writers claim killing characters is no big deal.  They almost brag about randomly ending lives in their stories. These folks have no qualms about killing characters because it tells their readers that nobody’s safe! Anything could happen! This is how real life works, which means it’s how art works!

I personally find this to be a really counterproductive and stupid approach. 

For a couple of reasons.

One is that we’re not talking about real life, we’re talking about fiction. Real life is chaotic and structureless and, yeah, people often die for no reasons at extremely inconvenient times. But in the stories I’m writing... I’m God. Every single thing that happens in my story is my choice.  My decision.  It’s part of my divine plan.  And if it isn’t part of my divine plan... well, why’s it in my story?

Which brings me to point two.  I just mentioned the juggling act a minute ago. If my characters are dying at random, that means their death isn’t advance any element of the story, which means my story doesn’t have any sort of dramatic structure to it. I mean, how can it have a structure if I’m just doing things randomly?

Plus, if I’m ninety pages in and Phoebe, my main character, is randomly tackled by zombies and maybe joins the hungry dead... well, what happens now?  Seriously. Did the story just end? Is Dot the main character now? If Dot’s the main character for pages 90 through 445... well, why did I spend those first ninety pages with Phoebe? Maybe I should’ve just started with Dot?

And that’s my third point.  Odds are a random, unstructured death just means failure.  One way or another, Phoebe’s blown it big time—even if it’s not her fault.  She died with her boots on but failed to reach her goals (she had goals because she was a real character, right...). Which means my readers just spent a hundred pages investing in someone who didn’t win.  On any level.  We’ve been identifying with a loser with crap luck (she must have crap luck—she just got randomly killed by zombies, right?). 

I don’t know about any of you, but that isn’t going to make me happy.

A good death (if there is such a thing) is going to have real characters. Their death is going to help drive the plot and create challenges.  And it’s going to happen at a point in the narrative that makes structural sense.  If I’ve got two out of three of those, I’m probably in good shape.  One out of three... maybe not so much.

And if I honestly don’t know if I’ve hit two or three of those points... well, maybe I should hold off on setting those zombies loose.

Next time, I’d like to talk about the next book.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

And They All Lived Happily Ever After

Finally got this finished.

Endings are funny things, yeah? In a weird sort of way, we don’t get them much in real life anymore. We demand sequels to everything. Moving away doesn’t mean what it used to, not with Facetime or Twitter or any other messaging devices. Heck even death has been softened a bit, with social media accounts getting memorialized and lingering long after we’re gone.

And sometimes, people just throw on an ending because they can’t think of anything else.

The ending can make or break my story.  It’s the rich, perfectly sweet dessert after a feast of savory words.  I can have the absolute best filet mignon in the world paired with an exquisite wine, but if we end the meal with a pie made from rotten apples... well, that’s the part we’re all going to remember.  A so-so story with a really fun ending usually gets favorable reviews.  A strong manuscript that spirals downward at the end, more often than not, doesn’t go anywhere except into that big pile on the left.

Now, some folks are content to say “well, that sucked” and leave it at that.  But as storytellers we need to know why something doesn’t work.  Bad endings don’t always have the same root problem.  Sometimes the writer had a phenomenal way to start a character arc, but wasn’t sure how to wrap it up.   Or maybe they have a really cool idea for a story, but don’t know where to go with it past that initial idea.  Sometimes an ending just doesn’t work with the rest of the story.

And some endings almost never work, no matter what the rest of the story is. Endings like...

Nothing Changes
Let’s start with the basics.  My characters are supposed to have an arc.  Arcs end at different points than they began at.  If my last ten pages show the characters in the same place as the first ten, doing the same things, with the same people, and they’re not any wiser for what they just went through...  well, that wasn’t much of an experience, was it?  For them and probably not for my readers.  I’m not saying my characters need to have some gigantic emotional breakthrough or spiritual growth, but something has to be notably different or this was all just wasted time. 

One type of story that does this a lot is the “slice of life” tale.  You know the one, just two or three average days in the life of two or three average people.  It’s hard to say this kind of thing is wrong in a general sense. Most of our lives don’t change radically on any given day.  I’ve spent most of today here at my desk writing, just like I did yesterday and probably like I’ll be doing tomorrow.  So it’d be a realistic ending if a story about me ended with me back here working at my desk. 

The question I need to ask myself is... why would anyone want to read about that? I know I sure wouldn’t. I already go through a slice of life every day where nothing changes.

The Heroes Don’t Do Anything
Every now and then, often enough that it’s worth adding to this list, I come across a weird story where the hero or heroes don’t save the day. Not that they lose they just... they aren’t the ones who bring the victory. Somebody else saves the day, hits the target, makes the big sacrifice, or what have you. Imagine we’ve been watching Harry Potter for seven books and then Seamus Finnegan leaps in to fling that curse back at Voldemort and kill him dead. Which, y’know, yay Seamus and wooo! Voldemort’s dead, but at the same time... why’ve we been following Harry for the last two thousand or so pages?

When I get to the end of my story, what’s my character actually doing? I mean, sure, pointing and shouting and worrying are all things you can do, but are they actually doing anything that’s directly affecting this outcome? Or is someone else doing it?  And if it’s someone else... have we been following the wrong person?

Everybody Dies and the Antagonist Wins
One of the biggest problems with ending things up this way is it gives my reader a sense the story was pointless.  They’ve just invested a few hours (or perhaps days) into this tale only to see it come to an unpleasant ending.  This can be especially frustrating if the reader comes to realize the character never even had a chance at succeeding.  It’s even more frustrating if my characters made a bunch of stupid decisions somewhere along the way. I mean, it’s bad enough when we have to watch the fifth person in a row decide to go check out the old Murderama Amusement Park where all those kids got killed last summer, but when that’s the point I decide to end the story on...? 

My protagonist doesn’t need to come through unscarred, mind you.  Heck, I can even get away with killing my lead.  But they need to succeed on some level.

The Left Fielder
This is the ending that comes out of nowhere. The quarterback finally gets his act together, aces his exams, convinces the cute girl from drama club that he really loves her, gets voted prom king but turns it down... and then gets hit by a bus on the last day of school. Our heroine stops international terrorists working with alien invaders, but in the end her girlfriend accidentally drinks the tainted Soylent and is devoured by necrotic nanites anyway. Or, as I experienced many years back, a friggin' hilarious ninety minute sketch comedy show ends with a bleak monologue about racial inequality and prejudice.

No, seriously.  I worked on a stage play back in the ‘90s that actually did this. The director and producer rewrote the end to give it “meaning” and couldn’t figure out why nobody liked it.

In my experience, the vast majority of writers who use this kind of ending are trying to achieve art. It’s me attempting to show how this story flawlessly mimics a random and sometimes meaningless real world by having a random and meaningless ending.  It doesn’t relate to anything that happened because... it’s real.  And tragic.  And artistic.

Besides suffering from all the same issues as the “everybody dies” ending, the left fielder just isn’t that special anymore.  It’s become one of the most common conclusions in indie films and “literature.”  So besides making my audience roll their eyes so hard they sprain something, they’re probably going to see this “unexpected” ending coming for the simple reason that it’s just, well, expected at this point.

There’s nothing wrong or pedestrian about putting an upbeat ending on a story.  As I’ve mentioned before, nobody got hit by a train at the end of Slumdog Millionaire and it’s somehow still a good film.

The Y’see Timmy
This one’s a little odd.  I use this phrase here a lot, and it’s kinda an homage to the movie I found it in--Speechless (written by Robert King). This ending gets its name from the old Lassie TV show.  Little Timmy encounters some problems, works his way out of them with Lassie’s help, and at the end Mom sits him down and explains what happened and why.  “Y’see, Timmy, sometimes people get hurt or scared and it just festers down inside of them...”  Timmy and the audience learn a little something about life and we all go home as better people.

The problem is, in clumsy hands the Y’see Timmy quickly becomes “brutally beating the audience with my message.”  That’s why it’s on this list.  A great example is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, where the 98 page monologue (no, seriously) at the end of the book recaps every single one of the subtle lessons that were shown in the first 800 pages, but all dialed up to eleven-point-six.  And if you know what I’m talking about,  I’m betting you probably ended up skimming and/or blotting out most of that monologue.  Just like everyone else did.  Except Paul Ryan.

...And They Write a Book About It
I think I’ve mentioned once or thrice before that this is pretty much the worst ending you can have for a screenplay.  It isn’t much better in a book. This almost always feels like it’s tacked on ending to assure the reader that our hero didn’t just survive this story—they benefited from it.  Immensely.  Yeah, you’d think clearing my name of murder charges, getting the girl, and killing Thanos would be enough for most folks to consider it a good week, but noooooooo... apparently I need acclaim and wealth and celebrity, too.

I think writers tend to fall back on this ending for one of three reasons (sometimes more than one of them). One is that it falls into that “write what you know” tip we’ve all heard for years and years. I know writing, so I’ll write about writing.  Two is that, because of one, this feels like a natural thing to happen, so it adds an element of reality to my characters and story.  And three...

Okay, I think three’s a sort of wish-fulfillment-validation thing, to be honest.  Work with me here. My character writes a book about how she used to be a international assassin and it becomes a New York Times bestseller, right? So, logically, my book about someone writing a book about how she used to be an international assassin should also become a New York Times bestseller.  Right?

It Was All a Dream
Probably the worst offender of all of these.  All too often the amazing tale of adventure ends with one of my heroes waking up on the couch or in a hospital bed.  None of the story my audience has just invested their time and attention in actually happened. Not even within the world of the story. We all just put ourselves into a story about a person who was putting themselves into a story. The end.

As I mentioned up above with Everyone Dies, this just tells the reader they made an investment for no reason.  How often have you read or seen a movie like this and immediately been able to pick out the moment things veer off into a dream?  My partner and I often watch shows or movies and find ourselves quickly declaring “Dream sequence!”

To Be Continued...
No, I lied. This is the worst offender. Hands down.

We all want to write great, sprawling epics.  Okay, maybe not all of us, but I’m sure a lot of folks here do. We want to write that massive series that spreads across at least six books and gets us an HBO deal. Starz at the least. But it just doesn’t happen this way.

There’s an ugly lie that races through writing groups and threads—the idea that publishers only want to buy series. First, that’s just not true. I know dozens and dozens of writers who’ve sold one-off books (myself included). Second... editors and publishers very rarely want a series. What they want is a book with series potential. A book that—if the preorders are good and word of mouth is great—I can easily write a sequel to. And another sequel. And maybe a fourth.  Or even a fifth.

More to the point, as a beginning writer I need to convince agents and editors that I know what I’m doing. That I’m able to bring things to a satisfying close.  So if my conclusion is “maybe I’ll end this in the next book”... well, that’s not going to score me points with anyone. Especially readers if that second book isn’t already a guaranteed thing.


So, there’s some endings that I may want to think twice about before falling back on them.  Again, I’d never say it’s impossible to do one of these and make it work.  But I am saying...I’d think twice before tackling one of them.

Next time... well, heck. we’ve been talking about the end. Whaddya say we just kill a few people?

Until then... go write.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Killer Sex Robots and Other Stories

I’m having a really crap day, but fortunately for you, this was already pretty much done. And maybe blabbing on about writing will make me feel better about stuff.  Probably not, but what the hell...

I’d like to babble on about another one of those “this is so self-evident why are we wasting time on it” ideas that... well, seems to come up a lot. 

As writers, we get cursed with ideas. Tons and tons of them. Books, comics, movies, epic television franchises, soooo many ideas. And, naturally, we want to use as many of them as we can. Cause they’re all friggin’ fantastic, right?

But, as I’ve mentioned here once or thrice before, that’s not always a good thing, no matter how fantastic my ideas are.  More isn’t always better. Sometimes stories get cluttered with ideas. I want to create a certain kind of character, use this cool idea I saw in a Gizmodo article, explore a few different themes, develop this awesome backstory I came up with, and then wait until you see all the stuff in chapter two!

We’ve all done this. Be honest. If I think I haven’t done this, it probably means I don’t realize I’m doing it right now in my current work.

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having a lot of stuff in a story.  My book Dead Moon touches on zombie horror, body horror, sci-fi, action, mystery, and comedy. There’s a lot of talk about sex. There’s some politics. There’s some questions about self-worth and finding your place in the world (or the solar system).

But if you asked me... I’d tell you it’s about zombies on the moon.  Horror and sci-fi.

Let me give you a less personal example. I watched this geekery movie recently that was... okay, let’s just say it was about AI (or was it?  Maybe cloning? I’ll never tell). Anyway, there was a lot in it about the ethics of creating an intelligence solely for a specific purpose (is this slavery??). There was also stuff about the morality of assassination. Plus a lot of assassination-related action scenes. Then questions were brought up about the possible ethical issues when the scientist starts having sex with this thing she created. More so when it turns out the body said scientist made for this AI is the spitting image of her dead husband. Plus there’s a heist element as they plan to rob the CEO of the company. And some torture porn. Arguably some parenting, nature-vs.-nurture aspects, corruption of the innocent bits, too.

Now, all of these could be cool things to bring up in a movie. Hell, any one of them is probably a story in and of itself.  There’s a lot of fascinating character moments that can happen with almost any of these.

But again... what is this story about?

’Cause this AI movie made it about everything. The filmmakers gave every one of these elements equal weight. It was the ethical AI-assassination morality-action-sex issues-heist-torture porn-corruption movie we’ve all been waiting for. Just search for that category on Netflix.

(it’s not on Netflix—the category or the movie)

Is something just a conceit for the story?  Cool.  But to be clear... what’s my story then?  If I’m using clones to tell a long-distance love story, that’s cool.  Super clever. One of you should take that and run with it. But if that’s the case, I probably shouldn’t spend half the book talking about the science behind the cloning.  Likewise, if I’m writing a taut thriller about cloning assassins... maybe there shouldn’t be 250 pages of clone-love in there.

Subplots? Great.  Parallel plots?  Fantastic. Twists that subvert the plot? SOOO COOL! But what is this book about? What’s the dominant idea here? What aspect of the story are we spending the most time with?

Here’s a way to think of it.  There’s a Hollywood term you may have heard—the elevator pitch. It basically means I should be able to explain my story in one or two sentences, the length of an elevator ride. It comes from the awful idea that I should leap at people when I find myself alone in elevators with them. Because who doesn’t respond positively to that?

Anyway, if I got a chance to elevator-pitch the AI story above, how many of these things do I mention and explain? How many would I leave out? When I’ve only got thirty seconds to tell my story, what parts of it do I not bother telling?  It’s not going to be 100% accurate, sure, but it’s a safe bet my elevator pitch is going to make me really focus on the key things in my story.

And if I can’t focus on them... well, that’s probably telling me something.

Y’see, Timmy, it shouldn’t be that hard to explain what my story’s about.  It can have lots of elements—and hopefully it does—but there should be an overriding idea I can point to and sum up in a few lines.  “It’s about an android assassin who starts to question the morality of his existence, especially when he learns more about his creation.”

Which, alas, is not what that movie was about.

Next time, let’s talk about winding things up.

Until then, go write.