Thursday, October 15, 2020

YOU LIAR!

 No, no, I’m not talking about you.

 I’m talking about him.

You know who you are.

There’s an issue that came up in one of my weekend B-movies recently, and it also came up in a book I was reading last month. Not the first time I’ve seen it in either format. And I thought it was worth talking about for a minute or three.

And that issue is cheating.

I’ve talked about twists many times here on the ranty blog. I friggin’ love a good twist.  Seriously. I will forgive a story a lot if it can knock me over with a completely unexpected reveal that seems obvious in retrospect. That’s the kind of thing that makes me want to grab a book and read the whole thing again. There are movies I love to rewatch just to see how beautifully the filmmakers set up a fantastic twist.

Now, in the past, I’ve addressed a problem some writers have when they try to set up a twist. And that’s when the revealed information—the twist—is something the reader couldn’t possibly have known or even guessed. If I tell you Wakko is actually the clone, it makes us realize how we-misinterpreted some parts of the story and a couple things line up now that didn’t before. If I tell you Phoebe is actually the clone, it makes us ask who the hell Phoebe is. Is she even from this story? Also, wait, this story is about clones...?

In the past I’ve tried to soften this criticism by saying the writer didn’t understand how to set up a twist. And while that’s still true in the big scheme of things, I think it might be  a little more helpful to just be direct. When this happens, the author is cheating in how they tell the story. They’re lying to the readers.

And sometimes, you just have to call out the liars.

Yeah, this sounds a little harsh and a few folks may already be raising their defenses, so let’s take a moment and be clear what we’re talking about. This is a very specific thing I’m referring to. Cheating is a deliberate thing, a choice, as opposed to a simple mistake.

All that said, let’s talk about what makes a good twist. I’ve talked about these all at different times, but I think a good twist always has four distinct elements.

1) My readers and my characters don’t expect a twist is coming. If I tell you there’s a big secret about my cat you’ll never guess, you’ve been flat-out told there’s something about my cat you wouldn’t expect. Likewise, if the shadowy figure is constantly referencing things only certain people could know, they’re probably connected to one or more of those people. It’s hard for any twist to land well when people are on the lookout for it.

2) The information a twist reveals has to be something my readers and characters didn’t already know. Telling you I have cats is not a big reveal, especially if you follow me on Instagram. This information has no weight. Telling you one of my cats is a cyborg is a reveal—that’s something you didn’t know.

3) The information revealed in a twist has to change how my readers and characters look at past events in the story but (very important) this information can’t contradict the information they’ve been given up until now. I can’t say my cat’s actually a plush toy dog after calling her a cat for a hundred pages and talking about the vet bills when she got her cyborg parts. Worth noting—this is when a lot of twists go wrong.

4) Finally, a twist needs a certain amount of time to build up strength. It’s really tough to have a good twist in the first five pages of a novel. As I mentioned above, a twist needs to alter our view of past events, which means... there have to be past events. If my cat’s showing off her laser eyes and adamantium claws on page eight, this isn’t a twist—I’m just introducing a character.

Granted, these are my own requirements, not something (to the best of my knowledge) taught in any courses or books. For this little rant of mine, it’s 2) and 3) we’re most concerned, because that’s where the cheating often comes into play. Because cheating (and lying) usually involve the manipulation of information to suit your own needs.

Now, right up front, it’s really common for me, as a writer, to lead my audience into believing something. To carefully choose words and phrases to make them think X when the truth is Y. This is a standard aspect of storytelling—what I want the reader to know and when I want them to know it.

But it’s important that I don’t cheat. I may leave a few facts out. I may deliberately guide them down a different path. But I can’t lie to them. The moment I lie—even if I’m doing it to make the story “better”—I’ve broken the contract. They’ve got no reason to trust me, and it’s not unfair for them to start doubting and questioning everything in the story.

So what do I mean when I’m saying cheating or lying? Let’s break it down by those two points from above...

As far as 2) goes, I need to be revealing information the audience doesn’t know, but it has to be information they could know. It can’t break the characters or the world I’ve established. It needs to fit within that context.

For example, if my twist is that Bron from Game of Thrones has psychic powers because he’s actually a mutant from an alternate future timeline... well, it’s definitely information we didn’t know. But we never could’ve known it. With everything we’ve been told it’s just an impossibility in this story. Likewise, if I’m writing a murder mystery and the big twist is that the murderer is Phoebe... we should all know who Phoebe is. Revealing a name we’ve never heard before at a critical moment doesn’t really solve anything.

A good way to think of it is whatever information I’m revealing in my twist is something my readers should be able to guess—even if it might mean a few guesses. If I have twenty characters/potential suspects in my murder mystery, the reader shouldn't need thirty-seven guesses to name the murderer. If I’m three hundred pages into my grimdark medieval fantasy story, I can’t abruptly say the dark lord’s secret weapon that’s wiped out armies is a battlemech with a meson death ray. Why would anyone ever guess that?

When we’re talking about 3), the big cheat is usually just a straight contradiction. The facts I give on page 150 or 200 just don’t line up at all with the facts I’ve given you before. I’ve told you two or three times that Wakko’s a computer programmer but then it turns out really he’s a genetic engineer.  Numerous characters have said there’s nothing within a hundred miles of our village, but then they escape to the town on the other side of the valley. And if you find out on page 175 of my political thriller that the secret informant is actually an angry ghost... well, I’d understand if you tossed it aside at that point.

One of the worst examples of cheating is when we’ve been seeing over a character’s shoulder or “hearing” their thoughts for a hundred or so pages and they just, y’know, never happened to think about the fact they’re the serial killer the whole city’s searching for. Or that Wakko constantly calls himself as a computer programmer (even in private) until we find out he’s the genetic engineer who activated Dot’s Zoanoid genes (double-geekery reference). This is the kind of things that make readers grind their teeth, and it really stands out on a re-read.

In the end, these lies are just about no being honest with my readers. I’m lying to them about what Wakko does. I’m lying about what’s going on in his head. I’m cheating to create a certain effect rather than actually creating the effect.

Y'see, Timmy, I think the reason some writers fall back on these blatant cheats and lies is... it’s easier. Doing the work is tough. Lying is simple. And if I just don’t feel like doing the work, it’s really tempting to just say Wakko’s a computer programmer and move on.

Good writing is tough. It’s work. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it is. There are a lot of nuances to this art and they’re going to take actual effort if I want to come close to mastering them. To pull off a really good twist is probably going to mean going over my manuscript two or three times, making sure everything lines up and fits together just right.

But when you do it--when you do the work and don’t lie, don’t cheat—that’s when you make something that sticks with people. Something fantastic they’ll remember and talk to people about and recommend constantly. Because a great twist makes a good book twice as good. The readers get to enjoy the whole story, and then they get to enjoy it again, seeing and appreciating how everything fits seamlessly together.

True story. Like a lot of my books, Ex-Patriots has a twist in it. It’s such a big twist that, when one reader hit it, she couldn’t believe I could’ve slipped this past her for the entire book without her noticing. In fact she immediately re-read the whole book, convinced I had to have cheated. And when she realized I hadn’t, she (somehow) hunted down my phone number and called me to rave about it and congratulate me.

And that, friends, is how I met Seanan McGuire.

Do the work. Don’t cheat. Don’t lie.

Good advice for writing and life.

Next time, I wanted to talk to you a bit about characters.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Nothing Left to Learn

I was thinking of new topics a week or so back, and about the fact there’s not much I haven’t covered here. I mean, it’s been well over thirteen years now. There’s only so many times I can say “Try to make your characters relatable somehow.”

And that train of thought led me to, well... why are you still here? Why are you still reading this? Not just this post but I mean... the whole blog?

Yeah, over the past year or so, I’ve tried to be better about doing stuff here. Writing advice is still the majority of it, but lately I’m also trying to put up some related thoughts on publishing, marketing, movies, and well... the state of the hellworld we’ve all found ourselves living in.

But, yeah, in all fairness, a lot of the writing advice is stuff I’ve gone over once or thrice before. Which makes me ask, again... Why are you still reading this?

I mean, I love that you’re here. Seriously. It’s truly appreciated. But I’m asking about you in the larger, general sense. What are you still hoping to find here?

For a lot of our time as writers, professional or not, there’ll be people taking that journey with us. They can be teachers in school or professors at university. Maybe they’re other writers we know. Some might be at the same stage of their writing career as us. Others may be a bit behind. A bunch of them may be way ahead of us. Or they could’ve written a bunch of books (or blog posts) about writing and storytelling you really enjoyed.

And these folks have given you tips and suggestions. Maybe some rules to follow. A few guidelines. Maybe a bunch of examples. They’ve pointed out paths to follow and given you a gentle (or not so gentle) nudge in what they think might be the right direction for you.

Eventually, though—like with any active effort to learn—there’s going to come a point when the time and money I’m investing in all that reading and listening and learning is going to outweigh what I’m actually getting out of them. We call it diminishing returns. It’s the point when I’ve gotten ahead of the learning curve. When I’m getting less and less out of each book or class or blog post because, well... I already know I should try to make my characters relatable.

And this is when I need to move out of that safe, comfortable learning bubble and start doing real work. 

This is a big, scary step, because it’s essentially taking away my safety net of excuses. A lot of them anyway. Why didn’t I write today? Well, I’m not quite there yet. I signed up for a class. I’m waiting for feedback from my writer’s group.  I was reading a new book about how to structure novels. And there’s this other book coming out in a few weeks, and I don’t want to get started and then go back and redo things. Plus, let’s be honest... writing’s just the first step toward getting rejected, right?

If you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time, you know the advice and tips here are mostly aimed at people who’ve got a solid grip on the bare basics and are ready to start taking a few more steps forward. But right there, that’s telling you this shouldn’t be your go-to place for years and years. If you’re doing things right, there’s going to be a point where the returns have diminished and these posts just aren’t worth your time.

And I’m cool with that. It happens. It should happen. Your writing should hit a point where you don’t need to be paying for classes or buying books or searching the web for the best way to include subtext. You should progress, improve, and just not need these things anymore. Over the years I’ve belonged to a ton of writing groups.  I took several classes in college. I’ve attended a few writing conferences. And I have bought soooooooooo many books on writing. I don’t regret doing these things, but it’s also been a while since I’ve done any of them.

(True fact—the last writing book I bought was Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig when we were both attending Phoenix Comics Fest. He laughed at the idea I was buying a copy, and he actually signed it “You don’t need this book, so I hope you enjoy it”)

(it is, for the record, a really fantastic book on storytelling, and even though it turned out I did know a lot of what he was saying, I really did enjoy how he said it and the examples he gave)

Look, I’m not saying any of us are ever going to be the end-all be-all authority on writing. Personally, I’d tell you to steer clear of anyone who claims to be. But that’s just because with any art—with anything at all—there’s always going to be more to learn. So if I’m waiting until I know it all before I start... it means I’m never going to start.

So stop worrying that you don’t know enough yet. Recognize that maybe it’s time to stop putting effort into learning how to write and shifting some of that effort into... y’know, writing. Give yourself permission to learn on the fly, to figure things out as you go, and to not look up every possible way to do something before you do it.

Next time—if you’re still here—I think it’s time we talked about the cheating problem.

Until then, go write.

No, seriously. Go write. What have I been talking about for the past ten minutes?

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Allow Me to Explain...

 There’s a storytelling idea, sort of a method, I suppose, that I’d been batting around for a while as a possible topic. Something I see crop up enough that it was worth mentioning in that “something else to keep in mind...” way. I decided to add it to my list of topics here and then, in a weird synchronicity, said problem showed up in a TV miniseries I finally got around to watching and a book I was reading (some formats may be changed to protect... you know).

The miniseries I mentioned involved an aggressive computer virus. And it explained how the virus worked. In detail. It used a few specifics and a few generalities, but it spent three whole scenes explaining this virus, the logic behind how it worked and how it selected targets.

The problem was... even as I was watching this, I could see a bunch of holes in the explanation. Holes that were only pulled wider as the story went on. And my computer skills more or less peaked in the very early 00’s. But I still knew enough to know the virus wouldn’t work the way it was described. Couldn’t. If it chose targets this way, why didn’t it go after that or that? If it propagated like that, how had it reached here and here?

For a brief time I was wondering if this was some sort of foreshadowing that there was more to the virus than was being let on. Maybe some sort of AI or a living virus that had been transcribed but then... mutated or something? But no, in the end it was just a computer virus that didn’t make any sense.

Which was doubly annoying because the virus didn’t really need to be explained in this story. The plot was much more about the repercussions of this thing being loose on the web and how it was affecting lives, society, and so on. The explanation slowed things down.

And, yeah, sure—part of this is on me. Any genre story is going to involve a degree of suspension of disbelief. Nobody wants to be the guy picking apart the energy requirements of a lightsaber or arguing how the Hulk can’t be that strong because his muscle/bone density would mean he’d sink into the earth. And as for Mjolnir, look...

Okay, yeah... there are some people out there who love being that guy.

(looking at you, Neil...)

But here’s the thing. I couldn’t’ve picked it apart if the writer hadn’t put so much down in front of me. I wouldn’t’ve had anything to pick apart. I can’t complain about your wardrobe if you never show me your wardrobe. But this writer decided they needed a whole scene (three scenes, really) explaining the computer virus in detail. And the details didn’t match up.

So what does this mean for me if my story needs explanation? I mean, speculative fiction is filled with different forms of technobabble. It’s got FTL drives and magic systems and AI computer viruses and alien life cycles and bringing dinosaurs back with cloning and mutant superheroes and... I mean, I’ve got to explain it all somehow, right?

Maybe? Consider Jurassic Park. How much does Crichton (or Spielberg and Koepp) actually tell us about the process of recreating dinosaurs? No, seriously—what do they tell us? If you look back, it’s actually a pretty bare-bones explanation of what’s a fairly complicated process (especially twenty-five years ago!). In fact, it encourages us to fill in a lot of the blanks ourselves and make it seem more complete.

So here’s a few things to keep in mind as I’m writing out that long explanation...

First, be clear if the story really needs this explanation. Is this what the story’s actually about, or is this a minor element I can handwave away or just skip over? Back to the Future gets away with a ridiculously simple explanation of time travel because it’s not really about the time travel. It’s about actions and consequences, and becoming a better person. Time travel’s just the mechanism that lets it happen. It’s just short of being a MacGuffin. We don’t need that explanation the same way we don’t need to read about someone hitting every step on the staircase, how many keystrokes it took to log into their cloud account, or a list of every item of clothing they put on when they got dressed (in order). The reader will fill it in.

Second, if I decide I really need to explain this at length, it’s got to be solid. I’ve waived the right to say “just trust me, it works” and now I need to make this as rigorous and believable as possible. I need to do my research, double-check my logic, triple-check my numbers, and let it marinate overnight in plain-old common sense. Trust me when I say if I get a fact wrong or use garbage science or make a math mistake... people will let me know. I don't even have to ask them. Not only that, but...

Third, I need to keep in mind the more something gets explained, the easier it is to punch holes in that explanation. Like in the example I first mentioned. As the characters went into more and more detail about the computer virus, the flaws in that explanation became more and more apparent. How often have we seen the person digging themselves deeper and deeper because they won’t stop talking? It’s soooooo tempting when we’ve done all that sweet, cool research, but I need to figure out how much explanation my story really needs and stop there. I’ve mentioned screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin here onceor thrice, and his idea that we experience stories in our gut, but we analyze them in our head. I never, ever want my explanation to drive people into their heads.

Fourth, closely related to the last one, is that this sort of explanation is almost always going to be exposition. Yes, even if I try to work it into a conversation or presentation or something like that. As we’ve talked about here a bunch of times, exposition gets boring really fast because so much of it is either things we already know or things we don’t need to know. For our purposes here, there’s a chance the reader doesn’t even want to know. So if I decide I need this explanation in my story, I need to make sure it’s going to be clever and engaging for the reader.

And that’s me explaining how to explain things.

Next time, I’d like to talk about if you should be reading next week’s post.

Until then, go write.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Book Smart

A question I tend to get a lot is “when will X be available in paperback?” It comes up so often it’s in the FAQ. But, in all fairness, I’ve kinda brushed over the answer past saying “not in the foreseeable future.” Because the full answer’s big and unwieldy and some folks always want to complain about format. So it’s easier to just say “not in the foreseeable future.”

And I get why this is probably confusing to some people. Aren’t we living in a golden age of self publishing? It’s easier than ever, right? If nobody else is going to put these books out, why don’t I just do it myself?

Since I’m kind of at a key point right now—with Terminus just out in ebook a few weeks ago, The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe coming back in just a few weeks—I thought it might be a good time to finally explain why there aren’t physical editions for any of these.

Although... okay, thinking about it, this may need a bit more explanation. Which could be kind of dry and boring. Let’s try it like this...

Why didn’t you just put out these books ages ago?

All of the books I’ve been releasing under the Kavach Press banner originally started with traditional publishers, so I didn’t have the rights to put out anything. Crusoe and -14- both started at Permuted Press. Dead Moon and Terminus had exclusive deals with Audible (explained, again, in the FAQ). Now that they’re back in my hands, I’m putting them out as I’m able.

But how did you get the rights away from the publishers?

Well, in all of these cases it was just written into the contract. In the case of Permuted, it was just X number of years go by and all the rights revert back to me. In the case of Audible, they only had the audiobook rights, but part of the contract guaranteed they’d get to be the exclusive distributor of the book for six months, and then I’d be free to do what I wanted with the other rights (ebook rights, paperback rights, foreign rights, and so on)

No, I heard publishers never do anything fair. How’d you really do it?

That was it. Really. It’s not that unusual a thing to have reversion clauses in book contracts.

I think the disbelief here comes from two issues. One is that some folks take their specific, unique interaction with a specific publisher and then extrapolate that this is what it’s like for all authors with all books at all publishers. And like most things on the internet, the worst-case scenario is the one most people point at.

Second (somewhat related to the first) is for a while there were a few folks who built up a nice little industry around the idea of hating/fearing traditional publishers. They’d point to all those worst-case scenario contracts, yell about gatekeepers, and hey if you want to see what those idiot dinosaurs turned down you should check out my book for just $2.99! Oh no, there are caravans of traditional publishers coming and we have to build a wall to keep them out! But don’t worry—the Big Five will pay for the wall!

Am I saying all publishers are noble and true and care about nothing but the art. No, of course not. They're running a business. But reversion contracts are still normal. Any decent agent will insist on them. Any decent publisher won’t have a problem with them.

Okay, but now you can just self publish them all, right?
Well, yes and no. I can legally, yes, but as I’ve mentioned to folks a few times, the often-ignored part of self-publishing is it means I’m the publisher. I’m in charge of cover art, layouts, blurbs, marketing, publicity, all of it. And I just... I don’t want to do any of this. I think it’s fantastic that some people can do this. I’ve got a lot of friends who do. But it’s not for me. I’m a writer, not a publisher.

So I’m putting the ebooks out. With some help from some friends and a bit of money for covers. And that’s pretty much it. Because I want to spend my time writing, not publishing.

Well if that’s the case why didn’t you just stay with the original publishers? 

As far as Dead Moon and Terminus go, the original publisher doesn’t do ebooks or print books. And, again, they were never going to. In that case it’s less “the rights reverted” and more “the rights freed up.”

As for Permuted... without going into too many specifics, I ended up having some issues with both publishers (the company was sold a few years back, so I’m talking about the original and the new owners) and the new directions they took Permuted. Long story very short, I wasn’t comfortable doing business with them. When I got the chance to get my rights back, I took it.

Fair enough. But self-publishing on Amazon is so easy! Why not just have them make paperbacks?
It’s easy to do, yeah. It’s not easy to do it well. Kindle books are easy because there’s a basic, minimum amount of formatting—most of it’s adjusted by the individual reader on their chosen reading device. Print books, however, need everything locked down. Page layout. Chapter breaks. Blank pages. Again, much more publishing-work, not writing-work. Plus, as I’ve mentioned before, there’s an inherent cost to these books. It’s harder to make money, which makes them harder to justify.

Well, they’re hard to justify for a couple reasons.

Which means...?
Look, Amazon is a huge part of the ebook market. Depending on who you ask, anywhere from 2/3 to 3/4 of it. It’s difficult to do anything with ebooks even semi-successfully without using Amazon.

That’s not true of paperbacks, though. We have lots and lots of paperback distributors all across the world—bookstores. And I happen to like bookstores. A lot. So I’m not going to compete with them by putting out paperbacks that are only available on Amazon. I’d rather take that hit and just not have physical books. 

Aren’t bookstores dying anyway, though?
Actually, indie bookstores were doing fairly well, overall, before the pandemic. Even with the pandemic, a lot of them are still doing well (check out two of my favorites, Dark Delicacies and Mysterious Galaxy). It just comes down to the whole shopping locally thing. Do you want to put money into your community or into a corporation with a multibillionaire owner?

Yeah, these days it’s a tough call for all of us. It’s about how much money we have to spend and how much we want to make. But we all need to make that choice and do what we feel is right.

But what about all the money you’re missing out on?
In all fairness, it’s probably a small hit, and it’s more likely to cause fan ripples than financial ones. As I’ve mentioned before (quick, back to the FAQ) I tend to make most of my money in audio format anyway, and when you add in the extra expense behind a paperback copy, in the end I’d make very little money to please a few fans and annoy a lot of booksellers. 

So, yes, I’m kinda like that guy offering to give up caviar for Lent or something like that (never been 100% clear how Lent works). 

But what am I supposed to do? I hate audiobooks and ebooks! I want something for my shelf!

I am very sorry for that. I don’t like alienating fans, but sometimes this is just how things go on the business side of it. I know the Audible deal annoyed some folks, but it made a lot of other folks very happy. I think overall it made most people happy because Dead Moon and Terminus wouldn’t’ve been written if not for that deal. There’s always a chance that somewhere down the road some things will change and some (or all) of these books will be available in physical form. Maybe paperback, maybe even hardcover. But I’m afraid for now...

It’s not in the foreseeable future.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

A Few Basic Things I Should’ve Mentioned...

I  was glancing back over the whole A2Q thing I did a few months back. I admit, I’ve been toying with the idea of combining the posts, expanding on some aspects, and offering it as a cheapo ebook (at all interesting to anyone?). And it struck me there are a few aspect of writing I kinda skimmed over and others I barely touched on at all.

So I thought it wouldn’t be a bad thing to add in a few basics about forming a plot, shaping my structure, dealing with characters, that sort of stuff. A little less how-to (“press your foot down on the gas pedal to go fast”) and a little more but-keep-in-mind (“don’t go ninety in a school zone while a cop’s parked there”). Make sense?

I’ve mentioned most of these ideas before, so they may feel familiar. Also, since I’m loosely tying this back to the A2Q, I’ll use my character examples there rather than my standard Animaniacs references. I don’t want anyone to think I’ve abandoned Yakko, Wakko, and Dot.

Anyway...

First, I should be clear who my protagonist is. In my head and on the page. If I spend the first five chapters of my book with Phoebe... everyone’s going to assume Phoebe’s the main character. The book’s clearly about her, right?  So when she vanishes for the next seven chapters and I focus on Luna or Quinn... well, people are going to keep wondering when we’re getting back to Phoebe.  Because she’s who I set up as the main character.

Now, a lot of books have a big cast of characters.  An ensemble, as some might say.  That’s cool.  But if my book’s going to be shifting between a bunch of characters, I need to establish that as soon as possible.  If the first four or five chapters are all the same character, it’s only natural my readers will assume that’s going to be the norm for this book, and it’ll be jarring when I jump out of that norm.

Second, speaking of jumping and jarring, is that I need to keep my POV consistent. Even with a third person POV, we’re usually looking over a specific person’s shoulder, so to speak. Which means that character can’t walk away and leave us behind.  Likewise, we can’t start over Phoebe’s shoulder and then drift over so we’re looking over Luna’s.

It’s cool to switch POV—there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it—but I need to make it very clear to my readers I’m doing it. They need that stability and consistency. If they start seeing things from new angles or hearing new pronouns, it’s going to knock them out of the story and break the flow. And that’s never a good thing.

Third, while we’re talking about peering over other shoulders, is that I should be clear who’s part of my story and who’s just... well, window dressing. I probably don’t want to spend three or four pages describing Doug, hearing his backstory, reminiscing about his workday, and then discover he’s just some random guy at the bar. Phoebe serves him a drink and then we never, ever hear about him again.

Names and descriptions are how I can tell my reader if a character’s going to be important and worth remembering or is they're just there to show Phoebe’s doing her job. Three paragraphs of character details means “Pay attention to this one.” So if I’m telling readers to keep track of people for no reason—or for very thin reasons—I’m wasting their time and my word count.

Fourth is I need to have an actual plot before I start focusing on subplots.  What’s the big, overall story of my book?  If it’s about Phoebe trying to fins out the secret of the super-werewolf, I should probably get that out to my readers before I start the betrayal subplot or the romance-issues subplot or the how-could-mom-and-dad-have-hidden-this-family-secret-from-us subplot.  After all, they picked up my book because the back cover said it was about fighting super-werewolves. I should be working toward meeting those expectations first.

If I find myself spending more time on a subplot (or subplots) than the actual plot, maybe I should pause and reconsider what my book’s about.

Fifth, closely related to four, is my subplots should relate to the main plot somehow.  They need to tie back or at least have similar themes so we see the parallels.  If I can pull a subplot out of my book and it doesn’t change anything it the main plot in the slightest... I might want to reconsider it. And if it’s an unrelated subplot to an unrelated subplot... okay, wow, I’m really getting lost at this point.

Sublots face a real danger of becoming, well, distracting. People are showing up for that sweet werewolf on werewolf action, and I don’t want to kill whatever tension I’m building by putting that on hold for  two or three chapters while I deal with inter-hunter rivalry and politics at the werewolf-hunting lodge. It’s like switching channels in the middle of a television show. What’s on the other channel isn’t necessarily bad, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the show we’re trying to watch.

Sixth is knowing when I need to reveal stuff. Remember how much fun it was when you met that certain someone and there were all those fascinating little mysteries about them? We wanted to learn all their tics and favorites and secrets. Where are they from? What’d they study in school? What do they do for a living? What are their dreams? Do they have brothers or sisters? Where’d they get that scar? Just how big is that tattoo?

But... we don’t want to learn those secrets from a dossier. We want to hang out with these people, talk over drinks, maybe stay up all night on the phone or on the couch. The memories of how we learn these things about people are just as important as what we learn. And it’s how we want to learn about characters, too. Just dumping pages and pages of backstory actually make a character less interesting. It kills that sense of mystery, because there’s nothing left to learn about them.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with me having incredibly fleshed out characters. But I might not need to use all of that backstory in the book. And I definitely don’t need to use it all in the first two or three chapters.

Seventh and last is flashbacks. Flashbacks are a fantastic narrative device, but... they get used wrong a lot. And when they’re wrong... they’re brutal. A clumsy flashback can kill a story really fast.

A flashback needs to be advancing the plot. Or increasing tension. Or giving my readers new information. In a great story, it’s doing more than one of these things. Maybe even all of them.

But a flashback that doesn’t do any of these things... that’s not a good flashback.  That’s wrong.  And it’ll bring things to a grinding halt and break the flow.


And that's seven basic things to keep in mind while I’m writing my story 

Now, as always, none of these are hard-fast, absolute rules.  If I hire someone to paint my house, there’s always a possibility this particular painter doesn’t use a roller. There can always be an exception.  But I should be striving to be the exception, not just assuming everyone will be okay with me not following all the standards. My readers are going in with certain expectations, and I need to be doing honestly amazing things to go against those expectations. 

Because if that same painter also doesn’t use a brush... or dropcloths... or a ladder...

Next time, just to be different, I’d like to explain something else to you. But I’m probably going to skim over most of it, if that’s okay.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Around Here We Call That...

I wanted to take a minute or two to talk about a certain type of talking.

We all have our own unique voice based on where we grew up or maybe where we ended up. It’s partly accent, partly regional vocabulary. I think we’ve talked about the whole pop vs. soda vs. cola thing before, right? Plus some of you weirdos who just call everything a coke. But there are tons of little things like that. For example, does your street have a parkway, a common, an easement, or a road strip?

Everyone has their own personal vocabulary, and their own preferred words. It’s a way we can identify people (and characters). And it’s a way we can learn a little more about them.

For example... I grew up in New England (mostly Maine, but a fair amount of time in Massachusetts), and I’ve been told my accent really comes out on certain words (like drawer). Plus my particular part of Maine has a unique term for tourists—goatropers—that my tongue still tries to fling out now and then. But at this point I’ve now spent (wow) half my life in southern California, so I’ve also picked up the odd habit of using “the” with freeway and highway numbers. And I started calling that strip of land the devil strip, just because I saw it explained that way once and fell in love with it. And my partner and I’ve been watching a lot of British gardening shows lately, so I’m pretty sure we’re using a lot of their terminology now.

And that last bit is what I wanted to talk about.

I’m betting most of you have had a job at some point with its own special vocabulary. Certain terms and phrases unique to that business. Sometimes they refer to specialized equipment, other times to certain practices or methods. If you were in retail, I bet you had to deal with a lot of terms that came down from some corporate desk, right?

And that’s another aspect of this. At that job, there were probably all the “correct” terms and phrases and names to use... and then there were the ones that actually got used on the job. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. There’s the way we get told it works, the way the people up top say it works... and there’s the way everybody down on the ground floor actually does it.

For example, again... most of you know I worked in the film industry for several years (a good chunk of that “half my life in Southern California” time). The film industry has a lot of special equipment and does a lot of things other jobs don’t, so it stands to reason there are a lot of special terms that get used. But... the terms that get used on a film set very often aren’t the ones that get taught at film school. Again and again I’d meet people who “knew” the industry, but were baffled by the actual terms used by the crew. Terms like needing a stinger, turning around, the abby singer, or the martini. And sometimes, yeah, it’s annoying but that martini gets an olive.

But it’s not like the film industry’s that rare. The military has a lot of their own terminology, and a lot of jargon that gets used in place of that terminology. So does the medical community. I’ve talked with my scientist-turned-urban-fantasy-author friend Kristi Charish numerous times about the language and phrases used in a lab. I have a bunch of friends in the game industry who’ve let jargon slide out now and then. I worked at a Walgreens through most of high school, a suit store for a year after college, and a few theaters in San Diego when I first moved to California. And all of these places had their own way of talking and referring to things. Even the same things.

Weird as it may sound, this is why I like having beta readers with different backgrounds than me. And why I like talking with people who work in all sorts  of fields. Because so often they’ll tell me “this isn’t how Wakko would say this,” or “Dot would probably call this a...”

It’s also why I love talking to people in person (or these days, on Zoom) when I’m asking them questions about things. A lot of the time when they’re speaking (rather than writing it out), they’ll fall back on that jargon first because it’s the natural way they speak about things. And that’s what I want to know—how would my characters naturally talk about these topics. What parts of their work vocabulary leak into their day-to-day conversations?

Of course, this is all just for flavor. I don’t want to bury my dialogue in jargon for the same reason I probably don’t want to write out an extreme accent—I don’t want my readers to get lost or confused in the dialogue. Believe me, back when I was in the film industry, I brought many Thanksgiving dinners to a dead halt as I tried to explain “things that happened at work” to my family. Because these were casual, everyday terms for me, but they had no idea what I was talking about.

I want my readers to be able to flow past odd spellings or to figure out unusual terms from context. And I want the readers who know this jargon to see that I’ve done my research, for them to feel instantly familiar with the characters they should be identifying with the most. Again, just that dash of flavor that makes something perfect.

So learn those odd terms and casual phrases. Make characters talk like the people they’re supposed to be, in the jobs they’re supposed to have. Because it’ll grab your readers and pull them deeper into the story.

And personally, I like it when my writing pulls readers deeper into the story.

Next time, I thought I might go back over a few basics.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The End... Or Is It?

I don't know if you can tell from that side but holy crap is the new Blogger a mess on this side.

I’ve been threatening to talk about endings for a while now. Shouldn’t be that big a deal, right? Easy topic.

One thing all of our books and stories and screenplays have in common is an ending. They’re going to be different for all of us, and for all of our different projects, but everyone of them has an end. Even if it’s part of a series, this discrete part of that overall story has concluded and another part will (hopefully) begin at some other time. Hopefully on the sooner side

Endings come in all shapes and sizes. They can be happy. They can be semi-positive. They can be ambiguous. They can be blunt. They can tease more potential story or be very, very clear this is the end

But one way or another... the story ends.

We don’t talk much about the fact that there are different types of endings. Not just in that happy-sad-ambiguous sense. In a structural, nuts and bolts sense. There’s also the type of ending where I think I might get to do another book someday, the ending where I know I’m going to get another book immediately, and the ending where I know that this is it, we’re done. Just to name a few.

Also, before I go much further, I’m going to toss around some terms here and I think some of them get used in very general, catch-all ways a lot of the time. Which I also think is what causes some of the issues I’m blathering on about. So some of my blathering may go against things you’ve been taught or picked up here and there.

That said, let’s lean into television for a moment. Yeah, I know most of you aren’t here for screenwriting, but I think this is a good, universal reference point. You should all understand what I’m talking about.

There’s a certain class of network show that tends to have what we might think of as a respawn point most of the time. No matter what’s happened, no matter what the characters have gone through, by the end of the episode they’re pretty much right back where they began—physically and emotionally. They’ve reset for new stories next week. We see this in a lot of sitcoms and even some one hour dramas.

There are also shows that have season arcs, with story elements that carry through from episode to episode. A lot of these end on dramatic revelations or beats that aren’t quite cliffhangers, but still compel the audience to think about what’s going to happen next.

What’s that? Why aren’t they cliffhangers? Good question. This is just my own musings, granted, but I think the big difference between a cliffhanger and a dramatic ending is where they compel us to pick things back up next time. What does the audience/reader need to see next? So it’s a structural, framing difference. If I’ve got a cliffhanger, the next chapter/episode/issue/book needs to begin right here, right at this moment where we left off. With a dramatic ending... the story can resume a little later. We’ve all seen this. “Three hours later, his mind was still reeling from this new information...”

Again, this is just my take, but I think it’s a take that hold up pretty well. And I’ve experienced the jarring results when someone sets up a cliffhanger, but then just treats it as a dramatic ending when the story resumes. Or doesn’t resume. Because if it doesn’t resume, that kinda kills the whole “needs to resume” aspect of it, doesn’t it?

I think it’s also worth noting that a lot of newer, bingeable content is created to be seen as one ongoing story. Each episode still has an ending, but they’re structured very deliberately to line right up with the next episode, more like act breaks than episode conclusions. These shows tend to have really powerful season finales, because that’s the ending that really matters—the one that makes us come back for next season.

And, as I mentioned above with books, there are the endings that imply the potential for more story if the opportunity arises (“hey, we don’t know if we’re renewed yet so just in case...”) and the ones that wrap everything up nice and tight. They all lived happily ever after.

Why am I blathering on about all of this?

Hopefully it’s clear that the type of ending I have—structurally--should give the reader a sense of what comes next. And what doesn’t come next. Again, this is an ending, which means... something should end.

That doesn’t mean I just stop typing. But I’ve seen that plenty of times in books and on some shows, and even a few movies. Things just... stop. The werewolves lunge down the street, our heroes raise their swords and shotguns to fight and wait why is the next page blank.

This is why I’ve been going back and forth with this for so many weeks. It’s tough to talk about endings because each one’s going to be unique to that story and that writer. I can’t say “Don’t do X” when X might be exactly what need to happen in your particular story. A lot of it is going to come down to each of us looking at our story with an honest, critical eye.

Let me toss this out, and then I’ll ramble on a little more. Have I actually ended my story? Or have I just stopped telling it? They’re not the same thing, and if I don’t realize that... well, that’s probably a bit or a red flag right there.

I think one thing we need to do, as writers, is make sure we’ve finished our stories. If my book is about a chosen one accepting his destiny and fighting the manifestation of pure evil... well, by the end of my book he should’ve accepted his destiny and fought the manifestation of pure evil. If my story is all about the school valedictorian desperately wanting to ask out the head cheerleader... at the end of the story she should’ve asked out the cheerleader. This is basic, three-act structure stuff. Once I’ve set up conflict, I need to resolve that conflict. If I don’t... I’ve kinda failed as a  storyteller. You remember what Chekov said about that phaser rifle hanging over the fireplace in act one, right?

Ahh, I see some hands and at least one scoffing shake of the head. Yes you did. I saw you. Let me slap down two provisos on this, not so much exceptions as places for a little more thought and that honest, critical eye I mentioned up above.

First, it’s not unusual for my protagonist’s stated goals to be different from the actual goals of the story. The valedictorian may think this is about asking out the cheerleader, but the book is more about her accepting who she is and gaining self confidence. Plus, she’s clearly supposed to be with the goth girl who paints all the drama club’s backdrops. So, yes, in this sense the resolution may not be the one the character hoped for or originally set out, but my story’s (hopefully) structured in a way that still makes this a cohesive whole.

Also, it’s not unusual for a story to veer off and for characters to suddenly find themselves with all new goals. Maybe the valedictorian had worked up her nerve, was approaching the cheerleader out in front of the school and oh holy crap! Cyborg werewolf kidnappers! They’ve got the cheerleader! And they’re going to infect her with lycanthropic nanites at midnight if the valedictorian doesn’t stop them! This is going to take all her computer and science skills, plus maybe some help from that goth girl who paints all the drama club’s backdrops...

Again, though, there should’ve maybe been a few tiny hints so this kidnapping wasn’t coming out of nowhere. Or didn’t happen in the back third of the book after 200 pages of high school drama and musings. It’s a goal that’s carried through the narrative and eventually achieved.

Second, there’s the possibility there’s more to this. Maybe my book’s part of a trilogy or an ongoing series. Maybe it’s in a shared universe and questions here are going to be answered over there. If the story’s going to continue on and spill over into other places, isn’t it normal that things won’t end yet?That questions will be left unanswered?

Well, yes and no. Sure, there may be three or four more books, or another season’s worth of episodes, or maybe a new issue in just a month. But that doesn’t change that this, the book I’m holding (or season I’m watching or what have you), is a single thing. Yes, The Hunger Games is a story of a ruling elite being overthrown by a rising rebellion, but book one (and two) are really the story of Katniss training for the arena and then surviving in the Games (again). If book one had ended with five people still alive in the arena, will she make it out, pick up book two in just ten months... well, you’re already laughing, aren’t you? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t’ve bothered with book two after an ending like that. I’d bet a few million other people wouldn’t’ve, either.

Y’see, Timmy, this one book still needs to stand on its own . It may have threads or whole subplots that continue on in other places, but this book still needs to be a self-contained thing. It has to hold some kind of story within itself. Yes, the series might be about finding the six, errr... seven... Eternity Crystals (copyright 2020, Peter Clines), but what’s happening in this part of that overall story? Are my heroes involved in a big heist to get the Chronos Crystal, even if they don’t fully realize what it is yet? Or has an old friend distracted them away from their quest to help rescue a cheerleader from cyborg werewolf kidnappers? What goals have I set for my characters to accomplish in this book?

Because if this book doesn’t have any goals for them... what are my characters accomplishing? They either don’t have goals, or they have goals that aren’t met. Either way... not an exiting read. And not likely to get a lot of folks to book two.

Again, every ending is going to be unique to every book by every author. But the one thing they should all have in common is that things need to be resolved. No resolution means my characters (and my readers) are just kind of left flailing and unfulfilled.

Ultimately, the thing I need to remember is that the end of my book is it. This is the last chance to amaze my reader. My final chance to shape their emotions, to lock down what they think about my book. Once they turn that last page, it’s all in their hands.

We talk about first impressions, but the last impression means something, too. It’s what people are going to walk away with. How many books or shows or movies have you enjoyed—maybe really enjoyed—and then the end just left you snarling in frustration?

And why are we usually frustrated? Because we didn’t get answers. Because ultimately nothing happened. Because we feel like we wasted our time.

Stick the landing. Nail your ending. Get that phaser rifle down from the fireplace and make sure it goes off.

Speaking of endings (shameless plug) if the end of the world is your kind of thing, my latest novel--Terminus –finally came out in ebook last week. If you haven’t checked it out yet, it’s kinda fun and fairly inexpensive. If you have checked it out and enjoyed it, reviews are always appreciated.

Next time... I’d like to talk about jargon a bit.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Comedy Hour!

I know I said I was going to talk a bit about endings but I had this kind of funny epiphany at the grocery store the other day. As in, an actual epiphany about funny things. No, really...

I’ve wanted to talk about comedy for a while. I tried once years ago, but—to be really honest—I didn’t quite have the vocabulary for it at the time. I’m not sure I do now, but at least I thought up two things that sounds kind of clever. That’s better than nothing.

Once or thrice I’ve brought up my bad movie habits and explained them. A fairly common thing I’ve seen are movies that bill themselves as comedies or something-comedies. I say “as” because they’re rarely funny, and I think there’s two big reasons for that. Well, three, but the third one's not really relevant here. Maybe some other time. For now, two big reasons.

One is that comedy is very empathy-dependent. Possibly more than any other type of writing. If I can’t put myself in other people’s shoes, I’m going to have a tough time figuring out how to make them laugh.

The second reason is what I wanted to blather on about.

I’ve talked about genres and subgenres here a few times. Sometimes these subgenres have really specific rules. Take horror for example. Cosmic horror stories are not the same as slashers, which are not the same as supernatural thrillers, which are nothing like torture porn, which definitely aren’t monster stories. Or mysteries! There’s over a dozen sub-genres for mysteries, and publishers take them very seriously. Cozies, noir, capers, amateur sleuth, professional sleuth, procedurals... every one of them has their own expectations and requirements and guidelines. I can’t write a cozy mystery about a serial killer who collects his victims’ genitalia. They just don’t work that way.

Comedy is the same way. There are satires, spoofs, farces, romcoms, dramedys, and many more. And just like above, each of these has certain rules and expectations. I can’t just throw down a pile of funny things and declare it to be a spoof. And truth be told, no matter how big that pile of funny things is, I might not even be able to call it a comedy.

Y’see, Timmy, funny is to comedy the same way notes are to music (that’s clever thing #1). You need one to make the other, but that doesn’t mean a pile of one equals the other. I don’t expect thirty random notes to come together and make a song—we all understand I need to arrange them in a certain way, they need to work together, they need to have a certain flow to them. Just like a pile of random ideas doesn’t make a plot, just because I’ve got a pile of funny beats doesn’t mean I’ve got a comedy. What’s funny at the bar might not be as funny at work. That little bit of physical comedy from your date is definitely not going to go over the same way at work. Heck, it might not have even been that funny on the date.

If you don’t want to believe me, I had a chance to talk with Kevin Smith years ago and we discussed ad-libs. He pointed out something you hadn’t planned or scripted can be incredibly funny on set, but the important thing is that it works in the editing room. Just because it’s funny doesn’t automatically mean it’ll make sense in the final film. ”It’s not germane to the discussion,” was how he put it.

When I’m writing a comedy story or screenplay, I need to be aware of what kind of story I’m telling. Am I adding things because they work within the framework I’ve established and they propel the narrative forward... or am I putting it in because people laugh at poop jokes? Is this part of the comedy, or is it just some random funny element? One that’s hopefully still funny in this context. Hopefully.

More doesn’t always mean better. Just because I add more funny things doesn’t mean I’ve made a better comedy, in the same way that just because I added more types of robots doesn’t mean I wrote a better sci-fi story. And really... does anyone think a bunch of jump scares make for a better horror movie?

Remember, whatever it is I’m writing, my elements should serve my story, not my genre.

(and that’s clever thing #2).

Hey, speaking of whatever it is I’m writing, he said by means of a segue, the exclusive period on my novel Terminus has ended. That means you can pick up the ebook version of the book right now. It’s not narrated by Ray Porter, yeah, but I did include a nice-sized afterword where I talked about where some parts of the book came from and how a lot of the characters developed. And if you’ve been waiting all this time for it, I made it fairly cheap, too, as a small “thank you” for your patience.

Next time... endings. Definitely.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

On the Third Day...

I got a request from Rhyen, which is great because I still haven’t really hammered those ideas on endings or comedy quite into shape. So that’s still some stuff for the future. Or, y’know, somebody else could ask something.

Anyway...

Rhyen wanted to know about worldbuilding. Not just “our world, but with secret werewolves” but full-on, hardcore fantasy worlds, sci-fi worlds, and so on. How (and when) do you come up with histories, cultures, and all that other stuff?

Y’know what? Let’s make this post super-active rather than me blathering away. Right here, right now, let’s look at werewolf world. The other version of it where everybody knows werewolves are real.

Now, I know, we said we were going to do more hardcore settings but just go with me for a minute.

I’ve mentioned Charlie Jane Anders once or thrice before, and her little note that there’s no such thing as “a world just like ours, except...” because any noteworthy “except” is going to change everything. If there really were werewolves and everybody knew about them, so much would be different in the world. Tons of things.

Don’t believe me? Let’s go over a few things real quick. Just off the top of my head...

Here’s an easy change. There probably wouldn’t be any silver coins. In WereWorld anything with even a scrap of silver would’ve been gathered up and turned into anti-werewolf weapons or defenses. The government would be treating silver like uranium. 

Which, hey... how would warfare be different? Forget atom bombs... imagine if the Manhattan Project involved deliberately infecting a hundred or so troops with lycanthropy and then dropping them all on Nagasaki and Hiroshima on the night of the full moon. A hundred unstoppable killing machines running wild in each city. That’s a terror weapon, right there. And of course, if the Japanese capture two or three alive, now they’ve got their own werewolves.

But now without the US pouring all that money into nuclear warfare and missile programs... where does it all go? Infrastructure? Social programs? Schools? Would there be a Cold War? A Bay of Pigs? And if the Soviet Union leaned into werewolf warfare... what kind of arms races would there be? Would the USSR have financially collapsed?

And we haven’t even talked about dating or sex in WereWorld. Hunting laws? Home security? Profiling? Legal issues—if I kill someone as a werewolf, am I legally responsible? Is it murder, which requires a degree of forethought, since the werewolf’s essentially an animal (or is it?)?

And all of these assume we just “discovered” werewolves somehow back in the early 1940s. What if it was even earlier? How would global exploration and trade have gone differently five hundred years ago if ever twenty-nine days  one of your crew members might kill everyone on the ship? How different would the world map look right now?

Again, this is all off the top of my head. Seriously, I’ve spent maybe ten minutes on this. But I’ve completely rewritten the world, just by being aware that things would inevitably change in this situation.

So, with that in mind...

Creating a setting, any setting, is a lot like creating a character. I want to know them backwards and forwards. It’s fantastic if I have lots and lots of factoids about them easily on hand (you may remember that back before we all took the pandemic plunge, I talked about characters and their underwear choices).

I’ve mentioned character sketches once or thrice before, and I think worldbuilding can be approached the same way. We come up with the bare basics and then we start fleshing it out by asking questions and maybe following a few paths to their logical outcome. Like I did up above with WereWorld.

Or let’s do something even more divorced from our world. Let’s say it’s going to be a fantasy world, maybe one with some gearpunk elements. So, easy one—is there actual magic in this fantasy world? Is it kind of rare or very common? Does it need components? Are they rare or common? Do people have spell-component gardens the way we might have an herb garden?

How about the gear-tech? How precise is it? Do you need mathematically perfect brass gears or do lots of people carve wooden ones after dinner? What do they use for power? Springs? Counterweights? Two or three big guys turning a crank?

Does magic dominate the gear-tech, or vice versa? Is one notably newer than the other? Does either have detractors, vocal or secretive? Are magic and/or gear-tech novelties or parts of everyday life? Do they ever cross-pollinate, so to speak? Are they expensive or so common everyone has access to some aspect of them?

Considering all of this, now... is this mostly an agrarian world? Are more people farmers? Hunters? Are there gearpunk tractors or crossbows? Magic millstones or knives that can skin anything? And if none of this ever filters down to the common folk... how do they feel about that?

Has the magic or gear-tech made travel easier? Are people still isolated in villages or are there much bigger cities, made possible because of these advances? Do people know more about the world?

Heck, how fantasy is this world? Are there supernatural or mythological creatures? Are they common? Domesticated? Are there things we know or all-new creatures? Does the farmer have a six-legged hexox dragging his plow? Are there gods? Demons? How do they feel about humans playing with magic and gear-tech?

Or heck... is it even humans? Is this about magical halflings or gearpunk elves? I just pictured a gearpunk lizardman and that seemed pretty cool.

If you’ve answered a lot of those questions, I bet you’ve got the beginnings of a pretty solid world in your head. And probably spun off a question or three of your own. Enough so that you can start setting up your plot.

And one thing to keep in mind—just like with characters, this might change as I go along. As the story grows and progresses, I might change a lot. I might add even more. It’s an ongoing process. Halfway through my outline or my first draft, I might realize I need to address currency. And, hey,  maybe this world has a really crappy exchange rate, so it matters if you’re getting paid with glowing quartz or brass gear-coins.

Again, the world is here to serve the story. You’re going to change and tweak it as you go. Maybe all the way up to your last draft. And just like with characters, you’ll keep coming up with cool little details and anecdotes.

Now... there’s three key things to remember...

First, I know I talk about editing things down a lot, but we can all breathe a small sigh of relief here. If I’ve got a story set in another world—a drastically different world—most editors are going to give me a little bit of leeway, word-count wise. They understand I’ll need a few extra pages to explain why Yakko is riding a gearpunk tractor powered by magical crystals.

This doesn’t mean I can go crazy listing details. Or that I can be really blunt with them. No pausing for two pages to randomly describe the wooden sun-and-planet gears in Yakko’s trailer. Or the long history of the mining guild that provides those magic crystals. One more time—say it with me—the world is here to serve the story. It’s okay to have a little extra flavor here and there, but I shouldn’t lose track of what my book is actually about.

Which brings me to my second point. Whenever I create a character, there’s a lot of things about them that are never going to come up in the book. Or maybe they come up, but they’re never explained. I might have tons of rich backstory and weird little details, but a lot of it just never becomes relevant.

For example, in the Threshold books, I know a ton of things about Veek. I know why she’s abrasive with most people. Why she likes wearing men’s suits and ties over women’s power suits. Heck, I made a note of when/how she lost her virginity. But the truth is, none of this has been relevant to any of the books she’s been in. It’s stuff I know, and it helps me make her feel more three dimensional on the page, but ultimately... it’s all kind of irrelevant if it doesn’t have anything to do with this book—with the plot I’m telling and the character’s arc through that plot.

Worldbuilding is the same way. No matter how fantastic or amazing the details of this world might be, they only matter if they’re going to have some kind of impact. While it may be very interesting how this society ended up with a hexadecimal/base sixteen number system, do we need to know any of that history for this story? Yes, WereWorld does have eleven continents and there’s a fascinating story behind it... which has nothing to do with this book.

And even then, I’d argue that if there’s no real reason for something to be different... maybe it shouldn’t be. I think one thing that confuses some people is they see this rich, historied world that the story’s set in and forget the world only exists to serve the story, not the other way around. If you look back at my A2Q discussion about the world Phoebe and Luna live in, I made choices based on what would be interesting for the plot and story, not what would make for an interesting world.

So I shouldn’t be coming up with (and using) new things just to come up with new, different things. I mean George RR Martin just uses leagues for distance in worldbuiding heavyweight A Song of Fire and Ice (perhaps better known by it’s Hollywood stage name, Game of Thrones). It sounds good, a little archaic, and he doesn’t have to waste half a page explaining what hekkrets are.

Or heck, here’s another example... any of you remember that old 70’s indie movie, Star Wars? There’s a great scene where Ben and his would-be-protégé are trying to hire a ship from some lowlife smuggler. And Ben tells him “We can pay you two thousand now plus fifteen... when we reach Alderaan.” Remember that?

So... two thousand what?

No, no, no. Don’t run to novelisations or books or articles that retconned this. Right there in the movie you watched... two thousand what?

Truth is, it doesn’t say and it doesn’t matter. For this story, the type of currency’s irrelevant. I don’t care if it’s Imperial credits or Old Republic scrip or gold-press latinum or Jawa skulls. Okay, I might care if it’s Jawa skulls because WTF Kenobi why do you have two thousand of these laying around?! What the hell have you been up to out in your little desert hut?

Anyway... no, all we need to know is that two thousand is a good amount (judging off everyone’s reactions) and fifteen more makes it a very good amount. Past that, we just don’t need to know why Solo wants all these Jawa skulls Kenobi’s collected. It’s not important. The dialogue’s solid and sounds believable, which is far more important that a brief segue to explain the various types of Galactic currency and their exchange rates.

This brings me to my third and final point.

Worldbuilding is, in my opinion, a really easy trap to fall into. Because worldbuilding is fun. Seriously. That question game we played up above? We can do that for weeks with worldbuilding. Months. Maybe even years. My world is going to be so huge and so complex with so many races and creeds and economies and social structures and seriously we can spend so much time doing this instead of...

Y’know, actually writing the story.

And that’s how I generally approach worldbuilding. You may need to change this approach a bit, depending on your own story and the kid of setting you want for it, but hopefully this’ll get you a little further down that path. Or help you find your own path.

Next time... endings.

Maybe.

Until then, go write.