Thursday, July 30, 2020

Time To Reduce

As we come out of an SDCC@Home weekend where I probably ate about as healthy as I would at an actual con (I was going for the full experience) I thought it’d be a great time to talk about reducing things.

He said, in a blog post he skipped getting on the treadmill to write....

Anyway, back when I was doing the A2Q we broke down different types of editing, and one of them I touched on was reductive editing. This is when I start cutting and trimming to make my story lean and tight. Figuring out what needs to be there as opposed to all the stuff I threw down while I was working on the first draft.

And since I just finished doing this with my new book last week, I thought I’d talk about some of the cuts I made and explain why I made them.

The first cut was easy. I had a section where two chapters overlapped. I liked the overlap at first. It was an action scene with multiple characters, and I thought it kept things moving to show all of his fight and then all of her fight, even though they happened at the same time.

But when I looked at it again during my editing pass it just felt... slow. Also kinda repetitive, since I kept referring to the other fight in both versions to show how they overlapped. Also, it created an odd problem with ending the chapters—either one had to end flat or I had to repeat the cool end-beat and weaken it. So I cherry picked a bit, leaned more into his than hers (for a couple of reasons, but I feel pretty good about it for the moment) and then cut 750 words of overlap.

The next one was rough. Throughout the book I had a few chapters where we switched POV and checked in with the main antagonist—the big bad in charge. Essentially, that big voice going “Meanwhile, at the mad scientist’s lair...” Thing is, these chapters never sat right at any point in the process. Not in my first draft. Not in my second, “cleaning up” draft. I didn’t want to give away too much in these chapters (since my villain was much more in the know than my protagonist), but it was hard not to mention some things without feeling like characters were deliberately not talking about things.

I’m not sure exactly what did it, but I know during my second draft I had the realization that I could probably cut one of these POV chapters altogether. There wasn’t a lot of necessary information in it, and I realized what there was I could shift to other chapters and characters without any real trouble. And that made me suddenly wonder... wait, do I actually need any of these chapters? I mean, a big chunk of the first one was just backstory justifying the antagonist and their behavior... while not talking about anything that would give things away. Another one introduced a character I’d only created to make some exposition read better. The more I looked at it... yeah, I’d definitely have to rework some things, but for the story I was telling these chapters were really distracting and didn’t add anything. Heck—two of them I still hadn’t even fleshed out, even though they’d been through two drafts.

So that was another six thousand words gone. A little over six thousand, really. Only a few pounding heartbeats for that one. And now the knives come out. Time for the death of a thousand cuts.

I’ve talked before about looking out for overused words. So I did a couple passes looking for that, adverbs, a lot of the “somewhat” words and phrases I can’t help but use in train-of-thought mode. We all have them, and you might already be aware of yours. If not, feel free to borrow mine for now and see where they get you.

I also had some other things that I was worried about—words that might be showing up a lot by nature of this specific story and how it was being told. That was another pass or three through the manuscript. I was kinda surprised that one or two didn’t get used as much as I thought they would, but... one I included as an afterthought showed up way more than I expected. Think I deleted eighty-something uses of that one.

One thing that did strike me with this is I didn’t find a lot of my usual padding. The adverbs and the “somewhat” phrases. It was still there, yeah, but not as thick as I’ve piled it on at times in the past. After twelve full books, I’m finally improving. Maybe.

In the end not quite a death of a thousand cuts. With additions and rewrites as I went, it worked out to a little over 300 words less. A full page gone.

That’s how this part of editing goes. Word by word. Sometimes chapter by chapter. All of this added up about 7,250 words gone out of what began as a 124K manuscript. And I still may trim a little more when I get notes back from my beta readers.

Next time, if you’re up for it, I’d like to play doctor for a little bit. No, not like that. Get your minds out of the gutter!

Until then, go write...

Friday, July 24, 2020

B-Movie Mistakes

If you’ve been following me for any amount of time, you’ve probably caught on to my questionable Saturday viewing habits. Questionable in the sense of “why would someone keep doing this to themselves? And to their liver?”

I’ll sit down with some little toy soldiers to build, put on a movie with aliens or giant monsters or werewolves, and tweet out the occasional observation, critique, or scream of pain. It’s kinda fun, in a masochistic sort of way, and I’m a big believer that you can learn a lot from figuring out where bad things went wrong and how they could be fixed. And I’ve seen a lot of screenplays go wrong over the years. Some I worked on. Some I read for contests. And... some I watched while building little toy soldiers.

Over all this time, I’ve seen definite patterns emerge. The same mistakes happening again and again and again. It was part of what made me start this whole ranty blog way back when in the distant before-time.

And screenwriting is a form of storytelling, which means some of these mistakes—maybe even all of them—are universal. I might not have any interest in writing movie scripts, sure. Not everyone does. But these issues can show up in books, short stories, comics... all sorts of storytelling formats.

So maybe they’re worth checking out.

Anyway, here are my top ten B-movie mistakes, updated a bit since the last time I write them out. Some of it may seem generally familiar. Some of it... well, I’ve found new ways to look at some problems over the past three years.

10) Bad directing
Let’s just get this one out of the way, because it’s the easiest one. It’s also the most universal one. This’ll be a horrible blow to anyone who likes auteur theory, but while there are some phenomenal directors out there, the simple truth is there’s also a lot who have absolutely no clue what they’re doing. None. Yeah, even some directors you’ve heard of.  They have no concept of narrative, continuity, pacing... anything.

This is a killer because ultimately, the director’s the one interpreting the story on the page into a visual story on the screen. Even if they didn’t write the script, the best story can be ruined by a bad storyteller.  How often have we seen a book or movie that had a really cool idea or an interesting character and it was just... wasted?

Because of this—random true fact—whenever you see a horrible story on screen, it’s always the fault of the director and producers. Never the screenwriter. The only reason scripts get shot is because the director and producers insist on shooting them. If it was a great script and they butchered it—that’s their fault. If it was a bad script and they decided to shoot it anyway—that’s also their fault.

9) Showing the wrong thing
This kinda falls under bad directing, but I’ve seen it enough times that it really deserves it own number. Sometimes a story keeps pushing X in our face when we really want to see Y. Or Z. Sometimes the story calls for Y to be the center of focus, but we still keep putting X on camera. And sometimes there’s no need to see X at all—we understand it through dialogue and acting and other bits of context—but we show X anyway.

A lot of this is a general failure of empathy—the filmmakers aren’t thinking about how the movie’s going to be seen. I’ve also talked a couple times about subtlety, using the scalpel vs. the sledgehammer, and that’s a big part of this, too. Sometimes there’s a reason we’re seeing a lot of nudity or a swirling vortex of gore, but all too often... it’s just because the storyteller doesn’t know what else to show us.

8) Bad action
Pretty sure we can all think of an example of this. The almost slow-motion fight scenes that feel like they filmed the rehearsal. The medium-speed chase that drags on waaaaaay too long. The pointless shoot-out that clearly wasn’t thought through since everyone’s standing out in the open.

Action gets seen as filler a lot of the time, and it doesn’t help that a lot of gurus teach it that way. “Hit page 23—you need an action beat! Hit page 42—another action beat!” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with action, but bad action is particularly bad in the visual storytelling format of movies. Unnecessary action isn’t much better.

Think of scale, too. It’s always better to have a small, well-done action scene than a sprawling, poorly-executed one. We can relate to two people fighting so much better that two gangs of sixty people each slamming together. Especially when it’s supposed to be two gangs of sixty members each but there are maybe eight people on screen. Moving in slow motion.

7) Too Much Stuff
Remember when we were young and there was that one kid (we all knew this kid) who got so excited to be Dungeon Master? And he made that awesome dungeon with five liches and a dozen displacer beasts and twenty gold dragons and thirty platinum dragons and fifty minotaurs all wearing +3 plate armor and using +5 flaming axes and a hundred zombies and Demogorgon and half the Egyptian gods and...

I think we’ve all played that game, right? Let’s be honest... maybe some of us were that kid?

Some B-movies get like that.  The filmmakers have too many ideas—way more than their budget or schedule allows—and they try to stick everything into the story.  Every cool idea from every other cool story, sure to be just as cool here, right? Truth is, they almost never are.  All these extra ideas just end up being under-developed distractions at best. 

6) Killing the wrong people
There’s always going to be collateral damage in certain types of stories. Thing is, by nature of being collateral damage, the story doesn’t focus on these people and their deaths don’t really register.  And they shouldn’t. That’s what collateral means after all—they’re secondary. Not as important. But in the tight, compressed nature of a movie, we need these deaths to be important. They need to serve a purpose in the story, hopefully on more than one level.

I’ve talked about the awful habit of introducing characters for no purpose except to kill them.  We meet Phoebe, get three or four minutes of backstory and bam she’s dead without moving the plot forward an inch. Because Phoebe wasn’t really part of the plot, she was just there to wear a bikini top and let the FX crew show off their new blood fountain.

The only thing worse than this is when it’s time for the ultimate sacrifice... and my hero doesn’t make it. A minor character steps forward to throw the final switch or recite the last words. And the “hero” sits back and watches as someone else saves the day.

5) Wasting Time
This one’s the flipside of point #7. I just mentioned that in the limited space of a movie script, everything needs to serve a purpose. If that touching backstory linking two characters doesn’t affect the plot or story somehow, it’s just five minutes of filler I could’ve spent on something else... like the plot or the story. If these shouted arguments don’t somehow reveal something key to the progress of the movie... they may just be a lot of wasted time.

One of the most common time-wasters in B-movies is the unconnected opening. It’s when the first five or ten minutes focus on a group of characters we’ll never see again, usually never even reference again, and who have no effect on the rest of the plot. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of these openings that couldn’t be cut, and I’d guess 83% of the time the whole movie would be stronger—on many levels—without it.

4) Not knowing what genre my story is
I’ve mentioned a few times that I worked on a B-level sex-revenge-thriller-sequel where the director thought he was making a noir mystery. I’ve seen horror films done as sci-fi and fantasy movies that were done as horror films, and vice versa.  Heck, I’ve written stories where I’d planned it as one thing, and realized halfway through it was something very different.

I've talked about genre a lot over the past few weeks, so I won’t go into it much more here. To sum up quick if you don’t want to hit the link, all genres have certain expectations when it comes to tone, pacing, and even structure.  If I’ve got a story in one genre that I’m telling with the expectations of another, there’s going to be a clash. And that clash probably won’t help my storytelling.

3) Plot Zombies
All credit to A. Lee Martinez, creator of this wonderful term. Sometimes, characters do things that are unnatural for them just to further the plot. The brave person becomes cowardly. The timid person does something wild and unpredictable. People argue and storm off for no reason. Well, so one of them can get murdered by the monster after going for a calming nighttime swim in the lake, but past that... no reason.

Plot zombies just stumble around a movie, doing whatever the story calls for. They don’t have any personality or agency, and one’s pretty much as good as the next one Really, one plot zombie’s the same as any other plot zombie. If I have an inspiring speech or an act of wild abandon or a last minute moment of brilliance, and there’s no reason I can’t swap all the characters around in it... it means I’ve got plot zombies.

2) Horrible dialogue
Bad dialogue always makes for bad characters.  If we can’t believe in the characters, we can’t believe in the story.  If I can’t believe in the story... well, that’s kind of it, isn’t it?

So many movies have painfully bad dialogue. Pointless arguments. Annoying characters. Awful technobabble.  And sometimes—too much of the time—it’s just bad.  It’s lines that sound like they went back and forth through Google translate and then the actor’s seeing them for the first time on a teleprompter while they’re filming.

Personally, bad dialogue drives me nuts, because it means the storytellers have no idea what human beings sound like. It’s a massive failure of empathy, and that empathy almost always shows up elsewhere. I’ve never, ever seen a story with bad dialogue that excelled everywhere else. It just doesn’t happen.

1) Who am I rooting for?
This is still the number one killer in America. This is what brings so many B-movies—so many STORIES—to a gear-grinding halt. 

So many movies have absolutely no likable characters. Everyone’s self-centered, obnoxious, stupid, or arrogant... or a combination of these traits. They’re all awful, sometimes disgusting people. All of them. The bad guys and the good guys.  People start dying and I’m always glad, no matter who they are.

If I’m expected to sit here and watch this for ninety minute, I need a reason to follow someone besides “they’re the main character.”  I need to like watching their story play out. I need to be able to identify with some aspect of their personality. The movie needs to have someone I actually care about. ‘Cause if it doesn’t. I won’t care if they win or lose. And if I don’t care about that... well... I’m not going  to be sitting here for ninety minutes

And that’s my personal, current top ten B-movie mistakes.

Hey, speaking of movies... this Saturday I’m doing my usual Saturday geekery, but for SDCC @ Home I’m doing it as a watch-along party. Come hang out on (LINK) Twitter starting at noon (PST) for Krull, followed by the Keanu Reeves Constantine at 2:30, and finishing up the day with Resident Evil at 5:00. It’s going to be fun and maybe a little informative. Plus there’ll be a couple other folks chiming in with the #KrullKon2020 hashtag, and even a few giveaways.

And next time here, I thought I’d talk a bit about editing this new book.

Until then... go write.

And maybe enjoy a movie or three.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

SDCC @ Home

In the before time, this would be the day I pack up and drive down to San Diego to beat the traffic. I’d crash with some friends, play some games, watch a movie, have a drink or three, and then tomorrow would begin the fun logistical nightmare that is San Diego Comic Con.

Of course, I moved to San Diego, and last year I found out how much easier some aspects of SDCC are when you can just walk a few blocks and hop on the train to downtown. and now that I’ve worked out the kinks, this year should be...

Oh. Right.

While SDCC is technically not happening, the folks behind it are trying to bring a lot of it home to, well, everyone. Panels and programs are getting released online, and you can spend the next few days watching and learning. Plus a lot of side things are going on directly from vendors, publishers, and even some creative folks like me.

For example...

Friday at 4:00 (PST)on the SDCC YouTube Channel, I’m going to be on a panel with Kiersten White, Henry Herz, and Fonda Lee as we talk about creating worlds, characters, and conflicts as sci-fi and fantasy writers.

Saturday at 12:00 (PST) on Twitter, I’m going to be hosting an unofficial geekery watch party with a couple author friends and a trio of great B-movies to comment on. Krull. Constantine. Resident Evil. We’re going to watch them all, talk about why we love them, the things they do really well... and some of the thing they don’t. Plus, there’s going to be some giveaways from Audible (seriously) and tons of celebrity guests (no, not seriously... probably).

Sunday... well, normally we do some version of the Writers Coffeehouse at SDCC. As some of you know I’ve been trying to get it going again as an online Q & A/ discussion, where I ask a bunch of writer friends to help answer your questions about writing. There’s already a few episodes up on my own YouTube channel, and on Sunday I’m going to put up a lot more. So hop over there and get answers from Django Wexler, Kristi Charish, A. Lee Martinez, ML Brennan, Stephen Blackmoore, and more.

And all of this for the low, low price of absolutely free, delivered to you right there on your couch as you safely physically distance and do your part to help get Covid under control.

Enjoy.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

A Compass That Doesn’t Point North

A few weeks back I talked about things getting their genres mid-identified, and afterwards somebody asked an interesting follow up. Namely, how do we identify genres? What are the benchmarks? How do we decide if something’s sci-fi or a techo-thriller or a romance that just happens to be set in a sci-fi world?

I know this sounds like a simple question, but it isn’t. For a couple reasons. Which I shall go over now.

First and foremost thing to remember—I shouldn’t worry about genre while I’m writing. Genre’s really a marketing tool more than anything else, so it doesn’t have a lot of use on the creative/ artistic side of things. In fact, if I’m worrying a lot about the guidelines of a given genre while I’m writing, I may want to take a step back and make sure I’m not just trying to jump on a trend. In my experience... that doesn’t work out most of the time.

With that in mind... what even is genre? A great way to think of it is a compass (many thanks to Pierce Brown for this analogy). Genre points you in the general direction of things you’re looking for. You want to head south-west? Just keep going that way. You want to find horror novels? They’re all over there.

And that leads us to another good way to think of it, maybe an even more relatable one. Where would my book get stocked in the bookstore? Don’t think about getting misshelved or getting featured on that best-sellers endcap. No excuses, no avoiding the question. Picture your favorite store and decide where would it be shelved in that store. 

If I can’t answer this... I have a problem. Because this is how an agent’s going to try to sell my book. “It’s something new to go here.” Even if I’m just planning on self-publishing an ebook, Amazon’s going to want to know how to categorize it.

Let me tell you one last little story. My first published book was Ex-Heroes, which ended up becoming a series of books set in that world and all involving the same basic theme—superheroes fighting zombies in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. When the series originally came out, it was through a small press that specialized in apocalyptic fiction, specifically zombie fiction. That was their niche, and they filled it perfectly. So they heavily emphasized the zombie/ post-apocalyptic aspects of the book in their publicity for it. That’s the direction their compass pointed.

But... by book three the series had moved to Broadway Paperbacks at Random House, and they wanted something that would promote well at comic conventions. So... the superheroes became the new focus. And so the compass needle for the books swung from the horror section (in the few stores the small press had gotten them into) to the sci-fi section.

My point being... life finds a way.

No, sorry, my point is that in both cases, the genre gave people a good idea what they’d find when they opened the book. Post-apocalyptic zombies. Superheroes.

So, that said... let’s talk very rough guidelines for a few basic genres. I won’t be able to touch on every genre (and may not even do a fantastic job with these), but I figure if you’re here looking for advice from me, there’s a semi-decent chance you’re writing the same kind of stuff you read. Which is me arrogantly assuming you ended up here because you read a couple of my books and liked them.

Science-Fiction—this is when my fictional elements have a rational, scientific explanation behind them. They don’t need to be explained (although hard science fans love it when you can), but they need to fall within a range of believability.

Science-Fantasy—This is when my story elements are hypothetically grounded in science, but (to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke) they’re so far advanced they’re beyond all possible understanding and essentially magic.

Fantasy—This is when some aspect of the rules of reality are tossed out the window. It might mean magic. It might mean new races or species (dragons, elves, orcs, owlbears, what have you). Fantasy tends to have less technologically-developed settings.

Urban Fantasy—A subgenre I thought was worth mentioning. Here we’re still tossing some of the reality-rules out the window, but we’re specifically doing it in a modern (or near-modern), real-world setting, often with more modern technology alongside it.

Horror—Might sound obvious, but many aspects of these stories involve fear for both the characters and the reader. Depending on my exact subgenre, that fear can have many different causes and intensities.

Romance—again, might sound obvious, but in romance most of the elements revolve around two characters developing a relationship despite various challenges. There may or may not be a sexual element (of varying explicitness) again depending on my subgenre.

Mystery—This is when the main thrust is trying to find answers to a problem—very often (but not always) involving a crime of some sorts. Another good rule of thumb for mysteries—they tend to center around something that already happened. The mystery is past tense.

Thriller—Somewhat similar to mysteries, this is when the plot elements involve a current, ongoing problem. Because of this, thrillers also tend to have a strong action component and fast pacing. The rule of thumb—thrillers are happening right now.

That’s not all possible genres (not even close), and there are sooo many sub-genres, but it’s enough to get you started.

One last thing to tag onto this. You’ve probably heard of terms like young adult or middle grade. It’s worth noting these aren’t actually genres in and of themselves, but additional guidelines that get applied to a given story. It’s not about my story as much as it is about how I’m choosing to tell that story.

All of this leads me to my final bit of advice, which kind of ties back to that earlier post. If I had to give a one or two sentence elevator pitch about my story, what would be in that pitch? What would I be focusing on? Would I be talking about space elevators and moon colonies, or would I be emphasizing the zombie hordes rising from their graves? Remember—I’ve only got two sentences, and they can’t be run-ons. Elevator pitch. Very fast, very clear.

Consider Twilight. It has vampires and werewolves and more than a few deaths... but it’s not a horror story. It barely counts as urban fantasy. The thing we’d emphasize in our elevator pitch is the high schooler who falls in love with a vampire. It’s a romance novel. Supernatural romance if we want to start focusing down.

And remember—there may be elements to my story that’d normally be immediate signs of one genre, but they don’t come up in that elevator pitch. That’s okay. I shouldn’t try to cram them in. Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth has lots of raunchy jokes and a few spaceships, but I’d bet 99% of the people who’ve read it don’t think of it as a comedy or a sci-fi novel--their minds jump right to the necromancy and the murder mystery.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about genre. Unless anyone has any specific questions?

Next time...
Well, in some beautiful, alternate world we all sheltered in place all through March and April, wore our masks for May, and now it’s perfectly safe for all of us to attend San Diego Comic Con next week! YAY!

But in this world, alas, SDCC was cancelled because of folks who refused to do those things. There are still going to be some virtual events, though. I’m doing a panel on sci-fi writing next Friday at 4:00. I’m hoping to have a new Coffeehouse video up by then. And I’m also going to be doing a special Saturday Geekery, live-tweeting a few B-movie classics with some friends. You should come join us.

And all this means that next time, I may revisit and revise my list of top B-movie mistakes.

So until then, go write.

And, c’mon... wear your mask.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Beta Version

I almost titled this “Betatron” but I didn’t think a lot of you would get a reference to a forty year old Micronauts toy that wasn’t super-popular then.

Or maybe a couple of you would. Who knows. Anyway...

Some of you may have seen me tweet about finishing a draft of my new book the other day. It’s the second, for those who care—my “fill in all the holes” pass. Which means by the time you read this I’ll already be deep into my hacking and slashing draft. And then... other people will finally see it.

Which is kinda what I wanted to talk about.

Beta readers have come up here a couple of times, and we’ve talked about them at the Writers Coffeehouse (before the plague year forced us to go digital with it). But we’ve never really talked much about how to choose beta readers. What I want to be looking for, what I’ll need from them, and so on.

I’ve actually asked three new people to be beta readers for me on this book. For a few different reasons. And  I thought it might be worth going over some of these reasons.

So... what do I look for in a beta reader?

(aside from a high level of beta-particle absorption...?)

Knowledge – All of my beta readers have something they’re better than me at. It might be a specific aspect of their background, their education, or a point of view I just can’t emulate, but there’s always something they know that I don’t. There’s a specific reason I want this person to read this manuscript before I send it off to my agent or an editor.

On a related note, these are also people I know understand why I’m asking them to look at this. They know what I’m hoping to hear (or not hear) from them. And they understand the format I’d like to get these notes back in. When I ask my biochemist friend to read this, he should understand I’m hoping he’ll catch any glaring errors in biochemistry, and maybe also related dialogue and actions. It doesn’t help me if I ask a lawyer I know to beta-read my courtroom drama and she says “I didn’t see any typos, except for a couple glaring ones in the last third of the manuscript.”

Patience – Before I start sending a manuscript off, I double check with folks to make sure they’ve actually got time for this right now. They might be able to squeeze in reading a book right now, but do they actually have room in their schedule to go through my manuscript (possibly twice) with a critical eye? I want to make sure they’re going to be able to consider and absorb things, not just skim through and say “I liked it.”

There’s also a personal thing to this. I need to be aware of what people like so I can at least have an early sense of how they’ll (hopefully) respond to this. If Phoebe really loathes mysteries, I don’t want to give her a book with a strong mystery element and ask her what she thinks. She’s going to have a lot more patience for a story with a strong sci-fi aspect.

This is important because...

(a chime rings, signaling you to turn the page)

The Micro and Macro– This is one of the ones were it’s especially important to have a really good sense of my readers. When it comes to criticism, any book is going to have two aspects to it. There’s the big picture stuff—did you like it? Did the twist make sense? Was Wakko’s overall motivation believable? Then there’s the smaller stuff—does this line of dialogue work? Does this description stand out? Is this action too detailed?

The catch is, there are things that can look wrong or odd on the small scale, but it turns out they’re correct when we look at the big picture. If I say “Hitler died in 1964,” that’s wrong. But if I say that in a sci-fi, secret-history story, maybe there’s something to it.

I don’t want a beta reader who’s only going to focus on the micro or the macro, and not how they combine to make a good book. I don’t want them to have the book for a month and then just say “This was pretty good overall,” and I also don’t want to get back 300 marked-up pages where they marked something as wrong that’s explained three paragraphs later.

Honesty – I don’t think I’ve ever used a beta reader that I’ve known for less than two years. Most of them I’ve known for more than five, and about half of them for fifteen or more. And by “known” I mean hung out with, had long one-on-one discussions with, probably shared a meal or two, maybe a drink. I know them and they know me.

More importantly, they know me well enough to be honest with me. They’re not scared of accidentally hurting my feelings. They’ll tell me what I need to hear, even if it’s not pleasant.

At the same time, I’m not some faceless internet account they’re going to aim a firehose of criticism at. Some folks like to crow how they’re “just being brutally honest,” when the truth is they just like tearing things apart.

Trust—My last point about beta-readers ties to the previous one, but actually falls on us, the writers. Now that I’ve carefully selected these well-qualified people to read my manuscript... am I going to listen to them? Do I actually trust their knowledge and opinions, or am I just going to brush their criticism aside because I don’t like it?

I need to trust my beta readers. If I've got any doubts about their abilities, their motives, or their work ethic... I probably shouldn’t ask them to read this. If I’m going to ignore what they tell me, or tell myself they just didn’t get it... I probably shouldn’t ask them to read this. We need to be open to the criticism we’re going to get, and we have to trust the people giving it to us.

And that’s the kind of stuff I look for in a beta reader. You may have a few special considerations of your own, depending on your own editing methods or the particular piece you’re working on. And that’s all fine—it’s what works for you.

But if this is the first time you’re ever gone hunting for beta readers and you’re not quite sure what their footprints look like... well, maybe some of this will help get you on the right track.

Next time on the ranty blog... I got a question about genre, and that’s always fun to talk about. And the week after that is (technically) San Diego Comic Con weekend, so there may be some fun to be had.

Until then, go write.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

FAQ XV–Questions of the Plague Months

Normally I try to update the FAQ every six months or so. Partly for you, partly for me. To be honest, it’s tough for me to keep track of all the stuff going on (and potentially going on) as far as sales, releases, formats, options, and adaptations. Even more so when you figure these past few months time has become less of an absolute, often slowing to a crawl and stretching on and on and on when in fact it’s only Wednesday.

And, well, that particular effect has really intensified, hasn’t it? With the global pandemic and possibly months at home, not to mention the looming threat of murder hornets, I think a lot of us have either completely lost track of time or become all-too-painfully aware of it. I know I spent pretty much all of March and maybe the first week of April doomsurfing. Like, all the time. I didn’t mean to, or really want to, but that’s how every day ended up going.

But even with all that, I figured it might be worth doing a quick catch-up. I mean, I think we’d all enjoy something happening pretty much how and when it’s supposed to, right? Something working the way it’s supposed to? Novel idea, right?

So here’s me scribbling up answers to some of the most common questions I’ve gotten lately. Then when people ask me those questions (again!)—or when their teacher says “hey, hunt down an author on social media and ask them a bunch of questions”—I can say “hey, check out the FAQ I’ve pinned all over the place!”

Or maybe I won’t say it, cause at this point... I mean, there’s a current FAQ pinned right at the top of the page, several older versions of it, this blog, and several dozen interviews floating around the web. Plus I wrote a bunch of books, and it’s kind of amazing how often the answers are in the books.

Do your research, people! Be the mad scientist you always wanted to be when you were little!

1) When are we going to see something new?
If all goes well, the ebook for Terminus should be out just in time for San Diego Comic Con. Hahahaaaaaaaaa... sad laugh. More on that below.

Terminus should be out as an ebook by the end of July. I’m also looking at bringing one or two other things (at least) to ebook that have been kinda out of wider circulation for a bit. I’d hoped to have them done about... well, now, but then, again, everything kinda collapsed and time ceased to have meaning.

Past that... I’m just finishing up a book that kinda came out of nowhere, fortunately at a time when I could devote a lot of attention to it. It probably would’ve gone faster, but... again,  doomsurfing. As you’re reading this, odds are my agent’s reading that.

And I’ve got a big idea I might be pitching him. Like, silly-wildly big. Maybe we’ll be talking more about that in another six or seven months.

2) So, wait, no paper version of Terminus?
No. There’s a couple of different reasons for it, and they involve assorted business and PR things I’d rather not get into. There’s still a chance both books may still become available if there’s a big demand for them (feel free to tell Crown Publishing you want to read them in print and would buy half a dozen copies), but for the moment Terminus (and Dead Moon) are only going to be ebook and audio. Sorry.

3) Could you explain the whole “Threshold” series?
Threshold is the umbrella label for the shared “cosmic horror” universe I unknowingly began eight years ago with 14. There are some books that form a more linear story, a “series” if you will, and some that stand alone. A lot of Marvel movies are part of the direct Avengers through-line, but some—like Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 or Thor: Ragnarok—are just set in the MCU. You can enjoy them without knowing a lot of the other movies (you’ll just catch a few more nods and references). Make sense?

And, yeah, this can make things a bit awkward sometimes. I know at points the marketing/publicity campaigns were pushing Threshold as a pure, straightforward series (Book One, Book Two, etc), even though I’ve said many times that it isn’t, and I know a few readers went into some books with very different expectations. I apologize if that was you.

4) So how does Dead Moon fit into the Threshold series?
As it happens, I wrote a whole book explaining this called Dead Moon.  Also check out #3 up above.

5) Why did you do all these “Audible exclusives” ?
Well, first off, I did two. Arguably four, since they offered to release some previously-published, out-of-print stuff nobody was interested in anymore—The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe and a bunch of short stories we combined into Dead Men Can’t Complain, but really those aren’t even exclusives.

Second, there’s a very solid argument to be made that the majority of my fanbase is audiobook listeners. Audible knows this, too, and so when they heard about Dead Moon and Terminus they made me an extremely generous offer for exclusive rights, meaning both of them would be audiobook only for the first six months they were out and then I’d be free to do what I want with them.

Yes, I know it made some of you grind your teeth. I’m sorry if you’re not an audiobook listener (for whatever reason) and it left you out of the loop for a bit. My agent and I talked a lot about the pros and cons of doing things this way. In the end, I really wanted to tell these stories and this was the best way to do it. Again, I’m sorry if it put you in a bad spot.

6) Do you make more money if I buy one of your books in a certain format?
I know this sounds like an easy question, but there’s about a dozen conditionals to any answer I give.  Figure a huge chunk of each contract is just all the different terms and conditions for when and if and how people get paid.

For example... format matters, sure, but so does where you bought the book.  And when.  And how many people bought it before you. And if it was on sale. And who was actually holding the sale.  And all of this changes in every contract.  What’s true for, say, Paradox Bound may not be true for Terminus.

TL;DR—just buy the format you like.

7) Do you have any plans to attend ########-Con?
Hahhahahaaaaa remember when this was a serious question?

Okay, in all fairness, I’m doing a lot of virtual-con stuff. I was “at” WonderCon and as I write this I'm about to do some things with Denver Pop Culture Con, plus I’m doing one or two things for SDCC in a couple of weeks. Also worth noting that I’ve tried to take the Writers Coffeehouse virtual, so for the next few months you can try to find me there.

After that, well... hopefully next year will be a bit closer to what we think of as normal? Maybe? If you want to see me at your local con, let them know. Email them, tweet them, post on their Instagram account. Reach out and let your voice be heard.

8) When are you going to make a movie/ TV series/ graphic novel/ video game of your books?
So, when people ask this, there’s a basic misunderstanding of how Hollywood works.  I have pretty much zero influence on Netflix making a Threshold series or the Hallmark Channel doing a Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe movie. When we see a film adaptation or TV series, it means the studio went to the writer, not the other way around. I mean, if it was just about writers saying “hey, make this into a movie,” wouldn’t most books be adapted by now? Everybody’d be doing it.  

9) Well, is there anything we can do to help?
Buying books is the best step. Talking about them is a close second. Hollywood likes to see big sales numbers and interest.  Producers/ directors/ actors all hear about this stuff the same way you do—online reviews, bestseller lists, social media. If #ParadoxBound or #Terminus start trending on Twitter tomorrow, there’ll probably be a film deal within a week. Seriously. Try it.

One easy thing to help with this?  Don’t buy books from Amazon if you don’t absolutely have to. Write reviews there, sure, but Amazon sales figures don’t always get included in  bestsellers lists. Yeah, buying or pre-ordering from your local bookstore might cost a buck or two more, but it’s a purchase Hollywood’s much more likely to notice in the long run. Plus, now you’re one of those cool people supporting local businesses—and we need more people like that right now.

10) But wait... I heard you don’t like people talking about your books. Which is it?
I’m thrilled and amazed people talk about anything I wrote. Seriously. What I can’t stand are people who blurt out spoilers that can ruin the impact of these stories for other people. It’s why I avoid those questions in interviews, ignore them on Twitter, and why—where I can—I delete (or block) posts that reveal things from a book.

And not just my stories! You shouldn’t mess up other stories, either. Movies, TV—I’m just saying, if you enjoyed it spoiler-free, why not try to give other people a chance to enjoy it the same way? I still haven’t watched the finales of She-Ra or Game of Thrones, dammit! I’m looking forward to finally seeing Arya on the Iron Throne!

11) Is Ex-Isle the last Ex book?
Yeah, Ex-Tension is staying on that back burner for the moment.  Sorry.

The truth is, every series has a limited life. Book one always sells best, not as many people show up for book two, even less show up for book three, and so on. Not a lot of folks leap in on book five, y’know? Something could always happen to give the first book a boost (and all the other books after it) but they’re still all going to be on a near-constant downward slope heading for that big red line where things aren’t profitable. None of the Ex-Heroes books ever lost money (thank you all for that), but they were on that slope and when the publisher looked ahead to book six... well, hitting said line was pretty much unavoidable.

12) Have you considered a Kickstarter or a GoFundme?
Yeah, the answer’s still no, sorry. I love these books. I had tons of fun writing them. I’m still amazed there are so many fans who feel so passionately about them. But the math is pretty simple—if enough people were willing to pay for another book, the publisher would be willing to put out another book. And all the numbers say that’s just not the case.

Yeah, I know some of you might be willing to pay twice as much (or more) to see one more book, but I think we can all agree there’s at least as many people (probably more) who wouldn’t pay anything. And that’s the math again—it just doesn’t work out for this.

Another point to consider. I’ve already got a good idea what I’m working on... probably for the next two years at this point (that big idea I mentioned up top). Maybe even a little farther. But if I do a crowdfunded project, it means I have to schedule things under the assumption it’s going to succeed. Which means telling my publishers those other projects need to be put off and scheduled accordingly. Which leaves a six or seven month hole in my schedule when the Kickstarter flops. Which, again, all the math says is what’ll happen.

So again, no. Sorry.

13) Will you read my story and tell me what you think?
Short answer... no. 

Long answer... look, if I say yes to some folks, in the spirit of fairness I have to say yes to everyone. Now I’m spending most of my time reading and doing critiques instead of writing.  I don’t mean to sound mercenary, but... writing is how I pay my mortgage. So when someone asks me to read stuff, they’re asking me to give up a few hours of work. Plus, I do have this ranty writing blog sitting right, y’know, here with over a decade of advice and tips.

Also... some folks are lawsuit-crazy, and the bad ones ruin it for everyone else. Somebody shows me a piece of bland, generic fanfic and a few years from now they sue me for stealing their ideas. Yeah, I know how stupid that sounds, but I’ve actually been subpoenaed and deposed for lawsuits withless behind them than that. It’s why I’m verrrry leery when I get a long message along the lines of “You know what you should really do next with the people from 14...”  Heck, some writers respond with cease & desist orders when they get sent stuff like this.  

So the long answer also boils down to “no.” And if you send stuff without asking, I’ll delete it unread, just like spam mail.

14) What’s up with your Facebook page?
Ahhhhh, Facebook. Where we’re the consumer and the product. Just like Soylent Green.

Sad fact is, Facebook made it pretty much pointless for me to have a fan page there.  They altered their algorithms over the years and my posts gradually went from 70-85% engagement to barely scraping 10-15% most of the time. All so I’d pay to reach people who were already following me. And I won’t do for a few reasons, the main one being folks pretty solidly proved years ago that paying for views on Facebook actually decreases your reach. Seriously.

And, sure--it’s their site. They can run it however they like. And yeah they absolutely deserve to make money off it. I’m a progressive, but I still believe in (regulated) capitalism.

But then there’s all of Facebook’s side ventures. Collecting countless amounts of personal data. Deliberately spreading misinformation. Malicious social engineering. If you think I’m exaggerating, look up articles about how Facebook shaped perceptions or spread propaganda in Myanmar or Sri Lanka. And these aren’t fringe articles—they’re from major news sites.

So, yeah,  I deleted my Facebook account months ago (long overdue), which means the fan page there is cut loose with no administrator.

15) What about Twitter or Instagram?
I’m @PeterClines on both.  Fair warning--as some of you may have figured out, I’m progressive and I’m a bit more political on Twitter. Most Saturdays I also drink and live-tweet bad B-movies while building little toy soldiers so...  look, don’t say you didn’t know what you were getting into.

Instagram is probably the geekier of  my social medias.  How is that possible, you ask?  Well, there’s more little toy soldiers, LEGO, classic toys.  And cats.  Can’t have an Instagram account without cats. Sometimes these things mix.

Yeah, I know Instagram’s also owned by Facebook, but (for the moment) they’re not being quite so reprehensible over there.  So (also for the moment) I’ll still be there.



And I think that should answer about 90% of your questions, yes...?

Thursday, June 25, 2020

A Quick Follow-Up Question

I’ve been talking about genre writing for a few weeks now, I know, but I actually had one last thing that’s been tickling my brain.

I’m sure I’m not the only one binging shows right now. Things I’ve wanted to see again or watch for the first time. My partner and I are kinda doing a Voyager rewatch, but we’re also stretching out this last season of She-Ra. And I just finished Parasyte, an anime I’ve meant to watch since I first read some of the manga... jeeez, twenty years ago? I tried rewatching The Prisoner but gave up on it and settled for some old G1 Transformers cartoons.

There’s also another show we’ve been watching, and I’ll politely not name this one. It’s another older show (a few years now), and it’s got a strong mystery element. Well, it tries to have one, anyway.

(to be polite, some of the following plot points may be altered from of the actual show we’re watching... or are they?)

The main subplot is that our hero’s trying to learn why his father left decades ago, and has tracked down the small farming town where Dad ended up living. And dying—with a lot of things left unanswered. Things like why did Dad abandon his family? Why come to this small town? What’s with all the old books in the study? Or the ring of corn around the house? And the strange old guy who takes care of the corn who has the same name as our hero? And is this mysterious woman, Lacey, his half-sister or... something else?

Pretty much ever other week, said hero finds out some tantalizing new clue about his long-lost father and then does... nothing.

Again and again, the show has moments where we learn that Bud, the town mechanic, played chess with Dad every week... and they talked a lot. Helen, the retired nurse who hangs out in the park? It turns out she was there for Lacey’s birth... and it wasn’t exactly a normal birth. And Sheriff Mawkin? well, she was only a deputy when Dad moved to this town, but he took her aside then and told her that some day his son might come looking for him.

And our hero would be amazed and thrilled and confused about what he’d just learned... until the end of the scene. At which point, he’d completely forget about these little tidbits and act like nothing had happened. Until they came up again two or three episodes later.

We end up getting annoyed with things like this because in theory our characters are supposed to mirror our readers (or audiences, if you will). If the point is to make my readers think “Wait, what the hell does that mean...?” then this is something my characters should be thinking—and maybe even voicing—too. And they should be acting on that reaction. I can’t have a character say “this changes everything!” and then go on acting as if nothing has changed. They can’t find out Bud has the answer to the question that’s haunted them for years and then not get around to asking Bud about it. It’s frustrating because we know we wouldn’t leave it like this. We’d want more. We’d demand more!

One of the easiest things we can do at any point in our writing is to just ask ourselves “What would I be doing right now?” How would we react? What would we say? What would we be important to us right now in this situation? And if we’d demand more in this situation, well, maybe I should really think about why my characters aren’t.

I think this is also one of the reasons using mysterious characters flops so often. Because Mister X offers some vague statement or response and the main characters just... accept it. They don’t have follow-ups. They don’t demand more. They don’t take what they’ve learned and run with it. They just shrug their shoulders and say “Huh.”

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying we need to answer every question the moment it’s asked. They can get teased out and end up being false answers, misunderstandings, or red herrings. That’s part of a good mystery. A necessary part, some might argue.  So it’s okay not to answer questions right away.

But y’see, Timmy, it’s not okay to never ask those the questions. If my characters don’t care enough to ask, they can’t really care about the answers. Which means my readers probably shouldn’t care.

Which means all this mystery stuff is just a waste of time because nobody cares about it.

Next time...

Okay, I’m juggling a couple things right now. I know I haven’t updated the FAQ in a while. I’m also trying to set up theWriters Coffeehouse as an online thing. And, hahahahaaa yeah I’m trying to finish a book right now.

I guess what I’m asking is, what would you like to see in the next few weeks? Any particular topics you’d like me to blather on about? Something you want to hear a fresh take on, or a problem that’s been gnawing at you? Let me know down below.

And if nobody says anything... I may take a week off and try to get a bit caught up on things.

But for now... go write.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Maltese MacGuffin

So, last week I talked a little bit about a couple genre problems I see pop up all the time. I think they’re most common in fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, but the truth is they show up all over the place. It was a fun little rant, You should check it out if you missed it.

There was also one other genre problem I wanted to talk about, but I didn’t want that post to get ridiculously long. And in an odd way, this is sort of a reverse-genre problem. Less a problem with writing genre, more one with identifying it.

I’d like to talk to you about a little indie film from a few years back called Pulp Fiction. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Excellent.

What’s that? How does this relate to genre rant, you ask? I mean, Pulp Fiction clearly isn’t a genre movie. Not in that sci-fi/fantasy sense, anyway.

Except... well, do you remember the mysterious briefcase that floats through the story? The one with something bright and glowing inside of it, something we never see. There are a lot of theories out there about what’s in the briefcase, but one of the more interesting ones is that it’s Marsellus Wallace’s soul. He made a deal with the devil as a young man and now he’s made a new deal to get it back. Jules and Vincent, you see, are the go-betweens who are getting the soul from Satan’s reps (Brett and his two partners). This is why the briefcase’s combination is 666 and why everyone is stunned by the beauty of the thing in the case—it’s a pure, innocent soul. It also explain why the bad guy’s can’t hit Vince and Jules—it really is divine protection.

And if the movie’s got this spiritual/magic element to it now—souls and the devil and actual divine protection—well... isn’t this a gritty urban fantasy movie? I mean, that’s pretty close to the definition of urban fantasy. Maybe supernatural crime or supernatural noir, if we want to give a more flavorful description.

Of course the real question is this. If it is Wallace’s soul in the briefcase... what changes in the movie? What would be different?

Before you answer, let me point out the thing in the briefcase is what we’d call a MacGuffin. It’s an object that drives the plot without really having anything to do with it. The Maltese Falcon’s another famous one. It’s the motivation behind everything that happens in the movie—every death and betrayal and double cross—but the titular statue only shows up in the last ten minutes.

So the answer to the above question about “what would be different” is, of course, nothing. Again, the thing in the briefcase is just a MacGuffin. It could contain a human soul, a gold brick, a Tron ID disc, absolutely anything... and it wouldn’t change the plot in the slightest. Because it isn’t actually interacting with anything in a meaningful way. We can make an argument the briefcase is, but whatever’s inside it is... irrelevant.

So it’d be kinda dumb to call Pulp Fiction an urban fantasy movie. The sole element that would put it in that genre is almost completely disconnected from the plot and/or story. It may contain that element--that plot device, if you will—but that doesn’t necessarily push the movie into a different genre.

Which is the problem I wanted to talk about. Some folks have a bad habit of using a single element of a book or movie to justify bumping it into a new genre. I’ve talked about this a couple times with superpowers stories that try to call themselves superhero stories, and the problems that can cause. Just because someone’s using a sword doesn’t make my story high fantasy or historical fiction. Setting it ten years in the future doesn’t automatically mean it’s sci-fi. And just because there might be a soul in that briefcase doesn’t make Pulp Fiction urban fantasy.

I’ve seen this sooooo many times. You probably have as well. A book or show that’s really X but got marketed as Y by the author or publisher. Something that has one simple conceit to it that could be a genre element, but really the story fits into another genre altogether.

As I’ve mentioned before with superhero stories vs. superpowers stories, the big problem here becomes audience expectations. If everybody had gone into Pulp Fiction being told it was a supernatural crime story, it would’ve affected how they viewed everything they were shown. And let’s be honest... they would’ve been annoyed. Probably pissed. Because the story went against everything they thought they were going get.

What’s my point? I need to be honest with genre labels. I need to be aware of what my story really is, even if it’s got a MacGuffin or setting that might make it look like something else. Again, having a sword doesn’t suddenly make this historical fiction.

And yeah, it’s really tempting when comedies are selling to say “Why, yes, my manuscript Terminus contains several laughs and completely reads as a comedy.” But this almost always works against me. Sure, sometimes a reader will say “this isn’t what I expected at all but I ended up loving it anyway...” but those times are few and far between.

So be honest with yourself about what you’ve written. Even if it has ghosts or clones. Or a disembodied soul in a briefcase.

Next time, speaking of genre (some more) I’ve got a little mystery for you to ponder...

Until then, go write.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Steampunk Mechdragon Issues

Like a lot of you, I’m still feeling a little overwhelmed by everything going on right now. Awe-inspiring stuff. Long overdue stuff. But still overwhelming.

I thought about updating my list of top ten B-movie mistakes, but I really haven’t been up for bad movie geekery for a few weeks. So I shelved that idea for a while. Then it occurred to me there’s a related topic I haven’t discussed in... well, years. Not directly, anyway.

It probably goes without saying that I really like genre fiction. I grew up with Doctor Who and Star Wars and comics about Spaceknights who came to Earth to protect us from alien shapeshifting sorcerers. Sci-fi, horror, fantasy—I like reading ‘em, I like writing ‘em.

But you probably knew all of that already.

Point is, I’ve consumed so much of this stuff. In so many formats. A lot of it’s been fantastic. Some of it’s been... not so fantastic.

As I started taking storytelling and writing more seriously, as I started really breaking things down and studying them, I noticed a few similarities. Common problems that showed up again and again, especially in genre stories. Three of them.

To be clear, they’re not confined specifically to these stories—you might see these issues crop up in mysteries or romances or even literary fiction. They’re also not the only problems these stories can ever have (not by a longshot). But it’s kind of amazing how often a problematic sci-fi or fantasy and even horror will have one or more of these three issues.

The first issue is when we bury our stories in too much of our chosen genre. If I have an idea, it gets included in the story. No matter what it is—neat visual, cool character beat, clever way a door opens—I’ll fit it in there. If it was scary in that story, it’ll be scary in my story. Most of us have probably read a genre novel that went to great lengths to explain how the weapons, shoes, uniforms, food, transportation, education, and economics are all very different on that other world or in that not-too-distant future. If it's a magical world, everything is ancient and magical and built by the fae. If it's a sci-fi world, everything has nanites and AI and came from interdimensional aliens. People don’t wear glasses in these stories, they have optykwear, and a good set of optykwear can cost you seven or eight neshseks.

The problem with writing like this is my audience has nothing to connect with as they’re overwhelmed with all these unfamiliar elements. The people are different. The setting’s different. Motivations are different. Yeah, it’s a really cool alternate world where the Dark Ages never happened, all coinage is brass,  and wars are now fought with steampunk robot dragons run by difference engines, but the important thing is that my readers need to be able to understand this world and relate to it, while it’s on the page in front of them.

All the worldbuilding is good, but my story needs to have something my audience can immediately identify with in some way, and it’s best if it’s the main character. Someone who hates their job, who wants something they can’t have, or maybe who just feels like an outsider. A person with a universal need or desire.

When a reader believes in my characters, they’ll believe in what’s happening to my characters. It has to do with willing suspension of disbelief—I can’t believe in the big elements of a story if I don’t believe in the basics of it. Once I’m invested in Wakko’s life, then I’ll be more willing to go with it when he goes to work shoveling coal in the belly of a a giant steampunk dragon (but one day he’s going to be the commodore of the whole mechdragon fleet—you just wait and see)

There’s one very closely related issue to this, so close I’m not even going to branch off and make it a separate thing. Sometimes, all the laying-on of more genre gets a little monotone. Dramatic stories that are non-stop drama. The horror movie that’s nothing but horror. The magical fantasy series where everything is magical and fantastic. No matter how much I love this thing, it gets boring pretty quick when it’s all I’m getting.

We want our fiction to mirror our lives as much as possible, and the truth is very few of us lead monotone lives. They get broken up with moments of laughter (not always at appropriate times), random pettiness, unexpected excitement, casual flirting, and more. Our stories should be the same way.

The second issue happens when I try to explain everything. It’s confusing enough that I dropped readers right into a steampunk mechdragon battle, but now I’m going to pause that battle for ten pages while I explain how mechdragons came to be and where the best coal for their boilers is mined and how the creation of functioning wings (and the required steam- piston musculature) changed the nature of battle and hey I should probably talk about dragon tactics for a bit, right?

I think most people reading this have seen a story or two that suddenly deviated into that sort of excessive, often unnecessary exposition. I’ve read many stories that suddenly go to great lengths to explain how and why the serial killer turned out the way she did. Or how she ended up with superpowers and exactly how they work. Or both. At length.

What this leads to is stories that feel very detailed, but very little ever actually, y’know, happens. Page after page of explanation can add up really fast, and suddenly a third of my book is just... details.  And while I’m going over those details, my characters are just sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for something to happen again. It can also annoy my readers as all this information gets doled out, especially if it’s something that feels unnecessary and unmotivated.

I think there’s two ways to deal with this issue. One is something I’ve talked about here in the past—the ignorant stranger.  If I’m going to explain things, I should have an actual, in-story reason for them to be explained. Wakko may know the day-to-day workings of a mechdragon, but Phoebe’s a stowaway and he needs to help her pass as a crew member or she’ll be “dropped off”... and they’re three thousand feet up. So he has a solid, understandable reason to explain everything and she can ask a lot of the questions my readers probably have.

The other way to deal with this issue is the quick and easy one. Cut it. I can delete anything that isn’t actually necessary to the story. This can be tough, because, I mean... steampunk mechdragon wars! There’s so much cool stuff in those three words. But how much of it do I really need? Is it relevant or is it just me piling more “genre” onto the plot and story? Yeah, ceramic teeth are cool, especially on that scale, and I’ve come up with a crazy way how they’re made, but does my story fall apart if the reader just knows the mechdragon has... teeth? Does it change anything if in their mind they picture the teeth are brass or steel or diamond? Pages are precious—do I really want to spend part of one on this?

The third issue is actually the reverse of the last one. It’s when I don’t explain anything. There’s so much new stuff that there’s no context. I can’t tell if neshseks are coins or bills or maybe they’re not even money. Maybe this world works on the barter system and they’re some kind of gourd. Could be a massage or a sex act or maybe it’s some kind of pet? Maybe it’s a pet that gives great massages?

But it’s not just terminology. The genres also tend to collect mysterious characters who drop vague hints or implied threats for... reasons. Creepy messages appear on walls, sidewalks, computer screens and we never learn how they got there. Disturbing objects are discovered in the attic and never, ever discussed again.

I think there are two general reasons this issue happens. First is that, as the writer, I’ve sunk deep into my fictional world for the past five months and I forgot the reader... hasn’t. They have no idea what a neshsek looks like. Or what it’s used for. Or how many you can seriously expect to get from a relative stranger for two tinted sets of optykwear

The other reason is that people are trying to duplicate the sense of mystery and anticipation they got from another story, but they don’t really understand how and why it worked there. A lot of these weird mysteries are just a general lack. There is no explanation or reason or motivation behind what’s happening in the story. It’s just happening right now because... I wanted to tell a weird creepy story.

A friend of mine gave me a great rule of thumb once, and I think it’s the best way to deal with this issue. I kinda mentioned it up above—my main characters should mirror my audience. If my goal’s to make my audience puzzled and eager to learn more, then really Phoebe should be puzzled and want to learn more. If the reader’s angry about something, Wakko should probably be angry about it, too. Likewise, if Phoebe and Wakko are both really annoyed because they still don’t know what’s going on... well, I can probably guess how my audience feels right now, one way or the other...

Are these the only three problems that might crop up in my genre writing? No, not at all. I have faith in you that you will find awesome, all-new problems. But these are the ones I see appear again and again. So maybe they’re worth looking for in my manuscript. Just in case.

Next time... I’ve got kind of a follow up idea to this. It didn’t really fit here, but it’s a genre problem. Sort of.

Stay safe out there. Wash your hands. Wear your mask.

Until next time, go write.